For every year that Aaron Rodgers inches closer to the end of his career, the need for each rookie class to have some substantive and immediate impact grows. And for a team that has seen a general manager transition (out with Ted Thompson, in with Brian Gutekunst), an exodus of talented front-office executives migrating elsewhere (most notably to Cleveland), and an overhaul of the coaching staff including new coordinators on both sides of the ball, all in the same offseason coming off a 7-9 campaign with a missed playoff appearance largely due to the absence of a certain signal-caller for an extended period of time, it appears the organization has administered a self-prescribed kick in the pants.
But much of it was long overdue. Thompson’s ambivalence toward free agency had worn thin, especially when his drafts weren’t producing immediate help and some poor decisions were made with regard to re-signing core players. Granted, Thompson has more positives on his side of the ledger than negatives during his lengthy tenure in Green Bay. The defensive play-calling had grown stale with little change under the Capers regime. And there’s a chance some of these changes don’t happen if #12 had been back there passing them into a wild card spot. For one of the more stable organizations in the NFL to undergo so much change in one offseason is unique, but for all intents and purposes, it was done to kickstart the Packers while Rodgers remains arguably the best quarterback in the NFL.
Gutekunst’s approach in the draft was a sound one. Similar to his predecessor, he moved up and down the board frequently, not allowing future assets relinquished to exceed the benefits being received. There was the doubling-up at particular positions (cornerback and wide receiver), the selection of two special teams players and the apparent knowledge that they need to get better on the defensive side of the ball. The first-round pick acquired from New Orleans in 2019 is important, but Gutekunst’s first year on the job may largely be based on how his first draft class contributes to a potential postseason return.
Round 1, Pick 18: Jaire Alexander, CB, Louisville
The recent history of the Packers’ cornerback position is not an easy thing for Packers’ fans to get over. In Packers’ fans minds, they can still see Julio Jones galloping through the secondary during the 2016 NFC Championship Game. If there has ever been a wake-up call for the Packers’ brass that Rodgers is approaching the back-nine of his career and “hey, maybe we should fix the secondary”, it was that game. Due to injuries and the continuance of Thompson’s “hands-off” approach to free agency, arguably the best wideout in the game was being defended by undrafted rookie Ladarius Gunter. A deep secondary that nearly squeezed Russell Wilson into submission in the 2014 NFC title game forcing four interceptions, just two years later was missing the top five cornerbacks from that 2014 team.
Some of the decisions that led to the shortage were the right ones, both at the time and after the fact. The core of the 2010 Super Bowl cornerback group were the easy decisions. Charles Woodson was near the end and wanted to go back to Oakland where he spent much of his non-football playing time and where he started his career. The Packers weren’t giving a 32-year old Tramon Williams 3 years and $21 million (but at age 35, they’re bringing him back…more on that later) and the guy they did give big money to was Sam Shields, who registered his fifth concussion in Week 1 of 2016, and was scooped up by the Los Angeles Rams this offseason in hopes of reviving his career.
It was the decisions made on their replacements that have potentially hamstrung the back half of the Rodgers era. When Woodson and Williams were allowed to depart, Thompson had already begun the process of bringing in young players to eventually serve as their successors. Davon House, Casey Hayward and Micah Hyde were selected in subsequent years and while House was serviceable, Hayward and Hyde showed the potential from the start to be part of a Packers core moving forward. But the Packers didn’t allow that to happen. One year ahead of Hayward’s free agency, the Packers doubled down on cornerbacks with their first two picks, fortifying themselves in the case they didn’t want to meet Hayward’s contract demands. Both picks flashed potential in their first year and Hayward was allowed to depart to San Diego, now Los Angeles, where he currently stands as one of the better cornerbacks in the game.
With Hayward gone, Randall and Rollins role were elevated, alongside Shields and Hyde, who was a valuable chess piece for Capers. Then in Week 1, Shields’ career with the Packers is over, both Randall and Rollins struggle throughout Year 2, and again the Packers are presented with a chance to re-up with a valuable piece of their secondary in Hyde following the season. They choose again not to foot the bill. And like Hayward, in his first season outside of Green Bay, he makes a Pro Bowl. The Shields’ problem could not have been foreseen, but not signing Hayward or Hyde was a predictable mistake.
