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Packers' 2019 draft offers some early value, but eyes 2020 impact

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Green Bay didn’t go into the draft with major roles up for grabs this season, but filled key positions with players who could be important starters in 2020 and beyond.

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Jace Sternberger likely won’t be any better than TE3 on the depth chart in 2019, but should be the starter in 2020.
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In a perfect world for NFL teams, no players drafted in a given year would be slotted for immediate high-impact snaps. Their roster would be in tip-top shape, with every starting spot accounted for and high-level talent at every spot. We do not live in that world, of course, but the Green Bay Packers’ spending spree this offseason put them in a position where it seemed unlikely a draft pick at nearly any position would have to start right away. While this draft class features players who will see plenty of action on the field in 2019, there’s a high probability only one player actually starts.

Plenty of fans will see this is a failure, either of imagination or in execution. This perspective should be understandable; they want to see new players on the field, guys capable of impacting the game right away and making this team better.

But this is a good thing.

Most rookies are bad. In fact, not even half of first-round picks end up becoming useful players for their teams at any point in their careers much less as rookies. At key positions like cornerback, receiver, and offensive tackle, the odds of being good as a rookie, even for players who eventually become impactful, are extremely low.

Teams competing for Super Bowls shouldn’t want to have to rely on rookies to play huge roles, though it is the case franchises can take jumps when players hit in Year 1 as we saw with the Saints back in 2017. The Packers will want these players to be good when they’re on the field, but teams would always prefer to bring along young players slowly. Most simply don’t have that luxury.

Rashan Gary won’t start for Mike Pettine’s defense in 2019, and may not any sooner than 2021 given the money paid to Preston and Za’Darius Smith unless the latter transitions more to an interior defensive line role. But for a player with incredible physical gifts who lacks polish, that’s precisely how a team would prefer to bring along a player like Gary. Let him work on his technique, grow into his body, and find a way to coach out of him that estimable upside.

Just because Gary won’t be a starter any time soon doesn’t make him a bad pick, just as it didn’t when the Packers spent a second round pick on a young, spindly receiver from the Mountain West conference back in 2014. It took Davante Adams three years to make an impact in the NFL, but when he did, he blossomed into a star.

The one player with a chance to start from day one is Darnell Savage Jr., the dynamic playmaker from Maryland who could slot in next to Adrian Amos at safety. Though they’re not the same player, the Packers haven’t had a deep safety with Savage’s blend of athleticism, aggressiveness, and versatility since Nick Collins patrolled the back end of the Green Bay defense.

Josh Jones shouldn’t be playing deep in coverage, but not gets to slot into that hybrid safety/linebacker role as a blitzer, someone who can cover in man-to-man against tight ends and running backs, and can be a box player for Pettine.

In this way, Savage holds the keys to this draft class. If he hits, at a position where the Packers haven’t found an answer since the untimely end of Collins’ career, this group will be a success given the high floors of a number of the other picks. But remember, that doesn’t have to be in Year 1, when most rookies struggle. Talent-wise, Savage possesses every trait a team would want in a safety who plays like to Adrian Amos, with speed, playmaking, and coverage instincts to go along with the kind of nasty demeanor and hard-hitting mentality Amos brings to the table.

Getting the opportunity to impact the game in Year 1 does not mean he is the only player who has that chance, however.

Second-round pick Elgton Jenkins should have a chance to compete for a guard spot right away, whether that’s at left guard where Lane Taylor is an unideal scheme fit, or at right guard where we expect Billy Turner to play early. The Packers could move on from Taylor after 2019 and slot Jenkins in at left guard, where his pass-blocking skills would shine, or he could be the future right guard with Turner moving to right tackle when Green Bay likely moves on from Bryan Bulaga in 2020.

Given the importance of pass protection in the waning years of Aaron Rodgers’ prime, it’s not difficult to make the case Jenkins has the opportunity to be the most impactful player of the group, even if not in the sexiest way. On the other hand, in an ideal world, Taylor gives the Packers what they need at left guard for at least another year while Jenkins learns the scheme and acclimates to the NFL, Turner plays right guard, Bulaga stays healthy, and Jenkins never has to play.

That scenario has as much chance of happening as Theon had defending Bran against the White Walkers.

Jace Sternberger finds himself in a similar position. He will only see major snaps if Jimmy Graham or Marcedes Lewis hit the training room. Matt LaFleur will find ways to get him on the field here and there, in some three tight end sets perhaps, as well as give him some snaps along side one of the veterans ahead of him. That’s just dress rehearsal. Graham likely won’t play on the 2020 year of his contract and Lewis doesn’t have ink beyond this season, leaving Sternberger as the likely heir apparent at the position.

Tight ends, in particular, struggle as rookies with so many responsibilities to master beyond what was expected in the college game. Giving him a redshirt season as an understudy won’t please fans who wanted Noah Fant or T.J. Hockenson to render one of those limited vets to the bench, but this path ends up portending better for a positive outcome once Sternberger hits the field as a starter in 2020.

Day 3 picks should never be relied upon by design, making any impact they can provide in 2019 or beyond a win for Brian Gutekunst and his front office. Kingsley Keke can be a rotational defensive line piece and Dexter Williams brings a tailor-made skill set to LaFleur’s outside zone run scheme. Meanwhile Ka’Dar Hollman and Ty Summers look destined for special teams roles.

In some ways those last two have the best chance to carve out roles early, just on about 10-15 snaps a game as punt gunner or in kickoff coverage. They’re technically No. 1 on the depth chart, but aren’t really “starters” and won’t be expected to be impact players. Do your job. That’s enough.

The draft isn’t about finding the players who can help the team the most in Year 1. The most spots a team has where that could be true, usually the worse off the team is from a talent perspective. Green Bay only really has one spot like that in 2019 and traded up to get a player to fill that role. This class looked beyond the immediate future to 2020 and beyond, filling holes before they crack open. While it won’t make some sports talk radio callers happy, it’s the smart way to build a franchise.