GREEN BAY, Wis. — To be considered a success, Green Bay Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst must not only put together a roster that can win in the NFL week in and out but also year in and year out.
That’s the standard for a GM.
Matt LaFleur must win now.
That’s the standard for a head coach.
Which brings us to the only topic anyone who follows the Packers wants to talk about: the Jordan Love draft pick and what it means to the franchise and to 36-year-old Aaron Rodgers. Fifteen years ago, Rodgers found himself in Love’s position when he was drafted in the first round to a team with a Hall of Fame quarterback.
A game away from the Super Bowl last season and with Rodgers emphatic after the NFC title game loss to the San Francisco 49ers that the Packers’ championship window remained open, many pined for a wide receiver. Rodgers, among others in the organization, was enamored with the top of the receiver class (including LSU’s Justin Jefferson, who went to the Vikings at No. 22). As the first round unfolded on April 23, one of the pre-draft scenarios that included Love was becoming more and more likely.
And then Gutekunst traded his fourth-round pick to the Miami Dolphins and moved up four spots from his original first-round spot.
At that point, a scenario that was presented a day earlier by someone familiar with the Packers’ plans — that there was a 50% chance Jordan Love is a Packer — began to look like a reality.
Based on interviews with multiple sources with knowledge of the process and/or the individuals involved — along with on-the-record comments from Gutekunst and LaFleur before, during and after the draft — we can begin to decipher why the Packers picked (and traded up to No. 26 to do it) the quarterback of the future and what it means for a team that went 13-3 last season under a first-year coach.
Just 20 months ago, Rodgers signed a $134 million contract extension that runs through the 2023 season. Yet Gutekunst first started digging into future quarterbacks last offseason, when he held a pre-draft visit with Drew Lock, an eventual second-round pick of the Denver Broncos in 2019.
Gutekunst, 46, comes from the Ron Wolf-Ted Thompson school of scouting, where the importance of the quarterback was ingrained. Wolf famously traded for Brett Favre in 1992, and Thompson picked Rodgers when he slid to No. 24 in the 2005 draft, even with a 35-year-old Favre still playing at a high level. Wolf taught his scouts to draft quarterbacks as often as possible, taking Ty Detmer (ninth round) in 1992, Mark Brunell (fifth) in 1993, Matt Hasselbeck (sixth) in 1998 and Aaron Brooks (fourth) in 1999, among others. Thompson did it with Brian Brohm (second round) and Matt Flynn (seventh) in the 2008 draft.
So even with obvious holes on the offense — topped by the lack of a proven No. 2 receiver behind Davante Adams — Gutekunst admittedly weighed the short-term and long-term gains and believed the better value was in the long term with Love, whether LaFleur liked it or not.
A first-round quarterback, in theory, wouldn’t help LaFleur get over that hump one iota, but how could a young coach fight it?
The answer: He couldn’t or didn’t.
“We know that the expectations are going to be great for this upcoming season,” LaFleur said after the draft. “And we’ll embrace that.”
When he took the job, he understood the Packers’ structure. In terms of player acquisition, it’s the same way things operated for 13 years under Mike McCarthy — with both Thompson and Gutekunst — and even going back to Mike Holmgren under Wolf. McCarthy and Holmgren won Super Bowls without final say over the roster.
“Matt was on the [phone] line with us and understood where I was coming from,” said Gutekunst, who has the authority over all roster decisions. “I think it was one of those things where, again, with a second-year head coach, I certainly wasn’t going to give him a player he didn’t want.”
“It’s not something we anticipated. It kind of fell to us, and we were excited about that. I know a lot of people will look at this as not a move for the immediate, and I understand that, but the balance of the immediate and the long term is something that I have to consider, and that’s why we did it.”
Those who have an issue with a first-round quarterback should look at the post-Bart Starr years, when the Packers’ quarterbacks included Scott Hunter, Jerry Tagge and John Hadl (who was acquired for five draft picks, including two first-rounders), among others. Better to take a quarterback before it’s necessary than after it’s too late.
LaFleur knew it was a possibility, and Rodgers should have, too. Gutekunst answered questions about taking a quarterback at No. 30 even before the NFL scouting combine, perhaps greasing the skids for this very possibility. He called Thompson’s decision to take Rodgers at No. 24 “courageous” and recalled how some inside the Lambeau Field offices, including then-coach Mike Sherman, were “not real thrilled about that [pick] at the time.”
When asked in February whether he was concerned about upsetting Rodgers if he picked a quarterback in the first round, Gutekunst said: “No. Aaron wants to win. I think that’s the most important thing to him, so he knows we’re trying to make the best decision for the football team moving forward, so I’m not worried about that. With all players, you can’t control that. Players get happy and sad about all kinds of things. I’m not too concerned with that.”
Reports surfaced in the weeks before the draft that the Packers were among the teams who showed a strong interest in Love. Gutekunst attended one of Love’s Utah State games last season, on Oct. 5 at LSU, before the GM rejoined the Packers in Dallas the next day for the game against the Cowboys.
In Love, Gutekunst saw a rare combination of Favre’s gunslinging, Rodgers’ ability to process the game and Patrick Mahomes-like athleticism.
“He’s a very natural thrower, can make all the throws, he’s a very good athlete, he has the kind of size we look for,” Gutekunst said. “I just think there’s some rawness to him, but I just think he’s got everything in front of him. And we really like the guy. We think he’s a really good kid, wanted to work, and he just kind of fits with our culture.”
