How taking T.J. Watt could've altered Packers' draft

Michael Cohen
Packers News
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Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker T.J. Watt (90) celebrates after making a play against the Jacksonville Jaguars on 
Oct. 8, 2017.

GREEN BAY - The evening of April 27 was unfolding beautifully for legions of fans across the state whose rooting interests include both the Green Bay Packers and Wisconsin Badgers.

On the professional level, where the Packers held the 29th pick in the NFL draft, an early scramble for quarterbacks left a buffet of enticing prospects at the back end of the first round. And on the collegiate level, where the Badgers produced a pair of first-round picks, a Wisconsin native named T.J. Watt seemed to dovetail with the Packers’ need for edge rushers after a meteoric rise in Madison.

“I thought it was a legitimate possibility that I could go to Green Bay,” Watt said in a conference call this week, “but they didn’t want me.”

Instead, general manager Ted Thompson traded the No. 29 pick to the Cleveland Browns in exchange for the 33rd and 108th overall selections, the first pick in both the second and fourth rounds, and turned them into cornerback Kevin King of Washington and outside linebacker Vince Biegel of Wisconsin. The Pittsburgh Steelers snagged Watt one pick later, at No. 30, and the rookie has 4 sacks in nine games.

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It’s fun to imagine, however, what might have happened had everything gone according to the Wisconsinite’s dream, with Thompson never trading the 29th pick and using it on Watt instead.

So consider this alternative draft scenario a blend of hindsight and revisionist history:

First round: By the start of the draft, Thompson already has said goodbye to outside linebackers Julius Peppers and Datone Jones, both of whom left the Packers in free agency. His current rotation includes Clay Matthews, Nick Perry, Kyler Fackrell and Jayrone Elliott — two players with legitimate credentials and two youngsters who are far from proven.

Thompson scans the league and recognizes the importance of ferocious pass rushers in cities such as Denver, Oakland, Atlanta and Seattle. He sees the nexus between productive defenses and winning football. The choice is made to draft Watt with the 29th overall selection. Watt rises to third on the depth chart by the midway point of the regular season.

Second round: Thompson’s decision to select an outside linebacker over a cornerback benefits the eight teams who bolster their secondary before the Packers are on the clock for the second time. The run on cornerbacks does not begin until the 11th pick of the second round, at which point the Philadelphia Eagles select King. Like many teams, the Eagles have spent weeks familiarizing themselves with a Washington secondary that produces three second-round picks.

There is nothing but smiles inside the Packers’ draft room as defensive backs slide deeper and deeper into the second round. The Dallas Cowboys, who pick one spot before the Packers, select cornerback Teez Tabor from Florida. Thompson wastes no time selecting hybrid defensive back Chidobe Awuzie from Colorado with the 60th pick.

Awuzie gives defensive coordinator Dom Capers the versatility he lost through the departure of Micah Hyde, a Swiss army knife at nearly every position in the secondary. With good size (6 feet, 202 pounds) and speed (4.43 seconds), Awuzie played everywhere from corner to safety to inside linebacker for Colorado. He will be used similarly to current Packers safety Josh Jones (the actual second-round pick).

Trade: Because Thompson made the real-life trade with Cleveland, it’s reasonable to assume he would be open to making a move in our revisionist version of the draft as well. In truth, Thompson is uncertain about the cornerback position even after drafting Awuzie, who likely will be deployed elsewhere throughout the secondary. He wants to believe in Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins, his first- and second-round picks from 2015, but the general perception among talent evaluators is that neither player has the goods to become a shutdown corner.

With a nudge from several members of his personnel department, Thompson puts in a call to Indianapolis Colts general manager Chris Ballard. With the Eagles grabbing King three spots earlier, the Colts took a risk on cornerback Sidney Jones, who was King’s teammate in college. Jones was considered by some to be a better prospect until he tore his Achilles at Washington’s pro day earlier this year. He won’t be ready to play until the second half of the 2017 season.

