Looks back at the NFL Draft are often taken far too soon. It seems that every year, media analysts examine the previous year’s draft to see how they would have re-ordered the first round or two based on the results of one NFL season. But rarely does one look back farther than that to see a more lengthy career-level look at the class.
This week, former NFL exec and NFL.com analyst Gil Brandt did the latter, going all the way back to the 2012 NFL Draft to re-draft that year’s first round. That year, the Green Bay Packers’ actual selection was outside linebacker Nick Perry, whom the team chose with the 28th overall selection as Ted Thompson looked for a bookend starter opposite to Clay Matthews.
However, looming one pick later was another player who would have made a much bigger short- and long-term impact in Green Bay: safety Harrison Smith. The Vikings traded traded up to pick #29 to grab Smith, who has been a stalwart on the back end for the Vikings ever since. Indeed, on Brandt’s re-draft, Smith is his pick for the Packers at 28:
Smith would have been an outstanding replacement for safety Nick Collins, who suffered a career-ending neck injury in 2011. A first-team All-Pro in 2017, Smith has earned Pro Bowl honors for five straight seasons, collecting three-plus picks in each of the past three years. Perry’s career was unfortunately derailed by injury.
Imagine the Packers’ situation in 2012 and beyond if they had landed Smith — who does fit the team’s athletic benchmarks for defensive backs — instead of Perry. With Nick Collins’ career-ending injury taking place early in the 2011 season, Dom Capers’ defense would have immediately found its replacement at free safety for the next decade. Instead, the Packers drafted Maine’s Jerron McMillian in round four, and he fought with undrafted free agent M.D. Jennings for the free safety job until the Packers grabbed Ha Ha Clinton-Dix in the first round of the 2014 Draft.
In a truly ideal world, the Packers would have stayed put at 59 in that draft, selecting Olivier Vernon (who went 3.72 to Miami) instead of trading up for Jerel Worthy. They could have still traded up to 62 to select Casey Hayward, as they did that year, getting a tremendous slot corner. Then, if the Packers got their safety in round one, imagine the team spending that McMillian pick on another player, perhaps a Malik Jackson or Danny Trevathan, who were both early fifth-round draft picks. Green Bay still may have needed an edge rusher, but that year’s draft was not deep at that position and getting another body up the middle would have been helpful as well.
In 2014 then, with the safety position fully solidified with Smith playing next to Morgan Burnett, the Packers might have been able to invest their first-round on the edge instead of in Clinton-Dix. Imagine the likes of Dee Ford or DeMarcus Lawrence joining Clay Matthews Julius Peppers in chasing down quarterbacks.
Instead, Perry only had one truly good season, his 2016 contract year when he recorded 11 sacks in a career-high 12 starts. There is no question that Smith has been by far the better player in the past nine seasons (particularly with Perry out of football in 2019), and the knock-on effects of the team selecting him instead would have been tremendous.
While some Packers fans might still lament Ted Thompson’s trade back in 2017 to select a defensive back instead of a pass-rusher, doing the reverse in 2012 would have significantly changed the team’s fortunes in the middle part of the last decade. Who knows; with Smith on the back end, perhaps the Fail Mary never has a chance to take place, or any number of plays in the 2014 NFC Championship Game go differently. The what-if game can go on and on, but this particular sequence is one that undoubtedly would have improved the Packers’ Super Bowl chances over the last nine years.