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Packers look smart to bank on receiver depth, but questions linger about draft

Brian Gutekunst made no secret of the team’s desire to add receiver talent this offseason, yet even with a quiet draft, the Packers offense is cruising. They were right to believe their own players would be good enough, but that’s not quite a defense of the draft ... yet.

NFL: Green Bay Packers at New Orleans Saints
Allen Lazard has been stellar as the Packers de facto No. 2 this season, quieting some of the questions about Green Bay’s decision to eschew receiver in the draft.
Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

With Aaron Rodgers and the 4-0 Packers’ offense rolling, taking a victory lap against critics of the Green Bay offseason would not only be fun, but justified. It turns out, those of us who believed the Packers needed a receiver to move the offense forward were wrong and the front office was right to believe in the developmental potential already on the roster. Allen Lazard performed like a bona fide No. 2 NFL receiver before getting injured and Marquez Valdes-Scantling, though frustrating, has been equal parts scintillating for stretches. With Matt LaFleur and Rodgers at the helm, this offense looks borderline unstoppable.

We can take that at face value, while also believing it’s not the final word on how this offseason, and the draft in particular, went for the Green Bay Packers. They were right to believe they could get by with what they had at receiver, but they still took a developmental quarterback, a third-string running back, and an H-back in their top-100 picks.

Was that the right call?

In order to assess that, we have to include their options. What else could they have done?After the draft, Peter King reported the Packers wanted to move up for a receiver, but couldn’t get high enough.

“Gutekunst said the Packers had two receivers they were targeting in [the] early and middle part of the second round,” according to King. “They tried to move up with several teams, he said, until the second receiver they preferred got picked, and then they stopped.”

In his post-draft press conference, Gutey confirmed they had some guys on their radar for Day 2, but they were never in a position to go up for them.

Here are the players who completed some testing and fit the preferred athletic measurables the Packers prefer, along with their projected round in the draft:

  • Henry Ruggs — 1st
  • Justin Jefferson — 1st
  • Denzel Mims — 1st
  • Brandon Aiyuk — 1st/2nd
  • Michael Pittman Jr. — 2nd
  • Chase Claypool — 2nd
  • Donovan Peoples-Jones — 2nd/3rd
  • Gabriel Davis — 3rd
  • John Hightower — 3rd
  • Antonio Gibson — 3rd/4th
  • Joe Reed — 7th round/UDFA
  • Tyrie Cleveland — 7th round/UDFA

We can eliminate a swatch of these guys straight away based on what Brian Gutekunst said about the depth of this draft.

“Once we got to the middle, and towards the end of the draft, I just didn’t think there was a great opportunity to add a player that was going to make an impact on our roster this year. You guys know how hard it is for young players at that position to make an impact early,“ Gutey said the Saturday of the draft.

In other words, anyone likely to go in the third round or later no longer makes the cut. This doesn’t account for someone like Gibson, a speedy, ultra-athletic versatile type who could have been turbo-charged Tyler Ervin in this offense.

Still, that only leaves six players left.

Ruggs and Jefferson went off the board before the Packers would have had a chance to snag them and Jefferson in particular looks like an outright stud (which was true before the draft as well). Whether or not the Packers hoped to snag Aiyuk when they moved up to 26 doesn’t matter because the 49ers ultimately moved up.

From there, the next group of guys would have been Mims, Pittman Jr., and Claypool. Mims fell after looking like a first-round selection much of the run up to the draft, but he fell all the way to pick 59. Presumably, if the Packers wants to trade up for Mims, it could have been done for a relative pittance. From there, we can conclude Mims at least wasn’t on Gutekunst’s list of top targets, certainly not one of the guys King references with his report.

Not coincidentally, that leaves us with two players: Michael Pittman Jr. and Chase Claypool. Each are size/speed monsters with big-time collegiate pedigrees coming from USC and Notre Dame. They fit beautifully into the Packers offensive system and could have supplemented Allen Lazard as big slot options who destroy teams down the field, something Claypool is currently doing in Pittsburgh.

