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The Packers’ Draft Philosophy: For skill positions, think big

Understanding how the Packers draft is all about understanding “12” personnel.

Green Bay Packers v Chicago Bears Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The Green Bay Packers’ 2020 Draft confounded pretty much everyone. No one expected the team to take a quarterback, no one expected the Josiah Deguara pick, and while AJ Dillon appears to be pretty good, many don’t care for using high picks on running backs. It seemed at the time to be disjointed, unorganized, and lacking in an overall philosophy.

I’m fairly sure that’s not the case. If I had to define what the Packers did last year, and are likely to do this year on offense, I’d call it “12-Personnel, Best Player Available.” I think they’re out of sync with much of the rest of the league in terms of what certain offensive players bring to the table simply because they like the big guys who excel in heavier formations. You can see it in everything they do, from the shape of their preferred receivers like Allen Lazard, Devin Funchess, and to a lesser extent, MVS. You can see it in their heavy use of the tight end position, not just in Robert Tonyan, but in Marcedes Lewis. And you can see it in the San Francisco 49ers, the team that they most closely resemble.

There is no way to conclusively prove this, but I’m still convinced that their trade up last year was to get Brandon Aiyuk, a type of receiver the 49ers make frequent use of and that the Packers covet. Instead of getting Aiyuk, San Fran jumped them via a trade with the Vikings and snatched him up, leaving the Packers with the next best player on their board, Jordan Love. Aiyuk and San Francisco’s other starting receiver Deebo Samuel are (relatively) short, heavy, and shifty. They excel in creating YAC, but still possess elite straight line speed. In 12 personnel, they’re problems. The 49ers also employ Jalen Hurd, a 6-5, 220 pound monster with both Allen Lazard and Equanimeous St. Brown on his list of closest comps. They don’t really make much use of “normal” receivers.

If you’re running 12 as a base, it helps to have a Kyle Juszczyk (who effectively counts as a tight end/H-back). If you’re not, Kyle Juszczyk is almost completely useless to you. While all offenses could benefit from a George Kittle, he is even more important in a tight end-heavy offense. Therefore, if you’re planning for 12-personnel, your best player available board is going to look very very different from a team running primarily out of 11-personnel, which requires a third receiver more than a tight end or fullback. A big back like AJ Dillon is also probably more valuable to you than he would be to a conventional team, as having a big back behind a big line with big receivers and big tight ends will make it very hard for a smaller defense to stop the run.

So in hindsight, the Packers 2020 draft actually makes a lot of sense. Love, a player at a very high value position, was the best player available to them after failing to land Aiyuk. Dillon, a rare Derrick Henry-level athlete at RB, was available to them, and a perfect fit for their heavy sets. Deguara too, is a nice fit for the Juszczyk role.

With all of that said, it still seems like there’s a big problem with their 2020 draft. In theory, they should have been able to get a lot of those guys later. One of the benefits of running a more unusual offense is that “your” players are not as in demand, and you should be able to draft them later as a result. Deguara was frequently mocked in the fifth round, not the third, and his selection seemed like an enormous overdraft at the time. Dillon too, was overdrafted by consensus. It seems like the Packers were not making the most of their offensive philosophy.

Except, remember what happened to them in the first round. If you’re running a truly unique system, that’s great, you can let guys come to you, but if you’re running a system that even one other team is running, you can’t just wait out the board. It’s likely that the 49ers had similar grades on similar players, and so for those unique fits to the Shanahan/LaFLeur system, every pick was and is a game of chicken. That situation is a recipe for looking foolish to pundits and to the rest of the league, and I’m pretty sure that is exactly what happened.

So, going into the draft this year, I think the Packers will be pretty standard in what they prioritize on defense, but don’t be surprised if things get weird again on offense. If the receiver isn’t a Deebo-like, or a Lazard/Funchess-like, or for the Packers, a Tyler Ervin-like, they may not be interested. And they may, again, jump up too high for their TEs and H-backs.

The Packers have a type, and that type is “Big Skill,” so don’t be surprised when things get weird.