For about 30 minutes, Brian Gutekunst sent Packers nation into a frenzy. With Derwin James and Tremaine Edmunds still on the board, potential blue-chip talent at positions of need, the new GM at 1265 Lombardi Ave. traded down.
And he didn’t just trade down; he dropped like a rock, from 14 all the way to the Saints’ pick at 27. Any chance of catching a sliding star would be lost (though the irony here is that Harold Landry and Josh Jackson, two common targets for the Packers in mock drafts, were available at 27 and remain on the board for the Packers).
This felt downright Thompsonian. With the chance to add a superstar, the team trades down instead. The cries from cheeseheads reverberated across the land. More of the same. Another wasted year with Aaron Rodgers. This is a failure.
But then the Packers did something we thought they might do from their perch at 14: trade up. This is part of what made the deal to move down some frustrating. Reports all week had Green Bay looking to move up for Denzel Ward (who went 4th to the Browns), Minkah FItzpatrick (11th), or Derwin James, who had still been available at 14.
Regardless of draft slots, Ted Thompson traded up just once in the first round in his tenure. That was in 2009 for a plucky upstart linebacker with NFL bloodlines named Clay Matthews. Perhaps you’ve heard of him. Let’s not forget, the Packers only gave up the 76th pick and a sixth-rounder to get next year’s first and another fifth on Saturday from the Saints. That’s easy money for Green Bay.
Not only did Gutekunst trade up, but he traded up for a corner who Thompson likely never would have picked with a premium selection simply because he was too short. Louisville cornerback Jaire Alexander stands 5-foot-10 1/4, which is a quarter-inch too short for where Thompson likes. Perhaps Thompson, who was in the room, wouldn’t have been as dogmatic with Alexander either. The Packers clearly liked him enough to trade up for him, but these thresholds are well-established in Green Bay dating back to before Thompson.
Perhaps Alexander’s unique gifts hold the answer. The 21-year-old Charlotte native burst onto the scene as a sophomore with five interceptions — including two off Deshaun Watson in the Clemson game when Alexander also forced a key fumble. At 196 pounds, he’s a tough, physical corner who fights through the catch point. As a former receiver, he possesses tremendous ball skills and even returned punts early in his career including one he housed as a sophomore.
But it’s Alexander’s virtuoso athletic talent that makes him a pivot point for the Packers draft. The Louisville standout ran a 4.38 40 at the combine, and he posted outstanding change-of-direction measurables with an Agility Score in the 93rd percentile and a SPARQ score in the 91st. This fluidity and athleticism should profile him as a player who can play in the slot, Green Bay’s biggest weakness at the moment.
Against good offenses last season, one of the biggest deficiencies this defense had was speed and the ability to cover the slot. It got to the point that safety Morgan Burnett had to be playing in the slot once Damarious Randall moved back outside due to injuries.
It’s a potential hole even if the Packers had taken Derwin James or Josh Jackson, each of whom are outstanding talents but are far less suited to be covering speedy receivers in the slot.
The rest of the draft now lays at their feet. Gutekunst doesn’t have to press or reach with the Packers’ biggest need filled. Yes, Green Bay has other areas where they can stand to improve, but the most glaring was at corner, and particularly in the slot. That need has been satisfied, unlocking this class for the Packers.
A great edge rusher falls in their lap at 45? Done. One of the dynamic pass catchers remaining on the board? Cool. An offensive lineman who could have gone in the first round lingers on the board? Go get him.
There are still myriad players in the draft who can help this team, but getting the guy ideally suited to meet their specific needs, a man coverage corner who can play in the slot, means the rest of the draft can just be Gutekunst and Co. getting their guys.
In the end, that’s what the Packers did Thursday night with Jaire Alexander and in some ways we got the best of both worlds with the Thompson experience. The Packers did what they always do and added future value. No team in football has been better adding draft value over the course of the last decade. Not only did they add future value, but the Packers re-tooled front office addressed their top need with a player tailor-made to fit in Year 1 who could end up being the best cornerback in the draft.
All of that would have been enough, but with Alexander secured, Green Bay now has the luxury of letting the draft come to them. Gutekunst has already proven to be an adept deal-maker and with a billion picks left at his disposal (numbers approximate), he could re-position the Packers to land even more impact starters.
Losing out on Derwin James is tough, but this went about as well as a first draft can go for the new Packers head man. That’s true even if—and because—he did some things his predecessor never would have done. That said, that predecessor’s first draft included taking the best quarterback in the league.
Your move Gutey.