The Green Bay Packers choose Iowa cornerback Josh Jackson in the second round of the 2018 NFL draft. Aaron Nagler/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin
Brian Gutekunst went all-in on pass coverage in the first three rounds of the Green Bay Packers’ draft.
But the rookie general manager did it at the expense of outside pass rush, a position the Packers have amazingly neglected in the prime rounds of the draft for six years now.
Gutekunst clearly was hell bent on building up his pass defense after the carnage of the last two years, which saw the Packers finish No. 26 in defensive passer rating in 2016 and No. 31 last year. In a passing league, that’s a tough way to win games. This had to be the priority.
Gutekunst did with coverage only, though, by adding Iowa cornerback Josh Jackson (No. 45 overall) in the second round and trading into the third round for Vanderbilt coverage linebacker Oren Burks (No. 88), after selecting cornerback Jaire Alexander (No. 18) in the first round Thursday.
Fair enough. The Packers need all the help they can get there.
But when you take a player at one position of priority, you’re neglecting another priority. And Gutekunst’s first draft continues a run in which the Packers at the top of the draft have neglected the most important part of pass defense: rushing the quarterback. In the last six years, they’ve picked an outside rusher in the first three rounds only once, and that was Kyler Fackrell, a third-rounder in 2016 who after two seasons is looking very much like a miss.
Maybe Gutekunst’s picks Thursday and Friday speak in part to his assessment of this year’s class of outside rushers. But he could have maneuvered for one if he’d wanted, and it really is stunning that since picking Nick Perry in the first round in 2012, the only outside rusher the Packers have selected in the first three rounds is Fackrell. Yet, it’s been a need the entire time, because the best chance defenses have of slowing down the NFL’s top quarterbacks is with pressure.
“I don’t think you can fill all your – you know, it’s not about filling holes,” Gutekunst said. “It’s about just taking real good football players, which we did today. We have the whole day (Saturday) with eight picks. And I think we have some (rushers) that probably weren’t able to show what they can do last year as much as we would like to.
“Reggie Gilbert had a really good end of the year, and (Vince) Biegel we’ll look at having a good second-year jump. But I think there will be opportunities tomorrow or even further down the line for (drafting rushers).”
When Gutekunst picked Jackson at No. 45, one outside rusher of renown had just come off the board: Boston College’s Harold Landry. Tennessee traded four spots ahead of the Packers to take him.
Some other pass rushers still available, though, were USC's Uchenna Nwosu, who went to the Los Angeles Chargers at No. 48; Rutgers’ Kemoko Turay (Indianapolis at No. 52); Ohio State’s Tyquan Lewis (Indianapolis at No. 64); Georgia’s Lorenzo Carter (New York Giants, No. 66); and Ohio State’s Sam Hubbard (Cincinnati, No. 77).
Also on the board at No. 45 were Texas A&M receiver Christian Kirk (Arizona at No. 47) and South Dakota State tight end Dallas Goedert (Philadelphia at No. 49), both positions of need for the Packers.
Gutekunst and coach Mike McCarthy no doubt feel a lot better today about matching up in pass coverage with their revamped cornerback corps than they did last season. Their top four cornerbacks now are Kevin King, Tramon Williams, Alexander and Jackson, none of whom were on the active roster at the end of 2017. King was recovering from shoulder surgery, Williams was playing with the Arizona Cardinals, and the two draft picks were in college.
Gutekunst alluded to the eight picks he has left Saturday to address his other needs, including the rush, but he’s now outside of the prime top three rounds. It’s possible to find good players and even difference makers in any round, but it takes a lot of skill and luck to do it, especially with outside rushers, where there’s a premium on explosiveness that usually gets them drafted higher.
So the Packers again are putting a lot of their pass rush on the precarious health of Perry and aging Clay Matthews, which didn’t work out so well last season, along with the defensive scheming of new coordinator Mike Pettine. They have to hope Pettine is as good as advertised.
They‘re also looking for big jumps from Biegel, the 2017 fourth-rounder whose playing time as a rookie was limited after he had surgery on both feet last offseason, and Gilbert, who spent most of last year on the practice squad.
Nothing wrong with hoping they might add something, but it’s not something I’d be counting on if I were the Packers.
In the meantime, Gutekunst has made over the Packers’ cornerback corps for the second time in four years -- his predecessor, Ted Thompson, did the same in 2015 by drafting Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins with his top two picks.
Randall proved to not be as confident as his demeanor suggested, and he probably was miscast as a cornerback instead of his more natural free-safety position. He also had a temperamental streak, and McCarthy couldn’t get him out of the locker room quickly enough with a trade to Cleveland this offseason.
2018 NFL DRAFT: Green Bay Packers picks
Rollins’ future, in the meantime, is in doubt because of the torn Achilles tendon last season.
Regardless, if we call the nickel back a starting position, which it is in today’s NFL, then barring any issues with King’s shoulder, he’ll be one starter. It’s probably safe to say one of the two rookies also will start, and maybe both depending on how much the 35-year-old Williams has left in the tank.
In Jackson, Gutekunst added a cornerback with good length (6-0 3/8, 196) and change of direction (6.86-second three cone, 4.03 short shuttle) and great ball skills (eight interceptions as a first-year starter last season), but suspect speed. His first electronically timed 40 at the NFL scouting combine was 4.59 seconds, his second 4.48 seconds.
“It goes back to his awareness and IQ for the game,” Packers area scout Alonzo Dotson said. “He knows how to cut things off and leverage routes. The speed never really worried us because he's just so smart and he's always in the right position to play the ball. Obviously, the end result is getting the ball, and he will do that.”
In drafting Burks, the Packers added a player to solve their coverage issues at inside linebacker, which is becoming more and more important in matching up in the passing game in the NFL. If he’s what they think he is, he might be one of their nickel inside linebackers by the first game, and perhaps their dime linebacker by the end of the season. He has good length for the position (6-3 1/8, 33 3/8-inch arms) and more speed (4.59-second 40) than any of the other inside linebackers on the roster.
“Athletic linebackers like him can do so much, not only in the run game but in coverage,” Gutekunst said. “They're just really, really hard to find. There’s a lot of guys that can do one thing really well. But both? Those guys are tough to find.”
Now the question is whether Gutekunst can uncover a pass rusher, among other things, on the crapshoot that’s the final day of the draft.