It’s almost March, which means it’s time for Brian Gutekunst to go to work.
Not that Gutekunst has been vacationing since becoming general manager of the Green Bay Packers in January, but now comes the hard part. Gutekunst has to start constructing the roster for a team that will be in win-now mode as long as quarterback Aaron Rodgers is around.
The NFL Scouting Combine begins Tuesday and the league year — especially free agency — kicks off March 14. Many are hoping Gutekunst does what his predecessor, Ted Thompson, refused to do and use free agency as a team-building tool. Before that, however, Gutekunst must decide if he wants to re-sign some of his own free agents — Morgan Burnett? Richard Rodgers? Jahri Evans? — and jettison or restructure some high-salaried veterans — Jordy Nelson? Randall Cobb? Bryan Bulaga? Clay Matthews? — to gain salary-cap room.
It is the combine that likely will determine the course of action for Gutekunst. The Packers own the 14th overall pick in April’s NFL draft and once they figure out who is likely to be available in that slot, they’ll have a better idea of who to target in free agency.
The Packers’ beleaguered defense needs immediate-impact playmakers at cornerback and outside linebacker and it figures Gutekunst will try to give first-year defensive coordinator Mike Pettine one of each. If the Packers use their first-round pick on a cornerback, they might go looking for an edge pass-rusher in free agency. Or vice versa.
Heading into the combine, the cornerback class in the draft is deeper than the edge-rusher class. The same can be said of free agency, where the only two impact edge rushers — Dallas’ Demarcus Lawrence and Detroit’s Ezekiel Ansah — are likely to be given franchise tags by their teams.
By this time, most teams have firmed up their draft boards, especially at the top. There will be tweaks after the combine, but the Packers already have a good idea of what will be there for them with the 14th pick.
Currently, 12 players appear likely to be gone when the Packers pick — quarterbacks Josh Rosen of UCLA, Sam Darnold of Southern Cal, Josh Allen of Wyoming and Baker Mayfield of Oklahoma; running back Saquon Barkley of Penn State, guard Quenton Nelson of Notre Dame, defensive end Bradley Chubb of North Carolina State, outside linebacker Tremaine Edmunds of Virginia Tech, inside linebacker Roquan Smith of Georgia, safeties Minkah Fitzpatrick of Alabama and Derwin James of Florida State and cornerback Denzel Ward of Ohio State.
What will that leave for the Packers at 14? Here are eight names at positions of need to track as the combine unfolds.
Marcus Davenport, OLB, Texas-San Antonio: He’s never done it against elite competition, but Davenport should wow scouts with his size and speed at the combine. Although he’s raw, the Packers’ need for a dynamic edge rusher could tempt them to gamble on Davenport if Edmunds is already taken.
Harold Landry, OLB, Boston College: A so-so senior year, due in part to an ankle injury, can’t erase the memories of the burst, natural bend and 16.5 sacks he had as a junior. If Landry gets a clean bill of health this week, the Packers could see him as a disruptive edge rusher.
Arden Key, OLB, LSU: If Key can explain to teams what happened last season, his stock could soar because his potential is limitless. A shoulder injury, two sabbaticals from the team and a major decline in production in 2017 will scare some teams off, but Key’s ideal combination of length, power and speed will create a buzz at the combine.
Josh Jackson, CB, Iowa: Unless the Packers score in free agency with, say, Tremaine Johnson, Malcolm Butler or Aaron Colvin, they’ll need a top-flight cornerback to join Kevin King and Damarious Randall. Jackson has the length and playmaking ability the Packers crave. If he shows elite speed at the combine, he could jump ahead of Ward in the draft and be out of Green Bay’s reach.
Isaiah Oliver, CB, Colorado: A late-bloomer who also fits the Packers’ need for tall cornerbacks who can run in man-to-man coverage. Green Bay added one of those last year in King, but NFL teams can never have enough quality cornerbacks these days.
Calvin Ridley, WR, Alabama: He didn’t put up big numbers in the Crimson Tide offense, but Ridley is the most NFL-ready wide receiver in the draft. Even if Nelson and/or Cobb stick around, the Packers could decide they need more youth and speed at the position.
Mike McGlinchey, OT, Notre Dame: If the Packers think Bulaga is too much of an injury risk and 2016 draftees Jason Spriggs and Kyle Murphy aren’t the answer at right tackle, McGlinchey could be a good fit. Texas’ Connor Williams and Oklahoma’s Orlando Brown are rated about the same as McGlinchey, but recent Irish offensive linemen have a great track record in the NFL.
Vita Vea, DT, Washington: The 6-foot-4, 340-pound nose tackle draws comparisons to Haloti Ngata and should create a stir with his workout numbers at the combine. The Packers already have a future All-Pro at nose tackle in Kenny Clark, but Ngata didn’t play nose tackle at Baltimore and Pettine was on the staff then. Could they be looking at a line of Clark flanked by Vea and Mike Daniels?
The Packers have 12 picks in the seven rounds, but Gutekunst needs to find quality at the top and it must be at positions of need. The very early guess is he’ll look for an outside linebacker in the first round and a cornerback in the second round or in free agency.