It’s no longer too early to say the Green Bay Packers should have drafted T.J. Watt. Thanks, Captain Obvious.
It’s not just that Watt has been healthy, whereas Kevin King has missed almost as many games (11) as he has played (15) since the Packers selected him with their top pick in 2017.
It’s that a little more than 1½ years into Watt’s NFL career, he’s already a good pass rusher. His 10 sacks this season ties him for fourth in the NFL, and according to the Pro Football Reference database, he’s one of 23 players since sacks became an official NFL statistic in 1982 to get at least 17 in his first 25 games.
That includes only six others who reached that mark since 2000: Von Miller (24½), Aldon Smith (23½), Shawne Merriman (22½), Joey Bosa (22), Clay Matthews (21½), Dwight Freeney (21) and Terrell Suggs (19½). That’s distinguished pass-rushing company.
“Even without (King’s injuries), Watt’s better,” said a high-ranking scout for an NFC team.
It’s more than fair to call out the Packers on this one. They had two priority needs in the ’17 draft, cornerback and pass rusher, and the chance to choose Watt or King when their pick came up at No. 29 overall. Both players were generally considered late first- to early second-round prospects.
It’s also an apples to apples comparison, because Watt would have been playing the same position (outside linebacker) with the Packers that he is with the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers, like the Packers, run a 3-4 scheme.
It’s not that King has been a dud at cornerback. When healthy enough to play, he has played well. This season when he and this year’s first-round pick, Jaire Alexander, have been on the field at the same time, the Packers have covered well. The problem is, because of injuries, the two have been in the same starting lineup only twice. Chances are, King (hamstring) won’t play again this week against Minnesota.
Regardless, the Packers would have been better off taking Watt, because pass rushers are harder to find.
Former general manager Ted Thompson had his chance when the Packers' pick came up at No. 29 overall, but instead traded back four spots and picked up the first pick of the fourth round. The Steelers took Watt with the very next selection, No. 30. Thompson drafted King three picks later, with the first selection of the second round.
A team source said Thompson was never high on Watt, who seemed to be an afterthought because the GM was intent on taking a cornerback with his top pick. There’s no denying the Packers’ acute need at that position. After Sam Shields’ severe concussion in ’16 ended his career with them, they didn’t have a starting-caliber cornerback on the roster.
But if that’s how Thompson felt, he’d also boxed himself in. The only cornerback he’d signed in free agency before the draft was Davon House.
The source said the Packers had no medical red flags on King when they drafted him, either. King had surgery on his left shoulder after his freshman season at Washington, aggravated it several times later in his career and played his final season wearing a protective harness. But he missed only four games in college (one because of illness, two because of concussions and one because of a meniscus tear).
Since joining the Packers though, he has mostly been injured. The shoulder became a chronic issue early in his rookie season and he ended up needing surgery on it again, ending his season after nine games. This year he missed time in training camp with an injury to his other shoulder, and he has missed four games this season because of groin and hamstring injuries.
King is a talented guy, a tall cornerback (6-3) with a smaller man’s mobility. But Watt likewise plays a premium position and has prototype traits, and he has produced. He was there for the taking at No. 29, but the Packers didn’t take him.
Ron Wolf used to say that a good draft produced three bona fide starters. King is that, though whether his body can withstand the rigors of the NFL is still very much an open question.
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Another player from the Packers’ 2017 draft, running back Aaron Jones, is bona fide as well. He’s as dynamic a player as the Packers have on offense.
But the Packers will need one more member to pan out from this class to call it a success. Here’s a thumbnail look at the nine other players they picked in ’17 as they hit the home stretch of their second NFL season:
Josh Jones, S, second round: Their best chance to be that third player. He’s every bit the size-speed athlete as advertised but is not instinctive and thus has been slow developing. The Packers thought he was going to take off as a rookie after he had two sacks in a win over Cincinnati in Week 3, but the rest of the season was nondescript and included too many missed assignments. After an undistinguished training camp this year, he caught notice with good special teams play early in the season and now is a starter after the trade of Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. He’s better playing near the line of scrimmage than deep. Maybe he’ll prove to be a late bloomer.
Montravius Adams, DT, third round: Detroit Lions receiver Kenny Golladay, Steelers running back James Conner, Chicago Bears safety Eddie Jackson and Bears running back Tarik Cohen were among the players taken in the 25 picks after the Packers selected Adams at No. 93 overall. Adams hasn’t been the inside rusher the Packers projected (one sack in 17 games) and is especially inconsistent as a run defender. He’s playing regularly now because of Mike Daniels’ foot injury.
Vince Biegel, OLB, fourth round: Drafted with the pick gained by trading back from No. 29 to No. 33. A total bust. Broke both feet before his rookie season and hardly played, then this year showed nothing as a rusher in camp and was cut. Was picked up by New Orleans and has played one snap on defense and 139 on special teams.
Jamaal Williams, RB, fourth round: The first of three running backs Thompson selected in this draft. A tough, physical runner who has been good in the passing game from early on. A bona fide backup in the league.
DeAngelo Yancey, WR, fifth round: A height-weight-speed prospect who spent his rookie season on the Packers’ practice squad and was cut at the end of camp this year. No longer in the NFL.
Aaron Jones, RB, fifth round: A big hit for Thompson. Has the highest average per carry (6.4 yards) of all rushing-leader qualifiers in the league.
“Why aren’t they using him more?” asked the aforementioned scout.
Kofi Amichia, OL, sixth round: A late-round swing and miss. Spent last season on the practice squad, but new GM Brian Gutekunst gave up on him at the end of camp and cut him. Is on Baltimore’s practice squad.
Devante Mays, RB, seventh round: Another size-speed prospect who flashed talent but incredibly fumbled his first two carries last season. Was cut at the end of camp this year even though Jones faced a drug suspension the first two games. Is on Cleveland’s practice squad.
Malachi Dupre, WR, seventh round: Cut at the end of his rookie camp and not signed to the Packers’ practice squad. Spent most of last season on Buffalo’s practice squad and is on Seattle’s practice squad.