GREEN BAY — Brian Gutekunst has spoken time and time again about how much of an influence his predecessor as the Green Bay Packers’ general manager, Ted Thompson, had on him. You can not only see it in some of Gutekunst’s core roster-building tenets, but hear it in his vocabulary, too.
More than a few times, Gutekunst has repeated one of Thompson’s favorite lines about the importance of finding quality offensive and defensive linemen. “The good Lord only made so many big guys,” Thompson used to say. In fact, after the 2016 NFL draft, Thompson even expounded on his tried-and-true one-liner.
“Defensive linemen, offensive linemen, they’re hard to find. Linebackers and running backs are hard to find, too, but the combination of being big enough and strong enough and athletic enough to compete in the NFL, those are hard combinations to come up with,” Thompson said then. “You don’t have to be big to play in the NFL, but it helps. And we think that’s a good thing.”
Before last year’s draft, it was reasonable to wonder if Gutekunst perhaps had forgotten how much Thompson valued the big dudes up front. In his first two drafts as GM, Gutekunst had only drafted two offensive linemen: Elgton Jenkins, a 2019 second-round pick from Mississippi State who has turned out to be one of Gutekunst’s two best draft choices, earning his first Pro Bowl selection last season; and Cole Madison, a 2018 fifth-round pick from Washington State who never played a down after missing his rookie season to concentrate on his mental health and suffering a torn ACL in 2019.
By comparison, Thompson, who passed away in January at age 68, chose at least two offensive linemen in eight of the 13 drafts he presided over in Green Bay. And only once, in 2015, did he complete a draft without having taken a single lineman.
Of his first-round picks as GM, Thompson used most of them on defense (9 of 12) but did pick offensive linemen in 2010 (Bryan Bulaga) and 2011 (Derek Sherrod). He also invested two second-rounders and one third-rounder on the line but had most of his success with his fourth- and fifth-round picks.
Consider how many top-flight Day 3 offensive linemen Thompson drafted: Josh Sitton (fourth round, 2008), T.J. Lang (fourth round, 2009), JC Tretter (fourth round, 2013), David Bakhtiari (fourth round, 2013) and Corey Linsley (fifth round, 2014) have started a combined 542 regular-season games over a combined 44 years of NFL experience with nine Pro Bowl selections and eight All-Pro selections. (All but Sitton and Lang are still playing.)
Thompson did have some misses (Sherrod and 2016 second-round pick Jason Spriggs most notably), but even linemen who achieved less renown turned out to be longtime starters in the league. Four of them — Daryn College, Jason Spitz, Allen Barbre, and Marshall Newhouse — combined to start 303 games and play 39 NFL seasons.
Now it’s time to see what kind of big-guy scouting chops Gutekunst has.
His three offensive line picks during last week’s draft — Ohio State center Josh Myers in the second round, Mississippi’s Royce Newman in the fourth round and the University of Wisconsin’s Cole Van Lanen in the sixth round — marked the second straight year Gutekunst has taken three linemen in the same draft.
Last year, Gutekunst took offensive linemen with three consecutive picks in the sixth round, tabbing Michigan’s Jon Runyan Jr., Oregon’s Jake Hanson and Indiana’s Simon Stepaniak back-to-back-to-back. Runyan was active for all 16 games and played 160 offensive snaps, while Hanson spent the year on the practice squad and Stepaniak was on the physically unable to perform list and injured reserve while recovering from an ACL tear suffered in his final college game.
The Packers also added three more linemen as undrafted rookie free agents: UW’s Jon Dietzen, San Diego State’s Jacob Capra, and Coy Cronk, who spent four seasons at Indiana but had his grad transfer year at Iowa end early because of an ankle injury.
Now, with Linsley and longtime starting guard Lane Taylor having departed in free agency — and with Bakhtiari’s start-of-the-season availability in question after he torn his ACL during a Dec. 31 practice — those newbies will have ample opportunity to compete for roles.
“I think as we get into the beginning of the season, depending on where David is, that versatility with those guys is going to matter quite a bit,” Gutekunst said. “We’ll kind of see how it goes.
Runyan, Hanson and Stepaniak are all interior NFL linemen, even though Runyan played left tackle at Michigan and could possibly play there in a pinch. But Myers (6-foot-5, 310 pounds), Newman (6-5, 310) and Van Lanen (6-4, 305) could play either inside or outside in the NFL.
“We really pride ourselves on the versatility, guys being able to swing back and forth,” Gutekunst said. “Elgton and Billy Turner, their ability to play on the edge and inside (is valuable). And I think both (Newman and Van Lanen) are going to have some of that flexibility, too.