Given they were going to break the bank for Chicago cornerback Kyle Fuller if the Bears allowed them to, the need at cornerback is not lost on the Packers. The jury is still out on 2017 second round pick, Kevin King, as he showed flashes as a rookie, but also dealt with injuries. The others who were called in to step up, Randall and Rollins, will be lost among the ruins of Packers lore, unless DeShone Kizer proves to be the heir apparent to Rodgers. Randall’s conversion from college safety to NFL cornerback went awry and Quentin Rollins hasn’t stayed healthy long enough to prove he’s not just an athlete still trying to make the transition from basketball. Thus, a void remained that bringing back Davon House and Tramon Williams won’t solve.
All of this takes us to Jaire Alexander. Calling him a flashpoint for the latter stages of the Rodgers era may be a tad hyperbolic, but it’s rare the Packers are drafting as high as they were slated to in 2018 and there’s a possibility they won’t be this high again with Rodgers at the helm, so making good on the draft capital befitting their poor 2017 season was a must. The craftiness by Gutekunst to trade down with New Orleans was one thing. But to find a team like Seattle willing to trade back down themselves, still net a win when factoring in both trades, and snagging a guy at 18 that you might have taken with your original pick is a huge victory. Alexander is not going to come in and be the number one cornerback right away. The nagging injuries he had to battle through in 2017 robbed him of valuable development time, he’s smaller than typical cornerbacks the Packers draft, and there are still technique questions that need to be addressed. But when you watch Alexander play, you realize he’s exactly what this defense needs. He’s a confident, athletic, playmaker who’s not afraid to mix it up with the ball in the air or attack the line of scrimmage in the run game.
Alexander ran a 4.38 40-yard dash at the combine which backs up the speed that jumps out on tape. His aggressiveness in coverage is what new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine desires. He wants his cornerbacks to be physical with opposing receivers, and despite Alexander’s diminutive stature, he’s not afraid to do that. His instincts and ability to mirror routes should play well from day one in the slot, which is a full-time position now. Whether he eventually moves outside shouldn’t matter if he’s able to prove himself there. The confidence he exudes on the field is something that hasn’t really been seen at the position for Green Bay since Woodson was roaming around. It tells you something about Alexander that he was drafted this high in spite of the injuries in 2017. I think he has a higher ceiling than Denzel Ward, who was selected #4 by Cleveland, and he will certainly get every opportunity to prove himself immediately with the Packers.
Round 5, Pick 172: J.K. Scott, P, Alabama
Round 7, Pick 239: Hunter Bradley, LS, Mississippi State
When you have eleven picks in the draft, you have the luxury of flexibility. Not that you want to deliberately throw picks away, but why not, instead of drafting for best player available, fill a hole on a roster when you need to? Or take a player designated solely for special teams? But if you draft two special teams players, they better start right away. That’s exactly what the Packers are counting on. Giving up a fifth round pick for Scott, one of the best punters in recent college history, wasn’t a necessity given the potential for development from 2017 rookie Justin Vogel, who also came well-regarded, yet undrafted, from the college ranks. Of the 34 players to record at least one punt in 2017, half went undrafted, but eight went higher than Scott did in their respective draft, so maybe it shouldn’t be so surprising for Scott to go 172. Scott, with his booming leg and tremendous placement, has the potential to be a legitimate weapon in the constant fight for field position. Throwing a pick at a punter if there is ample evidence to suggest he may be a game changer and there’s a chance he wouldn’t make it to the undrafted free agent market, might not be the worst idea.
