GREEN BAY – Brian Gutekunst won't be making picks from inside his home this year, but the 2021 NFL Draft will still be vastly different than most for the Packers' general manager and personnel executives across the league.
While Gutekunst and his scouts will be back in their usual digs at Lambeau Field on Thursday night, the challenges of preparing for this year's draft rival that of last year's quarantined event in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
As problematic as the pre-draft process was a year ago, precipitated by the cancellation of many college pro days, the NFL still managed to squeeze in the annual scouting combine two weeks before nationwide lockdowns went into effect.
This year, NFL front offices had no such luxury. Along with the cancellation of the combine, and the medical examinations that go with it, many of the 2021 draft's top prospects chose to sit out of their college football season.
"Our area guys were probably put under the toughest circumstances during the fall without the ability to be on-campus every day," said Gutekunst during his pre-draft news conference on Monday. "They had to find a lot of creative ways to get to know these prospects, to get the information that we are so dependent upon as we make these decisions, and they just did a fantastic job."
All the data collecting the Packers missed out on in the fall and winter was made up on the road this spring. Gutekunst, himself, estimates that he attended more pro days this year (roughly 12) since he was the Packers' director of college scouting under former GM Ted Thompson.
Scouts had their work cut out for them, not only trying to learn more about the players who sat out last season but also crossing hundreds of seniors off draft boards who opted to return to school after the NCAA granted an extra year of eligibility.
Meanwhile, team physician Dr. Pat McKenzie and head athletic trainer Bryan Engel were tasked with getting the necessary information on the medical history of prospects. All that intel went into building the Packers' draft board.
"We have an excellent medical staff with 'Flea' and Dr. McKenzie, who put a lot of time into these prospects," Gutekunst said. "Every year there's risk with all these guys, medically, and it's a little bit of an educated guess more than anything (but) I have a lot of confidence in those guys and the information they provide me with to make those decisions.
"You always have a little apprehension and this year, I think specifically with some guys, maybe on that third day, you're gonna have less information than you've had in the past."
There's been some consternation over the depth of this year's truncated draft class after the NCAA granted an additional year of eligibility to players due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Gutekunst still feels this is "a pretty good draft overall" with one caveat. Undrafted free agency, an avenue in which the Packers have thrived over the years, could be where the shallower pool of prospects is revealed the most.
For that reason, the Packers assembled one their largest offseason rosters (72 players) prior to an NFL Draft. If Green Bay makes all 10 of its scheduled selections, it will have eight spots left over for college free agents. Comparatively, the Packers signed 15 undrafted players after last year's NFL Draft.
"We kind of anticipated this a little bit," Gutekunst said. "I think our roster sits just above 70 right now, which is much higher than we've ever been before. I think as we go into this, we'll be a little more selective certainly in the undrafted free agent market."
This will be Gutekunst's fourth NFL Draft in the GM seat. If anything has been gleaned over the past three years, it's that Gutekunst isn't afraid to shuffle the deck on Day 1.
In fact, all four of the draft trades Gutekunst has executed as GM have involved first-round picks, beginning with trading back in 2018 from No. 14 to gain an extra first-round pick from New Orleans, to moving up four spots last year to draft Utah State quarterback Jordan Love at No. 26.
The Packers have 10 draft choices at their disposal this weekend after being awarded compensatory picks in the fourth, fifth and sixth rounds.
"There's just a confidence I think you take from going multiple drafts and understanding how it's going to play out," Gutekunst said. "Until you kind of sit in that chair the first time, although I'd been in draft rooms dozens of times, it's different when the entire room's looking at you to make the decision.
"I think there's a comfort level after you've done it a few years, moving up and down the board and making trades, where it just puts you at ease."
Round 1: 29
Round 2: 62
Round 3: 92
Round 4: 135, 142*
Round 5: 173, 178*
Round 6: 214, 220*
Round 7: 256