Dougherty: Speedy Darnell Savage key to success of Packers' draft

Pete Dougherty
Packers News
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Brian Gutekunst needs this draft to work out a lot like the last time the Green Bay Packers ended up selecting two players in the first round.

In 2009, the Packers put down the foundation of a defense that helped win them a Super Bowl when former general manager Ted Thompson selected B.J. Raji at No. 9 overall and Clay Matthews at No. 26.

This year, Gutekunst, the Packers’ second-year general manager, had an extra first-rounder he picked up with a trade back in the first round of last year’s draft. And after having to wait a year to reap the reward, he added two defensive players – pass rusher Rashad Gary and safety Darnell Savage – to a free-agent class that included three new starters on that side of the ball.

And while pass rushers are the most important defenders on the field, in this case, Gutekunst really needs the Savage pick to hit. The GM sacrificed two fourth-round draft picks to move up from the No. 30 selection he gained last year  to No. 21, where he landed a safety he thinks has great skill and knows has great speed (4.36-second 40).

The Packers very much need him to be their next Nick Collins, whose career-ending neck injury in 2011 has left a huge hole in their secondary ever since.

Maryland defensive back Darnell Savage Jr. breaks a tackle by Michigan receiver Nico Collins after intercepting a pass during a game at Michigan Stadium.

"He plays (4.36)," Gutekunst said of Savage. "And I think that’s the thing that, when you have a guy that can kind of erase half of the field, you can’t throw into windows because he’s sitting right there and he can go get it. A guy who can close on a ball in the hook, curl zones and get to the ball. There’s not a lot of those guys and I certainly think we’ve added one."

Said new coach Matt LaFleur: “We thought he was the best safety in the draft.”

With the 2019 draft in the books Saturday evening, Gutekunst and LaFleur were able to look at their work over the weekend and the offseason, and see a remade defense that includes the two first-rounders plus the three unrestricted free agents: outside linebackers Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith, and safety Adrian Amos.

Along with Savage, the addition of Gary late this week adds a talented though stat-deficient pass rusher – he had only 3½ sacks last season – with the two Smiths to replace the aging Matthews and injury-prone Nick Perry. The new rushers will join Kenny Clark (six sacks last year), Kyler Fackrell (10½ sacks last season) and Mike Daniels (29 sacks in 102 NFL games) in what figures to be at least a six-man pass-rush rotation.

There’s not a dominant player in the group, not unless Gary turns into one. But Gutekunst appears to be shooting for a rotation that comes at quarterbacks in waves, something along the lines of Seattle’s dominant defenses from 2012 to 2016. Those Seahawks routinely finished seasons with at least four and usually five rushers who had anywhere from four to 11½ sacks each.

RELATED: Bio on first-round pick Darnell Savage

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“I’ll tell you one thing, just being an offensive coach my entire career, you can never have enough pass rushers,” LaFleur said, “and I think we definitely upgraded our ability to rush the passer. There’s nothing harder on an offense, especially if you can rotate guys through and just keep sending fresh guys at an offensive line.”

Of course, for this to work as planned, Gary will have to be a good player. There’s no denying his physical traits (6-4 3/8, 277 pounds) and talent (4.58 40), but there are questions about his health and production.

Gary had a shoulder subluxation last year at Michigan, and though he did 26 bench reps at the scouting combine, the shoulder is an issue. A scout I spoke with late last week said his team’s doctors determined that Gary’s shoulder will wear out and require surgery, probably next year. That’s in line with what Gutekunst suggested Thursday when he said he expects Gary to play this season, and that the shoulder didn’t need addressing “initially.” That seemed to mean no surgery this year but possibly next.

Gutekunst knew that going in and was OK with it, so he’s convinced surgery won’t diminish Gary’s career. We’ll see on that. It’s a calculated risk, though it bears pointing out that Dallas pass rusher DeMarcus Lawrence underwent a similar procedure this offseason, and the Cowboys still signed him to a huge contract.

Gary’s lack of sack production at Michigan provides legitimate reason to wonder if he’ll be a sacker in the NFL. Some scouts also thought that he should be more of an interior rusher than edge because of his size and power. But while Gutekunst said that Gary’s versatility was a big draw, it’s his ability on the edge that stands out.

“I think his speed at the edge is unique,” Gutekunst said, “but kind of like (Za’Darius Smith)  I think he’s going to be a matchup problem wherever he lines up. If you single block – as he he learns the NFL game, as he progresses, I think where you line him he’ll be a matchup problem. I think he can do it all.”

That versatility plays into defensive coordinator Mike Pettine’s scheme, which relies on lining up players in different spots from snap to snap and emphasizes the inside rush.

“I thought we had to get a lot more pieces for (Pettine) to move around,” Gutekunst said. “They’re going to have to come together, and there’s a lot of timing involved in it and different kinds of things. But I feel much better now than I did previously.”

As for the rest of the Packers’ draft, not having those two fourth-rounders created a huge hole in the middle while 74 players came off the board between their picks at No. 75 in the third round on Friday and No. 150 in the fifth Saturday.

Elgton Jenkins, the pick at No. 44, figures to at least challenge for a starting job at guard. Tight end Jace Sternberger, their pick in the third round (No. 75), isn’t a must-play in the same way the two first-rounders are, but he’s the only new target for Aaron Rodgers, so the Packers should be looking for him to work into regular playing time by the second half of his rookie season.

One of the questions on this draft is whether in addressing his other needs, Gutekunst left LaFleur dangerously thin at running back. LaFleur’s offense starts with the outside zone run, but right now his best back is Aaron Jones, who has proven to be too injury prone to count on as a primary ball carrier for a full season. He needs someone to share the playing time. Jamaal Williams is a tough runner and good pass protector, but he’s not the runner you’re looking for in that role.

Gutekunst didn’t draft a back until Notre Dame’s Dexter Williams in the sixth round. Teams seem able to find solid NFL runners in any round, so Williams very well might end up being a good player – Jones, after all, was a fifth-rounder. But the sixth round is a late pick, so the odds aren’t great.

Williams (5-11 1/8, 212) isn’t a blazer (4.57 40), but the Packers see him as a good fit for LaFleur’s outside zone scheme.

“He’s an aggressive downhill runner that can press the edge, stick his foot in the ground and get north to south,” Gutekunst said. “You know, he had a lot of explosive plays and he was a finisher. Once he hit that crease, he seemed to finish.”

The Packers definitely could use Williams to play a lot this year, no questioning that. But more than anything, the success or failure of this draft class will come down to that rare opportunity of picking twice in the first round.

Did Gutekunst repeat Ted Thompson's 2009?



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