Five things learned at the NFL Annual Meetings – Day 1

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PHOENIX – The 2019 NFL Annual Meeting is off and running.

As owners and executives sort through league matters and possible rule changes, Packers General Manager Brian Gutekunst discussed the state of the roster and the team’s recent roster moves with Green Bay media Monday morning.

Here are five things we learned at the NFL Annual Meetings on Monday:

1. Character, Milt Hendrickson’s insight sold the Packers on signing Za’Darius Smith

The Packers made a long, lucrative commitment when they signed the former Baltimore linebacker during the opening wave of free agency earlier this month.

Like any wise investment, however, the organization did its research before doing so.

While Gutekunst and his staff had months of preparation in their back pocket, the Packers’ front office also leaned on the insight of new director-football operations Milt Hendrickson.

Prior to joining the organization in January, Hendrickson was a longtime scout in the Ravens’ personnel department and part of the front office that drafted Smith in the fourth round out of Kentucky in 2015.

As impressive as Smith’s production was on the Ravens’ top-ranked defense, it was how he carried himself in Baltimore’s locker room that won over Gutekunst and Green Bay’s scouts.

“(Hendrickson) knew him through and through, so he knew the kind of locker room guy he was going to be, he knew the character of the man,” Gutekunst said. “You worry about those things because when you sign guys to big contracts like that, (you wonder) what their motivation is and those kinds of things. Those things are important for us to know because you want to know what you’re getting.”

2. Tramon Williams’ days at cornerback may not be over

Injuries and the in-season trade of Ha Ha Clinton-Dix resulted in Williams starting the final nine games of the season at safety in Mike Pettine’s defense.

That wasn’t what the Packers intended when they re-signed the veteran defensive back last March, but Williams’ versatility became a necessity after Clinton-Dix’s departure, and Kentrell Brice, Raven Greene and Ibraheim Campbell wound up on injured reserve.

Although the Packers won’t completely rule out Williams possibly playing on the back end again, they also aren’t changing his primary job description yet.

“I think naturally Tramon is more of a corner, but he can do it all,” Gutekunst said. “He’s such an unselfish player and such a pro that I think he’ll (go) wherever he fits in or whatever makes the team best. I think naturally he’s more of a corner.”

3. The Packers still expect big things out of Jimmy Graham

The Packers haven’t backed off their big plans for Graham, who had 55 catches for 636 yards and two touchdowns in his first season in Green Bay.

The five-time Pro Bowl tight end played in all 16 games, but battled a season-long knee injury and a broken thumb he suffered in Seattle on Nov. 15.

Gutekunst reiterated the organization’s commitment to Graham at last month’s NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis and praised the 32-year-old tight end Monday for his contributions, particularly as a blocker.

“I’ve heard the comments of him not being a blocker, if you really go back and look at the tape he did a nice job as a blocker for us last year, much more than people would understand unless you watch the tape,” Gutekunst said. “Obviously Jimmy, he’s a Hall of Fame-type talent. He probably didn’t have the year he was quite expecting last year, but he still was a pretty productive player for us…I thought he was really good for our locker room and I expect big things from him this year.”

One other veteran tight end factoring into the Packers’ plans for 2019 is Marcedes Lewis, who re-signed with the team last week. The former Pro Bowler had only three catches last season, but Gutekunst believes Lewis is the kind of blocking tight end who should thrive in Head Coach Matt LaFleur’s offense.

“Obviously, Marcedes continues to be one of the better blocking tight ends in the league,” Gutekunst said. “He was such a really good fit in our locker room last year, brought a lot of leadership for a player coming from the outside, thought he did a really good job of that. Probably didn’t have the opportunities he wanted last season, but I think Matt, in his offense, the blocking tight end is a very important role, and I think Marcedes can fill that.”

4. Packers see progress from DeShone Kizer and Tim Boyle

As veteran quarterbacks come off the free-agent market, the Packers have stood pat with Kizer and Boyle backing up Aaron Rodgers.

Kizer, a former second-round pick who was acquired last March in a trade with Cleveland, played in three games for the Packers last season, while Boyle was one of three undrafted rookies to make Green Bay’s 53-man roster last September.

Both QBs are young. Kizer turned 23 in January and Boyle won’t turn 25 until October. Still, Gutekunst doesn’t believe that’s necessarily a bad thing.

“It’s really about the player and how you think you can help your football team,” said Gutekunst when asked about his philosophy on veteran backup QBs. “If that helps your football team and that’s the best avenue, then that’s the way you go. I think in a perfect world, you’d love to have a younger guy who you think has starting ability that you could develop behind the starter. It kind of depends where you’re at as a football team.”

5. Ted Thompson really, really, really wanted to draft Clay Matthews

A chapter in Packers history closed this past week when Matthews departed Green Bay to sign with the Los Angeles Rams.

A six-time Pro Bowl linebacker, Matthews was a catalyst in the Packers’ Super Bowl XLV triumph over the Pittsburgh Steelers and the face of Green Bay’s defense for a decade, finishing his 10-year stint as the Packers’ all-time sack leader with 83½.

As Gutekunst tells it, former Packers general manager Ted Thompson was such a huge fan of Matthews coming out of USC in 2009 he immediately set his sights on trading back into the first round after drafting defensive tackle B.J. Raji ninth overall.

In the end, Thompson worked a trade with New England to acquire the Patriots’ 26th overall pick and draft Matthews.

“Ted doesn’t show his cards very much, and he definitely showed his cards about how much he wanted to go get that player,” Gutekunst said. “I think when he got off the phone with B.J. he turned around and said, ‘Let’s go get that linebacker.’”

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