INDIANAPOLIS -- If general manager Brian Gutekunst can’t get the Green Bay Packers back into playoff contention -- and do it quickly -- it won’t be because of a lack of resources.
Three picks in the top 44 of the draft.
More than $35 million in salary-cap space -- and perhaps even more if the Packers cut oft-injured and high-priced outside linebacker Nick Perry or get him to restructure his contract.
A scouting staff that Gutekunst has reshaped, most recently with the addition of a new top adviser in director of football operations Milt Hendrickson, a longtime Baltimore Ravens personnel executive.
And a vow to form a partnership with new coach Matt LaFleur that Gutekunst described as “everybody pulling in the same direction.”
Given their two-year playoff drought and how far they appear to have fallen behind the NFC North rival Chicago Bears in terms of talent, Gutekunst has to turn it around quickly.
“It’s big for our football team,” Gutekunst said at a roundtable discussion with reporters during a break from the NFL scouting combine. “I think it’s really important that we hit on those three picks. Those guys up there have a chance to immediately impact our team not only for the short term but for the long term as well. We’re excited. It also gives you ammunition to do a lot of moving around if you need to, which we’ll see how it all shakes out.”
Gutekunst owns the 12th, 30th and 44th picks. He came away with an extra first-round pick (No. 30 overall) after a pair of trades during last year’s first round. That pick originally belonged to the Saints. The Packers earned the 12th pick in each round as a result of their dismal 6-9-1 record -- which resulted in a second consecutive non-playoff season and got coach Mike McCarthy fired with four games to go.
The Packers weren’t 13-18-1 the past two seasons simply because of coaching. Their lack of impact players in all areas was exposed.
Even though Gutekunst showed a more aggressive approach to player acquisition -- with draft-day trades, free-agent signings (Jimmy Graham, Muhammad Wilkerson, Tramon Williams and Bashaud Breeland) and at least an attempt (although a failed one) to trade for stud pass-rusher Khalil Mack -- the Packers were short in the talent department.
“I thought last year he handled it well,” Packers president Mark Murphy said of Gutekunst's first offseason as GM. “We were in the hunt. ... I guess it technically wasn’t free agency, but the whole Khalil Mack situation, we were involved. You look at it, we weren’t real big in free agency last year, but we made some moves. I think Brian is doing his homework, and he’s got his staff doing it and they spent a lot of time on it.”
Murphy predicted that Gutekunst would be at least as active in free agency again this offseason.
“I think we can help our team in free agency this year -- I really do,” Gutekunst said. “We’ll see how it goes. It’s an unpredictable market, it’s a small market, but I think we can help ourselves.”
By the time LaFleur opens his offseason program, everyone will know exactly how much help Gutekunst gave him in free agency. LaFleur plans to start that program April 8 -- a week later than he’s allowed as a new coach. He picked that date because if he started April 1, he would have to give the players a week off in the middle of the program, per NFL rules. By starting a week later, he can run the program continuously until the summer break in mid-June.
By then, perhaps Gutekunst will have added a pass-rusher in free agency or another weapon for quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
He’s not only well-positioned near the top of the draft with his first three picks -- he owns four picks among the first 75 selections and six in the top 118.
He could even acquire additional picks if quarterback-needy teams wanted to move up to No. 12 and there were enough impact players available if Gutekunst moved back.
But given the chance to select one of the top players in the draft -- the Packers haven’t picked this high since B.J. Raji at No. 9 in 2009 -- Gutekunst might not want to drop down.
“To pass up the kind of player I think will be there at 12, I think there will have to be a significant ... something that could help our team potentially this year and maybe down the road,” Gutekunst said. “With the 12th pick and the 30th pick, to move back, just to gain something insignificant, I think, would be tough for me to do. But it will really come down to who’s there. Last year we were at 14 and we moved back to 27, but at the time I felt very strongly that we could get back up into the top 20 to pick one of the players that we kind of had valued equally. So if we’re at 12 and I’ve got six guys that I value equally and we can move back a few and feel like we can get the same kind of guy, we’ll consider that. If you ask me today, I don’t think that’s how it will fall. But you never really know.”
A move up can’t be ruled out, either.
“I pray for patience all the time,” Gutekunst said. “Even in last year’s draft, I was trying to move up until probably pick 10, 11 or something like that, for a first-round guy. It really comes down to being about the player. If there’s a player that I think that the only way we can acquire him is to go get him and he’s at a different value than the guys that will be sitting there, then we’ll do it.
“But, you know, I’m just going to kind of see how it shakes out. I don’t think you can go into a draft rigid without looking at all the possibilities and being prepared to move either way. I really believe you’ve got to be open-minded to what gets thrown at you because otherwise you could miss some opportunities.”