Dougherty: Two small late-season moves could again pay off big for Packers
GREEN BAY - Does Brian Gutekunst have the same late-season touch that Ted Thompson showed back in 2010?
We’ll find out in the next couple of months.
Gutekunst, the Green Bay Packers general manager, didn’t pull off any big trades before the league’s deadline to aid his contending team for the stretch run, so it looked like the team he had was the team he would have for the rest of 2020.
But in the last week he has taken a couple of fliers that he hopes might give his team a lift down the stretch by signing receiver Tavon Austin off the street and claiming defensive lineman Anthony Rush off waivers.
These are, by all appearances and clear thinking, small moves.
Austin was a former high draft pick (No. 8 overall in 2013) who ended up a draft bust because he was a ‘tweener (back and receiver). He has been beaten up the last few years (21 games played since 2018), hasn’t played this season because of a knee injury in training camp with San Francisco, and is getting old (29) for a guy who relies on speed. It’s not close to a given he has much left in the tank.
Rush is an even longer shot. He entered the NFL undrafted in 2019, has played in 13 games in 1⅔ seasons and is on his fifth team. This is not the résumé of somebody who’s likely to make a difference.
But this is where Thompson and 2010 are worth keeping in mind, because nobody thought Howard Green and James Starks were going to play meaningful roles in the Packers’ run to the Super Bowl, either.
When Thompson claimed him on waivers halfway through that season, Green had played for 10 teams and just been cut for the 12th time in his seven-year career. It looked like a run-of-the-mill move on the bottom of the roster, even if Thompson, unlike Ron Wolf, wasn’t a GM who churned the bottom of his roster much.
Thompson also had decided not to put Starks on injured reserve in 2010 even though the sixth-round rookie reported to camp with a hamstring injury that landed him on PUP and kept him from playing in a game until early December. Why Thompson thought a late-round running back might help his team after missing four months of practice and play is beyond me, but it turned out he was right.
He was right on both counts, in fact, and it helped him win a Super Bowl.
Green was a big (330-plus pound) man who ended up filling a much-needed niche role as a run-stopper. In the seven games before he joined the Packers, their defense ranked No. 25 in the league in rushing yards allowed. In the nine games after, they ranked No. 10. It’s not like Green was one of their better players. He was just a journeyman. Yet, he made a difference.
Starks, in the meantime, hardly looked like an answer for a team that had no running game to speak of after Ryan Grant’s season was wiped out by a knee injury in the opener. But after 29 carries in the final month of the season he became the starter in the playoffs. While he was hardly a top back, he proved an upgrade over Brandon Jackson and gave Aaron Rodgers just that little extra threat as a runner that the quarterback needed. Starks was no difference maker, yet in that season for that team he made a difference.
Can Gutekunst tap into similar magic with Austin and Rush? Nobody in their right mind is betting on it. Yet, there’s just enough there to think you shouldn’t dismiss the possibility, either.
Austin was talented enough to be picked No. 8 overall in 2013 and ran a 4.35 40 at the NFL scouting combine that year. Now, there’s also good reason he was on the street. Over the last 3⅔ seasons he hasn’t played much (21 games) because of concussions and hamstring, groin and knee injuries. There’s a pretty decent chance he’ll get hurt in the next month and that will be that.
But it does look like the niche, jet-sweep/bubble-screen/return-man role that Tyler Ervin fills when healthy is tailor-made for Austin, assuming at age 29 he hasn’t lost too much burst. The Packers don’t actually hand off the ball much on the jet sweep — Ervin has only 13 carries (and 11 receptions) in seven games — but coach Matt LaFleur uses the motion routinely to keep defenses spread horizontally. The role, though niche, is more important than the stats suggest, and the Packers have been the worse for it, and in the return game, while Ervin has missed four of the last five games.
“When he’s healthy (Austin) is a weapon,” said a former member of the football staff for the Rams, who drafted Austin in ‘13. “Super quick, hard to tackle. His college film was crazy stupid good. That’s why we took him so early. Never became that franchise guy but still very elusive. Father Time and injuries get us all.”
When asked if he thought Austin was better than Ervin, a pro scout for another NFL team said: “Yeah, I do. Both lack strength, but Austin is a little bit tougher. Ervin is faster at this point probably.”
As for Rush, the main reason to think he has any chance of helping the Packers’ hemorrhaging run defense is that he’s a huge man — listed at 6-4 and 361. If he can just hold his ground in the middle of the line it could help a Packers’ run defense that’s been a big problem dating to early 2019.
For what it’s worth, the Bears decided Rush was expendable last week because they expected two defensive linemen back from injury — John Jenkins in fact returned but Akiem Hicks ended up not playing against the Packers.
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Can Rush help the Packers’ run defense for 10 or 15 snaps a game? Can he fill a badly needed niche that keeps them from getting run off the field in a playoff game? It’s a long shot, though really no longer than Green in ’10.
“I don’t know that we have a real good sense for what we have there,” defensive coordinator Mike Pettine said of Rush. “But this is a guy that’s played some quality NFL minutes before, and you see that a lot with guys. Sometimes you see a guy that doesn’t make it and bounces around a couple teams, and the next thing you know they find a home. It just ends up working.
“Look at (cornerback Chandon Sullivan). Chandon was let go by the Eagles and has found a home here and it’s just clicked in. You see that all over the league. … Certainly this is a guy that’s got an NFL skill set.”
Said the scout in comparing Rush now with Green in ’10: “(Green) was more instinctive, square, two-gap, line-of-scrimmage player. Rush is more athletic, can shoot gaps, has more to offer as a push-the-pocket rusher. Rush is more along the lines of a young guy with upside. Green was older.”
Obviously, Rush and Austin are by definition low-cost, late-season fliers. Nobody is predicting important things for either. But that’s what makes this league fun to watch. Because you never know. Nobody thought Green and Starks would matter, either.