GREEN BAY – Back in January, it looked as though Brian Gutekunst's second draft as Packers general manager might be focused on a number of specific roster needs.
That changed a little over a month ago with Gutekunst's early flurry of free-agent activity, and it has Green Bay's GM sitting right where he wants to be as Thursday night's first round of the 2019 NFL Draft approaches – able to do anything and go any direction he wants.
"I always like to attack this thing as best player available and not focus on too many needs," Gutekunst said Monday in his annual pre-draft news conference.
"I do like our flexibility to be able to move around and not feel pigeonholed to have to take a certain position or a certain player."
Signing two edge rushers in Za'Darius Smith and Preston Smith, a safety in Adrian Amos and an offensive lineman in Billy Turner in the opening days of free agency will free up a GM like that.
The signings don't mean the Packers aren't going to draft players at those positions. They almost certainly will, with depth at edge rusher and offensive line a constant target, and a starting safety spot still open.
But coming into the draft with 10 picks – two in the first round, four in the top 75, and six in the first four rounds – Gutekunst isn't forced to use his haul of top selections in any specific way. The Packers have roster needs, just like every team does, but free agency greatly lessened their acuteness, so the team's needs won't carry any more weight in draft decisions than they normally do – which is potentially to make a close call between equally graded players.
"Where the team sits today, we're not super-concerned we absolutely have to do this or absolutely have to do that," Gutekunst said. "We can sit back, see where the draft board is strong, try to get there, and take the best players available."
What Gutekunst is referencing there are areas in the draft where quality prospects are clustered based on their grades and rankings. Choosing from those clusters helps a GM get the best value for his picks, as opposed to taking a player in a spot just because it's his turn.
If the best player at a given time doesn't warrant being drafted that high, trading back to where a stronger cluster exists can be explored. Conversely, if the last player from a strong group is still available but may not fall far enough, trading up is an option.
All those choices are more at Gutekunst's disposal now than they were a couple of months ago, to help maximize the value of his 10 picks rather than worry about leaving a key position or two short of viable NFL players. Having two first-round picks at Nos. 12 and 30 overall has created more potential trade scenarios, Gutekunst acknowledged, than usual.
"This is what I know and this is what I love. I really enjoy this part of it," Gutekunst said. "The thought process part of it, trying to improve our team."
Many analysts consider this draft deep in the defensive front seven, offensive line and tight end, all areas the Packers are likely to address, if not multiple times. Gutekunst used his first two picks last year at cornerback, but no team seemingly ever has enough developing players there. The Packers also have five combined running backs and wide receivers on the roster from the last two drafts, but there's no ruling out they won't add more.
All the preparation is pretty much done. Since last fall, when the scouts hit the road for their campus visits, the Packers have been building the draft board that will guide Gutekunst over the seven rounds from Thursday through Saturday.
He noted at this point "it's a little dangerous" to make too many last-minute, reactionary adjustments that could undermine all the advance legwork. The board will tell him where those clusters of value are relative to his draft position each time his spot approaches, and he can make calm, collected decisions amidst the frenetic nature of 32 teams possessing different opinions and approaches.
"When you do this for as long as a lot of us have, this is what you work all year for," Gutekunst said. "We're all real excited. We're at the point now we're ready for Thursday to get here and just get through the weekend, and see what we can do to help our team.
"History here has shown there's always chances to get difference-makers throughout the draft. I think it's our job every time we pick to see who that is."