Tom Oates: Packers GM Brian Gutekunst could take page from mentors' playbook and draft a quarterback early

Tom Oates: Packers GM Brian Gutekunst could take page from mentors' playbook and draft a quarterback early

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Brian Gutekunst photo

"You guys have heard me say this before, everything I’ve been taught, that’s where you start, you start with the quarterback," Brian Gutekunst said.

GREEN BAY — The progress general manager Brian Gutekunst has made in reconstructing the Green Bay Packers’ roster was evident in a season that didn’t end until the NFC Championship Game, but the Packers still have holes to fill.

You know the drill. Wide receiver, inside linebacker, offensive tackle, tight end and the defensive line could all use an immediate infusion of talent and, by Gutekunst’s admission, much of that will have to come via the draft since salary-cap concerns will restrict his efforts in free agency.

But the third-year general manager will enter the draft with two competing interests. On one hand, the Packers were one win away from the Super Bowl and could be even better next season if Gutekunst can add playmakers. On the other hand, quarterback Aaron Rodgers is 36 and this draft might yield an opportunity to secure his eventual successor.

Gutekunst said Friday he wouldn’t rule out drafting a quarterback should one be available that he thinks could develop behind and ultimately replace Rodgers, just like former general manager Ted Thompson did in 2005. After just three months on the job, Thompson drafted Rodgers with his first-round pick even though Brett Favre was still going strong at 35 and needed immediate help due to a deteriorating roster.

Asked if he would consider taking a quarterback with his first-round pick — No. 30 overall — in April, Gutekunst made his intentions clear.

“Sure,” he said. “You guys have heard me say this before, everything I’ve been taught, that’s where you start, you start with the quarterback. So you evaluate them every year and I think it’s always on the table. It’s a good crop this year, it’s a good group of quarterbacks. I think it’s a little deeper than it has been in the past. It will be interesting, but, yeah, sure.”

Since three quarterbacks are likely be taken early, it remains to be seen if a second-tier talent such as Washington’s Jacob Eason and Utah State’s Jordan Love might intrigue Gutekunst enough to use a top pick on him. He reportedly considered Missouri’s Drew Lock in last year’s draft, but he drafted defense with his two first-round picks and Lock went to Denver two spots before the Packers’ second-round pick.

Gutekunst often cites his mentors — Thompson and Hall of Famer Ron Wolf — when discussing his decisions. Wolf’s first big move in Green Bay was trading a first-round pick for Favre, then a one-year bust in Atlanta. Thompson’s first big move was drafting Rodgers when he unexpectedly fell to the Packers at No. 23 in the first round. Those decisions led to two NFL titles and the finest 28-year run of quarterbacking the NFL has seen.

The Rodgers pick came after Mike Sherman, stripped of his general manager duties, was entering a win-or-else season as coach. Neither Sherman nor Favre was pleased, but Thompson took Rodgers anyway.

“I do remember Mike Sherman was our head coach and there were a lot of people not real thrilled about that at the time,” Gutekunst said. “The thing that has stood out to me about that, Ted had been ... on the job for three months. If you really look back at that, Brett Favre is your quarterback, the coaching staff had been here and Ted was (just) coming in. To have the courage at that time to do that, and what that one decision did for the organization for how many years later, that stuck with me. It could have been real easy to do something different. He thought that was the right thing to do and he did it.”

Of course, the situations weren’t quite the same. In 2005, the Packers were headed downhill, not coming off an NFC title game. Also, Rodgers has never threatened to retire, which by 2005 was an annual ritual for Favre.

An area scout when Thompson took Rodgers, Gutekunst learned an important lesson about the value of quarterbacks. He also admires the way Wolf drafted quarterbacks, developed them as backups and flipped them for draft picks.

“Aaron didn’t play for three years and for three years people were probably saying, well, that was a total waste,” Gutekunst said. “I just don’t think developing a young quarterback is ... a waste. You just don’t know when the time is going to be when you’re going to need him. Or if you’re going to trade him to New Orleans like we did with Aaron Brooks or Matt Hasselbeck to Seattle, you just don’t know when that’ll come. I know this: If you make it a priority to develop quarterbacks, I think it’s going to be a positive for your organization.”

Everyone remembers that Favre considered Rodgers a threat and didn’t treat him well at the start. So would Gutekunst worry about Rodgers’ reacting negatively if his potential replacement was drafted?

“No, I think Aaron wants to win and I think that’s the most important thing to him,” Gutekunst said. “He knows we’re trying to make the best decision for the football team going forward. So I don’t worry about that. But with all players, you can’t control that. Players get happy and sad about all kinds of things. So I’m not too concerned about that.”

In a draft rich in wide receivers, Gutekunst surely will be tempted to give Rodgers the help he needs. But the time has come to think about Rodgers’ successor as well, and it appears Gutekunst has the courage to make that decision if the right guy is there.

Contact Tom Oates

at toates@madison.com.

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