Bradley’s selection, though, was even more surprising. Including Bradley, only five players designated as long snappers have been selected during the last ten drafts. The bad news is that only one of those players, New England’s Joe Cardona, lasted with his respective team more than one season. But the same could probably be said for a host of seventh round picks at other positions. The Packers went through three long-snappers last season in an attempt to find a long-term replacement for Brett Goode so this again, isn’t a bad gamble to take. If your opinion of the Packers draft is relegated to knocking the fact they took a long-snapper in the seventh round, they probably did a good job and maybe you need to reevaluate your priorities.
Immediate Role Player
Round 2, Pick 45: Josh Jackson, CB, Iowa
If there was one player that seemed to be pigeon-holed into a particular scheme in the pre-draft evaluation of prospects, it was Jackson. His inexperience in man coverage and outstanding ball skills had almost everyone pegging him as a logical pick for a Cover 3 system like Seattle’s. So of course, true to the accuracy of most mock drafts, that’s not where he he ended up. But when you really analyze what makes Jackson good – long arms, instincts, physicality, ball skills – you see exactly what Mike Pettine wants out of his cornerbacks.
One year of starting experience is going to potentially make it a tough transition in his first pro campaign, but seeing the evolution of Jackson as a player from non-starter in 2016 to All-American in 2017 should at least give some hope that he’s a quick study and his athleticism lends itself well to a more expedited ascent to a heavy role. While Alexander will be called on to have an immediate impact out of the slot, Jackson’s development into a player that can shut down the perimeter may be more crucial for the success of the Packers’ passing defense in the long term.
Round 3, Pick 88: Oren Burks, LB, Vanderbilt
The clamoring for an edge rusher at this spot was deafening, but given the relatively shallow class and the fact the Packers still believe young players like Vince Biegel, Chris Odom, Reggie Gilbert and Kyler Fackrell have considerable potential that has yet to be seen, an athlete like Burks was an intriguing selection here. With Morgan Burnett’s departure to Pittsburgh after spending a lot of the time in the box in the Packers defense, there was going to be a hole somewhere that either 2017 third-round pick Josh Jones or someone else was going to fill. The more likely scenario now is that Jones moves back to replace Burnett and Burks steps in to fill the swiss army knife type role that Jones played last season.
Independent of defensive schemes employed by the past and present coordinators of the Packers, the nature of the NFL in 2018 to combat the rise of the pass is to ensure your defense is as flexible as possible. A player like Burks allows that. Burks was a one-time safety who moved to linebacker during his final two seasons, and while he may not have the instincts to play a traditional inside linebacker role, he will have the luxury of using his athletic ability to attack and cover in Pettine’s scheme. Pettine has stated he wants his defensive scheme to appear multiple while not over-complicating things, which seems to fit Burks’ profile perfectly while also allowing for a quick transition. Blake Martinez took a huge step at inside linebacker last season and Jones should see a majority of his time at safety this season to replace Burnett, meaning Burks’ impact may not only be on special teams.
Round 5, Pick 138: Cole Madison, OG, Washington State
If there’s one position I’m confident the Packers front office can scout in the later rounds, it’s the offensive line. Of their projected 2018 starters, one was drafted in the fourth round (David Bakhtiari), one in the fifth (Corey Linsley) and two undrafted were free agents (Justin McCray, Lane Taylor). That’s not to say that none of those positions require upgrades if a better option were to come along, most notable the position currently manned by McCray, but it speaks to the Packers ability to harness and develop offensive line talent that these players would even be in a position to start for a team hell-bent on returning to the playoffs.
A part of this is self-awareness as an organization and a commitment to finding players that they believe fit what they want out of an offensive lineman. The Packers often value strength, intelligence and toughness more than anything else in the later rounds while other teams may take shots on raw athletic talent. To the Packers, warts are more easily covered up then having to teach someone to play the position. Madison, who played tackle in college, may not have the requisite measurables to start there in the NFL in the long term, but given his footwork, athletic ability, smarts and experience, there is a lot for them to develop in the short term, potentially at guard.
