Does Packers' Success Justify 2020 NFL Draft Decisions?

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On the day of the 2020 NFL Draft, Green Bay Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst did his job. He clocked in, took the Packers’ picks, and added some young players to their roster: Jordan Love, A.J. Dillon, Josiah Deguara. Fine, right?

Wrong. Gutekunst came under heavy fire for his approach to last season’s draft, with an aggregate of grades determining his draft as the worst of the lot. Starting quarterback Aaron Rodgers, never one to pull his punches, said publicly that he “wasn’t thrilled” with the Love selection

But Gutekunst didn’t draft Love to make Rodgers happy or help him produce, in the same way he didn’t draft Dillon to reassure Aaron Jones that he was going to extend him this offseason. He didn’t draft to add immediate contributors and round out the perceived weaknesses on the Packers’ roster: wide receiver, offensive tackle, linebacker. He drafted for the future.

This, before anything else, is the responsibility of the general manager. Head coaches are trying to win now; general managers are trying to keep winning, next year and the year after that. Head coaches are evaluated based on the success of the team; general managers are evaluated based on the health of the roster. Those ideas aren’t inherently divorced—good players make coaching easier, and good coaching makes players better—but they do exist with a necessary tension between them. When Gutekunst traded up for Love in the first round, he was prioritizing long-term roster health over an addition that could have generated an immediate impact on the offense’s success.

Knowing what we know now, the urgency of a Rodgers succession plan feels incidental. In April of 2020, things felt a bit more urgent. The 13-3 Packers of 2019 had only a +63 point differential; Rodgers only completed 62% of his passes for 7.0 yards a pop—numbers reminiscent of the 2018 campaign that spelled the end for head coach Mike McCarthy in Green Bay. He wasn’t bad; he was just mortal, for the first time in his career. At 37 years old, there was little reason to believe Rodgers was going to improve, let alone post career-best numbers in a new offense. (Rodgers would go on to post career-best numbers in a new offense).

So Gutekunst secured his flank. He added Love to offer a replacement to Rodgers in 2022, or 2023, or 2024—whenever he might need to start the next era of Green Bay football. It’s not that he expected Rodgers to be bad—rather the opposite. Rodgers and head coach Matt LaFleur were going to be good enough that Gutekunst didn’t expect to have a top-10 pick at his disposal to add an immediate starter at quarterback in the next few seasons. Better to secure a developmental prospect now and solve 2022’s problem in 2020.

Of course, that left 2020’s problem. Rodgers had openly campaigned for a skill position player at the top of the 2020 draft and got an apparent successor and a depth running back for his troubles. Even when the Packers finally added a pass-catcher at the end of the third round, it was an H-back/fullback hybrid tight end in Josiah Deguara, who missed the entire season with injury. His wide receiver room behind Davante Adams remained seemingly thin—Allen Lazard, Marquez Valdes-Scantling—and Rick Wagner was set to play as his right tackle as Bryan Bulaga’s replacement.

With 2019’s NFC Championship berth looking like an overachievement and some major issues left unaddressed, many pundits expected the Packers to regress. Instead, they delivered the exact same record (13-3) and find themselves in the exact same spot: preparing for the NFC Championship Game. Rodgers has flipped his trajectory, playing better ball in LaFleur’s offense than any quarterback in the league and all but securing the MVP trophy as a result.

But this isn’t a referendum on Gutekunst’s decision. It was risky for the 2020 Packers then, and it’s still risky now. Love won’t see the field against the Buccaneers, Dillon will rotate behind Jones and Jamaal Williams. The Buccaneers’ defense will look to repeat their shutout of Michael Thomas when they line up against Adams, testing the depth of the Packers’ wide receiver room; Billy Turner will start at left tackle for the injured David Bakhtiari; linebacker Krys Barnes will play with a club, having won the starting job as a seventh-round pick. Everything that was true about the Packers’ roster in 2020 remains true now.

But what we’ve come to learn is just how much LaFleur could do with the cards dealt to him. The Packers have used Valdes-Scantling as a quality field-stretcher and largely endured his drops; Lazard has been key to their running game as a blocker, then as a deep threat off of play-action. Mega-receiver Robert Tonyan’s great chemistry with Rodgers has allowed him to move the sticks more consistently than any other pass-catcher this season.

The development and deployment of these late-draft additions is a testament to LaFleur, offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett, passing game coordinator Luke Getsy, and even the tutelage of a veteran quarterback like Rodgers. Perhaps those coaches vouched for their young players in the draft war room, allowing Gutekunst to attack long-term needs; perhaps they really wanted a new wideout and just had to play the hand they were dealt. Either way, every pass-catcher on this roster—from Tonyan up to Adams—improved from 2019 to 2020.

That is the responsibility of the coaching staff: to take the players in the building and put them in positions to be successful. With a flexible and creative offensive staff in place, not only can Gutekunst confidently draft Love and neglect wide receiver, he can also expect that Love will develop under LaFleur. That makes his pick all the more likely to succeed.

And by the same token, LaFleur can be certain that when his roster endures free agent departures or in-season injuries, Gutekunst will have young players ready to step into those vacant shoes. If Jones demands $15M per season in free agency, Dillon knows the system and has fresh legs. If a team wants to poach Tonyan for their flex-Y role, Deguara is waiting in the wings.

The Packers’ front office reminded us in the 2020 NFL Draft that not every decision is made with immediate returns in mind. The wisdom of their calculus remains up for debate—I still wish Laviska Shenault were wearing green and yellow—but it was the decision they made. The success of the 2020 team should not impact our judgment of that approach so much as it should affect how we view LaFleur, who has joined Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay in the ranks of the most promising young head coaches in the NFL. The Packers’ success in 2020 is his victory. If the Packers sustain that success in the years to come, that will be Gutekunst’s victory.

This is the ideal balance of team-building. For an organization legendary for its sustained stability, the Packers once again look like they’re here to stay—for as long as Rodgers is good, and beyond.