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Everyone wants to know how Rodgers will react, and the world is waiting. Rodgers was the one who initiated the first conversation with Love. He did what, by any standard, would be considered the right thing to do. Doing otherwise could be construed as hypocritical given how hurt he was by Favre’s initial unwelcoming approach in 2005.
Those who know Rodgers believe he will be irritated, just as Favre was in 2005. One source said Rodgers would be “irate.” Rodgers has not spoken publicly and could not be reached for comment, but Favre offered a hint at what Rodgers might be feeling on Wednesday during an appearance on the “Rich Eisen Show,” saying the Love pick “got the wheels turning in Aaron’s mind” that Rodgers might finish his career elsewhere, just like Favre did.
Not only did the Rodgers pick in 2005 anger Favre, but so did the decision to draft defensive tackle Justin Harrell at No. 16 in the 2007 draft. The next summer, when Favre was at odds with the Packers over his decision to unretire, and well before it was known that Harrell would be a bust, one member of Favre’s inner circle said of Harrell: “How does that [pick] help us?”
But Rodgers also knows enough about the business to expect exactly this type of move, even if it came a year or two sooner than he anticipated.
LaFleur said he spoke with Rodgers shortly after the Packers picked Love.
“Yeah, I don’t want to get into specifics, but I will say this: Aaron is a pro, and he’s the leader of our football team, and I anticipate that for a really long time,” LaFleur said. “I have so much respect for him not only as a player but the person, and some of the stuff that nobody sees. So I can’t tell you how much I like working with him.”
The Packers also had to convince themselves that Love could handle a situation that could range anywhere from, at minimum, awkward to, at worst, hostile.
“If he was going to be the kind of guy we’d love to bring in and have the leadership … [we had to] see if he had that in him,” Gutekunst said. “Every step along the way I thought Jordan handled himself very well, and we were very comfortable with who he was.”
Perhaps even more interesting will be how LaFleur handles it.
The win-now part of his job description means he needs Rodgers to buy in, all-in. So what’s LaFleur to say if — or when — Rodgers asks him what role he played in picking a quarterback? The coach has to say little or none. Any appearance to the contrary could ruin what had been, by most accounts, a solid working relationship.
LaFleur, with a four-year contract (plus a team option for a fifth), might not get to play games with Love as his quarterback if things sour the next few years and the Packers miss the playoffs.
Still, those savvy enough to read between the lines in the post-draft comments could surmise that if LaFleur truly had nothing to do with the Love pick, then how to explain the third-round pick of tight end/H-back Josiah Deguara?
Perhaps Gutekunst, after taking Love, allowed LaFleur a pick of his own.
“I’m very close with the offensive coordinator at Cincinnati, Mike Denbrock,” LaFleur said. “And he raves about the guy.”
The Packers don’t know how much Rodgers has left. His decline in 2018 was sharper than the rally he made last season. He posted his lowest-career Total QBR (50.4) in the regular season, had 10 games with a Total QB under 50 (second-most among starting quarterbacks last season behind only the Bears’ Mitchell Trubisky with 11), and in a sign that his mobility and willingness to run has waned, he held the ball for an average of 2.88 seconds (the sixth-highest in the NFL last season, according to Next Gen Stats data).
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While Rodgers’ leadership helped the team buy in to LaFleur’s system last year, LaFleur made noticeable concessions in his offense to placate the quarterback. The rest of the 2020 draft class — most notably Deguara and second-round running back AJ Dillon — suggests a shift in the offensive philosophy closer to LaFleur’s run-first desire.
And for all the outcry over Gutekunst’s failure to use a high draft pick on a wide receiver, the GM knows how tough Rodgers can be on receivers. Rodgers ripped into the Packers’ young wideouts after a lackluster training camp practice in 2018, a year when the Packers drafted three receivers, holds them to famously high standards and often shows in his body language his disappointment when they don’t connect.
And if the quarterback doesn’t like a receiver and therefore lacks faith in him, it could go down as a waste of a draft pick. Still, 36 receivers came off the board in the 2020 draft, none to the Packers. The Packers haven’t taken a first-round receiver since Javon Walker in 2002, thus Rodgers has only one career touchdown pass to a first-round pick (tight end Marcedes Lewis last season). But counting second-round picks, Rodgers has 192 touchdowns to players taken in the first two rounds.
If the arrival of Love indeed lights a fire under Rodgers, as one source suggested it might, then it’s a win-win for the Packers. They get the best of Rodgers for two, three or even four more years. His contract essentially makes him untradeable for at least two more seasons. He has a salary cap number of $36.3 million in 2021 and $39.9 million in 2022. After the 2021 season, the Packers would save $22.648 million in salary cap space but would have to count $17.204 million in dead money. If they moved on after this season, they would save only $4.76 million on the cap and have $31.556 million in dead money.
That would give LaFleur time to develop the raw Love, and Gutekunst the time to determine if Love is indeed the heir apparent. If Gutekunst decides after a couple of years that Love is not, then he could get another crack at finding one before Rodgers’ time ends.
Favre, who had a stretch of subpar seasons in the mid-2000s, had one of his best non-MVP seasons in 2007, leading the Packers to the NFC title game.
“He’s got four years left on his contract,” Favre told Eisen. “Let’s say they start off 0-3 regardless of how Aaron’s playing, but I assume he’ll play like he normally does. If they’re 0-3, I think we’ll see the claws come out from a lot of folks. They’re going to be left trying to defend themselves.”