The Packers veered from their traditional best-player-available mantra to address key roster needs in NFL draft
GREEN BAY – The old mantra repeated habitually this time of year holds true. Drafting college prospects is about taking the best available player, regardless of position, no matter a team’s needs.
Brian Gutekunst’s history in the NFL draft suggests he follows the old mantra like an instruction manual. “He’s as good,” Green Bay Packers co-director of player personnel Jon-Eric Sullivan said, “at letting the board come to him as anyone I’ve ever been around.” But even a hardened talent scout couldn't ignore the obvious about this Packers' roster entering the 2022 draft.
“I mean, look,” Sullivan said, “it’s no secret we needed pass catchers.”
After defiantly declining to acknowledge he needed to draft receivers when the Packers' first two picks Thursday night were spent on defenders, Gutekunst pivoted this draft toward that open secret. He wasted no time Friday evening rocketing to the top of the second round, dealing the 53rd and 59th picks to draft North Dakota State receiver Christian Watson with the 34th. Subtly, Gutekunst targeted another significant need in the third round, drafting UCLA offensive lineman Sean Rhyan with the 92nd pick.
Time will tell whether Gutekunst indeed drafted the best players available when his team was on the clock. Instant analysis doesn’t work with the draft, where players are selected on projection of what they might do two, three, four years later. What’s clear is the Packers, a team with one glaring need and several minor deficiencies, systematically worked the soft spots on their roster in this draft.
Receiver, of course, was the most pressing vacancy Gutekunst needed to fill. After trading Davante Adams to the Las Vegas Raiders and losing a bidding battle with the Kansas City Chiefs for Marquez Valdes-Scantling, the Packers were left with older veterans at the position. It was no surprise when Gutekunst opened the draft’s final day selecting Nevada receiver Romeo Doubs, who like Watson has the size at 6-2, 201 pounds the Packers' personnel department covets. Doubs ran a pedestrian 40 clocked in the 4.5s at his pro day, but he posted big numbers in four seasons with the Wolf Pack, including 80 catches for 1,109 yards and 11 touchdowns as a senior.
The Packers closed their draft selecting Nebraska receiver Samori Toure.
“I think we certainly added some competition,” Gutekunst said. “I think that was really important. It’s not the only position where we added a lot of competition, but certainly we’re very much of the belief that competition is going to bring out the best, and the cream is going to rise. That’s something we needed to do, and I think we accomplished that.”
Much of this draft hinges on whether Watson develops into a productive NFL receiver. Coach Matt LaFleur was able to get intel from within his family on Watson. New York Jets offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur coached Watson at the Senior Bowl.
When the Packers hosted Watson, Matt LaFleur said he “conned” the receiver into talking a little smack about his brother.
“I said, ‘What do you think of that dude who was walking around with his hat on backward, was carrying a coffee cup?’” LaFleur said. “I was like, ‘He’s kind of a jerk, isn’t he?’ He was like, ‘Yeah, he was kind of a jerk.’"
Matt LaFleur liked how Watson can be kind of a jerk to opposing cornerbacks in the run game.
More: Packers draft two players off Georgia defense after early run on receivers
More: Packers trade up to draft receiver Christian Watson of North Dakota State
“One thing I really liked,” Matt LaFleur said, “was when you watched him block. I think that says a lot about a player, his willingness especially at that position. Because we all know those guys, they want to go out there, they want to get the big plays, but what are they willing to do for their teammates? I watched his run-blocking reel, which isn’t the most exciting reel when you’re talking about wide receivers, but just to see the effort that he gave down in and down out in that aspect of the game, we could always use somebody like that.
“Especially when you’re talking about a 6-4 guy, he’s over 200 pounds, he runs a sub-4.4. There’s a lot to be excited there.”
If this draft ultimately hinges on whether the Packers restocked their receiver depth chart, offensive line was another significant need. Attrition has thinned the Packers' offensive line for two seasons. Their two best players are recovering from torn ACLs, leaving left tackle David Bakhtiari and left guard Elgton Jenkins’ impact on the field uncertain for 2022. Yosh Nijman will get the first crack at winning the right tackle job, but creating competition for the position was important.
Eight picks after drafting Doubs, Gutekunst doubled down on offensive line with Wake Forest’s Zach Tom. A left tackle the past two seasons, Tom started his college career at center. Sullivan said his positional versatility reminds him of Billy Turner, a starter the past three years who signed as a free agent with the Denver Broncos this spring.
“That was one of the things that attracted us to him,” Sullivan said. “We feel like he’s a five-tool guy.”
If Nijman’s impressive play in spot duty as a fill-in left tackle last season proves to be an aberration, the Packers now have multiple options. Rhyan and Tom likely will rep at right tackle this offseason, though neither has the arm length teams want at the position (32 3/8 inches for Rhyan, 33 1/4 for Tom). Jenkins is a potentially attractive fallback, though he’s unlikely to be available when the season starts because of his knee injury, and he was a Pro Bowl left guard in 2020.
“Our numbers were a little lower (at offensive line) than they have been in the past,” Gutekunst said. “Coming into the draft, I’d like to be at 11 or 12. I think we were at nine. So we knew we wanted to add to that room to create some competition and get the best out of it.”
Aside from receiver, no need on the Packers' roster was more glaring than special teams. The unit that prevented an otherwise championship-caliber roster from reaching the Super Bowl already has a new coordinator in Rich Bisaccia, but the Packers need special-teams players too. Gutekunst stockpiled picks at the back of the draft, where special teamers are taken. A trade with the Broncos in the fifth round acquired an extra seventh-round pick, giving them four.
The Packers used their first on Georgia Tech safety Tariq Carpenter, who at 6-3, 230 pounds ran a 40 clocked around 4.5 seconds, the type of size and speed that fits nicely in special-teams coverage. Two rounds earlier, they drafted their long edge rusher of the draft, South Carolina’s Kingsley Enagbare. A first-team All-SEC defender in 2020, Enagbare dropped in the draft after running one of the worst 40 times in the class at 4.87 seconds.
Gutekunst said Enagbare and Carpenter were drafted at least in part because of their special-teams potential.
“I think we’ve got to change that,” Gutekunst said of how the franchise approaches special teams. “We’ve got to get better there. So I think we’re kind of open to a lot of different things than maybe we would’ve done in the past.”
More: Twitter reacts to the Packers finally drafting a receiver in the second round
More:Twitter reacts to the Packers selection of Georgia linebacker Quay Walker in the first round
It’s uncommon for a team to fill every need in a draft. The Packers’ edge rush entered the weekend lacking depth, and Gutekunst didn’t target the position until drafting Enagbare. The Packers were enamored with Enagbare because of the way he sets a hard edge, but his lack of quick-twitch athleticism will make it difficult to contribute as a pass rusher. Rashan Gary and Preston Smith offer an impressive bookend, but both will need to stay healthy this fall.
Tight end also remains a big concern. The Packers didn’t draft a tight end, leaving Marcedes Lewis and Josiah Deguara as their top two until Robert Tonyan returns from a torn ACL. There were no slot corners, indicating Jaire Alexander might end up playing a healthy portion of snaps in the middle of the field. But this draft left a clear impression on where Gutekunst believed his greatest deficiencies were located.
Now he needs the players drafted to fill those voids to develop as hoped.
“You always feel good right now,” LaFleur said, “but bottom line is you have to get these guys in here and see what they can do.”