It won’t be hard to judge the Green Bay Packers’ first round of the 2018 draft in a couple years.
New general manager Brian Gutekunst passed on linebacker Tremaine Edmunds and safety Derwin James at No. 14 overall to maneuver around the first round and end up picking cornerback Jaire Alexander four slots later.
If Edmunds or James, or Marcus Davenport for that matter, ends up being a difference maker, and Alexander doesn’t, this was a mistake. Even though the Packers came out with New Orleans’ 2019 first-rounder, they more than anything need a playmaker on defense. They can’t afford to have passed on that kind of player for future draft capital, especially at the cost of a third-rounder this year to move back up from 27 to 18.
But if Alexander outperforms them, then this will have been a great move that helps the team in the short term as well as adding a valuable pick in next year’s draft.
2018 NFL DRAFT: Green Bay Packers picks
“It was just too good to pass up, quite frankly," Gutekunst said of his trades. “Those first-round picks don’t come around very often. We just thought it was in our best interests to do that. We were going to get the same valued player, in my mind, once that trade (back up to 18) came up.”
Picking Alexander addressed one of the Packers’ two greatest needs – the other was outside pass rusher. Receiver and offensive line don’t rank far behind that, but the Packers were desperate for another cover man with real ability. Alexander figures to start immediately, either at outside cornerback or the slot.
He adds real speed (4.38-second 40) and athletic talent to a defense that has lacked those qualities.
“Jaire is a guy we’ve targeted all along,” said Jon-Eric Sullivan, the Packers’ director of college scouting. “We’ve liked him from the outset. The guy’s a really good football player.”
The dealing around, though, came at a potential cost in the here and now in favor of 2019 and beyond. With his two trades Thursday night, back to 27 and then up to 18, Gutekunst in essence moved back four spots and gave up a third-round pick this year in exchange for a likely late first-rounder (New Orleans’) next year. When next year’s draft rolls around, he’ll be glad to have that pick, either to draft two guys in the first round, or as trade capital.
But you have to wonder whether the Packers are in position to think that much about the future, even if it’s only a year from now, with quarterback Aaron Rodgers turning to 35 in December and the clock ticking. This team needs good players now.
True, we have to remember that Gutekunst still has 11 picks remaining in this draft, so he could move back into the third round Friday. His remaining selections include his second-rounder (No. 45), two fourth-rounders and four fifth-rounders.
Teams generally regard the first three rounds as prime picks, so giving up a third-rounder was no small thing, and moving back up into the third would be significant, too.
But we also have to remember that Gutekunst could have picked at No. 14, kept his third-rounder this year and used some of his excess draft capital to trade up for a second third-round selection. He preferred waiting for the 2019 first-rounder instead.
He strongly suggested he plans to move back into the third round on Friday.
“The way that our board looks now, I would assume we’d move around a little bit,” he said. “We have a lot of picks, and there’s areas of the board that we feel really good about, so I would assume that we would.”
Either way, you have to think the Packers considered Alexander a prospect on the same level as Edmunds and James. Otherwise, all this trading around made no sense. Seattle also was a little desperate because it didn’t have a second- or third-round pick going into this draft and badly wanted a pick in one of those rounds. The Packers took advantage on their move up from 27 to 18.
In Edmunds, the Packers passed on a defensive player who appeared to be a good fit for new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine’s scheme that emphasizes versatility. Edmunds is an elite athlete for his position (6-4 ½, 253 pounds, 4.54 40) and appeared capable of playing inside linebacker and as an outside rusher in the Packers’ 3-4, 4-3 hybrid scheme.
Some scouts considered him one of a handful of likely difference makers on defense in this draft. He ended up going to Buffalo at No. 16 overall.
James, likewise, doesn’t play a position of primary need for the Packers, safety. But he also offered the possibility of being a difference maker as a safety around the line of scrimmage and playing some linebacker as well. He went No. 17 overall to the Los Angeles Chargers.
“We would have been happy with either one of those players as well,” Gutekunst said. “But we just thought this (first-round pick) was something we couldn’t pass up.”
The Packers also could have stayed at 14 and picked outside linebacker Marcus Davenport of Texas-San Antonio. In fact, the team that traded up to 14, New Orleans, used it to take Davenport even with Edmunds and James on the board.
With his first-ever pick Gutekunst emphasized speed, competitiveness, character and a big-school pedigree where he played against top competition.
“We think he’s got the makeup to be a high-caliber player,” Sullivan said of Alexander. “Again, he’s a good kid. He’s very competitive. He’s tough. He was voted team captain, his teammates like him, he was a leader there. Everybody there speaks highly of him. As excited as we are about the player on the field, we’re also excited about what he’s bringing to the locker room. That’s important.”
Alexander doesn’t quite meet the 5-10 ½ height minimum the Packers have traditionally had for defensive backs since Ron Wolf missed by drafting Terrell Buckley in 1992 – Alexander is 5-10 1/4 – but he is an explosive athlete. Besides his 4.39 40, he also tested well in short-area quickness. According to mockdraftable.com, his 6.71 three-cone drill ranks in the 86th percentile of cornerbacks at the scouting combine dating back to 1999, as did his 3.98-second short shuttle.
“He’s an exciting cover corner who has explosive speed, physical, aggressive, competitive kid,” Gutekunst said.
Now we’ll have to watch and wait for a couple years to see whether Gutekunst made the right call by taking Alexander rather than sitting and picking Edmunds, James or Davenport at 14.