Dougherty: Quirky draft ignores Packers' glaring defensive problems
GREEN BAY - To have been a fly on the wall for Matt LaFleur’s exit interview with Mike Pettine three months ago.
The wounds were still fresh a few days after the Green Bay Packers’ run-stopping embarrassment that was the NFC title game when the two sat down last January for a crucial offseason discussion about where to go from here.
LaFleur apparently heard enough to give Pettine another season, but, you can only assume, after pressing his defensive coordinator for a clear, feasible plan to avoid a repeat of the season-long run-stopping woes that blew up in San Francisco with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.
That plan, though, better not have included adding an explosive inside linebacker or defensive lineman early in the draft, because that didn’t happen this past weekend. As far as personnel on defense, the Packers’ only change of note has been swapping departed inside linebacker Blake Martinez for a little more athletic but injury-prone Christian Kirksey at about half the price.
So what is the plan? Well, after the final day of the draft Saturday, neither LaFleur nor general manager Brian Gutekunst revealed anything about what has changed or needs to change going forward to avoid a repeat of 2019. But if I'm them, last year’s run-stopping problems, as well as the nickel cornerback position, are the greatest concern of the post-draft offseason.
LaFleur gave no hint whether he served up any mandates about his defensive coordinator’s cavalier approach to run defense. Pettine is a charismatic guy in his own blunt way, and his clever saying about his approach to defense — it’s faster to fly to Miami than run there — is both true and telling. The NFL is a passing game, and you have to play good pass defense to win in this league.
But if you blow off run defense and think only about getting to the quarterback, the Packers now know it will get you blown off the field by a team that runs the ball like the 49ers.
“I just think it’s game by game,” LaFleur said when asked if Pettine needs to change his mindset. “If we know a team is going to try to run the football to beat us, then we better make sure that we take that ability away. I think we’ve got the talent on this football team to do that. I’m really excited about some of these additions and a guy like Christian Kirksey as well who can help us inside at that linebacker position. I have a lot of confidence in Pet’s ability to have a great game plan and adjust moving forward.”
Aside from Kirksey I’m not sure what additions LaFleur was talking about. Gutekunst didn’t draft a defensive player until the fifth round (Minnesota’s Kamal Martin), and while it’s not unheard of for a fifth-rounder to do something as a rookie inside linebacker, it’s still a long shot.
If Pettine was hoping his bosses would use an early pick on an explosive linebacker for the middle of his defense — they had a shot at Patrick Queen and Jordyn Brooks, among others — well, that didn’t happen. So Pettine still doesn’t have the personnel to play more nickel (two linebackers) rather than his favored dime (one linebacker), if that was one way he was considering beefing up against the run.
On top of that, there’s Kirksey’s injury history — he has missed 23 games the last two seasons combined. If Kirksey gets hurt again this year, then Pettine’s defense, as it stands, has a huge problem.
Who would replace Kirksey? Oren Burks, who hasn’t played well enough to stay on the field despite plenty of chances the past two years? Ty Summers, a 2019 seventh-round pick? Or Curtis Bolton, an undrafted rookie in ’19 coming off ACL surgery?
Really, after doing next to nothing on defense in the draft, Gutekunst has to be more open than ever to signing a couple of stopgap veterans or pulling off a trade, including the salary-cap manipulation it might take, now that the draft is over. A run stopper who plays 15 or 20 snaps a game isn’t expensive and doesn’t have to be a great player to help a team win — remember Howard Green as a midseason pickup in the Packers’ Super Bowl season of 2010?
For that matter, Gutekunst has a huge hole at cornerback, too. The nickel job is basically a starter in this league, and the Packers don’t really have one. For now Chandon Sullivan is the No. 3, and immediately behind him is Josh Jackson, who’s in the same boat as 2017 draft classmate Burks, only picked a round earlier (second to Burks’ third).
Maybe Gutekunst will sign 37-year-old Tramon Williams for that role now that the draft passed without adding a corner. But the GM has to do something, because that position looks awfully shaky for getting through a 12-game schedule, let alone 16.
“(The draft) kind of ends one part of things,” Gutekunst said, “and we’ll sit back and reassess as we move forward into next week and see what’s out there for us.”
As for Gutekunst’s 2020 draft overall, it was quirky and is drawing more than the usual scorn. That’s what happens when coming off a trip to the NFC championship game you draft a quarterback in the first round and an H-back in the third.
But I’ve been through 28 drafts now covering this team and league, and the main thing I’ve learned is that knee-jerk reactions are unwise.
Maybe Gutekunst’s 2020 class will in fact turn out to be horrendous, I don’t know. But draft boards can vary widely from team to team because of different schemes, needs and views of players. Sure, it looks great to take well-known prospects at positions of obvious need, but you don’t win drafts just by doing that. You win drafts if the players you pick perform well in the NFL. No one, even personnel experts, knows how this class will turn out, and anybody who tells you otherwise is delusional.
Aside from the Jordan Love stunner, what jumps out of course is that Gutekunst didn’t take a receiver or inside linebacker early on. I’d have bet it all that the GM would pluck someone from this receiver-thick class in the first three rounds, yet he ended up not taking one all weekend. And inside linebacker was an obvious candidate for an early pick, too.
Instead, the GM selected a running back (AJ Dillon) in the second round and an H-back — an H-back? — in the third.
It’s not my job to defend this draft, but after thinking it through, two things stand out: This draft was about making the Packers’ offense more LaFleur’s and less Aaron Rodgers’, and this class might contribute a lot as rookies despite the selection of a quarterback in the first round. Whether it all works depends on Gutekunst picking good players. But the plan makes some sense even if it’s still a wonder he didn’t come out of this with even a late-round receiver.
Gutekunst and LaFleur clearly decided that finding a quality back to rotate with Aaron Jones was a critical need and more important than adding a dynamic receiver. There’s also a good argument that if Dillon stays healthy and is any good, he’ll have a bigger immediate impact — not necessarily in snaps played, but on winning games in 2020 — than any inside linebacker or receiver Gutekunst might have landed. Running back is among the easiest positions in the NFL to make a difference as a rookie.
I wrote this Saturday, but it bears mentioning again. According to statistical research by ESPN.com, when Jones was on the field last year Rodgers’ QBR was 67.7, which would have tied for seventh in league rankings last season. Without Jones on the field, it was 28.7, which would have been outside the top 30 in a 32-team league.
No wonder Gutekunst and LaFleur put such an emphasis on getting a back to share snaps with the injury-prone Jones. What could instantly help the offense more?
As for third-rounder Josiah Deguara, I was as perplexed as anyone when Gutekunst selected an H-back with a valuable second-day pick. But it’s clear LaFleur sees this guy as his Kyle Juszczyk, who plays a huge role in the same wide-zone run scheme with the San Francisco 49ers. How else could the Packers justify spending such a high pick on that position?
LaFleur hand-picked Deguara, and he’s another rookie who could play a lot right away. But only if LaFleur is right that Deguara, like Juszczyk, can line up anywhere, catch the ball well and block well on the move.
“I love Josiah,” LaFleur said. “He is extremely versatile. … I just think that adds stress to a defense in terms of how are these guys going to line up and what exactly they’re going to do. When you watch Josiah, you see such a gritty, tough player.”
Now that the picking is done, it comes down not to what anybody thinks of Gutekunst’s third class, but to what drafts always come down to. When we look back in three years, it won’t be so much the positions filled. It will be whether the players picked were any good.