Nonetheless, Thompson recognizes the opportunity. He agrees with Ballard on a deal that will send Jones to Green Bay in exchange for the Packers’ third-round pick and one of their fifth-round picks. Thompson views it as an ideal scenario: He adds another first-round talent to his secondary and still gets the first three months of the regular season to evaluate Randall and Rollins before Jones is healthy.

Third round: Pick is traded to the Indianapolis Colts as part of the deal for Sidney Jones.

Fourth round: The Packers have only one pick in the fourth round after standing firm and selecting Watt with the 29th selection two days earlier. And just as he did in real life, Thompson uses the pick on running back Jamaal Williams from Brigham Young.

Though Ty Montgomery has completed the change from receiver to running back, the Packers recognize that durability and workload questions remain. In Williams, the Packers add a player who is unafraid in pass protection and runs with an aggressive style. He will enter training camp as the No. 2 tailback on the depth chart and rounds into form by mid-November after a slow start to the regular season.

Fifth round: Thompson parted ways with the 172nd overall pick as part of his trade with the Colts earlier in the draft. This means wide receiver DeAngelo Yancey is never drafted by the Packers and begins his professional football career somewhere else.

However, the Packers were awarded a compensatory pick after cornerback Casey Hayward and quarterback Scott Tolzien departed through free agency. This pick, the 184th overall selection, nets the Packers another running back in Aaron Jones of UTEP. Jones will turn out to be a terrific prospect with the type of vision and natural running ability Montgomery lacks. He assumes a starting role by late October.

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Sixth round: In reality, the Packers used their sixth-round pick on offensive lineman Kofi Amichia from South Florida. They took a chance on a height-weight-speed player with good athleticism and, in hindsight, that seemed to be a significant reach. Amichia did not make the 53-man roster.

But in a revisionist’s world — perhaps even a world where the Packers recognize the deficiencies with backup quarterback Brett Hundley — Thompson and his staff go in a different direction with the 212th overall pick. Instead of Amichia, who will wind up on the practice squad after a dismal training camp, the Packers take a chance on quarterback Brad Kaaya from Miami, who in real life was drafted by the Lions three picks later.

Kaaya entered the draft early after starting his first three years at Miami. He completed 62 percent of his passes as a junior and threw 27 touchdowns against just seven interceptions. He is far from a surefire pick — there are plenty of questions about his accuracy — but the Packers should have reliable insight on Kaaya through senior personnel executive Alonzo Highsmith, who played at Miami.

With questions about Hundley, there’s nothing wrong with taking a chance on Kaaya.

Trade: In real life, the Packers executed another trade on the third day of the draft to net themselves an extra seventh-round pick. They moved back three spots in the fifth round to swap places with the Denver Broncos, and their reward was the 238th overall selection. Thompson doesn’t do that in our revisionist world because he is confident Amichia will be available as a priority undrafted free agent at the conclusion of the seventh round.

Seventh round: A week before Thanksgiving, running backs coach Ben Sirmans told reporters he saw a number of positive traits on Devante Mays’ college tape prior to the draft. Sirmans knew Mays was a borderline seventh-round pick given his injury history and lack of experience in college, but he was pleased to see Thompson take a chance and pull the trigger.

The Packers make the same move in our revisionist version of the draft with their original seventh-round pick, the 247th overall selection. This means wide receiver Malachi Dupre — who in real life was cut and not re-signed to the practice squad — must break into the league somewhere else. Mays ranks fourth on the depth chart throughout training camp and the regular season but gets a chance to play after injuries to Montgomery and Jones. 

It's anyone's guess why the Packers turned away from Watt on draft night, but come Sunday they will find out in person what they might have missed. 

Packers' alternative draft review:

Round 1, No. 29 — T.J. Watt, OLB, Wisconsin

Round 2, No. 46 — Sidney Jones, CB, Washington *

Round 2, No. 60 — Chidobe Awuzie, DB, Colorado

Round 4, No. 134 — Jamaal Williams, RB, BYU

Round 5, No. 184 — Aaron Jones, RB, UTEP ^

Round 6, No. 212 — Brad Kaaya, QB, Miami

Round 7, No. 247 — Devante Mays, RB, Utah State

* pick acquired via trade

^ compensatory pick 

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