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2018 NFL Draft: Packers in position to trade up to fill key secondary needs with low risk

After amassing a league-high 12 draft picks, Green Bay can use some of the ammunition to assure a blue chip talent.

Big Ten Championship - Ohio State v Wisconsin
Denzel Ward would immediately bolster a secondary in desperate need of attention.
Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Making moves out of desperation usually leads to calamity in the NFL. Teams trading up in the draft are usually desperate. You can do the math about how that often ends for them.

But a confluence of events, from free agent signings to a lack thereof and beyond, the Green Bay Packers put themselves in position to aggressively pursue a singular goal in the draft: a blue-chip defensive back.

The two other major positions the Packers needed to address coming into the offseason aside from DB were adding a dynamic pass catcher and beefing up the pass rush. Standing pat in the first round meant the Packers could allow the Brian Gutekunst to simply take his pick of top defenders and address a pass catcher in the second round where the team has historically been so successful at sniping talent at a discount.

Enter Jimmy Graham and Muhammad Wilkerson. While neither are in their primes, they’re talent upgrades for the Packers and reduce the need for Green Bay to prioritize an edge rusher or a pass catcher. If talented players they like end up falling to them, they still could draft them, but perhaps now that pass catcher doesn’t need to be a tight end, or perhaps it doesn’t have to come with such a premium pick given the wealth of draft capital the front office has at its disposal.

Right now, the Packers have one glaring, screaming, unrelenting need: cornerback.

That’s not to say there aren’t other holes on the roster. They could still use a receiver to pair with Davante Adams on the outside, and an edge rusher to ease the burden on Nick Perry and Clay Matthews. Offensive line depth must be addressed and Mike Pettine’s group could use an injection of speed at linebacker.

But the Packers have a pedigreed cornerback in Year 2 coming off a nagging shoulder injury he’s had since college as a starter. And that’s it. A bunch of UDFA’s populate the rest of the secondary. They have top-tier talent at safety with HaHa Clinton-Dix (no matter what fans say about him) and Josh Jones. They need a corner.

They can’t wait until 14 and hope the right player falls. As I laid out yesterday, even in a deep cornerback draft, the Packers’ athletic profile preferences limit the field of corners available to them and even if they stretch those thresholds, there may not be a player at 14 who can come in and make them better right away.

With free agency buoying the roster at key spots, they can focus on getting the right player at 14, but maybe not the best one. They can get both by trading up — and it wouldn’t require much draft capital to get there.

Before we get to the trade machinations, here are the three players I’d target: Ohio State CB Denzel Ward, Alabama DB Minkah Fitzpatrick, and Florida State DB Derwin James. I don’t care that James is mostly a safety, because he can cover in the slot and even outside if he has to. Ditto for Fitzpatrick. Signing a low-end boundary corner, even if that it’s just bringing back Davon House, would mean a significant upgrade to the talent pool in the secondary with any one of these players.

Depending how the draft plays out, there could be a run of DBs in the top 10, leaving the Packers having to choose between some less-than-ideal options at 14, particularly with Josh Jackson’s disappointing showing at the combine.

Packaging the 14th pick with the 101st pick (acquired in the Damarious Randall trade) and 133rd pick (Green Bay’s compensatory pick), the Packers could move up to 11th according to the Chase Stuart draft value chart. Is that high enough?

We can confidently say four quarterbacks will be gone in those first 10 picks, and the order doesn’t matter. The Jets already moved up and the expectation is the Bills will follow suit. Saquon Barkley, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Quenton Nelson, Roquan Smith, Denzel Ward, and Bradley Chubb are the rest of the general consensus top-10 players.

So let’s game this out.

  1. Browns - Quarterback X (it honestly doesn’t matter for our purposes)
  2. Giants Quarterback Y
  3. Jets (F/ Colts) - Quarterback Z
  4. Browns (F/ Texans) Denzel Ward
  5. Bills (f/ Broncos)** - Quarterback ZZ
  6. Colts (f/Jets) - Bradley Chubb
  7. Buccaneers - Saquon Barkley
  8. Bears - Quenton Nelson
  9. 49ers - Minkah Fitzpatrick
  10. Raiders - Roquan Smith
  11. Packers (f/ Dolphins)*** - Derwin James

** Projected trade

*** Projected trade

This is based on the premise Ward has jumped Fitzpatrick, who has taken a mini-tumble through the draft process as teams have decided he’s not a cornerback but rather a safety who can cover in the slot. Ward testing as a 98th percentile cornerback athlete and Derwin James putting up his own virtuoso athletic numbers may have slid him past Fitzpatrick as well.

If that’s true, the Packers have no shot to get Ward, the best cornerback in the draft, and in my opinion, the best overall defender in this class. Staying put at 14 means hoping the Bears, 49ers, Dolphins, whoever the Bills trade with at 12, and Washington all eschew a top DB despite each having needs there.

Even just moving up to 11th represents a gamble. The Packers, even in a best case, may only be getting the third best of the three blue chip DBs. I love Derwin James, and I’d prefer him to Fitzpatrick, but that’s just another reason to aggressively seek out a way to secure the bag as it were. If Fitzpatrick has fallen, it’s likely because Ward and James have risen, meaning Fitzpatrick could be the player the Packers end up with in this scenario; again, that’s not a bad consolation prize, but a consolation prize nonetheless.

What about packaging 14 with their third (76th overall) and fourth-round (101st overall) picks for get to 8, assuming the Bears would trade their pick inside the division?

  1. Browns - Quarterback X
  2. Giants Quarterback Y
  3. Jets (F/ Colts) - Quarterback Z
  4. Browns (F/ Texans) Denzel Ward
  5. Bills (f/ Broncos) - Quarterback ZZ
  6. Colts (f/Jets) - Bradley Chubb
  7. Buccaneers - Saquon Barkley
  8. Packers (f/ Bears) - Derwin James/Minkah Fitzpatrck

In this scenario, the Packers have their choice of defensive back, an option that could get even juicier if the Browns eschew DB altogether at No. 4, leaving the Packers with their choice of all three of the preferred targets.

If the Bears were unwilling, the Packers could offer 14 and 45 to get to 7, but that feels like an overpay and given the talent drop-off after ~50 in this draft, the Packers would rather have two top-50 picks than one.

I’ve argued previously no player in this draft was worth trading up for because the value of 2 vs. 14 wasn’t that different. But the circumstances have changed. The Packers have one glaring need and require a blue chip prospect to fill it. They can aggressively attack that problem with their picks to move up rather than doing the traditionally prudent thing and acquire as many lottery tickets as they can.

Given the glut of draft capital and the major hole in the secondary, the Packers can afford to take a big swing in the draft after taking two in free agency.