On paper, the Green Bay Packers’ clash with the Jacksonville Jaguars this Sunday appears to be a giant mismatch. Tied for the top seed in the NFC, the Packers get an opportunity at home to sustain their success against a Jaguar team that finds itself second from the bottom of the AFC standings.
How each team got to this place has plenty to do with quarterback play. The Packers have benefited from two decades of legendary passers and are in the midst of developing another high-quality quarterback to continue that success. Jacksonville, meanwhile, is hoping for another shot at landing that type of player at the conclusion of this season.
Today’s musings take a look at the skill positions, but begin with the wide difference in strategy and success between the two teams under center.
Jordan Love has yet to take the field, but his selection hopefully will prevent a Jaguar-like situation at quarterback
The Jaguars’ quarterback struggle this season is a further reminder of the value of both identifying and securing a top-end signal caller. Many Packers fans, this author included, criticized the team for drafting Jordan Love in the first round this year only to be a week-to-week inactive. But if Green Bay is correct in its evaluation of Love and he becomes a top-10 level of talent down the line, the Packers will look like geniuses for trading up up to grab him in the mid-20s.
As General Manager Brian Gutekunst said in April, the Packers selected the best value on the board and that strategy, especially at quarterback, has left Gutekunst in an enviable position. “We looked at it like we really do every year,” said Gutekunst after the draft. “We evaluate all the players and certainly quarterback is of the highest priority for an NFL franchise. We evaluate those guys very closely. And you set your boards. Again, you don’t know what’ll happen. But I’ve never in my time in Green Bay, we’ve never been in a spot where it was like, ‘Hey, we have to go get a quarterback this year.’
Jacksonville has not been lucky in identifying quarterback talent in the first round over the past decade. From Blaine Gabbert in 2011 with the 10th pick to Blake Bortles in 2014 at number three overall, the Jaguars have not hit on their top quarterback prospects. Jacksonville could have also taken Lamar Jackson with the 29th overall pick back in 2018, but instead picked Taven Bryan and watched Jackson bloom into a future star at the end of the first round. Bortles, of course, had his best season as a pro during the 2017 season, but quickly tailed off. Even in 2020, Jacksonville passed on Love while narrowly missing out on the crop of talent a few picks earlier. Opting to go with sixth-round picks over the past two years in Gardner Minshew and Jake Luton, the Jaguars have found themselves in a familiar place once again despite making an AFC Championship appearance just three seasons ago.
With a 1-7 record, the Jaguars are currently in prime position to land an elite quarterback in the upcoming draft, such as Justin Fields or Trevor Lawrence, and that could very well be the dawn of a new age for the franchise. But as Luton makes the start this weekend, Jacksonville’s inconsistencies are a reminder of the reward for patience, planning, and execution at finding and developing a quarterback, even if it does not pay immediate dividends.
At the other end of the draft spectrum is the running back position, and that is highlighted in this week’s matchup
It is far too early to tell what kind of impact AJ Dillon will make for the Packers in the near future at running back. After all, he has only been used sparingly in the first eight games. But using second-round draft capital for a running back in today’s NFL is a fairly high price and a topic well-discussed on blogs such as APC.
In Sunday’s meeting between Green Bay and Jacksonville, the question of running back value again comes back into play. The Packers are led in carries by a former fifth-round pick in Aaron Jones and a fourth-rounder in Jamaal Williams. Jones, in particular, has been a game-changer when healthy as both a receiver and runner. He’s been one of many solid running backs to come out of the 2017 draft class and in many ways outperformed the backs taken on the first two days of the draft.
On the other sideline is a rookie undrafted free agent who finds himself sixth in the league in rushing yards. Illinois State’s James Robinson has accumulated 580 rushing yards and 225 receiving yards in eight games for the Jags, setting an undrafted rookie record for most yards from scrimmage in the first nine weeks. After using the fourth overall pick on Leonard Fournette in 2017, Jacksonville has received just as much value from a non-drafted rookie.
While it will be the Packer defense’s responsibility to slow down Robinson on Sunday, the rushing leaders for both teams point out gems that can be found outside the top rounds on a consistent basis.
How much of an impact would Devin Funchess have made?
The success of Davante Adams this season has helped cover up some severe inconsistencies from the Packers’ receiving corps. Not drafting a wide receiver in the first round has been covered in-depth, as has the team’s decision not to trade for a pass-catcher prior to the deadline. However, one player rarely covered since the summer is Funchess, the one player the Packers did add to their group of receivers.
As a possession receiver without top-end speed, Funchess was not going to be a vertical threat for the Packers this season before opting out due to COVID. But he may have been the type of steady, reliable target Green Bay has lacked more than anything. The drops from Equanimeous St. Brown against Minnesota and Marquez Valdes-Scantling versus San Francisco have hurt the Packers’ offense on key downs and also held Aaron Rodgers back from having some of the decisiveness he showed earlier in the season. While Funchess’s NFL experience opposite Adams could have improved that trust a little bit, Funchess has had his own drop issues with a total of 20 over four seasons.
Green Bay clearly likes length in its receivers and Funchess fit that bill — perhaps too much so — with the other receivers on the roster when originally signed. But the void left by the injury to Allen Lazard, a comparable athlete, could have been filled more easily by Funchess than Malik Taylor and the crew listed above. Without on-field action or chemistry with Rodgers to analyze, it is hard to gauge the impact Funchess would have made on the receiving game this season. But losing him before the season started may have been just as big of a blow to the receiving corps as any failed opportunity to make an addition.