“Obviously Billy and Elgton are two bona fide NFL starters, and these guys got a long ways to go. But I think that they have the skill set where they can develop into that.”
Coach Matt LaFleur also praised his existing linemen for allowing offensive line coach Adam Stenavich and assistant Luke Butkus to plug players in across the line when injuries hit last year, and said he hopes the youngsters can mimic that flexibility.
“I think that’s a big reason we had so much success last year,” LaFleur said. “I credit Adam Stenavich and Luke Butkus for their ability to get our guys in the right positions and then the players themselves.
“Certainly, anytime you add talent like we did over the last three days, that versatility is vital to our success as an offense and as a football team.”
Defining moments: Packers’ 5 most consequential trades since the team’s renaissance began in 1992
5. Packers trade CB Fred Vinson and 6th-round pick to Seattle for RB Ahman Green and 5th-round pick
Ahman Green (above), a former third-round pick from Nebraska, had fallen out of favor with Seattle head coach Mike Holmgren because of his frequent fumbling. Holmgren, the former Green Bay head coach who’d led the 1996 Packers to the Super Bowl XXXI title, had the dual role of coach and general manager and decided to move Green to his old team. It proved to be a colossal mistake.
Fred Vinson, a 1999 second-round draft pick from Vanderbilt, suffered a torn ACL in his knee while playing basketball during training camp that summer and missed the entire 2000 season. He never played a snap for the Seahawks and his NFL career consisted of the 14 tackles, two interceptions and one sack he’d had for the Packers in 1999.
Green, meanwhile, would go on to become the Packers’ all-time rushing leader with 8,322 career yards while scoring 68 career touchdowns. In his first seven seasons in Green Bay, Green would crack the 1,000-yard barrier six times, including a single-season record 1,883 rushing yards in 2003. He returned to the Packers in 2009 after injuries struck the Packers and gained 160 more yards — enough to give him the franchise career record.
“I knew once given the chance I could do the things I'm doing here now in Green Bay,” Green told the State Journal in 2003. “In Seattle, me worrying about the (playing) time I wasn't getting playing out there probably would have hurt me more than anything. I'm a patient guy, so I knew my opportunity would come with Seattle or whatever team that I got dealt to. Just give me a shot, I'll show you what I can do.”
4. Packers trade up in 2009 NFL Draft to select USC linebacker Clay Matthews
Having already taken nose tackle B.J. Raji at No. 9, general manager Ted Thompson had become enamored with Clay Matthews (above) during USC’s pro day and still needed an edge rusher for new defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ 3-4 scheme. So, despite a track record of almost exclusively trading back in his first four drafts as GM, Thompson went up and got Matthews, moving up 15 spots from No. 41 to No. 26 to take the third-generation NFL player.
Thompson gave up the Packers’ second-round pick (No. 41), and two third-round picks (Nos. 73 and 83) to move up and take Matthews, who went on to become the franchise’s all-time sack leader and deliver one of the pivotal plays of the team’s Super Bowl XLV victory: Forcing a fumble by Pittsburgh running back Rashard Mendenhall.
Matthews ended his Packers career in 2018, when he was not re-signed after his contract expired. He finished with 83.5 career sacks in a Packers uniform and was chosen for the Pro Bowl six times.
“I came here in 2009 and next year will be 2019,” Matthews told the State Journal late in the 2018 season. “Obviously, everybody would love to finish out their career in one place and I’m no different. I would love to stay here but it has to make sense. That’s the part of free agency, with a new coaching staff, you’ve got to see the fit. There’s a worth that you feel about yourself. Everything has to come together.”
3. Packers trade 4th-rounder to move up 4 spots in 2020 first round to select Utah State QB Jordan Love
The drama that unfolded Thursday afternoon when news broke of Aaron Rodgers not wanting to play for the Packers again all traces back to general manager Brian Gutekunst’s decision to trade up in last year’s first round and take Jordan Love — 15 years to the day after the Packers had taken Rodgers with the 24th overall pick in the 2005 NFL Draft after Rodgers, once viewed as the likely No. 1 overall pick, fell down the draft board and into the Packers’ lap.
The comparison of Love succeeding Rodgers the way Rodgers succeeded Brett Favre was prevalent in the days after the draft, but in reality, Rodgers’ position at age 36 and Favre’s position in 2005 at age 35 could not have been more different. Favre had talked repeatedly about retiring in the years leading up to Rodgers’ selection; Rodgers had been saying he wanted to play into his 40s. Rodgers was a potential No. 1 overall pick who fell to the Packers; Love was the fourth quarterback taken in last year’s first round and Gutekunst traded up to get him.
