Green Bay Packers

Packers Hope To Break Shaky Pattern Of Premium Picks In the Secondary

Photo Credit: Mark Hoffman via USA TODAY Sports

Things were remarkably stable for years in Green Bay. The Packers’ draft-and-develop philosophy led to relatively minimal turnover at the top of the roster. At the start of each season, Aaron Rodgers and his supporting cast took the field with hype and expectations.

But everything changed when Brian Gutekunst drafted Jordan Love in 2020. The franchise known for its stability suddenly threw itself into disarray and ambiguity — in the present and, potentially, far into the future. The chaos intensified when Rodgers tested positive for COVID-19, igniting a saga that continues to produce headlines in 2024.

All of this has led to a blitzkrieg rebuild around Love, leaving the roster with few familiar faces. Yet, less than a year after sending Rodgers to the New York Jets and returning to the drawing board, the Packers are back in the mix as NFC contenders. How did this happen? Green Bay did what they do best – drafted extraordinarily well, stayed true to their philosophy, and the development part has taken off ahead of schedule.

A month from now, Gutekunst will enter the war room looking for his third-straight home-run draft class. Help in the secondary at cornerback and safety will be near the top of his wish list. If that sounds familiar, it’s because the Packers have needed defensive back upgrades for well over a decade. Unlike wide receivers, some might say the persistence of this need is not for lack of trying. They have selected eight corners and safeties in the past decade in the first two rounds. Jaire Alexander likely comes to mind as a smash-hit All-Pro who earned a massive extension last offseason. He was as good of a draft pick as you could have.

The other seven have been the opposite.

Gutekunst and the front office have proven their scouting acumen at almost every other position. Most significantly, he nailed the game’s most important position to keep the streak going while NFC North rivals continue to miss. Even wide receiver evaluations, which appeared ugly with the likes of Amari Rodgers and J’Mon Moore, are looking outstanding lately with the recent additions of Jayden Reed, Dontayvion Wicks, and Romeo Doubs in the middle rounds.

Gutekunst’s record in the secondary is defensible if you break it down a bit. There’s Alexander, a genuine star. Darnell Savage Jr. never quite became the player his profile suggested he should be. Eric Stokes had a solid start to his career derailed by major injuries. The Packers took Josh Jackson out of Iowa in 2018, and he’s the only clear-cut bust.

But the at-large struggles date back to the Ted Thompson era, during which his front office whiffed dramatically on Damarious Randall, Quinten Rollins, Josh Jones, and, to a lesser extent, Kevin King between 2015 and 2017. When you look at where the team was in those years and how desperate they were to upgrade at those positions, it’s hard not to think about what could have been.

That brings us to today, where, unlike the Ladarius Gunter disasterclass of January 22, 2017, Alexander takes care of one side of the field. After trading Rasul Douglas at the trough of the 2023 season and continued uncertainty surrounding Stokes, the Packers have seventh-round rookie Carrington Valentine penciled in on the other side. Safety was an abomination last year and, without question, the most important thing to address heading into the offseason, but the Packers strayed a bit from tradition and splurged at the top of the market, landing Xavier McKinney of the New York Giants on a four-year megadeal.

In a buyer’s market for safeties, Gutekunst’s decision to go right to the top on the first afternoon of the legal tampering period was a bit of an indictment of this year’s draft class in center field. That doesn’t come as much of a surprise after the combine, where top names like Kamren Kinchens, Tyler Nubin, and Jaden Hicks were in the 4.6-plus 40 range. Athletic profile is the most telltale sign of whether or not Green Bay will be in on a guy, and that phenomenon intensifies when it comes to the secondary.

The Packers will likely draft McKinney’s running mate in the middle rounds or sign him in free agency because there are still a handful of veterans on the market with less leverage than usual. They could also see what they have in Anthony Johnson Jr. and put it on the back burner, but that feels less likely with the team being firmly in the mix for a division title and possibly more. Although there are other needs, such as linebacker and offensive line, it feels fair to say that Gutekunst will use at least one of his five Day 1 and 2 picks on a cornerback.

Iowa’s Cooper DeJean has been heavily mocked to the Packers throughout draft season, but that’s rarely an indicator of what they’ll do (see: T.J. Watt and every first-round receiver of the last few years). DeJean’s 40 time isn’t eye-popping, but the rest of his profile is solid. People also hail Iowa prospects as relatively safe picks, although Jackson is one of the better arguments against that narrative. Toledo’s Quinyon Mitchell and Alabama’s Kool-Aid McKinstry fit Green Bay’s prototypical early corner pick. Mitchell is expected to go around the middle of the first round, so Gutekunst would have to be pretty aggressive.

Is the record of corner and safety busts in Green Bay over the past decade a string of bad beats or an indicator of a flawed process? It’s difficult to say. Frankly, it’s also difficult to be overly critical of a front office that, in the long run, winds up getting most things right. The disproportionate focus on physical traits and relative athletic score is a well-documented facet of the front office’s philosophy and has been prominent across position groups. So, while we surely cannot expect any adjustments to be made in that regard, it will be awfully interesting to see if Gutekunst can land a guy who can take his team to the next level.

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