Round 4, Pick 133: J’Mon Moore, WR, Missouri
Round 5, Pick 172: Marquez Valdes-Scantling, WR, South Florida
Round 6, Pick 207: Equanimeous St. Brown, WR, Notre Dame
To cure their lack of depth at wide receiver, the Packers waited until the fourth round, but took a “let’s throw some spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks” approach. Moore being drafted in the fourth round above the other two players may give him the perceived leg up on whatever wide receiver competition rears its head this offseason in Green Bay, but you could have told me St. Brown went in the fourth, Moore went in the fifth and Valdes-Scantling went in the sixth or some other combination and it would be just as believable. All stand at least 6’3’’. All weigh at least 200 pounds. And each has enough upside to make one believe they’ll have an immediate impact while simultaneously showing the warts that make one understand the reason they weren’t taken higher.
Moore got by mainly on raw ability while being aided by the wide open Missouri offense, running a simplified route tree and fighting the drops. Like most receivers, there will be a learning curve, but at least Moore has a strong athletic profile to start with. Only three players in the Football Bowl Subdivision had 60 catches, 1,000 yards and 16 yards per catch in both 2016 and 2017: Denver second-round pick Courtland Sutton, Pittsburgh second-round pick James Washington and Moore. Valdes-Scantling, much like Moore, is a height-weight-speed prospect who just needs a little time to develop. His production wasn’t at Moore’s level, but he exhibits many of the same traits. St. Brown was one of the most intriguing prospects in the draft in my book.
Coming into the 2017 college football season, there could have been arguments made that no wide receiver had more to gain coming into the season than the Notre Dame wideout. And those strides may have been made had DeShone Kizer returned to South Bend for another season. However, the Irish inserted quarterback Brandon Wimbush to replace Kizer, and despite his athletic ability and strong arm, his inaccuracy set the Irish aerial attack back and relegated St. Brown to a spectator for most of the season as the Irish won on the ground. But if you throw on tape of St. Brown from 2016, you see there is a savvy and understanding of the game maybe not apparent in the other two prospects the Packers drafted, but there also may not be as much upside. St. Brown’s speed shows up after the catch rather than in creating separation off the snap, which makes him the unique big-bodied wide receiver who may be better suited turning short-gaines into long ones or settling into zone a la Anquan Boldin.
The Packers knew they needed more weapons for Rodgers and it appears they know they needed a different kind of weapon: a bigger, athletic body that shows superior athletic traits. Davante Adams will be the #1 on the outside who wins with savvy and route running. Randall Cobb needs to get back to winning from the slot and getting the ball in space. Newly acquired tight end Jimmy Graham will be a goal-line threat and potential seam nightmare against linebackers. Ty Montgomery still could bounce back to wide receiver after the successful rookie campaigns of Jamaal Williams and Aaron Jones, but if he’s used at wide receiver, it’s going to mirror what Cobb provides. There’s probably a better chance at this point that either Geronimo Allison or DeAngelo Yancey provide more substantial contributions than any of these three receivers in their first year, but at the very least, they’ve got three prospects with potential and they just need one of them to stick.
Round 7, Pick 232: James Looney, DL, California
Round 7, Pick 248: Kendall Donnerson, OLB, Southeast Missouri State
Taking fliers on guys with proven athleticism that may simply need development – in both football and strength – is not a bad way to spend seventh round picks. Looney needs to find a way to add bulk in order to play on the defensive line in the NFL while maintaining the athleticism and instincts that allowed him to be drafted in the first place. Donnerson, on the other hand, has the size and athleticism required of a rush linebacker in the NFL, but needs extensive work on the very basics of pass rushing: hand work, counters moves, being able to set the edge, etc. I expect Looney and Donnerson to find places on the practice squad this season with Looney potentially climbing onto the roster in 2019 and Donnerson being the ultimate lottery ticket.
Notable Undrafted Free Agents
Tim Boyle, QB, Eastern Kentucky
Austin Davis, C, Duke
Naashon Hughes, OLB, Texas
Tyler Lancaster, DL, Northwestern
Alex Light, G, Richmond
Greer Martini, LB, Notre Dame
Conor Sheehy, DL, Wisconsin