Count this writer as one of many that were surprised when the Green Bay Packers left the 2020 NFL Draft without a wide receiver. Drops, separation, and a lack of explosiveness were all troubling aspects of the receiving corps during the 2019 season and made the position one of the most important to address. Still, Green Bay left draft weekend with a total of one wide receiver addition — an undrafted free agent.
But upon further review, perhaps the Packers’ inability to pull the trigger on a wide receiver, especially early in the draft, is not surprising at all. There has been a gradual neglect of the position over the past five seasons, beginning with the end of Ted Thompson’s managing career and continuing into Brian Gutekunst’s current oversight.
Former Packers general managers Ron Wolf and Thompson both made the same mistake with Hall of Fame-caliber quarterbacks: not giving them enough weapons. Wolf admitted he wished he would have given Brett Favre more receiving talent to work with. Thompson improved upon Wolf to an extent, supplying Aaron Rodgers with several talented targets in his early years with the likes of Jordy Nelson, Greg Jennings, and Randall Cobb. But in the middle (Randy Moss comes to mind) and later years, Thompson strayed from the path of providing elite options to an elite quarterback when available.
While Thompson certainly had holes to fill year after year on defense that affected his drafts, he made the wide receiver position a priority to the point that the well would never run dry. In his stint as GM from 2005-2017, Thompson netted a wide receiver in the top three rounds at least once every three years, spending four second-round selections and two third-round choices on the position during his tenure. That approach led to the Packers having a potent receiving attack with the aforementioned players and one that was able to be sustained even after an individual member eventually moved on.
But the Packers deviated from that fruitful pattern after the 2014 draft that brought in Davante Adams. Green Bay has now gone six drafts without adding a receiver in the first two rounds. Take out Ty Montgomery, a third-round pick in 2015, and Green Bay hasn’t touched wide receiver before round four. That statistic would be understandable to an extent if the Packers had swapped to a more free agent-styled approach in accumulating talent, but they haven’t. A one-year contract offered to Devin Funchess this spring is the most action the Packers have made on a somewhat-established veteran in that time frame.
As Green Bay moved further and further away from its successful method of acquiring young talent early in the draft, it started to employ a head-scratching philosophy in regards to building talent around a prime quarterback. The once second-round reinforcements were replaced with boom-or-bust third-day draft picks, undrafted free agents, and obscure waiver pickups. For every Allen Lazard and Equanimeous St. Brown who showed some level of promise, there was a Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Geronimo Allison who regressed. Those results epitomized the risk and reward of diving into the bargain bin.
Fast-forwarding to 2020, right or wrong, the Packers appear to be rapidly transitioning to a run-oriented offense, filled with a second-round running back and a third-round H-back. The running game can be important to establishing a play-action attack and an honest defense, and this author has not subscribed to the notion that running the ball is useless in today’s NFL. But there needs to be a sense of trying to keep up with the Joneses when it comes to the passing attack as well.
Around the league, playoff-caliber teams are acquiring dangerous slot receivers in the forms of Julian Edelman, Deebo Samuel, and Tyreek Hill. Not only does this group’s speed and elusiveness bring an extra threat to their respective offenses, it creates gaps in the middle of the field. The Packers once had a viable slot receiver in Randall Cobb that did this before injury setbacks. Since then, that part of the team’s offense has been absent and Rodgers’ passing charts reflect that. Rather than directly fix this in the offseason, the Packers added another tall, possession receiver in Funchess, who will be limited to outside route trees. Perhaps Equanimeous St. Brown’s return will patch up that defect, but it is easier to lean towards Green Bay struggling in this capacity once again in 2020.
Green Bay now looks ahead to the future with a problem still on its hand at wide receiver, and not only for this upcoming season. Kicking the can down the road on drafting a top receiver, specifically in an exceptional receiving draft class, will come back to bite the Packers as Adams’ contract expires in two seasons. As Gutekunst and others have mentioned, a rookie wide receiver has a difficult time making an impact in year one and it is very possible that Green Bay would not have seen a substantial contribution from a 2020 draft pick. But with this being the case, shouldn’t the Packers have selected a receiver to groom into a quality starter for two to three years down the road? Again, it has been six drafts since Green Bay made a serious investment there and, remember, it took Adams time to adjust as a professional himself.
They say that history repeats itself. Regret in handling the receiving position has already settled in for Wolf and Thompson. Gutekunst is slowly wandering down that road as well. As Rodgers’ prime continues to fade (with his replacement already possibly on the roster), so does the Packers’ offense and championship window. And management, with its half-decade of elite receiving neglect, only has itself to blame.