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Packers Musings: After six picks in 2 years, what does the future hold for young OL?

Green Bay is looking to find some quality within its quantity along the line, but what does the future hold for last year’s picks?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 19 Big Ten Championship Game - Northwestern v Ohio State Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Draft day was anything but ordinary in Green Bay for a second straight year as the Green Bay Packers faced quarterback drama once again. But as the dark shadow over the franchise and Aaron Rodgers slowly passed last weekend, the draft’s outcome appeared rather favorable for the team.

Today’s musings reflect on this year’s draft class, while taking a deeper look at where the class has come from and the continued increase in competition within the offensive line group.

What does Green Bay’s emphasis on offensive line for the second year in a row mean for last year’s group?

Earlier in the spring, these weekly musings highlighted the fact that the Packers, in three of the past four drafts, had used day three to pick a trio of players from one single position group. Green Bay did not necessarily add to that trend in 2021, but they still added three players across the offensive line over the course of days two and three. After spending three additional picks on day three in 2020 along the line as well, the question now becomes where all six players stand in building the future of the unit.

The futures of Jake Hanson and Simon Stepaniak are the most in doubt. A college center, Hanson was released after training camp and spent his first season on the practice squad and injured lists. At this point, Hanson’s versatility to play alternative positions is widely unknown, but his roster safety appeared to take a hit with the selection of Josh Myers, who should be given every opportunity to win the starting center role immediately as a rookie. The Packers also have Elgton Jenkins and Lucas Patrick, who could shift to center if the Packers are not afraid of disrupting continuity at the guard position.

Likewise, Stepaniak, mostly a rookie redshirt due to a college injury, has a long way to go in retaining a roster spot at the backup guard position. While Cole Van Lanen and Royce Newman should help provide some meaningful insurance at tackle, they each could look to begin inside rather than out. They could very well take on a similar role as the third member of that 2020 group, Jon Runyan, who played guard in spurts as a rookie after lining up as a tackle at Michigan. Runyan’s job security would appear to be much higher at this point than his fellow classmates.

The offensive line, without Corey Linsley and Rick Wagner, has plenty of questions heading into this summer. But the competition should be fierce for the unit’s first- and second-year members in particular.

School size and location of the Packers’ picks carry storylines of their own

There was buzz throughout the draft regarding the Packers’ seemingly intent focus on players from Power Five universities. Fifth-rounder Shemar Jean-Charles (Appalachian State) represented the only selection from outside those prestigious conferences. However, this really was not that abnormal from previous drafts with Brian Gutekunst as acting general manager. Not a single draft in four years has been composed of more than two players outside the Power Five (Notre Dame aside). Gutekunst’s approach in this regard has been somewhat of a contrast from his predecessor Ted Thompson, whose scope was much larger in terms of Group of Five and FCS products. While the Packers’ front office did not say small-school players were ranked lower on its board during questions in post-pick media sessions, it did allude to the notion that a tie-breaker between two fairly equal players would be favorable to the individual from larger competition.

One of the more interesting tidbits following the draft may have been the location of where Green Bay’s picks came from, or, perhaps, where they did not. After many, many years of the Packers strongly targeting the West Coast, Green Bay did not have a draft choice come from a school west of the Mississippi River. The states of Wisconsin and Mississippi were actually the furthest west of the Packers’ draft radar. Speaking of Mississippi, the team continued its recent trend of adding Mississippi State players with Kylin Hill joining Will Redmond, Preston Smith, Hunter Bradley, and Elgton Jenkins as former Bulldogs on the current roster. Derek Sherrod and Josh Boyd are two other recent picks hailing from Starkville in the past 10 years, making Mississippi State a school of note for the Packers on draft day.

Overall, this appears to be a solid draft for Green Bay now and for the future

Days one and two of last year’s draft were excruciatingly disappointing for this writer, but while I was not initially “stoked” by the Packers’ first-round choice, 2021 offers a much better overall vibe.

While Eric Stokes will have a learning curve ahead of him in terms of technique and hand usage downfield, the gamble could be well worth the risk if Stokes can parlay his exceptional speed and protypical size into a starting-caliber boundary role. Stokes may be better suited for dime-back responsibilities in his first year, but his progression will be important for life after Kevin King (and perhaps Chandon Sullivan) in 2022. Meanwhile, on day two, the Packers added a possible year-one starting center in Myers and an immediate, much-needed upgrade at returner in third-rounder Amari Rodgers. Rodgers will have every opportunity to carve out the same gadget role that Tyler Ervin had in the team’s offense, while providing more receiving value than Ervin. Rodgers’ slot role could become a real factor by the end of the 2021 season for a unit that has severely lacked his unique type of talents.

Then, the Packers did very well on day three to add some longer-term projects that could find their way on to the field as rookies. Newman and Van Lanen should challenge for depth roles at guard and potentially give Green Bay important right-tackle-of-the-future prospects. If he can keep his weight in check, fifth-rounder TJ Slaton could slide into a rotational two-down run-stopping role for a defense that sorely lacked needle-moving interior pieces behind Kenny Clark. The Packers have not had much luck with late-round defensive linemen as of late, but Slaton will have every shot to earn playing time.

Jean-Charles may not be an instant contributor as a rookie, but should hang on to the roster much like Ka’Dar Hollman did a few years ago to develop as a slot corner and try to earn a role on special teams. Isaiah McDuffie’s spot on the roster will be heavily dependent on his special teams ability as well, but draws plenty of similarities to the run-stopping inside linebackers of Packers past such as Jake Ryan and Blake Martinez. Finally, Hill should have a chance to earn a third running back spot on the roster with Jamaal Williams gone and is the sleeper of this class. Hill could have gone early in day three, but the seventh-round pick plays larger than his size and steadily developed as a receiver during his time as a collegian. There is not a lot of tread on his tires, either.

The one constant surrounding each of the Packers’ picks was character. Team captains and players that overcame injuries were themes of this particular draft. Management mentioned that it valued players who have shown they can overcome some form of adversity in their careers and lives because of the abundance of challenges the NFL presents. It appears the Packers found some of those players while netting several from consistent winning college cultures.