News & Analysis

How Brian Gutekunst turned the Green Bay Packers back into Super Bowl contenders

Draft and develop.

If you’re a Green Bay Packers fan, that slogan has to bring up bittersweet memories. On the one hand, it was the primary philosophy responsible for the Packers' Super Bowl XLV victory under Ted Thompson. On the other, it’s what made fans suffer through the smattering of UDFA’s who were thrust into crucial starting roles over the last decade.

Thompson’s insistence on building from within kept them from ever being in cap hell, but I’m here to argue that not only was it ill-advised to completely ignore free agency under the current CBA but that the Packers weren’t even living by their own slogan. New GM Brian Gutekunst’s fresh approach to the draft and free agency is the reason why the Packers are hosting a divisional-round game for the first time since 2014. 

Draft and Develop (and re-sign)

The seeds of the Packers' demise that came in the late 2010s were sown back in the 2015 offseason. That year, they drafted defensive backs Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins in Round 1 and 2, respectively. Doubling up at the second-most valuable position in football was a move we lauded at the time, but it ultimately led to the Packers breaking their “draft and develop” promise.

The following offseason, Casey Hayward Jr. was up for free agency after being their highest-graded starter in the secondary in 2015, and Green Bay refused to even match a modest three-year, $15.3 million offer from the then-San Diego Chargers. The next year was the infamous LaDarius Gunter NFC Championship game when Gunter allowed 152 yards and two scores to Julio Jones.

After that game, the Packers lost defensive back Micah Hyde, who was another promising member of the team's secondary. Once again, the Packers balked at competing with the five-year, $30.5 million deal that Hyde ultimately signed with the Buffalo Bills.

Since leaving Green Bay, Casey Hayward Jr. has earned the highest coverage grade of any cornerback in the NFL while Hyde has earned the fourth-highest coverage grade of any safety. Neither Randall nor Rollins earned coverage grades over 60.0 with the Packers after the team moved on from Hayward, and neither made it to the end of their rookie contracts in Green Bay.

In the end, the Packers did the “drafting and developing” part perfectly. They had two true difference makers in their secondary but failed to properly recognize them as such. The fact that they weren’t blockbuster free agents who drew hefty compensatory picks makes the pill that much more difficult to swallow, too. 

Predicting the rising salary cap

Not re-signing those two and failing to add any free-agent talent to the failing secondary came back to the underlying issue with Thompson’s philosophy over the last decade: the belief that resources were limited. After the cap relatively stagnated from 2009 (when it was $123 million) to 2013 (when it was still $123 million), general managers who didn’t have the foresight to see the explosion that was coming got left behind. The cap has increased by at least $10 million every single year since; that’s one additional quality starter that you could fit under the cap via free agency every season, and teams that were trying to keep their pocketbooks tidy were missing out on these players.

After winning the Super Bowl in 2010, these were the free agents Ted Thompson inked to anything more than a backup-level deal over the next seven years of his tenure.

FA signing Position Year PFF grade in first year with GB
Jeff Saturday C 2012 62.5
Letroy Guion DI 2014 51.9
Julius Peppers EDGE 2014 81.6
Jared Cook TE 2016 76.1
Martellus Bennett TE 2017 58.9

You can debate how they swung the bat, but the simple fact of the matter is they didn’t step up to the plate nearly enough. Since Gutekunst took over in 2018, that’s all changed. They dipped their toes in the water last season by signing Jimmy Graham and Muhammad Wilkerson then dove headfirst earlier this year with a record-setting offseason. When the dust had settled, Green Bay had handed out the following deals:

FA signing Position Deal 2019 PFF grade
Za’Darius Smith EDGE 4-year, $66m 90.2
Preston Smith EDGE 4-year, $52m 66.4
Adrian Amos S 4-year, $36m 76.4
Billy Turner G 4-year, $28m 64.8

Not only did they sign top-end free agents, but they filled needs with mid-tier guys, as well. To say those players have made an impact is an understatement. You can see each player's 2019 grade above.

On the other hand, the players at those respective positions a year prior looked like this:

Player Position Snaps 2018 PFF grade
Kyler Fackrell EDGE 626 69.5
Clay Matthews EDGE 756 65.3
Josh Jones S 502 61.7
Byron Bell G 528 47.5

With four positions upgraded not simply for this season but the next three in all likelihood, the Packers' offseason spending spree looks more than worth the money at this point.

Still draft-focused

While their free-agent spending spree may look excessive on the surface, they haven’t abandoned their ideals of building through the draft. In fact, splurging the way they did last offseason is the best way to attack free agency if one cares about the compensatory fix. With Randall Cobb, the biggest free agent Green Bay was set to lose (he ultimately signed a one-year, $5 million deal with Dallas), the Packers weren’t recouping any compensatory picks, no matter what they did last offseason.

Through two drafts, it’s been clear that Gutekunst values accumulating more picks rather than particular players. He flipped the 14th overall pick in the 2018 draft into two first-rounders that would ultimately become Jaire Alexander and Darnell Savage — two cornerstone defenders. They’ve drafted 19 players in two years with him as GM.

The results? Well, they speak for themselves. After finishing with PFF’s 24th-ranked defense in 2018, the Packers sit at eighth through the regular season in 2019. More importantly, their team coverage grade went from 69.6, 26th in the NFL, to 88.0, which ranked seventh. Green Bay has finally realized how to manipulate the rising cap to maximize their Super Bowl window with Aaron Rodgers under center, and now they’re three wins away from a fifth Lombardi trophy.

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