Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst has taken a lot of heat over the last year and a half. In the first round of last year’s NFL draft, the Packers shocked the football world by trading up to take quarterback Jordan Love. After an NFC championship appearance the previous year, many wondered why Gutekunst took Aaron Rodgers’ predecessor instead of a player that could’ve helped the team get over the hump and reach the Super Bowl. And of course, Rodgers’ frustration with the Packers front office was the talk of the offseason in 2021.
I certainly haven’t agreed with all of Brian Gutekunst’s personnel decisions. That said, he’s a huge reason for why the Packers have one of the best and most complete rosters in the NFL right now. Let’s take a look at some of his most notable draft picks and free agent signings since becoming the Packers GM in 2018.
Brian Gutekunst’s very first draft pick as Green Bay’s GM was cornerback Jaire Alexander. Alexander quickly became an elite-level shutdown corner in the NFL. He’s coming off a pro-bowl 2020 season in which he recorded a PFF grade of 90.5, the best among all cornerbacks. He’s the most valuable piece to a Packers secondary that is loaded with talent, much of which was brought in by Gutekunst himself.
Deep threat Marquez Valdes-Scantling was also a part of the 2018 class. The Packers drafted him 174th overall, and he’s emerged into Green Bay’s number two receiving threat behind Davante Adams. After some problems with drops in his first couple years, Valdes-Scantling has become a much more reliable target for Aaron Rodgers and has produced some big plays down the field for Matt LaFleur’s offense.
Gutekunst’s second draft year has been his best to date. With two 1st-round selections in 2019, the Packers drafted edge rusher Rashan Gary and safety Darnell Savage. Some were quick to call Gary a bust due to his lack of snaps in year one. In 2021, he’s proved why he was worth a first-round selection. Gary leads the Packers with 6.5 sacks and has forced two fumbles. Savage is an absolute playmaker at the free safety position and is another key piece to a young, talented secondary.
Gutekunst’s best draft pick in 2019, however, may have come in the 2nd round. At pick number 44 overall, the Packers took O-lineman Elgton Jenkins, and he’s proven to be a reliable run blocker and pass protector no matter where you put him on the line. Before he tore his ACL a couple of weeks ago, Jenkins was having an outstanding year, posting a PFF grade of 82.3. As long as he stays healthy, he could be the face of this Green Bay O-line for years to come.
Free Agent Spending
Former Packers GM Ted Thompson was a firm believer in draft and develop and rarely went out of his way to sign free agents. Brian Gutekunst is a draft and develop type of guy too, but he wasn’t afraid to make some splashes in free agency prior to the 2019 season. Needing some more pressure on the outside, Gutekunst signed Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith from Baltimore and Washington, respectively. The “Smith brothers” combined for 25.5 sacks in 2019 and are a huge reason for why the Packers defense has improved mightily over the last few years.
If you’re noticing a theme of defense, you’re not wrong. Another big addition on that side of the ball was one of the top safeties in the league in Adrian Amos. The former Bear signed a 4-year deal with the Packers, as did Za’Darius and Preston Smith. Last but not least, Gutekunst signed right tackle Billy Turner. He’s no David Bakhtiari, but Turner has made life much easier for Aaron Rodgers.
This is the year where the Brian Gutekunst criticism truly began. After a 2019 NFC championship appearance, the Packers general manager traded up to take Jordan Love. I didn’t like the pick at the time and I still don’t to this day. That said, it’s way too early to make a conclusion on a guy that’s started one NFL game. Let’s give that pick some time. Gutekunst was also highly criticized for taking running back A.J. Dillon in round two. Fast forward a year and a half and it looks like an absolute steal.
Gutekunst and the Packers made some underrated draft picks and signings this year as well. 6th round pick Jon Runyan is already starting at left guard for an above average Green Bay offensive line. They also snatched undrafted rookie Krys Barnes, who’s now starting at inside linebacker for the Packers and has 135 tackles over the last two years. Gutekunst brought in tight end Marcedes Lewis on a one-year deal and re-signed him in 2021. He may not be a huge threat in the passing game, but he’s one of the best blocking tight ends in the league and fits in perfectly with LaFleur’s run-first scheme.
Brian Gutekunst drafted his third 1st-round defensive back in his first four years as GM by taking corner Eric Stokes 29th overall. Stokes has made some big time plays in the secondary and has stepped up big time in Jaire Alexander’s absence. If you thought he was done adding defensive backs, think again. After Alexander’s injury in Week 4, Gutekunst signed Rasul Douglas off the Cardinals practice squad. In seven games with Green Bay, Douglas has 37 tackles, 8 pass breakups, a forced fumble, and two interceptions, including a game-sealing pick at Arizona and this pick-six against the Rams.
Prior to the start of the season, Brian Gutekunst signed linebacker De’Vondre Campbell, another former Arizona Cardinal. Not only is he having his best season in his five-year career, but he’s arguably been the most valuable player for Joe Berry’s defense. Campbell ranks in the top-10 in the NFL with 99 tackles this season. On top of that, he has two forced fumbles, two interceptions, and a PFF grade above 80.
Defense Wins Championships
Since being hired as general manager in 2018, Brian Gutekunst’s motives have been made very clear. In just a few short years he’s built an elite defense, putting much less pressure on Aaron Rodgers. Nearly every starter on that side of the ball was either drafted or signed by Gutekunst. In 2021, the Packers currently rank in the top-10 in scoring defense, total defense, rushing defense, and passing defense. This may be the best Packers defense of the Rodgers era, and if the Packers can get over the hump and win the Super Bowl, much of the credit should go to GM Brian Gutekunst.
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