Green Bay Packers

Did Brian Gutekunst Tip His Draft Strategy At Linebacker?

Photo Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Brian Gutekunst held his media scrum at the NFL’s annual league meeting earlier this week, during which he may have tipped some of his draft strategy regarding the linebacker position.

With the transition to Jeff Hafley’s 4-3 base defense, the Green Bay Packers will play three inside linebackers on the field more frequently. Teams that run a 4-3 base defense often will roster five or six players who could see significant snaps at inside linebacker positions. In 2023, Green Bay’s initial 53-man roster included only De’Vondre Campbell, Quay Walker, and Isaiah McDuffie as primary inside linebackers, with safety converted linebacker Tariq Carpenter as a development project and Eric Wilson as special teams ace. The Packers will need to roster more inside backers in 2024. On the depth chart, they only have Walker, McDuffie, Wilson, and Kristian Welch, a 2023 practice-squad signee.

At the league’s annual meeting, Gutekunst was asked his thoughts about the linebacker position. He expressed optimism about McDuffie, Wilson, and Welch playing more defensive snaps this season. But also discussed how he views scouting the linebacker position and whether or not to draft players who specialize in setting the edge and rushing the passer (Sam linebacker), pass coverage (Will linebacker), or defending the middle of the field (Mike linebacker).

For me, you got to be very careful about pigeonholing these guys in positions that can only be a certain skillset, because you have so many injuries in this game. He might be a strong-side (Sam) linebacker today, but you might be starting at Will or Mike for five or six games. They’ve got to be able to do all of that. So from a personnel man’s perspective, I want these guys as versatile as can be so when these things do pop up you don’t have to change the way you play.

Saying you want a player to be able to do everything is not exactly groundbreaking. However, it may indicate that the Packers will lean away from players with a strong deficiency in an area of their game. Let’s start with athleticism. As many Packers fanatics know, the team tends to target and prioritize high-level athletes with strong Relative Athletic Scores.

While athleticism isn’t everything, Gutekunst has faltered in the draft when he’s gone outside the team’s athletic preferences.

Let’s take a quick look at some of the top athletes in terms of RAS after the combine: Payton Wilson (9.81), Trevin Wallace (9.64),  Edefuan Ulofoshio (9.54), Edgerrin Cooper (9.34), Jordan Magee (9.29), Curtis Jacobs (9.09) and Cedric Gray (8.18). The Packers have reportedly scheduled top-30 visits for Edgerrin Cooper and Trevin Wallace. At the very least, it seems to indicate that Green Bay is doing its due diligence on the position.

Ultimately, the two best “fits” for the Packers may be Cooper (ranked 40th on The Athletic’s consensus big board) or Payton Wilson (ranked 51st), who profile as the top two backers in the class. According to PFF, they also ranked as the top two defenders at linebacker in the FBS last year. Cooper had a 90.8 defensive grade, and Wilson had an 89.9 defensive grade. Interestingly, both players have positive grades (above 70) in run defense, tackling, pass rush, and coverage.

The big question will be whether or not the Packers pick either player. Typically, the Packers like to use their top picks on premium positions, such as tackle, pass-rusher, or quarterback. However, with Cooper and Wilson slated as likely second-round picks and the Packers having five picks in the top 100, Brian Gutekunst may feel more able to draft a high-end athlete at a non-premium position, especially if they have a balanced skill set and athletic profile like Wilson or Cooper.

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The best general managers are constantly looking for ways to improve their roster. Brian Gutekunst has been quoted multiple times saying that roster building is a 365-day-a-year […]

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