GREEN BAY — Considering how thin the Green Bay Packers are at cornerback, first-year general manager Brian Gutekunst must really be convinced he can upgrade the position through free agency and the draft — and must really feel the team needs more competition behind quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
How else do you explain Gutekunst’s first trade as GM — an out-of-the-blue deal on Friday in which he shipped enigmatic cornerback Damarious Randall, the team’s 2015 first-round pick, to the Cleveland Browns for quarterback DeShone Kizer, who’ll compete for the No. 2 job after Brett Hundley’s disappointing 10-game audition last season?
The deal includes the Packers and Browns flip-flopping their fourth- and fifth-round picks, according to ESPN. That means the Packers will pick atop both of those rounds after the Browns went 0-16 last season.
The trade conversations surely were comfortable ones for Gutekunst, given Browns general manager John Dorsey and top personnel lieutenants Eliot Wolf and Alonzo Highsmith are each ex-Packers personnel staffers who worked with Gutekunst at 1265 Lombardi Avenue.
The trade was the last in a flurry of moves made by Dorsey on Friday, coming shortly after he acquired quarterback Tyrod Taylor from the Buffalo Bills and franchise-tagged wide receiver Jarvis Landry from the Miami Dolphins.
The trade won’t become official until the new NFL league year begins on Wednesday, but two league sources confirmed the deal had been made.
Kizer started 15 games for the Browns as a rookie second-round pick from Notre Dame last season, throwing an NFL-high 22 interceptions and completing just 52 percent of his passes — but also showing promise and gaining valuable starting experience.
Hundley, meanwhile, was a disappointment after Rodgers broke his collarbone Oct. 15 at Minnesota. The Packers won only three games after that, enough to barely keep them in contention for a playoff berth before Rodgers returned for a Dec. 17 loss at Carolina. Rodgers returned to injured reserve after that game and Hundley started the last two games, finishing the campaign having completed 192 of 316 passes (60.8 percent) for 1,836 yards with nine touchdowns, 12 interceptions and 29 sacks (70.6 passer rating).
The Packers were shut out twice — by the Baltimore Ravens and the Vikings — and Hundley failed to throw a single touchdown pass at Lambeau Field.
The Browns took the Packers to overtime in their meeting, and Kizer’s potential winning touchdown throw was foiled when linebacker Clay Matthews hit his arm as he was about to throw.
Coach Mike McCarthy publicly supported Hundley at the annual NFL scouting combine last week, saying Hundley wasn’t prepared to start and saying the coaches were also to blame for that.
“I believe in Brett Hundley. I do fully recognize that he has a lot of football in front of him. He has a big upside,” McCarthy told reporters in Indianapolis. “Our structure and our coaching staff, we need to make sure we maximize that, but we also need to learn from the other parts of the offense that we didn’t do as good as we would have liked, and we’ll learn from that platform. I do believe Brett has a big upside, and (I’m) looking forward to getting back to work with him.”
McCarthy wasn’t nearly as supportive when he was asked about the mercurial Randall in his end-of-season press conference after Randall publicly criticized ex-defensive coordinator Dom Capers and he coaching staff at the end of a season in which Randall himself had his own issues.
The trade put an end to Randall’s newsy tenure.
In a Week 4 game against Chicago on Sept. 28, Randall was benched for the second half for apparent insubordination and was later kicked off the sideline by McCarthy, who sent him to the locker room.
The next day, according to multiple sources, several players expressed that they felt Randall should be released immediately for his actions. McCarthy stood by him, however, and the coach’s patience seemingly paid off as Randall bounced back and played well in the weeks that followed. He finished the year as the Packers’ leader in interceptions (four) and pass break-ups (13).
But he also sat out the final two games with a mysterious knee injury that led some to wonder if he could have played through it.
After the season, when asked about Randall, McCarthy did not mince words.
I’ll tell you what I told Damarious,” McCarthy replied. “He needs to focus on himself. He’s got to clean his own house. That’s what I look for him to do in the offseason. He did a lot of really good things. We all understand what happened in the Chicago game, but I thought from the Chicago game on he played at a very high level. He probably played the best football of his career, but then he didn’t play the last two games. He needs to go home and self-evaluate and clean his own house.”
Randall’s tenure was up-and-down in Green Bay. He finished his rookie season strong — strong enough that the team made no effort to re-sign free agent Casey Hayward, who went on to become a Pro Bowl player with the San Diego/Los Angeles Chargers. But he played poorly in 2016, when he missed six games following groin surgery, gave up 10 touchdown passes and had three interceptions.
Without Randall, the Packers have more questions than answers at cornerback. Their depth chart currently consists of 2017 second-round pick Kevin King, who is coming off shoulder surgery; Quinton Rollins, a 2015 second-round pick coming off a ruptured Achilles’ tendon; and youngsters Josh Hawkins, Lenzy Pipkins, Donatello Brown and Herb Waters. Veteran Davin House, who came back to Green Bay on a one-year deal last season, is a free agent.
That means the Packers could be a significant player in the cornerback market, if they can clear some additional salary cap room.
Gutekunst vowed at the combine to be aggressive, and having hosted ex-New York Jets defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson earlier in the week and now moving a former first-rounder for a backup quarterback, Gutekunst has backed up those words with action.
“Obviously there’s limits in what you can do, but we’d like to be really aggressive and see (if) we can be in every conversation. Now whether that leads to us ending up signing a bunch (of players) or not, we’ll see,” Gutekunst said in Indianapolis. “We’d like to be as aggressive as we can to try to improve our football team.
“I think as my mentor and predecessor (Ted Thompson) would say, you have to be very cautious as you enter that. But I think we’d like to look at every option we can.”