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After bolstering defense in free agency, the Packers can justify drafting a tight end early

Tight end may not be considered a premium position, but in Matt LaFleur’s offense it just might be. For a Packers team looking for a complement to Davante Adams, they might find it in a player like T.J. Hockenson.

NFL Combine - Day 3
T.J. Hockenson offers the ideal dual-threat package as a tight end in a Matt LaFleur offense.
Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Brian Gutekunst’s aggressive approach to free agency hurt the mock draft industrial complex. Before the Green Bay Packers signed Za’Darius and Preston Smith, putting together the likely targets for Green Bay at 12th overall was easy: grab the best pass rusher on the board. Montez Sweat before he habachi’d the combine. Jachai Polite before he lit his own draft stock on fire. Brian Burns hadn’t quite moved up the boards that far, but he’d been a name to watch.

The Packers can still go that route. Behind the Acme Sackers, there aren’t great options and a team can never have too much pass rush. Kyler Fackrell will almost certainly regress with his sack totals and someone like Burns could come in and give them rotational outside linebacker snaps.

But the question becomes, for a team that now lacks short-term holes, where are the positions that could offer the most long-term impact? Green Bay has questions at safety, offensive tackle, and tight end beyond this season, as well as some depth concerns at linebacker, receiver, and defensive line. After working to round this roster out, the Packers could conclude that a blue chip tight end like T.J. Hockenson or Noah Fant gives them the best chance at long-term impact of their options at 12.

Let’s say they draft Burns. If Mr. and Mr. Smith stay healthy, how many snaps can Burns reasonably snag? If we assume similar player quality in terms of the prospects available at 12 (something that isn’t practical without perfect information, but is necessary for the sake of argument), Burns probably wouldn’t play more than 35-40% of snaps on his rookie contract. If he’s good, but not great (again, assumed for the sake of argument), that’s a useful player, but not likely to be as impactful as a player of similar quality at another position where he can start.

Jonah Williams and Jawaan Taylor don’t fit Green Bay’s traditional athletic profile, a mold from which they’re unlikely to depart with such a high selection. The only top lineman matching what the front office traditionally looks for is Andre Dillard, the best pass-blocking tackle in the draft and an outstanding athlete. If he’s starting at right tackle by Year 2—and let’s be honest, he’s going to have to play in 2019 with Bryan Bulaga’s injury history—if he’s the same quality player as Burns, he’s more impactful to this team, probably by a lot.

But reasonable people disagree about whether or not he’s deserving of the 12th pick. If the Packers feel that way, they could be in a position where both Devin linebackers are off the board (Devin White to Tampa is the worst kept secret in the draft, and the Bengals have been linked to Devin Bush), Ed Oliver is gone, and they’re left looking at guys like Hock and Burns, or reaching for a safety if they don’t like the offensive tackle options. Given Ted Thompson’s history and Brian Gutekunst’s adherence to much of that vision, guard likely won’t be on the table either.

Hockenson, or even Fant, become intriguing options. Forget, for a moment, the issues teams have had drafting tight ends in the first round. It is the case they’ve been much more successful plucking guys later in the draft, but that’s also not proof Hock or Fant are bad prospects, or likely to be sub-par players. It’s merely evidence teams have been ineffective at correctly identifying talent at the position. The wisdom has long been, if you can get a tight end later, why use a high pick now?

That’s a fair point to make.

On the other hand, it’s not a case against Hockenson or Fant specifically. In fact, most first-round draft picks are bad, with more than half failing to earn a second contract. If we are assuming Hockenson and Fant’s quality as prospects are the same as players also available, we have to assume they’re good. This is a leap actual teams can’t make, relying instead on their own evaluations.

The argument against a tight end can’t be that it’s not a premiere position, because in this offense it is. Kyle Shanahan rode George Kittle to record-breaking receiving numbers last year with sub-NFL quarterback play. Matt LaFleur has Aaron Rodgers. Imagine what he could do with a guy 90% as talented as Kittle.

Tight ends take time to develop, but no matter, Green Bay has Jimmy Graham and Marcedes Lewis in the stable for 2019. Someone like Hockenson could take over in 2020 and be playing starting snaps, getting 100 targets a year every season for the rest of his rookie contract. In this offense, that could be WR2 numbers, particularly with no obvious No. 2 option in the passing game already evident on the team.

Graham saw 89 targets last season in an offense that isn’t conducive to tight end success. Kittle got 136 last season from Nick Mullens and his traveling band. Before Delanie Walker got hurt last season in Week 1, he already had seven targets for LaFleur in Tennessee. Even if all a player like Hockenson can be is a souped up version of Heath Miller, a tight end who can block and be ultra-reliable for you in the middle of the field, in this offense that’s a highly impactful player. Given that his upside appears to be well beyond that (names like Kittle, Rob Gronkowski and Jason Witten have been thrown out there), there’s certainly a chance he could make that 12th pick well worth it.

Ed Oliver, if he’s there, represents value too good to pass up. After that, if we are assuming similar quality prospects, a guy like Dillard who can be a future right tackle, represents the best value. But if Oliver is gone and Dillard isn’t coveted by the Packers, a tight end has as good a case as any to be the most impactful player on the board, even ahead of another pass rusher or an inside linebacker.

The quality of these players should ultimately decide the pick. If the Packers love Devin Bush and he’s there, they should take him. If they think Brian Burns is Von Miller 2.0, by all means, draft him. But if they see similar talents available and can’t find a trade partner to move down to 13, 15, or 17, there are two tight ends who could be big-time players for Matt LaFleur in this offense with Aaron Rodgers. Tight end is a premium position in this offense, and will be a need long-term for the team.

Believing one of those guys has the best chance to maximally improve this roster is no longer a pipe dream. Brian Gutekunst’s spending spree saw to that. Now, the Packers can focus on getting the best player for their team, even—and perhaps especially—if it’s a tight end.