Yet another trade deadline has come and gone without the Green Bay Packers making a move. This is not surprising to anyone who has paid even the slightest bit of attention to the Packers since the beginning of time, but particularly since the beginning of the Ted Thompson era. The Packers front office is conservative in nature. Draft-and-develop is the team’s mantra and it’s been pretty successful, even if it mostly involves the luck (or foresight) of having an elite quarterback for much of the past fifteen years.
Draft-and-develop only works, of course, if you draft well. It also only works if you develop well. If either of those links in that short chain are broken, the strategy falls apart. The Packers were also dealt an unfortunate financial hand by biology. The Packers’ cap situation started to become more difficult at the exact time in which the COVID-19 pandemic slammed the NFL salary cap. The NFL salary cap grew from about $120M in 2011 to about $188M in 2019, with average annual growth rates in the neighborhood of 6-7%. The pandemic changed all that, with a massive crunch hitting in 2021, the cap contracted by 8%. If the cap had continued at a 7% clip, it would be approximately $19M higher that it is currently.
Perhaps the Packers could have been a more active team in free agency over the past year or two had they not had their financial flexibility taken out from underneath them by a stupid virus. Perhaps they wouldn’t have had to take on such large dead cap hits due to the aggressive restructuring that was required due to the cap crunch. Perhaps. But that was not the universe we occupy.
What that meant in terms of roster building is that the Packers needed to hit on their draft-and-develop strategy. There was no real other option. In the 2010s and into the 2020s, however, the Packers began to hit less and less. The Super Bowl champion team was filled with draftees and UDFAs, accentuated by only a couple of free agent signings, most notably defensive back Charles Woodson and defensive tackle Ryan Pickett. Any grand narrative about this is going to have to make some arbitrary timeline choices, and the choice of course needs to come after the Super Bowl. While the 2011 class only saw Randall Cobb end up as a productive player, the 2012 class saw Nick Perry, Casey Hayward, and Mike Daniels all turn into productive players (we will not discuss the contract choices the Packers made for this class). The team’s 2013 first round pick, Datone Jones, never panned out, but Eddie Lacy, David Bakhtiari, and Micah Hyde provided a lot of value.
In my grand narrative, the problem really begins in 2015. The Packers, eager to add bodies to their secondary, in what was a never-ending quest to fix a leaky pass defense post-Super Bowl, missed on both their top selections in Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins. Ty Montgomery would be drafted as a receiver, but moved to running back and ultimately was traded away after fumbling a kick return in the brutal 2018 season. Linebacker Jake Ryan played but was never anything more than a replacement-level player, and the rest of the class provided nothing. The Packers got practically zero long-term value out of the 2015 class, and there were knock-on effects that would harm them for years.
The 2016 class brought them Kenny Clark, who has been outstanding in his time with the team, but the depth of this class provided nothing. Jason Spriggs was drafted to ultimately take the reigns from Bryan Bulaga, but proved too physically weak to handle NFL defensive ends. Kyler Fackrell was routinely sent into the stands by offensive linemen. Blake Martinez and Dean Lowry ended up with decent careers as they oscillated between useful and replacement level, while Trevor Davis and Kyle Murphy ended up doing next to nothing.
The 2017 class is where the ghosts of drafts past begin to show their trickle down effects. After being pantsed in the NFC Championship Game by the Atlanta Falcons, the Packers desperately needed to add help to their secondary. Damarious Randall had been volatile, Quinten Rollins had shown zero signs of being an NFL player, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix had regressed, and Morgan Burnett was headed into the ‘cap casualty’ portion of his contract. The Packers added Kevin King and Josh Jones in the first two rounds, and both players provided negative value to the team. Montravius Adams hardly played across his Packers career. Vince Biegel got injured early in his career and was never able to show the same explosiveness that made him an interesting prospect at Wisconsin. The only saving graces from this class were the running back duo of Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams.
The 2018 class brought the Packers Jaire Alexander, a bona fide superstar. Outside of him, the only player who provided surplus value to the Packers was enigmatic speedster Marquez Valdes-Scantling. Josh Jackson, Oren Burks, and J’Mon Moore provided no value to the Packers. Day 3 value only came from Valdes-Scantling, with most of the rest providing negative value or not hanging on the roster.
The 2019 draft was the Packers’ big swing in the draft, selecting both Rashan Gary and Darnell Savage in the first round, with one big hit and one miss. Elgton Jenkins was a massive hit until an ACL injury hit him last fall. He has not been the same since, but it’s hard to argue that it was anything but a hit. A common story followed with after Gary and Jenkins, the Packers getting no additional depth from the rest of the class with Jace Sternberger, Kingsley Keke, Ka’dar Hollman, Dexter Williams, and Ty Summers providing next to nothing.
The 2020 draft saw the Packers make the controversial decision to draft Jordan Love in the first round. They followed that with semi-controversial moves, drafting AJ Dillon and Josiah Deguara in the subsequent rounds. Love hasn’t really played and is heading into a fifth-year option decision with effectively zero NFL snaps. AJ Dillon had a very good 2021 and Deguara has become a useful split-blocking tight-end, but little more. The most impactful player from this class was sixth round pick Jon Runyan Jr, who has turned himself into a quality starting guard.
The 2021 class has little to show outside of 2nd-round pick Josh Myers, who currently has peaked at ‘fine.’ Eric Stokes has been intermittently benched in recent weeks. Amari Rodgers returns punts with his hands lathered in movie theater butter. Royce Newman was benched. TJ Slaton is a decent rotational defensive lineman. The rest of the group is either no longer with the team, injured, or back-end special teamers.
It is hard to judge the 2022 class too harshly yet, given that they are rookies, but the early returns have not helped the team this season — particularly the early draft picks. Quay Walker has been a major reason for the Packers porous run defense. 24-year-old Devonte Wyatt is a borderline DNP every week. Christian Watson has sustained three lower body injuries after having two knee surgeries at North Dakota State. Sean Rhyan is getting DNPs every week. Day three selections have actually been the bright spot as there have been some flashes from Romeo Doubs, Zach Tom, JJ Enagbare, and Samori Toure. Of course the plan should never be to rely on day three rookies.
Excluding the 2022 draft, which we should not judge only half a season in, there were seven drafts from 2015-2021. Across those seven drafts, the Packers drafted four bona fide stars in Jaire Alexander, Kenny Clark, Aaron Jones, and Rashan Gary. They drafted one other above-average player in Elgton Jenkins. They drafted four solid players in AJ Dillon, Jon Runyan Jr, Josh Myers, and Jamaal Williams. They drafted five fringey players in Darnell Savage, Josiah Deguara, Blake Martinez, Dean Lowry, and Marquez Valdes-Scantling. The remaining players were either just back-end roster filler or flat-out busts.
The real draft (before the likelihood of getting a useful player plummets) is only about four rounds long. If we only count their picks in the first four rounds, they had 29 ‘real’ picks across those seven years. They acquired five difference makers. They acquired four good depth pieces. They acquired five decent depth pieces. There were simply too many misses in the first three rounds to overcome decent day three drafting.
The reason the Packers offense is so devoid of talent has a lot to do with missing on defensive backs time and time again, starting in 2015. It isn’t the cap. It isn’t the lack of veteran additions. It’s because the draft-and-develop chain broke.