GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Say this much about Brian Gutekunst: The first-year general manager isn’t afraid to clean house and rebuild the Green Bay Packers' roster with his own mold.
If there was any doubt about that, it should have been answered Tuesday at the NFL’s trade deadline, when he shipped out safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and running back Ty Montgomery for future draft picks -- a fourth-rounder next year from Washington for Clinton-Dix and a seventh-rounder in 2020 from Baltimore for Montgomery.
While neither move made the middling 3-3-1 Packers instantly better for 2018, it might not have made them much worse. Montgomery’s spot on the team became untenable, especially after his comments Monday following his fumbled kickoff return in the final minutes of Sunday’s loss at the Rams, and after Clinton-Dix’s unpredictable play became a point of frustration for the team.
Meanwhile, Gutekunst’s first draft looks strong. No less an authority than Bill Belichick gave a glowing review of first-round pick Jaire Alexander in advance of Sunday’s Packers-Patriots game in New England.
Gutekunst’s stock of draft picks is replete next year with 10 selections: his own in every round plus an extra first (from the Saints in the draft-day trade), an extra fourth (from the Redskins) and an extra sixth (from the Seahawks for quarterback Brett Hundley this summer) plus whatever compensatory picks he’s awarded.
The fourth-rounder for Clinton-Dix was a solid value at the trade deadline, even for a former first-round pick. That’s probably about what the Packers would have gotten for him in the compensatory-pick formula had he left in free agency -- something Clinton-Dix said he expected -- but that pick wouldn’t come until the 2020 draft. And it also could’ve been jeopardized had Clinton-Dix gotten hurt or flamed out in the second half of the season and didn’t sign a high-priced deal with another team.
It also created salary-cap space. A total of $3,533,028 will come off the Packers' books for this season -- $3,153,705 (or nine-seventeenths of Clinton-Dix's $5.957 million salary) plus $379,323 (nine-seventeenths of Montgomery's base of $716,500). There will be some cap charges for the players who replace those two on the roster, but if they're minimum-salaried players it will be less than $1 million. That cap savings can be carried over to next year.
The Packers weren’t exactly stellar at safety with Clinton-Dix. In the interim, don’t be surprised to see veteran cornerback Tramon Williams play some at safety; he moved inside to a slot position Sunday against the Rams. That could get rookie second-round pick Josh Jackson on the field more after he played only three defensive snaps against the Rams. It also might force the Packers to finally play 2017 second-round pick Josh Jones, who had a standout special-teams game in Los Angeles but surprisingly has played only four defensive snaps all season while sitting behind former undrafted free agents Kentrell Brice and Jermaine Whitehead. There's also the possibility that cornerback Bashaud Breeland, who was signed last month but has yet to play in a game, could move to safety.
In moving Montgomery, Gutekunst all but closed the book on the 2015 draft class, which might go down as Ted Thompson’s worst in his 13 years as GM. There’s not a player from that class left on the 53-man roster, and the only one even still tied to the Packers is fourth-round linebacker Jake Ryan, who is on injured reserve after he tore his ACL in training camp.
As it now stands, here’s how the 2015 class turned out:
First round: Damarious Randall (traded to the Browns in March)
Second round: Quinten Rollins (out of the NFL)
Third round: Montgomery (traded to the Ravens on Tuesday)
Fourth round: Ryan (on IR)
Fifth round: Hundley (traded to the Seahawks in August)
Sixth round: Aaron Ripkowski (out of the NFL)
Sixth round: Christian Ringo (Cowboys practice squad)
Sixth round: Kennard Backman (out of the NFL)
If Gutekunst can continue to build through strong draft classes -- like Thompson did in his first decade on the job -- it could make up for those last three drafts, which combined have the third-fewest current starters in the NFL.
Alexander looks like a cornerstone player, although he’s not the only potential star; Jackson and fifth-round receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling have the makings, while sixth-round receiver Equanimeous St. Brown also has shown flashes.
Alexander, the 18th pick of the draft, shined against the Rams, with five pass breakups and seven tackles (without a miss). He played all 78 defensive snaps and spent a good portion of the game as Rams receiver Brandin Cooks’ shadow.
When asked what stands out about Alexander, Belichick said Tuesday on a conference call: "Everything."
"He’s going to have a great career in this league; we thought that in the draft," Belichick said. "I thought that was an excellent pick. It was a little bit ahead of where we were picking [at No. 31] and he was certainly one of the top players on the board. He’s a great kid. He’s got great energy. He loves football and has great football skills -- fast, athletic, good hands, good ball skills, can tackle, can play inside in the slot, can play outside on the perimeter, good zone vision, breaks on the ball, good man-to-man coverage, has good quickness, can match up with fast receivers, can match up with quick receivers. The guy’s a really good football player, and I think he’s got a great future in this league. I think he’ll be one of the top corners in the game for a quite a while here."