Drew Brees couldn’t have done much more. As the 2016 season came to a close, Brees finished the year as the NFL’s leading passer, topping the stat books in attempts, completions, and yards to go with 37 touchdowns. Despite his statistical prowess, the Saints finished 7-9, their third consecutive seven-win season and their fourth in five seasons. Brees was turning 38 the following seasons and the Saints had to do something drastic or risk wasting the end of a Hall of Fame quarterback’s career.
This should start to sound familiar for Packers fans.
After coming back to beat the Eagles on Sunday, the Saints proved how well they’ve positioned themselves to finish Brees’ twilight years as consistent contenders. They look to be a balanced, talented football team capable of winning the Super Bowl every year until Brees hangs up his cleats. And the only reason they’ve been able to do it was the 2017 draft.
While there’s something to the idea of just picking good players — and that Saints draft is one of the best in a long time — the approach they took is one the Packers can repeat in ways specific to the needs of the team. The Packers aren’t truly as far from contending as those 7-9 Saints were from a talent standpoint, so they don’t need to hit Alvin Kamara or Marshon Lattimore-sized home runs in the draft. Matt LaFleur’s scheme must be an improvement over Mike McCarthy’s and some of the young talent already in place has to take a step forward.
Here’s one important caveat to remember: I’m not espousing the Packers stick rigidly to this program, or insisting they must pick a certain type of player at these spots. This is a potential road map for success. Every selection in the draft is based on the players available at the time and their respective possible impact on the team. Pick the guy who maximally improved your squad.
It starts with the first pick. New Orleans benefitted from the fall of Lattimore, a one-year wonder cornerback at Ohio State who stepped right into the league and became one of the best cornerbacks in football. His interception in the first half on Sunday changed the complexion of that game and another sealed the win.
Green Bay doesn’t have to invest the 12th pick in a cornerback with the roster they have, particularly if they re-sign Bashaud Breeland. However, finding that field-tilting defender in the form of a pass rusher could elevate the players around him in a similar way. A guy like Jachai Polite or Clelin Ferrell could come in, get pressure on his own, and allow Mike Pettine to allocate more resources to coverage disguises than the alacrity with which we’ve already seen him dial up pressure packages.
Take the swing for a defensive playmaker at 12 if it’s there to take.
Much like the Packers, the Saints had the 32nd pick thanks to a trade. Coincidentally, it is a trade with the Saints that could net the Packers the same pick. And with that pick, New Orleans tabbed Wisconsin’s Ryan Ramczyk despite the fact that offensive line was hardly the Saints’ biggest area of need. Ramczyk hardly confuses anyone for David Bakhtiari, but just having someone there to be trusted would be a huge upgrade for the Packers at their one true offensive line hole.
Brian Gutekunst may be able to find a suitable replacement at right guard in free agency, but a tackle who can play both tackle and guard at 32 could immediately upgrade the Packers’ single biggest offensive personnel weakness. And there are players to like at the end of the first in that spot. A pair of SEC tackles, Greg Little or Jawaan Taylor, could fall as playmakers elsewhere take priority at the end of the first round.
Could the symmetry be even more obvious and see the Packers tab a Wisconsin offensive lineman like Beau Benzschawel to step in and immediately play guard? Kansas State’s Dalton Risner would likely start right away at guard as well as be a backup tackle or center.
A combination of Polite and Risner for example, could set up the Packers in ideal position as the rest of the draft unfolds, while addressing the team’s two biggest needs. That’s not the same as saying the team ought to draft for need, but rather to point out this draft sets up particularly well for Green Bay given its needs.
Risner, like Ramczyk, wouldn’t have to be an All-Pro to have a considerable impact on this team given how penalizing the massive, cavernous hole at right guard was all season, though the Saint and former Badger was a second-team All-Pro in 2018. Just come in and be solid. That’s enough to be an impactful upgrade.
From here, the Packers would have two more picks in the top-100 with two more between 100 and 112. The Saints were able to find Marcus Williams and Alex Anzalone sandwiched around Alvin Kamara, the last of whom New Orleans traded up to acquire. Williams and Anzalone do start for the Saints, but neither are high-impact players with Williams being most famous for his whiff on the Minneapolis Miracle.
But once again, the blueprint can be repeated. Somewhere in there, with all those picks— 44, 75, 107, and 111—find an offensive piece who can come in and give the team some explosiveness along with at least one defender who can play snaps for Pettine. Neither have to be Kamara-level good; they already have that player on the roster in Aaron Jones. Maybe it’s a tight end to stretch the field, or a pass-catching back who can line up wide. A safety who can play deep and allow Josh Jones to play de facto linebacker could kill two birds with one stone, boosting the Packers’ overall speed on defense while upgrading the safety spot with a player more suited to his role.
None of these players would have to be stars, just capable of playing a role and playing it well. New Orleans wound up with two legitimate star players, another high-level starter and two more quality role players. For the Packers to get back into contention, Gutekunst doesn’t have to go HAM with some historic class. He needs to find the right kind of pieces to upgrade this team in specific ways.
The Packers already have the Hall of Fame quarterback and legit No. 1 receiver the Saints had. They have unheralded defensive linemen who can control games and a solid offensive line to protect said QB. Green Bay has one running back capable of providing dynamic impact; it’s just that they could use one more. And while there’s potential for the Packers’ defense to improve in 2019, they could use one impact player and some depth pieces to stubbornly push this defense forward.
Yes, New Orleans picked good players, but they picked good players at the positions that maximally improved their team. They needed one more defensive stalwart and an impact player offensively, plus depth elsewhere. That equation is exactly the kind of math the Packers have to decipher this offseason. And much like 2017 broke the right way for the Saints, this 2019 class has the right makeup to provide instant impact for Green Bay to follow their NFC brethren back to contention.