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Lukas Van Ness was the right pick for the Packers

Entering Day 2 of the draft, Green Bay must be thankful they went with the edge rusher at 13

Colorado State v Iowa Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images

The selection of edge defender Lukas Van Ness by Green Bay Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst should be proof of concept that Gutekunst understands where he needs to maneuver to be able to select the player that he wants. In the Aaron Rodgers trade with the New York Jets, the Packers and Jets agreed to a pick swap of first-round picks — which moved Green Bay from 15th overall in the 2023 NFL Draft to the 13th selection.

Those two slots could have drastically altered how the Packers’ draft played out. Sitting at the 14th pick were the New England Patriots, who brought Van Ness in on an official visit. Once Van Ness was selected by Green Bay, the Patriots decided to trade that pick with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Interesting.

For anyone saying that Gutekunst wasted draft value by accepting the pick swap instead of a fourth-round pick — the compensation that the Philadelphia Eagles gave up to slide up from 10th overall to 9th overall in the draft — they need to understand this: There was no promise that Van Ness was going to be there at 15.

Even beyond the 14th pick and the Patriots connection, it’s worth noting that New York also ended up taking a player at that edge position: Will McDonald of Iowa State. Sure, Van Ness was ranked 15th on the consensus draft board, but McDonald was ranked 33rd and was maybe the most shocking “reach” on Thursday outside of running back Jahmyr Gibbs going to the Detroit Lions just one slot before the Packers were on the clock. Think of the pick swap in that light: It easily could have been McDonald at 15.

McDonald was just one of the unexpected selections for first-round edge rushers. When I wrote about the Packers’ visits — which included McDonald — last week, I had pegged the team as interested in the edge position in the second round, as that’s where names like McDonald, Felix Anudike-Uzomah and Keion White were expected to come off the board. Instead, McDonald and Anudike-Uzomah were both taken in the first round while White was one of the few undrafted players who remained from the draft’s greenroom crew of prospects.

I understand the complaints about Green Bay passing up on their pick of pass-catchers, but it’s rare for a tight end to as high as the 12th overall pick. A receiver didn’t come off of the board until the 20th overall pick, which started a run of four receivers being drafted, but none of them were traded up for in a first-round that saw plenty of trade-ups. Maybe Gutekunst just wasn’t into this crop of pass-catchers that early on. Maybe he was right for thinking that, too.

Had Green Bay gone pass-catcher early with the hope of adding an edge rusher on Day 2, they’d be in a much bigger bind than where they sit today. With only one tight end off the board in a first round where many had projected two to four being drafted, the Packers are positioned favorably to select one with either the 42nd or 45th overall pick on Friday. Receivers like Jalin Hyatt, Cedric Tillman, Jonathan Mingo, Rashee Rice and A.T. Perry remain, too.

The way the first round played out feels a lot like the 2013 class to me, a year where Green Bay arguably had the best draft class in a weak year overall. Fans couldn’t believe that Ted Thompson took defensive lineman Datone Jones in the first round over running back Eddie Lacy. Didn’t the team know that their quarterback needed help?! Anyway, the Packers were able to trade down from the 55th pick and still draft Lacy in the second round.

I guess what I’m trying to say is let’s wait for a couple more rounds before we start to say that there’s no hope for Jordan Love to grow with the team’s 2023 receiving options. Who knows? Maybe Notre Dame’s Michael Mayer, a player who was frequently mocked to the Packers even after their pick swap with the Jets, will fall to them in the second round like Lacy did 11 years ago.

As far as Van Ness the player goes, I have high hopes that he’ll have a better career than Datone Jones had in Green Bay. If you want a glimpse at why Van Ness was so coveted, take a look at the clips below, where he displays his bull rush against the sixth overall pick (Paris Johnson) and 11th overall pick (Peter Skoronski) in the 2023 draft.

In the short-term, I believe that Van Ness will end up winning the starting job opposite of Preston Smith at the position — though, it will have to be earned — while Rashan Gary recovers from his ACL tear. Once Gary is healthy, at worst, he’ll be a pressure package player who can play inside or outside — something the team has missed since Za’Darius Smith was last seen at full health in 2020. Long-term, hopefully, the combo of Gary and Van Ness are the Packers’ pass-rushing duo of the future, as Smith will inevitably be eased off the squad for cap relief.

Athletically, Van Ness is everything you can ask for. He needs to learn a few more pass-rush moves and be more comfortable in a two-point stance, but those are non-critical factors for a player who was a 220-pound high schooler who was focused just as much on hockey as he was on football just three years ago. The arrow is trending up and the Packers bought him “low.” Had he stayed at Iowa for another season, earning enough tenure to actually record a “start” with the Hawkeyes, he probably would have been a top-10 lock with the extra year of development.

Sound familiar? That’s right, it’s Rashan Gary all over again. Is he a finished product? No. Is he a good pick for the slot? Yes. Do you know what’s better than one Rashan Gary? Two.

Gary was developed under former Packers coach and current Minnesota Vikings outside linebacker coach Mike Smith, but took great strides under outside linebackers coach Jason Rebrovich last year and likely would have been a Pro Bowler had it not been for his unfortunate injury. Rebrovich — whose title is now officially “pass rush specialist” — had no problem getting rookie fifth-round pick Kingsley Enagbare up to speed last season. The same is true about Justin Hollins, who was picked up off of waivers mid-season and played 128 snaps for the Packers over six games in 2022.

I have no problem with “project” players if the team has a proven track record of development at the position. I also don’t think Van Ness is that far off from being a big-time difference-maker at the NFL level, which is why I tabbed him and Tennessee tackle Darnell Wright (who went ninth overall to the Chicago Bears) as the two most-likely players to be selected with the 13th overall pick going into the draft.

I don’t want to tell you “how to fan.” I’m just giving you my two cents. You’re more than welcome to be unhappy about the Packers’ pass-catchers, as it stands today. All that I ask is that if you’re vocal about disliking the selection of Van Ness, you wait to see how the second and third rounds of the draft play out on Friday and take a look at some of his plays at Iowa. You might just end up changing your mind.