GREEN BAY – It’s always a swipe in the dark projecting how an NFL draft class will perform, but if you were going to give first-year Green Bay Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst the benefit of the doubt, you could certainly make a case he has positioned his team for a Super Bowl run.
In 2019, that is.
Gutekunst sat at No. 14 in the first round of the 2018 draft with a chance to land an instant defensive starter and potential impact player with Pro Bowl potential, but given the opportunity to secure a first-round pick in the 2019 draft, he decided to trade all the way back to the No. 27 position.
Here is likely how Gutekunst looked at: I can have either linebacker Tremaine Edmunds or safety Derwin James – premium athletes with big-school experience and No. 1 or 2 positional ranking in the ’18 draft class – or I can have a lesser-rated player PLUS an undetermined first-round player next season.
In other words, it was a two-for-one deal.
The catch is that while the Chicago Bears selected an instant starter at No. 9 with inside linebacker Roquan Smith and the Detroit Lions drafted a likely starter in center/guard Frank Ragnow, the Packers moved back and then up to No. 18 and grabbed Louisville cornerback Jaire Alexander.
NFL DRAFT: Complete pick-by-pick draft choices
Anyone who has been around the NFL for a while knows that it’s difficult for cornerbacks to excel right away. So, it’s very possible the Bears and Lions will take greater leaps forward this year than the Packers.
Maybe the 2018 cornerback class will produce more of 2017’s Marshon Lattimore, Adoree Jackson and Tre’Davious White, but history tells you that you could just as easily wind up with a Gareon Conley, Kevin King or William Jackson, none of whom made it through their rookie seasons, let alone produced as a starter.
In the NFC North alone, Minnesota’s Xavier Rhodes and Detroit’s Darius Slay, the two best corners by far, started a total of 10 games their rookie seasons. It took them, as talented as they were, a full year before either of them even had an interception.
The Packers have seen with King, Damarious Randall, Quentin Rollins and Demetri Goodson over the past four drafts that mining an immediate starting corner out of the draft isn’t easy. They received a decent contribution from Micah Hyde in 2013, but the last corner to make a mark was second-round pick Casey Hayward, who had six interceptions as a nickel back in 2012.
There’s a chance the 5-10, 196-pound Alexander will prove to be physically mature and talented enough to put the clamps down on top NFL receivers, but Alexander had hand and knee injuries last year and might find himself in the same boat as King (shoulder surgery) last year.
The other corner the Packers took, Iowa’s Josh Jackson, has all the tools to be an NFL starter, but several scouts seemed surprised the Packers selected him because they thought of him as a zone corner. Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine likes his corners to play press man coverage and that means Jackson is going to have to learn a new way to play.
Several personnel people said they could not blame Gutekunst for trading back once he received an offer of a future first-round pick. As certain as they were that he would take Edmunds or James, they said every personnel man on the planet drools when he thinks about first-round picks.
“I’m a scout, I love picks,” one personnel director said. “Both are really good players, but we all love picks. It’s risky, for sure.”
Said another college scout: “I was shocked they didn’t take Edmunds. The No. 1 next year was just too sweet. We liked Alexander where they took him (No. 18).”
If you think obtaining picks in future years is dumb, consider that New England’s Bill Belichick traded away picks in this draft for a second (Chicago), third (Detroit) and seventh (Philadelphia) in 2019. If New England is doing it, there’s a pretty good chance it’s a smart thing to do.
But as bountiful as that additional first-round pick might turn out for the Packers, Gutekunst did have to trade a third-round pick to move back up to take Alexander. That selection, No. 76 overall, could have been used to take edge rusher Sam Hubbard, inside linebacker Malik Jefferson, tackle Martinas Rankin or receiver Michael Gallup.
Instead, to get back into the third round, Gutekunst had to trade the first pick in the fourth round and a fifth-round pick.
The bottom line is that obtaining that extra first-round pick diluted what the Packers got out of the ’18 draft. There are only so many players who can make a difference as a rookie and most of them are taken within the first 15 picks of the draft.
It’s possible third-round linebacker Oren Burks will play a decent amount, but remember how it took Blake Martinez a year to find his footing in the NFL. Well, he went to Stanford and so even though Burks is a bright guy, he’s probably going to struggle.
The wide receivers Gutekunst took – J’Mon Moore, Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Equanimeous St. Brown – are all marvelous athletes, but name a Packers wide receiver who came in and lit it up his first year in coach Mike McCarthy’s offense. And those very best ones were taken in the second round, not in the fourth, fifth and sixth.
It’s always possible that fifth-round guard Cole Madison will win a starting job and punter JK Scott will be a first-year sensation. But is that really going to put the Packers over the top in 2018?
As McCarthy noted after the draft, it’s the 2016 and ’17 classes that are going to have to provide the push this year. As much as fans wanted Gutekunst to load up for a Super Bowl run this year, he merely did what his predecessor Ted Thompson did the year before, which is take advantage of the strongest positions in the draft and raise the talent level.
“We’re trying to build on our team and create competition at every spot that we could,” Gutekunst said Saturday. “We felt really good about our board and knowing it, and knowing where the value is.
“We had some unexpected players fall our way that maybe it didn’t make sense from the numbers perspective, but they were good football players we wanted to acquire. And that’s what we did. But there’s been a foundation set for a long time, and it’s just about continuing to build on that.”
This wasn’t the year for Gutekunst to go crazy in free agency, either. He had a limited amount of salary-cap space and there wasn’t anyone for whom it was worth breaking the bank. The addition of tight end Jimmy Graham, defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson and any other castoff veteran Gutekunst acquires in the coming months will have to be enough.
Looking ahead, however, Gutekunst will be flush with cap space next season. Among those coming off the books are linebacker Clay Matthews, receiver Randall Cobb, safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, linebacker Jake Ryan and tight end Lance Kendricks.
A cursory glance at the 2019 cap shows the Packers could have more than $50 million in cap space to sign their own and other teams’ free agents. Add in the two first-round draft choices and whatever advancement the 2018 class shows and the Packers could be a very good place next year.
As for the present, they’ve still got Aaron Rodgers and the hope that previous draft choices will blossom this year, but no one should come away with the feeling that the 2018 draft was anything more than an exercise in long-term franchise building.
The fans’ rallying cry should probably be, “2019 or bust."