Dougherty: Brian Gutekunst still must fill one more major draft need for Packers

Pete Dougherty
Packers News
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After filling two big needs in Day 2 of the NFL draft Friday, the biggest question remaining for Brian Gutekunst is whether he can find his Green Bay Packers a good running back on Day 3.

The general manager’s selections of Elgton Jenkins of Mississippi State and Jace Sternberger of Texas A&M in the second and third rounds Friday night filled acute needs on the offensive line and at tight end.

But one need at least as big as those remains, and Gutekunst doesn’t have any fourth-round picks to address it after spending both of his to move up from No. 30 to No. 21 to take safety Darnell Savage in Thursday’s first round.

Gutekunst refused to acknowledge an overriding desire for a running back after Friday’s drafting wrapped up — why tip his hand? But if rookie coach Matt LaFleur’s wants to run the outside zone like his mentors Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay do, he badly needs another quality runner to pair with the dynamic but injury-prone Aaron Jones, so that gritty Jamaal Williams can be in the role for which he’s best suited, the No. 3.

Whether Gutekunst can find that runner on the draft’s final day is another question. After the Savage deal he’s too low on this year’s draft capital to make just a straight trade up. He could trade a future pick, but that would require a 2020 fourth-rounder plus a fifth-round sweetener from this year’s class.

If Gutekunst doesn’t add a fourth-rounder, then it’s a question of whether he can find a runner worth taking in rounds five, six or seven. That’s not impossible — Jones was a fifth-rounder two years ago — but it will take some good evaluating and a little luck.

Among the noteworthy backs still on the board are Texas A&M’s Trayveon Williams and Oklahoma State’s Justin Hill, but odds are against either staying on the board until the Packers pick at No. 150 in the fifth round.

JACKSONVILLE, FL - DECEMBER 31: Trayveon Williams #5 of the Texas A&M Aggies runs for a 17-yard touchdown against the North Carolina State Wolfpack in the third quarter of the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl at TIAA Bank Field on December 31, 2018 in Jacksonville, Florida. Texas A&M won 52-13. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

“I think you’ve got to stay away from trying to fill too many needs, especially in this bottom half of the draft,” Gutekunst said, “because there’s going to be some really good players there, and if it’s an area of need, great. But if it’s not, then there’s other ways to fill those needs, as well.”

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Gutekunst knew what he was sacrificing when he traded up for Savage, because the running back depth in this draft was generally considered from the second through fourth rounds. The GM passed on Penn State’s Miles Sanders, Memphis’ Darrell Henderson and Iowa State’s David Montgomery in the second round to take Jenkins. Then he passed on Alabama’s Damien Harris in the third round to take Sternberger.

But it’s not like either of his choices was a luxury.

Though the Packers drafted Jenkins more as a guard than tackle, he played all five offensive line positions. As the No. 44 pick overall, he’s expected to at least make a run at a starting guard spot, more likely competing with Lane Taylor at left guard than free-agent signee Billy Turner on the right side.

Jenkins (6-4⅜, 311) actually was a starting center the last two years, and while the Packers have an established starter there in Corey Linsley, Jenkins also should be the lead candidate for that No. 2 job as well. Backup tackle remains an issue, though Turner can bump out to right tackle if Bryan Bulaga gets hurt. But that’s all based on the assumption that the Packers’ evaluation of Jenkins is on the money, unlike their miss on Jason Spriggs in the second round in 2016.

“(Jenkins’) versatility is exceptional,” Gutekunst said. “He’s a big, long man with excellent power. He’s been a good player in the SEC for about three years now. Really, really consistent. And his ability to play basically all five spots on the offensive line in the SEC was something that drew us to him. You go back and watch him play guard in ’16, and in different years, he’s playing at a very high level against some very good players.”

The Packers also badly needed to add speed and athleticism at tight end. At age 32, Jimmy Graham is no longer a dynamic player, and Marcedes Lewis (34) at this stage of his career is a glorified offensive lineman. The Packers’ future at that position now is Sternberger and maybe Robert Tonyan, the converted college quarterback who flashed some playmaking last year in training camp.

Sternberger (6-4, 251) took a long road to Texas A&M, but in his one season there he proved to be a big-play threat (48 catches, 17.3-yard average and 10 touchdowns). At pick No. 75 overall, he was the fifth tight end off the board, after T.J. Hockenson (No. 8 to Detroit), Noah Fant (No. 20 to Denver), Irv Smith Jr. (No. 38 to Minnesota), Drew Sample (No. 52 to Cincinnati) and Josh Oliver (No. 69 to Jacksonville).

“Sternberger might be the best athlete of all these guys as far as a pure receiving tight end,” one scout told me recently. “He’s special, and he’s 251. People look at him like he’s right around 230; this guy’s 251 running around like he’s doing and catching the ball. He’s a pure tight end.”

Sternberger isn’t a burner with a 4.75 40 at the NFL scouting combine, though Gutekunst said the Packers had him at 4.66. He’s much more a receiving tight end at this early stage in his career.

“He’s probably a matchup problem that can grow into a guy that can play on the line of scrimmage,” Gutekunst said.

Going into Friday you had to think Gutekunst was very tempted to trade back and recoup one of the fourth-rounders. He said he entertained some offers but would have had to move too far back to make those deals, so instead he stood pat and picked.

Now he has one more day to see if he can get that much-needed running back.

“We’re going to be aggressive and try to take the best players we can,” he said. “When we’re done, we’ll look up at the roster and say, ‘Where do we go from here?’


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