The idea of a “late-round steal” is as old as the draft itself and it’s a comforting, intuitive premise. It would easy to look at a player like Equanimeous St. Brown, with an incredible size/speed combination and Notre Dame pedigree, and think the Packers got a potential impact player in the sixth round.
Count me as someone who feels that way (I thought St. Brown was an easy Day 2 prospect). However, NFL history says otherwise, especially for such players in their rookie seasons.
As Justis Mosqueda pointed out on Twitter, just four of 98 receivers taken 133rd or later since 2011 have started half their games as rookies. That cutoff includes St. Brown plus fourth-round pick J’Mon Moore and fifth-round pick Marqueze Valdes-Scantling.
Former Eagles executive Joe Banner went a step further in casting doubt on the potential of this Day 3 draft class in a recent Q&A with The Athletic. He told Sheil Kopadia that when he was in Philadelphia, the scouting staff did a study and found players in the fifth round or later who ended up having success fell into one of three categories: small school prospect, undersized prospect, or injured in final season prospect.
Green Bay’s Day 3 picks mostly go the other way. With the exception of Kendall Donnerson, the entire Day 3 class played for major conference teams and with one exception — Valdes-Scantling — all played at a Power Five school (if we also consider Notre Dame one).
Typically, the NFL views players in the mid-to-late rounds as special teams players, backups, and projects. We know JK Scott and Hunter Bradley already fall into one of those buckets as special teams-only players.
Smart teams acquire picks because the draft has mostly been random over the years and the more bites at the apple a team has, the more likely it is to find the perfect piece of fruit. That’s basically what Brian Gutekunst did in his first draft and instead of going with history, he simply threw assets at major college kids hoping a couple can hit.
Furthermore, Green Bay’s recent success with that strategy suggests there’s nothing wrong with Gutekunst going about it that way. Ted Thompson didn’t subscribe to the Banner philosophy, or at least he possessed the scouting talent to overcome it.
Looking back at notable Day 3 players for Green Bay, nearly all of the best ones fail this three-bucket test. The best of them—guys like Micah Hyde, Matt Flynn, Desmond Bishop, Johnny Jolly, and Corey Linsley—came from Power Five conferences.
Jeff Janis qualifies as a small-school player, but was never more than a special teams ace for the Packers. C.J. Wilson would qualify as a smaller school player but East Carolina has produced some legitimate NFL talent in the past.
The best example is probably James Starks who came from Buffalo (a MAC school) and was injured. He provided critical balance early in his career for the Packers in the run game, but was also never more than a solid rotational back next to Eddie Lacy.
Are the Packers so good at scouting these late-round players that they’re able to overcome the historical data? Was Ted Thompson’s penchant for eschewing free agency forcing late-round picks into the lineup, where they could blossom in an environment other teams didn’t provide? Was Banner’s sample size too small or too rigid or simply faulty? And how much should history play into current player evaluation?
Those are all reasonable questions to be asking, though the answers remain far from clear.
Green Bay will need one of multiple receivers from this class to contribute this season without Jordy Nelson. The Packers could require Cole Madison to play legitimate snaps along the offensive line, and we know the special teamers are going to have to play.
Coaches must put these other raw players in the best position to succeed and contribute in ways that fit their skillsets, but they aren’t miracle workers. The odds say most of these guys aren’t going to be high-level contributors and in the case of the receivers, probably not even starters early in their careers.
When Davante Adams and Jeff Janis were rookies, one of Mike McCarthy’s major failings was his inability to find creative ways to give Janis a chance to do the things he was good at: crossing routes and deep shots. With three rookies each having distinctly different skill sets, McCarthy and Joe Philbin will have to create packages for them tailored to their talents.
But that’s the point with these late-round guys. They simply aren’t talented enough to be contributors no matter what. They need the help, or they’d have gone higher ... at least in most cases.
Gutekunst went with a strategy that has worked for Green Bay in the past, but even in the best cases, the Packers haven’t found many high-level players late in the draft. And though there are exceptions to every rule, expecting these rookies to be any different simply isn’t a reasonable expectation.