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Dougherty: Unusual draft ushering in era of profound change for Packers' offense


Pete Dougherty   | Packers News
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GREEN BAY - Brian Gutekunst and Matt LaFleur are transforming the Green Bay Packers’ offense right before our very eyes.

It’s clear the team’s general manager and coach have decided that since Aaron Rodgers can’t carry the team like he used to, it’s time to go all-in with LaFleur’s zone-run scheme.

The drafting of Jordan Love in the first round Thursday night was the first move but will be the last part of this process — that is, when Gutekunst and LaFleur decide it’s time to move on from Rodgers.

But the change we’ll see in 2020 came Friday, when Gutekunst spent two valuable picks on a running back (AJ Dillon of Boston College) in the second round and an H-back (Josia Deguara) that’s a staple position in the LaFleur/Kyle Shanahan offense in round three.

Outside looking in, it seemed a given Gutekunst would pick a receiver on one of the first two days of this receiver-rich draft. He needs to add some explosiveness the Packers’ passing game lacked last season. But in the first three rounds he revealed that a future quarterback and adding talent specific to LaFleur’s scheme were just as important as upgrading the receiving talent in his mind.

Gutekunst and LaFleur are gearing the final years of Rodgers’ career around the run, much like Denver did with its aging Hall of Fame quarterback, John Elway, in this same zone-scheme offense a little more than 20 years ago.

“Matt really wants to tie everything to the run game and off the run game, and these guys will help us do that,” Gutekunst said Friday night.

Gutekunst’s drafting of Love might drown out the rest of the Packers’ draft — it was, after all, a momentous move and the biggest news of the first round nationally. It brought the same array of opinions from NFL pundits and anonymous personnel executives as it did from Packers fans. Some applauded it, some were skeptical and a few were dumbfounded.

I’m personally perplexed by any backlash. You might disagree with Gutekunst’s evaluation of Love — although, aside from those paid to scout college players, how many of us have an opinion on that worth hearing? The answer is, none — and if Love busts down the road, the responsibility for the misevaluation falls on the GM. That’s only fair.

But the thinking behind the selection is sound. Even decent quarterbacks are hard to find, and if Gutekunst is convinced Love has a good chance of becoming a winning NFL starter, he’d have been crazy to pass him up. It’s almost impossible to overstate how important quarterbacks are in the NFL.

The question everyone is wondering now is how long before Love takes over. Do Gutekunst and LaFleur envision sitting him for two years? Or three, like Rodgers did playing behind Brett Favre?

It’s not a call the coach and GM have to make now.

There’s also the question of how Rodgers will handle having his likely successor on board over the coming months, and whether it will disrupt the locker room over the next season or two. For what it’s worth, Gutekunst talked to Rodgers on Friday.

“Aaron’s a true pro,” was all the GM offered on his discussion with Rodgers.

And according to a report on ESPN.com, Rodgers reached out to Love as well.

“You know, really good guy,” Love said on ABC’s broadcast of the draft. “(Rodgers was) just congratulating me, and I was just letting him know that I was excited to be able to work with him."

Regardless of what happens down the road, though, it’s clear a team that for years was built around Rodgers’ singular talents is built that way no more.

Running back might not have looked like as big a need as receiver, inside linebacker or even cornerback coming into this draft. But to help their quarterback the way Gutekunst and LaFleur envision, they need more than Aaron Jones running the ball.

If you watched the Packers last year, you don’t need analytics to tell you they were much better with Jones on the field. But just how big a help was the team’s best running back to Rodgers? ESPN.com’s Bill Barnwell reported that Rodgers’ QBR plummeted from 67.7 when Jones was on the field to 28.7 when he was off. That’s the difference between an elite offense and a bad one.

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But running back is a high-injury position, and Jones isn’t durable enough to play full time. The Packers need another quality back so the offense doesn't drop off when he's not on the field, and Gutekunst used his second pick (No. 62 overall) to make Dillon the fifth running back off the board overall.

Dillon is Jones’ opposite, a huge (6-0 3/8, 247 pounds) back the Packers think will thrive in the Green Bay winter and who has some explosive traits as well (4.53 40, 41-inch vertical). Gutekunst said he thinks Dillon can be a power runner similar to Eddie Lacy before that second-round pick’s weight issues slowed him down and then knocked him out of the league.

“AJ’s a big, bruising back with very, very good speed,” Gutekunst said. “And I think in our offense there’s probably a little bit more room for his creativity than what he did at Boston College and a lot more in the passing game.”

Picking Deguara (6-2½, 242) in the third round was a head scratcher, because there was no indication the H-back/fullback/tight end might go that high. But it’s clear the Packers see him as their Kyle Juszczyk, the versatile fullback/H-back who has a huge role as a receiver and blocker in the offense of LaFleur’s mentor, San Francisco 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan.

This was a scheme pick all the way on a guy who has intermediate size (6-2 3/8, 242) and speed (4.72 40). I’ll bet most of the league considered it a reach — “Great effort but zero production vs. man coverage,” one scout texted me — but LaFleur knows what he wants for a position that requires receiving and run-blocking skills. This third-round pick is on the coach.

“That’s a guy that Matt was very, very excited about,” Gutekunst said.

It’s been an unusual first two days of the draft for the Packers to say the least. Picking Love sent a shock through the league, and the use of a valuable third-round pick on the little-known Deguara came out of nowhere. But Gutekunst and his staff see these players as they see them, and expect them to help LaFleur finish transforming the offense into his own.

“Matt really wants to run the ball,” Gutekunst said.

It’s a new era on offense in Green Bay.

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