As the Green Bay Packers return to the NFC Championship Game for the first time in three years, GM Brian Gutekunst deserves a ton of praise for his work in building this roster.
When Brian Gutekunst took over the general manager role, a lot of work needed to be done to the Green Bay Packers‘ roster.
Aaron Rodgers‘ collarbone injury had exposed major flaws across the board as the Packers slumped to a 7-9 record and playoff-less football for the first time in almost a decade. Tasked with the tough job of putting together a quick rebuild, Gutekunst got to work.
Two years later, this team is preparing for an NFC Championship clash with the San Francisco 49ers.
First of all, let’s applaud Matt LaFleur for his tremendous work in his first year as head coach. And for all of the criticism president Mark Murphy received, he’s the one that hired both Gutekunst and LaFleur. He deserves his share of the credit too.
Now back to Gutekunst.
His first major move as GM was a stroke of genius. By trading out of the 14th pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, the Packers netted a future first-round pick from the New Orleans Saints. Gutekunst knew the Seattle Seahawks, owner of the 18th overall selection, were keen to move down. He then jumped back up from 27th to 18th to select the player he wanted, cornerback Jaire Alexander. In the process, the Packers also received a bonus Day 1 draft pick.
Alexander has played a major role in the Packers’ strong play in the secondary this season.
After being named to the PFWA All-Rookie Team in 2018, Alexander took the second-year jump this year and has been a key part of the secondary. Pro Football Focus ranked Alexander 11th among all cornerbacks following the regular season, noting that he allowed the third-lowest completion percentage for cornerbacks who had at least 90 targets in the season.
Sticking to his promise of using every means necessary to improve the roster, Gutekunst was keen to bring in both Allen Robinson and Khalil Mack, who both coincidentally ended up with the Chicago Bears via free agency and a trade respectively. Despite missing out on both players, it was encouraging to see the Packers attempting to make big moves to the roster.
The Packers’ 2018 season was a disaster from start to finish, with the team finished 6-9-1. But it was always going to take more than one offseason for Gutekunst to get results.
The poor record led to a head-coaching change, and Gutekunst continued to be active in attempt to address the major needs on the roster.
Gutekunst followed up the home run of selecting Alexander by hitting another one out of the ballpark with the signings of Za’Darius and Preston Smith. Now known as the Smith Bros. to Packers fans, the pass-rushing duo have combined for 29.5 sacks (including playoffs) in their debut season in Green Bay.
Adrian Amos also proved to be a valuable free-agency addition, starting all 16 games at safety and finishing second on the team in tackles while also making two interceptions and eight pass defenses.
In the draft, Gutekunst found two key starters in the early rounds with safety Darnell Savage and guard Elgton Jenkins. They both had impressive debut seasons, making the PFWA All-Rookie Team and showing future Pro Bowl potential.
Savage forced two fumbles and made two interceptions, starting all 14 games he played. Jenkins also made 14 starts and finished eighth among guards in the NFL in ESPN’s pass block win rate.
Edge rusher Rashan Gary may have only made two sacks in his first season, but due to the success of the Smith Bros., he played less than a quarter of the Packers’ defensive snaps, according to Pro Football Reference. But the rookie made an impact with two sacks, three quarterback hits and a fumble recovery.
Beyond the stats, he showed a ton of potential this season and he’ll be a player to watch in 2020.
Not only did Gutekunst hit home runs in free agency and early in the draft, but he continued to patch needs through the season.
The Packers were on course for a historically bad season returning punts, but that all changed after signing Tyler Ervin in December. Ervin averaged 9.6 yards per punt return and 26.7 yards on kickoff returns after being claimed off waivers.
More than that, Ervin has also established a role on offense, which included a 25-yard rush in the Packers’ divisional-round victory last week.
Talking about that playoff victory, the Packers learned in pregame that they’d be without right tackle Bryan Bulaga due to illness. Fortunately, Gutekunst had claimed experienced tackle Jared Veldheer off waivers weeks earlier, who had come out of retirement. Veldheer put in an outstanding performance filling in for Bulaga in such a huge game.
And let’s not forget players like Allen Lazard, who Gutekunst signed at the end of the 2018 season and gave an opportunity to. Lazard is now the Packers’ number two wide receiver and has made some game-changing plays this season. Without him, Green Bay may have gone 0-2 against the Detroit Lions. Instead, they won both.
Gutekunst has been aggressive in free agency and willing to trade up in the draft. He’s added game-winning talent at key positions, and equally impressive has been his ability to find talent at positions of need during the season.
In two years, the Packers have gone from no playoffs to the NFC Championship Game and a team capable of winning it all. The players deserve all the praise they’ve received, as does LaFleur.
But it’s Gutekunst who has put this roster together, and he’s done an excellent job in his first two years as general manager.