Dougherty: Ranking the Packers' five positions of greatest need in the NFL draft
GREEN BAY - The NFL draft really is more about two and three years down the road than the upcoming season. At least most of the time.
Something to keep in mind as you think about how general manager Brian Gutekunst might prioritize the Green Bay Packers’ needs in the first round of the NFL draft in two weeks.
In fact, one high-ranking NFL scouting executive said that in evaluating the position he wants to fill in the first round, as well as projecting what other teams will do, he starts by eliminating only the obvious no-needs. Everything else is fair game.
“With the way the game is now, other than a spot or two you almost need everything almost every year,” the scout said. “… You’re up there in the first round you better pick a good player regardless of position, because you’re usually one play away from needing that position anyway. Or one year away.”
Carry out that exercise for the Packers and here are the positions aside from punter, kicker and long snapper to cross off their first-round list: Quarterback, running back, tight end. If they don’t move Darnell Savage from safety to the slot “star” position, you can scratch safety. And if they don’t plan on using Rashan Gary as interior defensive linemen, you can probably take edge rusher off too.
The Packers’ needs at the remaining positions vary in degree, but all figure to be in play when Gutekunst’s pick comes up in the first round at No. 29 overall.
Here’s how I rank them: Though it’s hairsplitting among the top three, I’d go cornerback, defensive line and offensive line, followed by receiver and inside linebacker.
Here’s a thumbnail look at each of those positions for the Packers now that the bulk of the free-agency period has passed:
Re-signing Kevin King to a one-year deal takes the pressure off to draft a rookie to play right away, but it’s still a big need in a pass-crazy league that demands quality depth in coverage.
I think the Packers should move Savage to the slot corner position though there’s been no indication new defensive coordinator Joe Barry plans to do so. Assuming Savage stays at safety, Chandon Sullivan was OK in the nickel position last year and is the next-most likely candidate for that spot this year.
Still, the Packers could very much use a talented rookie who could at least push for that job. Also, King has played a full season only once in his first four years in the league, so Gutekunst should assume he’s going to miss some games again this year. And in 2022 the Packers will have to replace King in the starting lineup.
Looking at just 2021, this is the Packers’ greatest need.
Kenny Clark has a Pro Bowl (2019 season) and is in his prime at age 25. But after him, the Packers don’t have the kind of talent good defenses usually have upfront. Kingsley Keke has made a few plays in his first two seasons, Dean Lowry plateaued last year, and Tyler Lancaster was re-signed as a low-cost run defender. That’s pretty much it.
If Barry runs his defense like his boss (Brandon Staley) with the Los Angeles Rams last season, he’s going to play a lot of five-man lines (three linemen, two outside linebackers). We don’t know that’s the case, and there’s always the chance he has different plans based on the Packers’ personnel. But the better bet is he wants to play the same way, and to do that he’ll need more talent on the interior, because three of those guys will be on the field together a lot. Unless Gary or Preston Smith moves inside — again, we have no indication that’s in the works — then the Packers’ need on the line is big and immediate.
Center Corey Linsley’s departure in free agency leaves a hole on the line that the Packers can fill in any number of ways, though they’d probably prefer it to be a tackle. They’re also looking at playing anywhere from the first three to eight games without David Bakhtiari at left tackle while he’s recovering from ACL surgery.
They also have the flexibility to replace those two in a variety of ways. Elgton Jenkins might be their preferred center, but the ascending third-year pro can play any of the five positions capably. Billy Turner can play either tackle and right guard. Lucas Patrick is a guard who filled in competently for Linsley at center in two games in 2019. And second-year pro Jon Runyan is a good bet to start at guard, at least early in the season, after playing 160 snaps there as an injury fill-in last year.
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And who knows whether, say, Yosh Nijman makes a big jump in Year 3 at right tackle after graduating from the practice squad to the 53 last year? Or whether 2020 rookie redshirt (knee injury) Simon Stepaniak can make a run at a starting spot at guard? Or fellow sixth-rounder Jake Hanson at center after spending last year on the practice squad?
Still, a first-round pick would be a good candidate to start somewhere. And tackle is a premium position that’s easy to justify spending a first-round pick. Regardless, there’s a very good chance Gutekunst drafts an offensive lineman early (i.e., the first three rounds) this year.
The Packers had the top-scoring offense in the league last year. So much for the hysteria when Gutekunst didn’t draft a receiver.
Still, the Packers aren’t dynamic at this position. They’re also looking at an overhaul next year, because as of now, Davante Adams, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Equanimeous St. Brown and Devin Funchess will be free agents in ’22.
Recent draft history suggests there’s more value selecting receivers in the second and third rounds than the first. So there’s reason to wonder whether Gutekunst might wait until at least Round 2 to take one in what looks like another deep draft at that position.
I’m not convinced this is as big a Packers need as other observers say. I mean, who wouldn’t want Tampa Bay’s Devin White in the middle of their defense? The problem is guys with his talent are rare — remember, White was the fifth pick overall in his draft. Much harder is identifying a good one like Fred Warner, who San Francisco picked in the third round in 2018.
Also, Gutekunst added decent young talent there last year in Krys Barnes and Kamal Martin. Unless there’s a major upgrade available at No. 29, I’m just not sure the value would be there.
It also depends on how much Barry plans on using two inside linebackers together. Last year the Rams played mostly only one (behind a five-man line and with five defensive backs). They also let their best inside linebacker from 2019 (Cory Littleton) walk in free agency if that tells you anything about how Staley viewed the position.
Still, you never know what Gutekunst might do or how he evaluates the inside linebackers this year. If he sees one he especially likes at No. 29, it’s safe to assume he’ll pounce.