GREEN BAY — As the clock began to tick for the 29th overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft late Thursday night, Brian Gutekunst looked at the Green Bay Packers’ draft board inside the team’s third-floor Lambeau Field offices and saw plenty of appealing names.
But when it came time to turn in the Packers’ card, the Packers' fourth-year general manager didn’t need all of his allotted time to make his selection: Georgia cornerback Eric Stokes, whom Gutekunst didn’t think would last until the Packers’ pick.
“We had some options to (trade) and move up into those low 20s, mid 20s. We were looking at some of those things in case those runs (on positions) that you talk about happened and we felt like we were maybe going to get wiped out at one of the places we might want to go,” Gutekunst explained in a Zoom call with reporters near midnight. “It just didn’t fall that way, so we felt comfortable staying where we were.
“I thought there might have been an opportunity to move back if Eric might have gotten taken ahead of us and maybe pick up a couple picks. But when he was sitting there, I just thought it was the best thing for the Packers and we were really excited to get him.”
Gutekunst took Stokes over Mississippi wide receiver Elijah Moore, Oklahoma State offensive tackle Teven Jenkins, Notre Dame offensive tackle Liam Eichenberg, Alabama defensive tackle Christian Barmore, TCU safety Trevon Moehrig and Notre Dame linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, all of whom were still on the board. The Packers narrowly missed out on Minnesota wide receiver Rashod Bateman, who went to the Baltimore Ravens at No. 27, although it’s unclear if they were smitten with Bateman, despite a host of mock drafts linking the ex-Gopher to the Packers.
It marked the first time that Gutekunst had stayed put and picked at the Packers’ scheduled first-round spot. In his first three drafts as GM, Gutekunst had executed four trades during the first round, with three of them to move up — including a year ago, when he gave up a fourth-round pick to move up from No. 30 to No. 26 to select Utah State quarterback Jordan Love, the move that was the first domino that led the Packers to Thursday, when Rodgers’ displeasure with the organization spilled into the public eye.
“It's always hard when you're picking in the back half of that draft to watch all those guys come off, so we had some conversations (about trading up),” Gutekunst said. “I don't think it was in the cards. We had some conversations about moving back, too, in case we were left without a player to pick, but once we got there, we did have some options to move back. But we didn't want to pass up Eric."
The Rodgers storyline dominated the day’s news after the initial report from ESPN broke in the afternoon, and much of Gutekunst’s videoconference with reporters revolved around Rodgers, who had responded to Love’s selection with perhaps the best statistical season of his career, winning his third NFL MVP award while throwing for 4,299 yards and 48 touchdowns against five interceptions for an NFL-best 121.5 passer rating — the second-highest of his career and in NFL history, behind only his 2011 rating of 122.5.
Last May, in the wake of the Love pick, Rodgers had said that “my sincere desire to start and finish with the same organization, just as it has with many other players over the years, may not be a reality at this point.” Now, multiple sources said that Rodgers wants to play elsewhere in 2021 after the team didn’t extend his contract to provide him with longer-term security. The Packers reportedly have tried to work out a new deal with Rodgers in recent weeks, but it may be too little, too late in Rodgers’ estimation.
“I’m not going to speak for Aaron. We’ve got a really good team, and I do think he’ll play for us again,” Gutekunst said. “We’re going to work towards that, and we’ve been working towards that on a number of different fronts.
“The value that he adds to our football team is really immeasurable. He brings so much to the table not only as a player but as a leader. He’s so important to his teammates, to his coaches, so yeah, that’s the goal.
“He’s our quarterback. He’s our leader. We’ve been working through this for a little while now, and I just think it may take some time but he’s a guy that kind of makes this thing go. He give us the best chance to win, and we’re going to work towards that end.”
Gutekunst acknowledged that the Packers did field trade calls for Rodgers, including one after the news of his displeasure with the organization broke. Asked if he remains against the idea of trading Rodgers, Gutekunst replied, “We’re not going to trade Aaron Rodgers.
