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Revisiting 2018 Draft Day: Can Alexander & Savage make passing on Derwin James worth it?

Derwin James’ All-Pro rookie season had plenty in Packer Nation wondering “Why not us?” Now that we know who Green Bay got instead, we look back at what could be Brian Gutekunst’s defining draft move.

Jaire Alexander flashed his talent last season and his new running mate Darnell Savage could make him even better.
| Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

It could get Brian Gutekunst fired. When the Green Bay Packers’ general manager passed on the opportunity to take Derwin James, he was doing the right thing. New Orleans was willing to massively overpay for the 14th pick, giving up a 2019 first to move up for Marcus Davenport. The trade itself cannot be questioned. Green Bay received incredible value for their pick, then traded back up for Jaire Alexander at 18. An impressive rookie season positions Alexander to be a good player for the Packers for a long time.

But what about James, who went 17th? All he did as a rookie was play all over the field, earning an All-Pro bid on a Chargers team that was a legitimate AFC contender. Meanwhile, the Packers shipped Ha Ha Clinton-Dix out of town and were auditioning safeties to play for them at the Brown County Auditorium.

By seasons end, there was a whole lot of “Next!” being screamed.

In theory, Gutekunst made the right move. Pick any analytic model to define draft-day value, and he crushed the Saints in that trade. By those same metrics, he made a sound deal in 2019, trading up from 30 to the 21st pick to select Darnell Savage, but that second part is crucial: the calculation is no longer “Jaire Alexander and a future first.” We know who that player is.

It’s one thing to have good process, but it’s another to execute properly with that good plan. When the Packers traded down to get Kevin King, the wailing and gnashing of teeth wouldn’t have been so bad had Vince Biegel ever resembled a useful NFL player. He didn’t.

So while the Packers were smart to extract value where they could get it, they still had to take that potential value and turn it into a player. Now we know that player is a rangy, playmaking safety who can play all over the field. Savage isn’t Derwin James, but he was the first safety taken (James technically wasn’t in the 2018 class; Minkah Fitzpatrick was) and the Packers clearly felt he was the best guy in the class.

Savage solidifies a position of need, dovetailing beautifully next to new Packer Adrian Amos. He happens to play the same position as James, which could be unfair to Savage because they excel is very different ways.

What’s more, Savage on his own doesn’t have to be better than James to make this transaction work for the Packers. Neither does Alexander, though either are individually gifted enough to make it work. But if Alexander is never more than just a good player, a solid, reliable cornerback, then Savage has to also be in that range of quality to make this trade work.

And the reason is pretty simple: Derwin James is really freaking good.

We’ll have to wait and see how big a leap Alexander can make in Year 2, as well as give Savage at least a season if not two or three before we decide whether he was worth his draft status. And their combined impact will determine whether their tandem was worth passing on the opportunity to pass on a player as good as James.

Positional value works in the Packers’ favor here. Alexander plays cornerback, a premium position on any team, but even more important for Mike Pettine, who relies heavily on coverage disguise and blitz schemes that leave cornerbacks on an island. If Alexander is just an 8 out of 10 at cornerback, he might be more valuable outright than someone like James as a 9 out of 10 as a safety.

Play style may also benefit Green Bay here. James brings a Troy Polamalu-esque impact: he’s a run-game maven, a blitzer, and an instinctive cover man who can play a little bit of everywhere. But will he ever be the kind of guy who leads the league in interceptions? Savage, for his part, may not lead the league in interceptions, but his coverage instincts are better than James coming out of school even if James was the better prospect overall.

The top way a modern NFL team needs a safety to impact the game is through the air. Savage doesn’t have to be a do-it-all safety (that’s what they signed Amos to be) if he can be a back-end eraser and playmaker.

All of this is to say, neither player individually needs to be better than James, but collectively their impact must be greater. And it can be.

For starters, the selection of Savage should make Alexander better and vice versa. They’re complementary players and that shouldn’t be considered an accident. As Alexander grows, Mike Pettine should be less likely to ask Savage to help to that side of the field, freeing Savage up to roam, where he’s at his best.

Perhaps more importantly, the NFL requires depth of talent. One virtuoso player can only affect the game so much if they aren’t a quarterback or a pass rusher. Unlike in the NBA, where one star can change a team’s proverbial life, in the NFL teams require solid-to-good players at as many positions as possible.

How many times in the last few years has it looked like the Packers are set at a particular position only to see it decimated by injuries? Or if the cornerbacks are healthy, the safeties aren’t. Particularly in the secondary, where it takes four, five, six or more players on the field at once to be effective, having two B+ players for example, is preferable to one A+ player if for no other reason than if you lose that A+ player, you’re screwed.

Attrition and injuries are a reality for every team and the more good players you can accumulate the better, as each added player exponentially mitigates the impact of any single injury. Think of how quickly the Packers defense fell off when Cullen Jenkins left in free agency and Nick Collins got hurt. It wasn’t simply because those players were talented and Green Bay had no replacements for them, but because the defense relied so heavily on them without supplementary players. Clay Matthews struggled to consistently generate pressure and the secondary sagged.

Still, the Packers need to hit on two first-round picks, not just one, a gamble considering any first-round pick is a coin flip to be a useful player. The Chargers did the hard part: hit on a supreme talent. Either Jaire Alexander or Darnell Savage could be that, but the only known quantity in this exchange right now plays in Southern California. It’s up to Alexander and Savage and tip the balance on the scales back in favor of Green Bay.

As the first major move on Brian Gutekunst’s tenure as a drafter, the non-James draft, coupled with the accumulation of assets set a tone. It also set the stage: he now has the chance to prove two is better than one by selecting players whose combined impact backfill the opportunity cost of not drafting the supreme individual talent.

If it works, the Packers have two foundational defensive pieces and Packers fans will enjoy being right about wanting Derwin James, rather than clamoring about how their team botched a seminal moment. If it doesn’t work, the criticisms will come quickly. Green Bay hopes Gutekunst’s tenure lasts for another decade or more. Whether or not that happens could very well come down to how well history remembers him for this set of moves.

And at least one thing is for sure: the North will remember.

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