Sean McVay’s Rams traded up for Van Jefferson, a Mohamed Sanu clone who may have intrigued the Packers, but Jefferson went 57th, well within range for Gutekunst to go up and get him if he wanted.

Going up for that duo of Pittman and Claypool would never have been an option; they went too high and would have cost the Packers too much in draft capital to be in a position to take them. Moving down, eschewing the Love pick, and taking one in the 30’s could have worked. Claypool went 49th and looks like the cutoff player King referenced. Once he went, the Packers decided to stand pat. Moving from 62 to 49 would have required a future Day 2 pick, and Pittman Jr. at 34 would have meant using a first-round pick on him to begin with.

Some fans will point out the Packers could have kept their fourth-round pick, traded down, added additional picks, and still snagged Pittman Jr. or Claypool. While that’s true, Pittman Jr. has been hurt, which means a 50/50 chance of getting a player who would have actually contributed right away and all of that is before we know if Jordan Love is actually good.

If Love turns out be a starting caliber quarterback, the Packers made the right long-term call snagging him, particularly in view of how well the offense is running without another pass-catching weapon. I’ll never blame a franchise for viewing the long-term potential of a high-upside quarterback as more important than almost anything else they can do, especially when most rookies are bad.

Considering how dynamic Allen Lazard and Marquez Valdes-Scantling have been for Green Bay combined with Matt LaFleur’s magnificent orchestration of the offense, standing pat and trusting internal development can be justified in a vacuum. Green Bay trusted its roster over drafting Gabriel Davis, who has contributed early for the Bills, and there’s nothing wrong with believing Lazard would be better than Davis, both in 2020 and beyond.

But Antonio Gibson easily warranted a selection over A.J. Dillon, particularly in the Packers offense. The Dillon pick looks even more head-scratching when we consider Green Bay has nailed him to the bench, even with all the two running back formations and short yardage situations where his bruising skillset could be maximized.

There were other positions to consider on Day 2 as well. Long-term, Green Bay lacks a right tackle solution and cornerback could be an issue if neither Kevin King nor Josh Jackson play like guys worth paying. Houston offensive tackle Josh Jones could have provided a potential long-term right tackle solution, something the team lacks currently unless they’re ready to roll with Billy Turner (and they might be). A receiver like Bryan Edwards likely produces far more value over the span of his rookie deal than Josiah Deguara even if Deguara is peak-of-his-powers Kyle Juszczyk.

Rashan Gary’s development this season into a legitimately good player reminds us the draft isn’t solely about Year 1, but even in Year 2 and Year 3 it’s hard to imagine Dillon or Deguara returning the same value on investment as other position players of similar quality — or even lesser quality, frankly. Receivers and cornerbacks help teams win more than running backs and H-backs.

Fans can and should still root for those players to succeed, of course. They can still be of use to the Packers, though Deguara will miss the rest of 2020 with a torn ACL and Dillon has yet to break through into a real role offensively.

Just because the Packers offense has been outstanding doesn’t mean they couldn’t have approached the draft with a more value-minded approach. For a team to draft a developmental quarterback in Round 1, then go the opposite direction on Day 2 offers some dissonance. They felt Love’s long-term value outweighed the more immediate needs of the team, then took seemingly the opposite approach with their remaining picks.

Still, the draft class can be productive. Kamal Martin looked like a legitimate starter in training camp and Deguara carved out a meaningful role in the offense. Jon Runyan Jr. already saw action due to injury, as has Jonathan Garvin, and each acquitted themselves well in their short playing stints. This is not to suggest the draft is a bust. In fact, if Jordan Love is a good player, none of these other things actually matter all that much in the aggregate.

But just like we did at the time of the picks, we can grade process without seeing the outcome. Green Bay’s success on offense can’t cover up the fact the Packers front office didn’t maximize the positional value both in the short-term of the long-term. Hopefully it won’t end up hurting them as this team looks like the best in football. If they come up short yet again though, the conversation will come back around, not only about the receiver position, but taking a running back and an H-back when most impactful positions could have been addressed.

Hoist the Lombardi, and none of it will matter.