“Some things are hard sometimes, but as we go down this road, I think you’ve got to keep your mind on how much we want Aaron to be here and how important he is to our organization. I’m optimistic and we’ll see how it unfolds.”
Asked why there was optimism given how displeased Rodgers could be, Gutekunst replied, “I just think we obviously have a very good football team here, we have a great organization, we're very committed to him. I think as the lines of communication have been open. I'm just optimistic that that's what's best for the Green Bay Packers. And I truly believe that's what's best for Aaron Rodgers, as well.”
Gutekunst wouldn’t speculate on whether Rodgers would take part in the team’s offseason program (“We certainly would want him to, (but) it's all voluntary, as you guys know”) and said the Packers had communicated with Rodgers on Thursday.
Interestingly, Gutekunst also acknowledged that poor communication during last year’s draft when the Love pick was made could have contributed to the current situation.
“Certainly, it’s something you think about. I certainly look back to last year’s draft and (think) maybe some of the communication issues we could have done better. There’s no doubt about it,” Gutekunst said. “The draft’s an interesting thing. It can kind of unfold differently than you think it’s going to unfold. And it happens pretty fast. But certainly, I think looking back on it sitting where we sit today there could have been some communication things we did better.”
It was against that backdrop that Gutekunst selected the 22-year-old Stokes, once again eschewing a wide receiver in the first round. The team hasn’t selected a wideout in the first round since 2002, when then-head coach/GM Mike Sherman took Florida State’s Javon Walker.
Gutekunst hasn’t taken a wide receiver since taking three of them in the fourth, fifth and sixth rounds of the 2018 draft and didn’t take one last year in what was widely considered the best receiver draft in history. In fairness, this year’s draft is also deep at the position, and Gutekunst could use his second-round pick (No. 62) or third-round pick (No. 92) on the position on Friday.
The 6-foot-1, 194-pound Stokes was a two-year starter at Georgia, recording four career interceptions — all last season, in nine games as a redshirt junior — and was among the fastest prospects in the entire draft, having run a 4.29-second 40-yard dash at the Bulldogs’ pro day. A former track athlete, he could be in line to play right away opposite Pro Bowl cornerback Jaire Alexander.
Stokes said he’s been a fan of Alexander for several years and has been watching him closely.
“If he’s not the best corner in the league, he is one of the best in the league. I just constantly watch him because he’s just a dog. I was like, ‘Oh man,’” Stokes said in a conference call with Wisconsin reporters. “That’s pretty much how I look at myself. It’s just learning from him, doing everything I can to keep learning and keep growing as a player.”
Even with Alexander on the roster, the pick comes at a position of need, as the Packers brought back Kevin King on a one-year, $5 million deal despite another uneven, injury-affected season from the 2017 second-round pick. New defensive coordinator Joe Barry’s scheme employs a versatile defensive back at what he calls the “star” position, and before picking Stokes, the Packers’ options in the secondary were limited.
“As I looked at it, not only for this year but going forward in the future, we only have one corner under contract for next year. So we certainly needed to add to that room,” Gutekunst explained. “As we went through the process today, he was kind of sticking out like a sore thumb on our board. We didn't really think he had a chance to get there. We thought maybe when we started (the day), there might be an outside chance, but as the board fell and some of those corners went off early, we weren't really sure if he was going to get to us. And we were really excited that he did.”
The selection of Stokes also marks the ninth time in their last 10 first-round picks that the Packers have gone defense. The lone offensive player they've taken in the first round over that span: Love. (Before that, it had been 2011 first-round offensive tackle Derek Sherrod.)
Stokes said he spent the evening with family and friends who were so excited for him when the pick was made that he could barely hear the Packers staffers on his phone.
“When Green Bay called me, there was just a big smile. I was telling everybody to be quiet and keep calm, because everybody was screaming. It was a surreal moment,” Stokes said. “I just can’t wait to come in and learn everything I can. We can be pretty much a great secondary.”
“(The Packers) are getting a person who’s hungrier than ever. I was always the person that people didn’t believe (in). I’m going to come in and do everything I can to help out the team and keep improving as a player. I want to help the team win. So I’m going to do everything in my power to.”