GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Green Bay Packers once employed an all-star scouting department before teams plucked away three of them – John Schneider in 2010, Reggie McKenzie in 2012 and John Dorsey in 2013 – to become general managers.
All three started under Ron Wolf and became GMs while working under Ted Thompson. Also on those staffs were the likes of Brian Gutekunst, Eliot Wolf and Alonzo Highsmith.
The Packers might be on their way to something similar.
They have spent the last several years trying to replicate that kind of staff in their personnel department.
According to at least one longtime NFL coach familiar with the Packers, they might have a staff to rival the Schneider-McKenzie-Dorsey trio.
“The staff they have now could be just as good,” the coach said. “And the guy running it might be better. Or at least better than [Thompson] was at the end.”
That one in charge now is Gutekunst, who first joined the Packers as a scout in 1998. A longtime area scout, Gutekunst became the Packers' director of college scouting in 2012 (a role Dorsey long held until he was promoted to director of football operations the year before he was hired as the Chiefs' GM). Gutekunst moved up to director of player personnel in 2016 before he was promoted to replace Thompson last January.
He has spent the last year trying to shape his scouting department in the mold of what the Packers had before Schneider took over the Seahawks, before Dorsey went to the Chiefs and McKenzie to the Raiders – and before Wolf and Highsmith left for the Browns last year to work under Dorsey again.
With the Packers about to embark on one of their most important forays into free agency – where they’ll have more than $34 million in salary-cap space to play with – and a draft in which they own 10 picks (including three in the top 44, four in the top 75 and six in the top 118), it could all fall flat if the scouting department didn’t have the wherewithal to adequately advise the 45-year-old Gutekunst.
But if Gutekunst’s top advisers are indeed as good as advertised, then the Packers’ turnaround from two straight seasons without the playoffs could happen quickly.
“That would be good for everybody if that’s true,” Packers president Mark Murphy said when presented with that coach’s claim. “I know Brian is very pleased with his staff.”
Gutekunst fortified his staff this offseason when he added longtime former Ravens scout Milt Hendrickson as his director of football operations – a role Dorsey, McKenzie and Schneider all held at different points. Hendrickson is on the same organizational level as co-directors of player personnel Jon-Eric Sullivan and John Wojciechowski. The rest of the top-level scouting staff includes director of college scouting Matt Malaspina, Sam Seale as national scout after a long run as the Packers’ eyes on the West Coast plus Chad Brinker as assistant director of pro scouting/salary cap analyst and Lee Gissendaner as personnel executive.
“I think Milt was an important addition,” Murphy said. “We went without a person [in that role] for a while. [Former Ravens GM] Ozzie [Newsome] raves about Milt. Part of it was just the relationship that he and Brian have and just the level of trust and respect they have for each other. I think just having somebody with that much experience is helpful.”
Hendrickson and Gutekunst go back to their days together at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. Hendrickson briefly worked for the Packers before, in 2004 as a training camp scouting intern – a job Gutekunst helped him land – before he began a 15-year run with the Ravens.
“I was at La Crosse coaching when Milt came in as a graduate assistant,” Gutekunst said. “And we actually had the JV team at La Crosse. I think I was 22. I was the head JV coach. I knew defense. I didn’t know offense at all. The first guy that came across me that knew offense was Milt.
“When you come across guys that are football junkies like you are, you just end up, you spend all your time together because that’s all you’re doing is talking ball. As I went into scouting and go into the NFL, he was a high school coach, a very successful high school football and baseball coach and then went back to his alma mater and was the offensive coordinator. Probably was going to be the head coach and you know, live a really nice quiet life in Iowa and I screwed it up for him and his family. He went to Baltimore, did a little pro scouting and college scouting and we kept in touch through that time.”
Gutekunst also has Thompson at his side, at least for now. The former GM who was pushed aside 14 months ago now serves as a senior adviser, although he recently moved back to his home in Texas. A source said he’s not expected to travel much to Green Bay anymore because of his declining health and the need to have someone travel with him.
While Gutekunst’s staff appears strong at the top, the area scouts are young.
“We have a new guy [Luke Benuska] in the West coast, but Sam is going to a lot of those schools,” Gutekunst said. “And obviously Sam is as good as it gets in the West. The same thing in our Midlands area [with Brandian Ross]. Sam is covering some of that and Jon-Eric used to be in that area. So he covers some of that as well. With Matt Malaspina’s [history] in the southeast, we have a new guy in Pat Moore. Pat has been in the southeast for five or six years, but Matt was there for 11 or 12. So I kind of like the layered approach that we have, and you know those guys, Matt has done a really, really good job of training these guys and making sure there’s no cracks there. So I feel good about them.”
Here’s another way the current scouting staff could resemble the old one: Gutekunst believes his underlings will end up running teams of their own some day.
“We’re going to win, and when we win guys are going to get opportunities,” Gutekunst said. “And I wanted to make sure I had enough guys in our pipeline that we can keep moving forward.”