Nevertheless, a few weeks after the pick, Rodgers vowed not to take out any disappointment he felt about the pick on Love. But it was the beginning of Rodgers’ unhappiness with Gutekunst, which spilled into public view Thursday.
“I think it was more the surprise of the pick, based on my own feelings of wanting to play into my 40s, and really the realization that it does change the controllables a little bit,” Rodgers said at the time. “Because as much as I feel confident in my abilities and what I can accomplish and what we can accomplish, there are some new factors that are out of my control. And so my sincere desire to start and finish with the same organization, just as it has with many other players over the years, may not be a reality at this point.
“And as much as I understand the organization’s future outlook and wanting to make sure they’re thinking about the team now and down the line — and I respect that — at the same time, I still believe in myself and have a strong desire to play into my 40s. And I’m just not sure how that all works together at this point.”
2. Packers trade QB Brett Favre to New York Jets for a conditional pick in 2009 draft
After retiring in March 2008 following an NFC Championship Game loss to the New York Giants to end his 16th season in Green Bay, Brett Favre returned to Green Bay during training camp, claiming he wanted his old job back. Whether that was true or not given the rival Minnesota Vikings’ attempts to woo him to join their team — the Packers later accused the Vikings of tampering with Favre, although the NFL did not find enough evidence of that to punish the team — it created a circus throughout the early weeks of camp.
That circus included fans shouting profanities at Rodgers, organizing petitions to try to force the team to keep Favre, and a divided fan base whose loyalty was split between the legendary Favre and the up-and-coming Rodgers, who’d flashed his talent in a loss to the Dallas Cowboys during the previous season after Favre suffered an elbow injury. The ugliness reached its nadir during Family Night, when Rodgers was loudly booed by fans in attendance as Favre, who the team would not allow to enter the locker room, watched it all unfold from a Lambeau Field suite.
In the end, Thompson traded Favre to the Jets, trying to keep him away from NFC rivals by dealing him to the AFC. Favre, of course, then engineered his way out of the Big Apple with another faux retirement and played two more seasons with the Vikings, almost leading their 2009 squad to the Super Bowl before a heartbreaking interception led to an overtime NFC Championship Game loss to New Orleans.
Through it all, Thompson stuck to his belief in Rodgers, who rewarded that faith with the Super Bowl XLV title.
“This is in many ways sad that this is where it came to. At the end of the day though, I think all parties involved felt like it was the best solution to a very difficult situation,” Thompson said the day after the trade went through. "Hopefully we can do things going forward that maybe people will not remember that.
“When the trade papers actually came and I was going to sign it, which would be my job, I almost wanted someone else to sign it.”
1. Ron Wolf trades first-round pick to Falcons for Atlanta’s third-string QB — Brett Lorenzo Favre
The Packers and Ron Wolf pinned their turnaround hopes on a guy who threw five passes — two of which were intercepted — as a rookie and overslept for the team picture after a night of carousing. And it worked out brilliantly.
But the team president at the time, Bob Harlan, wasn’t so sure. He accompanied Wolf to a Packers-Falcons game in Atlanta late in the 1991 season, four days after he’d hired Wolf as GM.
"So I'm up in the press box in Atlanta, about an hour and a half before the ballgame, just sitting there," Harlan recalled in 2019. "Ron comes up, puts his briefcase in the chair next to me and says, ‘I'm going down to the field to look at Atlanta's backup quarterback. If his arm is still as strong as it was in college,' he said, ‘we're going to go after him.' Just like that. So Ron goes downstairs, and 45 minutes later he comes back and says, ‘I'm going to trade for Brett Favre. Are you OK with that?' I said, Sure.'”
Harlan paused, and smiled. "I didn't know who Brett Favre was."
That wouldn’t last long. After the trade, Favre took over as the Packers’ starter following Don Majkowski’s ankle injury in September 1992. The Packers missed the playoffs that year, but they were in the postseason in 1993, 1994 and 1995 before breaking through in 1996 and winning Super Bowl XXI. Favre would go on to win three consecutive NFL MVP awards (1995, 1996, 1997) and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2016.
“The great thing about Atlanta is, it got me to Green Bay. That one lost year was one of the greatest years of my career because it got me to Green Bay. And the rest is history,” Favre told the State Journal several years ago. “It was a perfect fit. Mike Holmgren was the perfect head coach, ‘Mooch’ (Steve Mariucci) was the perfect quarterbacks coach for me. I mean, it just all fell into place. I think I related to the fans there more than I would have anywhere else. It could not have happened any better.”
Jason Wilde covers the Packers for ESPN Wisconsin. Listen to him with former Packers and Badgers offensive lineman Mark Tauscher weekdays from 9 a.m. until noon on “Wilde & Tausch” on 100.5 FM ESPN Madison.