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The Packers are targeting elite athletes in the NFL Draft, but is it working?

Brian Gutekunst has overseen a significant shift towards athleticism in the Packers’ draft strategy. Has it worked?

Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Ted Thompson’s draft philosophy broadly followed a generations-long pattern present in Green Bay since Ron Wolf’s time. Following strong positional guidelines, Thompson’s draft picks fell within well-defined ranges. He targeted athleticism where it was merited, but generally seemed to seek out the best football players he could. It’s a straightforward but fairly flexible system, and despite the occasional misfire (something no team can avoid), Thompson generally did well by the Green Bay Packers in the draft.

In his three years at the helm for the Packers, Brian Gutekunst has also established a fairly strong pattern, one that’s much easier to explain than his predecessor’s: Gutekunst wants athletes. Since 2018, the Packers have made a big push to take the most athletic players possible in the NFL Draft, and it’s resulted in a team chock-full of players capable of distinguishing themselves as athletes even in a league filled to the brim with high-end athletic performers.

But has it made the team better? That’s very much an open question.

What the data says about the shift to athleticism

First, some definitions. When we say the Packers are targeting elite athletes, we mean elite athletes as defined by Relative Athletic Score, a metric developed by Kent Lee Platte by Pride of Detroit. RAS rates a player on a 0-10 scale based on how well he tests in NFL Combine and pro day drills relative to other players at his position. On the RAS scale, any player with a rating of 8.0 or higher is considered “elite.”

Over the past three drafts, the Packers have selected 21 elite athletes (out of 28 total picks) as defined by RAS. That number could actually be a bit higher, but neither Kamal Martin or Vernon Scott had the opportunity to post a RAS score this year due to their pro days being canceled. But as it stands, Gutekunst has spent 75% of his picks so far as the Packers’ general manager on elite athletes.

For comparison, in his 13 drafts as the Packers’ general manager, Thompson selected 44 elite athletes in his 121 draft picks. That’s just 36% of his draft capital going toward elite athletes.

However, it should be noted that late in his Packers tenure, Thompson began to make a shift toward athleticism. Though he may not have matched Gutekunst in raw numbers, the average athleticism in Thompson’s draft classes was on the uptick near the end of his time as general manager.

In his three years so far, Gutekunst’s three draft classes have posted an average RAS of 8.93, 8.5, and 7.89 in 2018, 2019, and 2020, respectively. Thompson’s last two classes, 2016 and 2017, had an average RAS of 8.09 and 8.35. Though 2016 is boosted by the small number of picks and Jason Spriggs’ absurd 9.75 score, it still marks a sea change for Thompson, who only selected a class averaging above 8.0 once from 2005 through 2015.

If all that is too numbers-heavy for you (which I understand), here’s a graphic representation of both the total number of 8+ RAS athletes the Packers have taken every year since 2005 as well as the average RAS score for each class.

Packers garnering mixed results from premium athletes

Has this change in philosophy worked? It’s tough to say definitively, but early returns are not terribly promising. Having great athletes on your football team is awesome, but it doesn’t mean a lick if they can’t play. And unfortunately, Gutekunst’s philosophy so far has yielded more than a few great athletes who can’t seem to play football very well.

In 2018, the Packers drafted an absurd nine players with a RAS of 8 or higher:

  • Jaire Alexander (9.54)
  • Josh Jackson (9.27)
  • Oren Burks (9.73)
  • J’Mon Moore (8.43)
  • Marquez Valdes-Scantling (9.27)
  • Equanimeous St. Brown (9.84)
  • James Looney (9.75)
  • Hunter Bradley (9.02)
  • Kendall Donnerson (9.89)

In a lot of ways, this class is already on life support. Donnerson is out of the league and Moore is nearly there. James Looney has switched positions. Hunter Bradley is a long snapper.

Even among the players still actually on the Packers, the overall take from this class isn’t great. Jaire Alexander is the obvious exception, and an injury deprived us of a year of Equanimeous St. Brown, but it gets grim after that. Josh Jackson and Oren Burks can’t find the field, while Marquez Valdes-Scantling did a capable imitation of Spider-Man in “Avengers: Infinity War” last season, slowly disintegrating and blowing away into the breeze as his playing time dwindled to nothing.

2019 offers much the same outlook. In his second draft, Gutekunst took another seven players with a RAS of 8 or higher:

  • Rashan Gary (9.95)
  • Darnell Savage (8.35)
  • Elgton Jenkins (9.34)
  • Kingsley Keke (8.02)
  • Ka’dar Hollman (9.23)
  • Dexter Williams (8.17)
  • Ty Summers (9.71)

Elgton Jenkins looks like a stud and Darnell Savage is the best safety prospect the Packers have had in a long time, but beyond that, this class is pretty dicey, too.

Rashan Gary was last year’s man of mystery. Unable to turn his prodigious athletic gifts into playing time, he found his way to the field for fewer snaps than Kyler Fackrell. Despite his positional versatility, Kingsley Keke was little more than a deep rotational piece, and he has a lot of depth chart climbing to do to be more than that in 2020.

Ka’Dar Hollman and Ty Summers, meanwhile, were limited almost exclusively to special teams, and Dexter Williams hardly made it that far, finding himself inactive for all but four regular season games last year.

And though it’s foolish to project too much about a rookie class, it seems safe to say that Gutekunst’s four elite testers this year aren’t likely to make an enormous impact on the Packers this season:

  • Jordan Love (8.45)
  • A.J. Dillon (9.16)
  • Josiah Deguara (8.52)
  • Jon Runyan (8.49)
  • Jonathan Garvin (8.98)

Though A.J. Dillon has a clear path to playing time, the Packers’ other elite athlete draft picks this season are a backup quarterback, a fullback, and a depth offensive lineman.

Is focusing on athleticism the right approach?

Is all of this a good idea? Does focusing on athleticism help you create a better football team? In a vacuum, it still seems like a sound plan, but the Packers don’t seem to have quite found what they’ve been looking for. You can see what they’re thinking, though. Given the choice between two players of comparable ability, it just makes sense to get the guy who can also outrun and out-jump his counterpart.

However, it’s also fair to wonder if there’s more to it than that, and the 2017 draft, Thompson’s last, gives us a good case study.

The Packers had two elite athletes available to them with the 29th overall pick that year: T.J. Watt and Kevin King. They ultimately slid back into the early second round and grabbed King, nabbing Vince Biegel (another elite athlete) to shore up their edge rusher needs in the fourth round.

The King/Biegel package has turned out to be less productive than what they could have had in Watt, but I’m not here to debate the merits of that choice. The point is, the Packers had a decision between two elite athletes, and chose the one that better aligned with their positional value philosophy and needs. That was the part that blew up in their face, and that’s exactly the challenge Brian Gutekunst still faces today.

[Update: A previous version of this story said the Packers drafted four players with a RAS of 8 or more in 2020. They actually drafted five.]

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