Brian Gutekunst Has The Green Bay Packers Set Up For A Decade Of Greatness

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By Forbes

Brian Gutekunst Has The Green Bay Packers Set Up For A Decade Of Greatness

The typical Green Bay Packers fan has never heard the name Jack Vainisi. And that’s a shame.

That’s because in many ways Vainisi was as vital to the Packers’ success in the 1960s as Vince Lombardi, Bart Starr or Ray Nitschke.

Vainisi was a Green Bay scout, scouting director and personnel director from 1950-’60. In that time, Vainisi was credited with discovering seven players that wound up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and several other standouts that helped Green Bay win five championships in seven years beginning in 1961.

Unfortunately, Vainisi never enjoyed the fruits of his labor. Vainisi suffered a massive heart attack and died at just 33 years old in 1960.

“He was the unsung hero of that whole era,” Starr told me in a 2010 interview. “Jack gets forgotten sometimes, but his eye for talent made it all possible.”

By the looks of it, current Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst might be discussed in a similar manner years from now.

Gutekunst has assembled back-to-back draft classes that have the potential to rank among the finest in team history. Gutekunst also had the courage to draft quarterback Jordan Love four years ago when Aaron Rodgers was still going strong.

This remarkable influx of talent has allowed Green Bay to skip over what many believed would be a rebuilding period. It’s also a major reason the Packers reached the NFC divisional playoffs, where they nearly upset San Francisco. 

If Green Bay — which became the youngest NFL team to win a playoff game since the 1970 merger — goes on to accomplish half of what the Lombardi-Vainisi teams did, Packer fans will praise Gutekunst’s name for the rest of time.

“It’s pretty amazing what Brian has done,” one AFC executive told me this week. “He traded Aaron (Rodgers), takes a chance on Jordan (Love), goes young with his roster and they somehow get better.

“He’s got the youngest team in the league and it looks like they’re just get started. I mean, those last two draft classes are something else.”

What Gutekunst has done in the last two drafts is mind-boggling. And it’s enormous reason the Packers haven’t missed a beat in the post-Rodgers era.

Former Packers general manager Ron Wolf, who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2015, used to say if he could find three starters and a pair of solid backups in a draft, it was wildly successful. Gutekunst has blown those numbers out of the water.

In 2022, Gutekunst used first round picks on linebacker Quay Walker and defensive end Devonte Wyatt. Walker has started from the second he arrived in Green Bay, while Wyatt is an emerging talent.

Gutekunst’s next four picks were second round wideout Christian Watson, third round guard Sean Rhyan, fourth round wideout Romeo Doubs and fourth round tackle Zach Tom.

Watson has been plagued by injury, but could be the most talented player in the draft class. Rhyan has alternated series with Jon Runyan for several weeks now, and is the Packers’ likely starter at right guard next season.

Doubs earned a starting job from Day 1 and had a breakout game against Dallas in the NFC wild card round, when he caught six passes for 151 yards. And Tom has been the Packers’ best offensive lineman this year and looks like a future Pro Bowler.

In addition, Gutekunst found valuable reserve outside linebacker Kingsley Enagbare in the fifth round, and tackle Rasheed Walker in the seventh round. After playing in just one game as a rookie, Rasheed Walker has filled in admirably at left tackle since David Bakhtiari went down after Week 1.

Add it up and Gutekunst could have found as many as seven starters in that 2022 draft.

“That’s not too shabby,” safety Darnell Savage said. “We’ll take that.”

Amazingly, Gutekunst might have fared even better with his 2023 draft class. During the Packers’ win at Dallas last week, five of Gutekunst’s 13 picks started and 11 made major contributions.

First round outside linebacker Lukas Van Ness has played just 32.9% of the snaps this season, but has flashed and could be an impact player as soon as next year. Second round tight end Luke Musgrave missed six weeks with a lacerated kidney, but still ranked sixth on the team in receptions (34) and yards (352).

Second round wideout Jayden Reed led the Packers in receptions (64), receiving yards (793) and tied for first in receiving touchdowns (seven). Third round tight end Tucker Kraft (31-355-2) blossomed late and could be a future star.

Fifth round wideout Dontayvion Wicks (39-581-4) might wind up being the best of all these gifted pass catchers, while sixth round defensive end Karl Brooks surprised with four sacks. Seventh round cornerback Carrington Valentine started 13 games due to injury and trades and has more than held his own.

In addition, fourth round defensive end Colby Wooden and seventh round safety Anthony Johnson have shown promise in limited snaps. Sixth round kicker Anders Carlson has displayed potential during an up and down season, and fifth round quarterback Sean Clifford was the No. 2 signal caller all season.

“Yeah, we’ve got a lot of help from this (draft) class,” defensive end Kenny Clark said of the 2023 draftees. “You never know how it’s going to go with young guys, but they’ve all done a great job.

“I don’t know if it’s our best group of rookies since I’ve been here. That’s for you guys to decide. I just know they’ve given us a ton of help.”

Since the Super Bowl era began in 1966, the Packers have won four titles. And with each championship came a memorable draft class or two.

Vainisi found Starr and Forrest Gregg in his historic 1956 draft, then landed Jim Taylor, Jerry Kramer, Dan Currie and Nitschke in 1958.

“I loved Jack Vainisi — all the players did,” Hornung told me in a 2011 interview. “He even got along with Lombardi. He was a football man — that’s what he was. Pure and simple. He brought so much talent to Green Bay.”

Wolf had a handful of impressive draft classes himself. His finest might have come in 1995, though, when he selected cornerback Craig Newsome, wideout Antonio Freeman, guard Adam Timmerman, linebacker Brian Williams and fullback William Henderson.

All five of those players were starters a year later when the Packers won Super Bowl XXXI.

And Ted Thompson’s 2005 draft class (Aaron Rodgers and Nick Collins) and his 2009 class (B.J. Raji, Clay Matthews and T.J. Lang) were integral in Green Bay winning Super Bowl XLV.

These current Packers have a ways to go before Gutekunst is mentioned among men like Vainisi and Wolf. But the last two draft classes have Green Bay — and Gutekunst — set up for great things in the years ahead.

“This is just the start for them,” the AFC executive said. “They’re so young that barring injury, they’re only going to get better. What Brian (Gutekunst) has done is pretty amazing.”

And what Packer Nation is viewing right now might only be the beginning.