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Packers’ young players are struggling, but draft misses are making it worse

Players who should be foundational members of the team are instead barely workable role players.

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Green Bay Packers Tork Mason-USA TODAY Sports

Perhaps you’ve heard, but the Packers are a young team. Youth is at least one reason that this season has gone the way it has, even if it’s not always a satisfactory explanation. But even if youth is a problem, the much bigger issue is that the players who should be making up the core of this team haven’t grown into significant roles, and the ones who are getting snaps are playing badly.

It’s not a full explanation of the problem, but a look through the 2020 and 2021 draft classes shows how this phenomenon can play out.

Jordan Love is in a category of his own from the 2020 class and needs his own evaluation (please, will someone spend some time talking about Jordan Love?), but outside of Love, there’s little upside to be found in that draft year. Four of Brian Gutekunst’s 10 draft picks in 2020 are either functionally or actually out of football, including sixth-round guard Simon Stepaniak (injured when the Packers selected him), who never actually played a single snap of NFL football.

The rest of the class includes AJ Dillon, who’s averaging a career-low 3.1 yards per carry, Josiah Deguara, who was essentially benched in Week 8 and played just five snaps, and Jon Runyan, an available but otherwise underwhelming guard who currently ranks much closer to the bottom of Pro Football Focus’s run grades than the top. Jake Hanson, waived by the Packers in August, is still kicking about but has yet to catch on with another NFL team.

The 2021 class is arguably worse. Of Gutekunst’s nine picks, four have already been shown the door. Isaiah McDuffie and Royce Newman are rotational backups and special teamers. TJ Slaton is solid enough, but plays a pretty small role; there just aren’t many opportunities for a nose tackle in the 2023 NFL. Josh Myers has been the consistent subject of the position battle rumor mill since the Packers themselves started the conversation that his job was in jeopardy last spring. Eric Stokes lasted just five snaps in his return from a nearly year-long injury recovery.

It all adds up to a roster full of confused rookies bolstered by a crop of veterans who aren’t holding up their end of the bargain. People like Myers, Dillon, and Runyan should be cornerstones of the team by years three and four, not subjects of increasingly hostile job evaluations. Instead, the youngest players on the roster are forced to shoulder a much bigger burden, and they haven’t shown themselves to be up to the task so far.

But the rookies simply shouldn’t have to carry that kind of load, and if the Packers had done a better job building for the post-Aaron Rodgers era, the offense’s foundational talent might be in a better place.