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Tom Oates: Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst needs to crush it in April’s NFL draft

January 6, 2019

Usually at this time of year, some new NFL trend manifests itself.

People look at the 12 playoff teams and try to determine what’s working and what isn’t in an ever-evolving league.

This year’s talking point is the high cost of elite veteran quarterbacks and how it negatively impacts a team’s chances of building a playoff-caliber roster.

At first glance, this year’s playoff field supports that contention. The NFL’s six highest-paid quarterbacks in terms of annual salary — Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers, Atlanta’s Matt Ryan, Minnesota’s Kirk Cousins, San Francisco’s Jimmy Garoppolo, Detroit’s Matthew Stafford and Oakland’s Derek Carr — didn’t reach the postseason. Meanwhile, six playoff teams — the Los Angeles Rams, Chicago, Dallas, Kansas City, Houston and Baltimore — have starting quarterbacks who are still on their relatively inexpensive rookie contracts.

The contention, of course, is a high-priced veteran quarterback takes up so much of a team’s salary-cap space that it makes it impossible to maintain adequate manpower at other positions, dooming the team to a playoff-free season unless the quarterback plays at a super-human level. As with most things in the NFL, however, it’s not as simple as that.

First, the sample size — one year — is too small to declare this a long-term trend. Second, even if young, low-salaried quarterbacks taking teams to the playoffs is the new norm, it doesn’t preclude a veteran, high-salaried quarterback from doing the same.

Remember, this year’s playoff field also has New Orleans’ Drew Brees, Seattle’s Russell Wilson, Indianapolis’ Andrew Luck, New England’s Tom Brady and the Los Angeles Chargers’ Philip Rivers. Plus, Baltimore still has Joe Flacco eating up cap space even though he lost his starting job. Those are six of the NFL’s top 12 quarterbacks in terms of cap hits and their teams are all in the playoffs.

For sure, having a quarterback take up about 20 percent of the cap room does put handcuffs on general managers. It affects a team’s flexibility for signings and trades, especially bold moves such as the one Chicago pulled when it traded for linebacker Khalil Mack this season. The Bears would have struggled to get Mack under the cap had quarterback Mitch Trubisky not been on his rookie contract. It also affects a team’s ability to retain valued veterans, leading to depleted rosters such as the one responsible for the Packers’ 6-9-1 record this season.

But a team still needs outstanding quarterback play to succeed in the NFL and quarterbacks who can deliver that are hard to find. Consequently, teams that have an elite veteran have no choice but to pay the going rate.

The key for teams such as the Packers, who signed Rodgers to a $134 million contract extension in August, is to crush it in the draft. We all know drafting is the lifeblood of every NFL team, but having a high-salaried quarterback makes hitting on premium draft picks more important than ever. Often, the draft is the only means for a team such as the Packers to add sorely needed playmakers.

Some Packers fans are clamoring for Rodgers to take one for the team and accept a smaller contract so the team will have more cap space, but that’s not realistic. Brady is the only one who has done that and while the Patriots have been the NFL’s most successful franchise, it’s not all due to his sacrifice.

Brady’s average annual salary is absurdly low ($15 million compared to Rodgers’ $33 million) for a quarterback of his stature, but it’s a bit of a smokescreen because his salary-cap hits are greater than Rodgers’. This season, Rodgers is 14th in the league with a cap hit of $20.9 million while Brady is 11th at $22 million. Next season, Brady’s cap hit will be fifth in the NFL at $27 million and Rodgers’ will be seventh at $26.5 million.

Two teams that reached his year’s playoffs despite having expensive quarterbacks provided the Packers with a winning template and it’s largely based on making the most of the draft.

Even though Brees has a $24 million cap hit (sixth in the NFL) this season, the Saints earned the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs. Why? They nailed the past three drafts, especially the 2017 draft where they landed five high-quality starters, all in the first three rounds. Two of the picks, running back Alvin Kamara and cornerback Marshon Lattimore, were the NFL’s offensive and defensive rookies of the year, respectively, in 2017 and first-round tackle Ryan Ramczyk was a second-team pick on AP’s All-Pro team this year, leading to a quick turnaround.

Luck has the fifth-highest cap hit at $24.5 million this season, but his return from injury and a motherlode of talent from the 2018 draft sent the Colts from 4-12 to a playoff berth. The top two draft picks, first-round guard Quenton Nelson and second-round linebacker Darius Leonard, made the AP All-Pro first team as rookies. Two other second-round picks were instant starters and two other rookies were key situational players.

In each case, the team stockpiled premium draft picks and made the right calls on draft day, resulting in an influx of young difference-making talent that changed their fortunes immediately and showed it’s still possible to win with a quarterback who makes big money. If the Packers are going to make a similar turnaround, general manager Brian Gutekunst has to have a big weekend in late April.

Gutekunst showed last year he can manipulate the draft and he has two first-round picks and six of the top 111 in this year’s draft. Now he must capitalize on that.

Indeed, while hiring a new coach who can help restore Rodgers’ greatness is the team’s most pressing problem, restocking the weak roster is the most important. And since Rodgers isn’t going anywhere, the best way to do that is through the draft.

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