Green Bay: Did the Packers backstop Aaron Rodgers too soon?
1992: GM Ron Wolf trades a first-round pick to Atlanta for backup quarterback Brett Favre, a second-round pick in the 1991 draft.
2005: GM Ted Thompson uses a first-round pick on Cal QB Aaron Rodgers, with Favre, 35, having some prime years left.
2020: GM Brian Gutekunst trades up to use a first-round pick on Utah State QB Jordan Love, with Rodgers, 36, having some prime years left.
I sense a trend among the last three Green Bay franchise stewards.
Had I written live Thursday night, or even Friday morning, I’d have been highly critical of this. I’d have said the Packers should have sat at 30 in the first round and taken the best receiver (Michael Pittman? Tee Higgins?) available. And I’m absolutely not sure, still, that they shouldn’t have done that. The Packers have done a terrible job, capital T, in surrounding one of the great quarterbacks of recent times with receiving talent in mid and late-career (more on that later in the column). This was the second straight year that Gutekunst, with a major receiver need, didn’t draft a receiver at all, and didn’t sign a prime one in free agency.
But let’s look at the Love pick this way: Rodgers turns 37 in December. He told me in 2018 he wanted to play till he was 40 if he could continue to meet the athletic demands of the position. “My goal is to be able to move like I do or close to how I do and still be able to do that at 40 . . . just because nobody’s been able to do that,” he said. He’d be near the end of his fourth season from now when he turns 40. What’s the worst thing that happens if Rodgers is a top-five quarterback for the Packers for the next four years? Green Bay, maybe, pulls a Garoppolo and deals Love for what it can get in 2023. If Rodgers, motivated by this cattle-prod of a draft pick, plays great for the next four years and Love never gives Green Bay anything but a future second or third-round pick, that would mean Green Bay bought an insurance policy for Rodgers that it never had to cash in. And if Rodgers continues to be great, Gutekunst said Sunday, regardless of the Love pick, “That’d be great for the Packers.”
Of course, there are other angles to consider. Rodgers is a prickly guy at times, and whenever the team gets ready to practice or play, how he accepts this new reality as the leader of the team will be something to monitor. Could Rodgers think second-year head coach Matt LaFleur is not as all-in on him for the future as he thought? And if the Packers are going to exercise Love’s fifth-year option—likely to be around $22 million in 2024 if he doesn’t play much in the next three seasons—aren’t they going to want to see something from Love on the field before then?
Gutekunst told me Sunday that the Packers didn’t enter the draft thinking they’d pick Love; he thought Love might be gone in the teens or early twenties. But they had him ranked so well on their board that once he started falling through the twenties, he became a target. With significant intel that a team drafting high in the second round—perhaps Indianapolis, at 34—was trying to trade up for Love, Gutekunst felt he had to trade up to have a chance at Love. He traded up four slots, with Miami.
“I’m very hopeful Aaron continues to play at a high level for years to come,” Gutekunst said. “I know a lot of people are saying this puts a clock on Aaron, but I don’t see that at all. We prioritize the quarterback position, and have for a long time with this franchise. I remember one year in camp they had Brett Favre, Ty Detmer, Kurt Warner and maybe Mark Brunell. It’s one of the most important positions in sports, and if you don’t have one, you can’t win.”
Gutekunst, like Wolf and Thompson, views the draft as a continuum. As they did, he’s concerning himself with 2028 as well as 2021. Again: You can differ with his thought process and the major receiver he could have addressed with the 30th pick. But the importance of the position, to Gutekunst, overrode that.
“Ron traded a one in 1992 for Brett, who’d been a second-round pick and wasn’t even starting for Atlanta,” Gutekunst said. “Imagine the media fervor if that happened today. I believe if you’re going to sit in this chair, you have to accept that you’ll be heavily criticized. I watched my father go through it [John Gutekunst was the head coach at the University of Minnesota in the eighties] as a college coach. I know what Ted went through in 2008 with Brett. But I’m trying to do the right thing for the organization. That’s my sole focus.”
One last note: Gutekunst said the Packers had two receivers they were targeting in early and middle part of the second round. They tried to move up with several teams, he said, until the second receiver they preferred got picked, and then they stopped. Seven wideouts went in the first 27 picks of the second round; Green Bay, with the 62nd overall pick, took running back A.J. Dillon. Not good. As much as the draft pick itself, the price for Love included not addressing that big need at receiver. We’ll see if that comes back to haunt the team this year or next.