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Packers Friday Musings: Help on both sides of the line could be targeted early in the draft

Much of the focus has been on improvements at wide receiver and cornerback, but history suggests the Packers will look for depth and early contributions up front.

Green Bay Packers v New York Giants Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

As the book officially closed on the 2020-2021 NFL season last Sunday, the attention now shifts from the postseason and new coaching hires, to offseason transactions. For the Green Bay Packers, a number of roster decisions will need to be made relatively soon. But perhaps the most exciting feature of the offseason for Green Bay, with cash expected to be tight, will once again be the draft.

Today’s musings make a prediction on how the Packers might attack the first four rounds of the upcoming 2021 NFL Draft from a position standpoint, while checking in one final time on Marquez Valdes-Scantling’s wildly inconsistent season.

One final thought on MVS: an inconsistent season, but also inconsistent targets

There are too many positives for Marquez Valdes-Scantling from the 2020 season to focus solely on the negatives. But even the target numbers tell the tale of the third-year pro’s inconsistency.

MVS led the league in yards per reception (20.9), certainly aided by the deep looks from Aaron Rodgers throughout the season. Overlooked a bit in an explosive play-laden “breakout” season is that MVS was actually targeted 10 fewer times in 2020 than during his rookie season. Rodgers championed a balanced approach with his receiving options in his third MVP season, but MVS had some very peculiar disappearing moments for a 16-game starter and finished tied with Allen Lazard with 33 receptions despite playing in six more games.

There were six games in which MVS finished with three targets or fewer, including two games with zero targets despite 91 combined offensive snaps. While the weather, and an incredible game from Davante Adams, impacted MVS and the passing game against Tennessee, a Week 12 win against Chicago saw seven players receive a target from Rodgers; MVS was not one of them. Lazard and MVS were interchangeable number two wide receivers throughout the season, and Robert Tonyan’s emergence also factored into the offense. But even if one were to look back at another strong season from Rodgers in which the Packers had three viable receivers and a strong receiving tight end, such as 2012, it was rare to see such a discrepancy in targets from one week to the next for any of those weapons.

Consistency catching the ball surely stands out as an area requiring improvement for MVS if he is to take the next step as a bona fide number two receiver. But some of the less obvious areas of his game must also take a step forward if he is to receive the consistency of targets that comes with that role.

A look at how the top of the Packers’ draft could shake out position-wise

Last week’s musings touched on the importance of picking a cornerback in this year’s draft, regardless of whether the team keeps Kevin King or not. However, the early pre-Combine returns on this year’s class would suggest better value at the position in rounds two and three.

If that would be the way in which the draft falls, the Packers could capitalize on other positions of need. Of course, wide receiver has been a widely-discussed area of need for over a year, but Brian Gutekunst has not previously shown much of an interest in the shorter, shiftier type of receivers in the mold of Kadarius Toney and Rondale Moore. And there’s always the asterisk that Green Bay has not drafted a wide receiver in round one since Javon Walker in 2002. Could Aaron Rodgers’ comments about his uncertain future be a message that alters the organization’s direction?

Positions the Packers have historically valued early in the draft, in addition to cornerback, are the positions up front. With a decision to retain Preston Smith looming, edge rusher could be a focus at the end of the first round, especially after the Packers had some struggles generating consistent pressure during the season. Unless one of this year’s rookie developmental players breaks through, losing Smith would leave Green Bay without a clear-cut third edge rusher that has benefited them the past two years. As learned from Tampa Bay’s final push, a team can never have enough pass rushers. The five-technique position also cannot be forgotten to help fortify the defensive line against the run, especially if the Packers move on from Dean Lowry.

Likewise, offensively, the Packers seem prepared enough to at least partially offset the anticipated loss of Corey Linsley to free agency. But such a replacement may involve current interior players shifting positions. While Billy Turner and Rick Wagner handled the right side surprisingly effectively for most of the 2020 campaign, it would be wise for the Packers to begin grooming a long-term right tackle. Offensive line may have been a position of strength this year, but the depth can still stand to be improved on the edges.

What Gutekunst will do in this year’s draft is hard to say, considering the shocking moves made in rounds one through three last year. But one sensible prediction of how Green Bay could attack the first rounds of the draft is the following:

  • 1st - Edge Rusher
  • 2nd - Cornerback
  • 3rd - Offensive Tackle
  • 4th - Wide Receiver
  • 4th (possible compensatory) - Defensive End

What about inside linebacker?

Another position of consideration during the draft process is inside linebacker, an area the Packers rather neglected under Mike Pettine. With new Defensive Coordinator Joe Barry at the helm, a linebacker-specific coach seven times during his coaching career in the collegiate and professional ranks, what kind of changes may be in store for the Packers’ inside ‘backers?

Largely, that question will be answered with a wait-and-see approach. Christian Kirksey signed a two-year deal last offseason, but is one of the more obvious cap casualty candidates this spring. Along with Kirksey, rookies Krys Barnes and Kamal Martin played prominent roles at the position in 2020. An interesting note in Packers.com’s initial article on Barry was his work with a former undrafted player in Los Angeles, Corey Littleton. Barry helped groom Littleton into a Pro Bowler by the end of his second season and Barnes, a former undrafted player himself, was a meaningful contributor as a rookie with some athletic upside.

Still, as APC’s Peter Bukowski noted in a recent piece on Barry’s hire, the Rams’ system utilized and found success with safety-linebacker hybrid type of players. Players of that nature are not necessarily new to Green Bay, with Ibraheim Campbell, Raven Greene, Will Redmond, and even Morgan Burnett filling that role at times in special packages. The Packers picked a raw player this writer thought was destined for a hybrid role in last year’s draft in Vernon Scott. Could he have a larger responsibility to the defense in his sophomore campaign?

Recently, Gutekunst acknowledged some positives from the young inside linebackers in stepping in early as rookies, but noted that the Packers need to have more “productive” play out of its group next season. The question still remains, however, of whether that improvement will come largely from within or from the outside. And if from the outside, would it break precedent and come in the form of a high-end draft pick?