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Packers can afford to take big swings in the draft without worrying about Year 1

Green Bay has some roster holes but few in places where a rookie is likely to start, making it easier to take an unrefined prospect.

NCAA Football: Senior Bowl
Marcus Davenport may be raw, but he also may have the most upside of any defensive prospect in the draft.
Glenn Andrews-USA TODAY Sports

By now, you’d think Packers fans would have noticed the ground isn’t littered with little bits of sky. It never fell and isn’t likely to fall any time soon. A 7-9 season featuring the worst situational defense in the league and an overmatched backup quarterback in the same season that a backup won a Super Bowl left Cheesehead Nation full of angst.

But as the draft approaches and the list of “needs” takes shape, there are very few spots where we can point and say a rookie would definitely start.

After bringing back Tramon Williams and Davon House to go with Kevin King, the Packers likely don’t need to rush a cornerback into a starting role, an idea unthinkable a few weeks ago after the Damarious Randall trade.

Brian Gutekunst likely will tab a receiver in this draft and although he could be a de facto starter given how often the Packers play with three receivers, he won’t be anything more than the fourth option in the passing game with Davante Adams, Randall Cobb and Jimmy Graham in the mix.

Add in a stable of running backs to feed and the skill position remains stocked.

Unless Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson falls to 14, it’s difficult to envision a rookie taking the right guard spot from Justin McCray, who acquitted himself nicely last season. In fact, he was so useful and versatile that Mike McCarthy referred to McCray as one of the team’s MVPs last season.

If Georgia’s Roquan Smith or Virginia Tech’s Tremaine Edmunds were on the draft card, they might start over Jake Ryan, but the Packers play so little base defense that it’s hardly a glaring deficiency. In fact, it seems more likely that Gutekunst would prefer a versatile safety, allowing Josh Jones to play more in the box to shore up the linebacker position.

And on the edge, where Packers fans seem most resolute about adding a high-pedigree player, Mike Pettine has Clay Matthews, Nick Perry, and now-healthy Vince Biegel to rotate with Kyler Fackrell and Reggie Gilbert in a pinch.

Matthews, Perry, and Biegel all have injury questions, but Matthews and Perry are unquestionably the starters when healthy. Taking an edge rusher at 14 doesn’t guarantee he even beats out Biegel for playing time much less the entrenched starters.

When approached this way, it’s clear the holes on the roster, while real, aren’t as glaring as the loud voices on talk radio and the internet make it seem. More to the point, this allows the Packers to shirk off the cliche of “NFL readiness” when it comes to evaluating prospects. They don’t have to care how much a rookie can contribute in Year 1 because there likely isn’t a starting spot for them anyway.

Josh Jones only played because of injuries in the secondary last season. Ditto for Kevin King. Rookies generally aren’t good. It’s difficult to transition from college to the pros and expecting rookies to be anything more than rookies was long a flaw in Ted Thompson’s team building philosophy.

It was the point Ha Ha Clinton-Dix made when he mentioned the lack of veteran depth behind him and Morgan Burnett. The team consistently turned to unproven rookies and often UDFAs. And while that’s true, Thompson could have solidified the position with a veteran, the players Clinton-Dix mentioned—guys like Jarrett Bush, Micah Hyde, and Chris Banjo—were all rookies and unproven players once too. That’s how this works.

But this offseason, Gutekunst solidified the needy positions with veterans. Green Bay could use a receiver, but they have players with experience already. They could use a guard even if McCray is solid, but an injury could mean Lucas Patrick playing or Kyle Murphy rather than the rookie. McCarthy will have options. It’s the beauty of draft-and-develop and getting young players reps.

Gutekunst has ensured the Packers now have both with veterans like Williams and House coming into the fold. Jahri Evans could still make his return to Green Bay. They’re solid.

A player like UTSA’s Marcus Davenport who has supreme talent but lacks polish at 14? If a team needed him to come in right away and carry their pass rush, he couldn’t do it. But if he has to play 20 or 30 snaps a game and can learn from guys like Matthews, it’s ideal not only for him but for the team.

Josh Jackson from Iowa had just one big-time year at Iowa and his technique leaves much to be desired. But if he’s CB4 or CB5, he has time to learn and establish himself in the league.

Courtland Sutton out of SMU possesses outstanding physical gifts, but basically only knows how to run two routes. If he’s not having to get 100 targets next year, he can develop and grow at a reasonable pace.

That’s the position Green Bay is in. The sky isn’t falling and it never was. They have a chance to add impact players because of where they’re picking, but the solidified roster means they don’t have to worry if that impact comes as a starter in 2018.