In most mock drafts leading up to draft day last April, there was little variance in terms of which positions the Green Bay Packers would target. Edge rusher? Cornerback? Wide Receiver? It seemed the Packers would likely take a player for one of those roles with the 14th selection. While the cornerback options were plentiful with names such as Mike Hughes, Josh Jackson, and Jaire Alexander routinely tossed around, most experts believed the wide receiver choices for the Packers were narrowed to one: Calvin Ridley.
As the Packers prepare for Atlanta this week, they will get a first-hand look at Ridley, who is having a fantastic rookie season for the Falcons after a standout career with the Alabama Crimson Tide. With 50 catches for 647 yards and eight touchdowns, Ridley is in the running for NFL Rookie of the Year honors, though Saquon Barkley would seemingly be the front-runner. Regardless, Atlanta appears to have found a legitimate weapon to pair with Julio Jones for the immediate future in Ridley after grabbing him with the 24th pick of the first round.
Interestingly enough, across from Ridley this week will probably be a tandem of Jackson and Alexander. The latter was the player the Packers did select with their first choice after trading down from the 14th pick to the 18th selection. With each pick, the Packers chose to forego adding talent and depth to the wide receiver position early in the draft in the midst of Jordy Nelson’s departure and Randall Cobb’s contract season. Whether the Packers rated Ridley high on their board is unknown, but their decision is an interesting one to debate.
In the absence of a high-round pick at the position, the Packers have relied heavily on first-year receivers taken late in the draft to fill the void left by roster changes and injuries. Perhaps that was a mistake this season as Green Bay has ridden the highs and lows in the passing game as a result, despite the loads of potential for the future. A player of Ridley’s caliber, coming from a near-pro college program, may have been a better initial fit for Aaron Rodgers and the Packer offense. His ability to separate in improvisational circumstances and stretch the field with his straight-line speed may have led to increased plays of 20 yards or more this season.
But while the early returns on Ridley are solid, Green Bay certainly looks to have struck gold with Alexander.
The corner from Louisville has shown glimpses of being as close to a shutdown, impact player for the Packers as the team has had since the days of Al Harris and Charles Woodson. When Alexander has been healthy, the Packer defense has been much more reliable. A mid-season game against the Los Angeles Rams highlighted Alexander’s potential as the rookie amassed five pass deflections against one of the NFL’s most-feared offenses.
While Alexander may very well match up against Jones on Sunday, he will surely continue to bring his swagger and physicality into play. He has drawn rave reviews for his recovery speed and quickness to react, which bodes well for covering Jones and Ridley. Meanwhile, Ridley is coming off a contest against Baltimore that was less-than-satisfying in terms of focus miscues. Still, Ridley has had an impressive rookie season and has been no stranger to the end zone. Whether Alexander, Jackson, or another Packer defender can re-expose some of those rookie mistakes from Ridley this week and contain the Atlanta offense remains to be seen. But there could be more defensive aggression from Green Bay with an interim coach.
This NFL draft season figures to be an exciting one with the Packers owning two first-round selections and a possibly high-end second-round pick. But before another offseason of change begins, this week presents an opportunity to scout the what-is and the what-could-have-been from last year’s draft season.