2021 NFL Draft: Packers GM Gutekunst Highlights Scouting Challenges Amid Pandemic

Gutekunst On Rodgers: 'Aaron Is Our Guy'

Green Bay Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst speaks during a press conference at the NFL football scouting combine
Green Bay Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst speaks during a press conference at the NFL football scouting combine in Indianapolis, Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020. Michael Conroy/AP Photo

The first round of the 2021 NFL Draft is set for Thursday night. After falling one game short of the Super Bowl last season, the Green Bay Packers have the 29th overall pick.

The coronavirus pandemic left its mark on last year’s college football season — the Wisconsin Badgers played just seven games, including a bowl — and as a result, NFL teams are likely to face added challenges when they make their picks at this weekend’s event.

The league didn’t hold its annual scouting combine this year. And for the first time in his career, Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst anticipates drafting players he hasn’t seen in person.

Stay informed on the latest news

Sign up for WPR’s email newsletter.

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

The combine isn’t just for watching players in action, it’s also when NFL teams evaluate the health of potential draft picks. Packers scouts and medical personnel had to get creative this year, Gutekunst said.

“I think every year there’s risk with all these guys medically, it’s a little bit of an educated guess more than anything,” he said.

Adding to the unknowns, some college players opted out amid the pandemic, while others have chosen to remain in school longer. The NCAA granted an additional year of eligibility to fall sports athletes due to COVID-19.

Still, Gutekunst thinks it’s a strong draft class, especially for offensive linemen and defensive backs, he said. The eligibility rule might limit the team’s options when it comes to undrafted free agents, he noted. Those are players who don’t get picked but sign with teams after the draft in hopes of earning a roster spot.

During last year’s remote NFL Draft, fans glimpsed inside the homes of coaches and general managers. This time around, things are more back to normal.

The league is expecting about 50,000 fans to attend draft events in Cleveland. Meanwhile, the Packers will make their picks from inside the team’s Green Bay draft room, Gutekunst said. In addition to Gutekunst, head coach Matt LaFleur, scouts and members of the medical staff will be in attendance — adding up to about 18 people.

Where Do The Packers Have Needs?

The Packers are typically known for their drafting prowess, rather than splashy free agency signings. But things are a bit different this year, Gutekunst said.

“We’ve really pushed out some money into future years because we understand the opportunity that is before us,” he said. “We’re a really good football team. We’ve been knocking on the door for two years, and we’d like to finish that.”

This offseason, the Packers re-signed several players to big contracts, including running back Aaron Jones and offensive lineman David Bakhtiari.

“The way I look at is that we were able to sign the No. 1 running back on the market, the No. 1 left tackle on the market and the No. 1 defensive tackle on the market, who just happened to all play for us,” Gutekunst said.

Still, the Packers have some needs heading into this year’s draft.

With their top selection, Green Bay could take a corner. The secondary was a weak spot during last year’s NFC title game, where the Packers lost to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It’s likely there’ll be some strong options on the board, like Greg Newsome from Northwestern or Caleb Farley from Virginia Tech, when the Packers pick late in the first round.

As Gutekunst noted, there’s a good crop of offensive linemen on the board this year. The Packers could look to shore up their protection. And it’s possible fans might get what many wanted last year: a wide receiver in the first round.

Green Bay has 10 picks heading into this weekend’s draft, which runs through Saturday:

  • First round: No. 29
  • Second round: No. 62
  • Third round: No. 92
  • Fourth round: No. 135
  • Fourth round: No. 142
  • Fifth round: No. 173
  • Fifth round: No. 178
  • Sixth round: No. 214
  • Sixth round: No. 220
  • Seventh round: No. 256

What’s The Deal With Aaron Rodgers?

Last year, the Packers traded up to make a controversial pick in the first round: quarterback Jordan Love from Utah State. Since then, there’s been plenty of speculation over Rodgers’ future in Green Bay.

Aaron Rodgers celebrates by raising his arms during a playoff game at Lambeau Field
Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) in action during an NFL divisional playoff football game between the Los Angeles Rams and Green Bay Packers, Saturday, Jan. 16, 2021, in Green Bay, Wis. Jeffrey Phelps/AP Photo

Rodgers had a stellar 2020, leading the Packers to their second consecutive conference championship game. But questions over his role have intensified this offseason as the Packers have yet to address his contract.

The Packers didn’t convert his roster bonus before the deadline, according to ESPN, though the team could still restructure his existing deal, reducing his salary for next season and upping his signing bonus. Right now, Rodgers isn’t owed guaranteed money for 2022 or 2023, the final year of his contract. That would likely change with a restructured deal, meaning commitment could be holding the team back.

“I’m not going to get into contract specifics, but Aaron is our guy. He’s going to be our quarterback for the foreseeable future,” Gutekunst said.

The team will need to re-work several other contracts in the coming months, Gutekunst added. And Love has also been the subject of trade rumors.

But then there’s the matter of what Rodgers, who turns 38 this year, wants his future to look like. The reigning NFL MVP has seen some big changes in his personal life, announcing his engagement to actor Shailene Woodley in February. He also did a stint as host of “Jeopardy!” — a job he’d love to take on permanently, he said.

Several Badgers Are Hoping To Get Drafted

The University of Wisconsin-Madison had four players selected in last year’s NFL Draft, including running back Jonathon Taylor, who finished third in rushing during his rookie season with the Indianapolis Colts.

This year, there are a handful of Badgers who will hope to hear their names called, but none are sure things. It’s unlikely a Wisconsin player will be drafted before Saturday. Hopefuls include defensive end Isaiah Loudermilk, offensive lineman Cole Van Lanen and cornerback Rachad Wildgoose.

Their chances likely weren’t helped by a challenging college football season amid the pandemic. In October, the Badgers paused football activities due to COVID-19 and two games were canceled. Wildgoose, especially, missed the chance to show off last year. He played just two games before suffering a season-ending injury.