Aaron Nagler speaks with Michael Cohen about what the Packers' personnel staff is looking for from prospects after Day 1 of Senior Bowl practice in Mobile, Alabama. (Jan. 23, 2018) USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin
MOBILE, Ala. - Bleachers along the eastern sideline of Ladd-Peebles Stadium were divided into front-office fiefs Tuesday as the personnel departments of every team in the National Football League settled in for practice at the 69th annual Senior Bowl, where color-coded garb separated friend from foe.
The Green Bay Packers’ contingent occupied a section high above the turf and a few yards shy of midfield on a sun-splashed afternoon in Mobile. Just off to the right, in a scene straight from the cliques of a high school cafeteria, sat former colleagues Alonzo Highsmith and Eliot Wolf bedecked in the garb of their new employer: the Cleveland Browns.
It was a scene that encapsulated a portion of the wild offseason in Green Bay, where longtime general manager Ted Thompson was transitioned to a new role, director of player personnel Brian Gutekunst was tabbed as Thompson’s successor and two of the team’s most prominent talent evaluators hopped the Great Lakes to reunite with Browns GM John Dorsey, a former Packers executive.
The reshuffling saddled Gutekunst with a front office that will need bolstering prior to the 2018 season. But in a decision that reflects a strong belief in the holdovers from Thompson’s regime — along with his own self-confidence — Gutekunst has elected to navigate the next few months with the supporting cast already in place. He will not flesh out the department until after this year’s draft.
“I think there will be some additions I’m sure at some point, probably after the draft when most of that movement happens,” Gutekunst told the Journal Sentinel. “We’ve got plenty of hands on deck right now, so I’m not worried about it right now. But at some point I’m sure we’ll have some movement, you know?
“There will probably be some duties that change … and then obviously Ted being there, having that to lean on is huge, too. But I think right after everything happened, I think for me it was just, ‘OK, let me assess and make sure we’re covered.’ Then I realized we were fine and decided all right, we’ll wait until after the draft before we move into that next step.”
Aaron Nagler chatted with Packers fans via Facebook Live on Tuesday afternoon. Aaron Nagler/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin
Gutekunst brought virtually the entire personnel department to the Senior Bowl for what is an important step in the evaluation of college prospects. Nearly all of his college scouts were seen at Ladd-Peebles Stadium on Tuesday (Alonzo Dotson, Joe Hueber, Matt Malaspina, Mike Owen, Charlie Peprah, Charles Walls), plus three pro scouts (Chad Brinker, Richmond Williams, Luke Benuska) and several other important figures, with executive vice president/director of football operations Russ Ball among them.
Thompson, however, did not make the trip to Mobile.
“He will be at the combine but he’s not here this week,” Gutekunst said.
In the absence of Wolf and Highsmith, who served as director of football operations and senior personnel executive, respectively, it appears Gutekunst is going to lean heavily on director of college scouting Jon-Eric Sullivan during the pre-draft process. Sullivan has spent the last 14 years with the Packers and assumed his title on June 16, 2016, following stints as an area scout for the Central Plains region (2008-11) and the Southeast region (2012-15). He broke into the franchise in 2004 as a member of the football operations department.
Wolf would have served as Gutekunst’s right-hand man had he decided to remain with the Packers, and for the moment that position remains unfilled — at least titularly.
“I think we’ve got multiple guys,” Gutekunst said. “We’ve got a ton of guys with experience. Jon-Eric Sullivan has got 14 or 15 years in the business. John Wojciechowski has got 20-something. Matt Malaspina, who we added last year from San Francisco, has been a director. So we’ve got a bunch of guys. Sam Seale has been in the business for 25 years. We’ve got plenty of experienced guys that I can lean on.”
Nonetheless, Gutekunst and Sullivan were attached at the hip during both practice sessions Tuesday afternoon. While the majority of the scouting department sat perched in the bleachers, Gutekunst and Sullivan spent more than four hours together at field level discussing players. They rotated from drill to drill and position group to position group throughout each practice, often isolating themselves from other talent evaluators around the league.
Even their outfits were similar with sunglasses and eyewear retainers wrapped around their necks.
Away from the practice field, Gutekunst said he will allow his personnel department to handle the majority of player interviews that take place during the evening, similar to the NFL scouting combine in late February and early March. He has several players he plans to meet with personally — “certain players that I definitely want to talk to,” Gutekunst said — but the rest of the informal process falls to his area scouts and subordinates, just as it did under Thompson.
He wants this week to feel as normal as possible, even with a new title that places him among the league's elite.
“It hasn’t been a lot different,” Gutekunst said. “Our process will continue to kind of stay the same. As college director and then director of pro personnel, it was my job to know all these players. That’s no different. I think there’s maybe some more distractions, but at the same time, once I get with these guys and stuff it’s just scouting.”