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2020 NFL Draft - Round 1 Photo by NFL via Getty Images

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NFL Draft Round 1 Recap: Late run on WRs seems to have pushed Packers towards Love

Brian Gutekunst said that he followed the board. That likely means that a few picks in the late first all but cleared out the players with first-round grades on that board.

Things were going great for the Green Bay Packers a little more than halfway through round one of the 2020 NFL Draft. The wide receiver run started late. The top four tackles went off the board by 13, but that was no surprise. And a couple of reaches, particularly at cornerback, kept pushing exciting players down into the 20s, making it plausible that the Green Bay Packers could get one of their guys with the 30th pick.

Then, as quickly as Packers fans got their hopes up about landing a thrilling weapon for Aaron Rodgers or an exciting, playmaking linebacker, the board shifted under general manager Brian Gutekunst’s feet. The Packers moved up for a player who was evidently their last round-one value remaining, a player who will not play a meaningful snap for years in an ideal world. Let’s take a look back at what happened on Thursday night.

Round One - Top Ten

Perhaps the biggest surprise among the top picks on Thursday was that there were so few surprises. For the first time since 2015, no top-ten selection changed hands, and two franchises got their quarterbacks without having to move off their spots.

The mock drafts largely had the top six or seven picks pegged. Joe Burrow, Chase Young, and Jeff Okudah rounded out an all-Ohio top three before the Giants took an offensive tackle as most expected — though perhaps not the one that most expected, grabbing Georgia’s Andrew Thomas. That left Miami and the Chargers with the ability to snag Tua Tagovailoa and Justin Herbert as their future franchise signal-callers, while Carolina locked down the interior of its defensive line with Auburn’s Derrick Brown.

The wide receiver run could have started at 8 with the Arizona Cardinals, but they went defense to select the versatile Isaiah Simmons. Really, the only reach came from Jacksonville, who picked Florida corner C.J. Henderson at 9 before the Browns chose Alabama tackle Jedrick Wills at 10.

Wills is an interesting case — he’s a college right tackle who will be asked to move to the left side in the NFL, an unusual situation. However, he protected the blind side of a left-handed quarterback, Tagovailoa, and he has plenty of athletic ability to make the transition.

The Teens

Through the early part of the teens, things kept falling in promising fashion for the Packers. The Jets held off on a receiver, instead taking another tackle in Mekhi Becton. Then at 12, the Las Vegas Raiders channeled the ghost of Al Davis, starting off the wide receiver run with the fastest player in the draft, Alabama’s Henry Ruggs III. The Buccaneers, sitting at 14, then made the draft’s first trade, trading with San Francisco to move up one spot to select the fourth tackle, Tristan Wirfs of Iowa.

The 49ers originally acquired the 13th pick from the Indianapolis Colts, sending defensive tackle DeForest Buckner to Indy. But instead of taking one of the top two receivers on the board in CeeDee Lamb or Jerry Jeudy, the 49ers went for a Buckner replacement in Javon Kinlaw, picking up an extra 4th-round pick for Saturday to slide back one spot and get the guy they still wanted.

Through 14 picks, Ruggs was the only receiver off the board, and chatter started to mount here at Acme Packing Company and among Packers fans on the internet. Could the Packers make a big move up for one of the top two receivers? Based on the trade value charts, the highest the Packers could feasibly get by packaging picks 30 and 62 was the 18th selection, held by the Miami Dolphins.

But it was not to be. Predictably, the Denver Broncos snagged one of the wideouts, landing Jeudy. A reach by the Falcons at 16 — taking cornerback A.J. Terrell — left just one team in the way of a possible, theoretical trade up with the Dolphins at 18 for Lamb. But on this day, former Packers head coach Mike McCarthy got the last laugh, as the Dallas Cowboys pounced on Lamb with the 17th pick.

That selection gives McCarthy something he had for years in Green Bay and that, when he lacked it, led at least in part to his departure: a deep, supremely talented receiving corps. Amari Cooper has established himself as a quality number one, while Michael Gallup has emerged as a solid complement. Adding Lamb to the mix will give Dallas one of, if not the, best trios of receivers in the NFL.

But while the Cowboys’ pick closed the book on the top tier of wideouts, another group still remained available. The rest of the teens wrapped up fine for the Packers, with USC tackle Austin Jackson going to Miami at 18 and the Raiders reaching for Ohio State cornerback Damon Arnette, Jr., who was largely projected as a mid-day two selection. Even the Jaguars helped the Packers out by snagging edge rusher K’Lavon Chaisson.

But it was pick 21 where things seemingly started to unravel.

The Twenties

When the Philadelphia Eagles went on the clock at 21, the second tier of receivers were all available. Justin Jefferson, Jalen Reagor, Brandon Aiyuk, Denzel Mims, and others were in play, and with nine picks to go, it seemed plausible that perhaps one of the top three or four would slide to the Packers at 30. Green Bay may have even tried to work the phones with the Eagles, but Philadelphia has reportedly been on the Reagor train all offseason and picked the explosive TCU receiver at 21.

That left Packers fans in the uncomfortable position of seeing Jefferson — whose All-American production and abilities from the slot would have fit in wonderfully in Green Bay — go to the rival Minnesota Vikings at 22. Bob Demovsky of ESPN reported later that if the Packers had traded up for a wideout, Jefferson likely would have been the guy, but there was no way Minnesota and Rick Spielman would make the move back from 22 to allow Gutekunst to pick him.

On its own, that might have been enough to make the Packers rearrange their plans and start re-evaluating what to do with the 30th pick. But the Los Angeles Chargers moved way up from 37 to 23 to grab Oklahoma linebacker Kenneth Murray, removing the top true linebacker from the board. The Saints picked Michigan center Cesar Ruiz at 24, but then at 25, with their wide receiver locked in already, the Vikings let San Francisco move up for perhaps the final nail in the coffin on the Packers’ first-round board: wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk.

Gutey gets his guy

Reading between the lines in Gutekunst’s press conference after round one concluded, at some point he seemed to feel that there was only one player worthy of a first-round pick remaining on his board and he decided to move up to get him. Whether that moment was after Jefferson went to Minnesota, the Chargers’ trade and selection of Murray, or the 49ers getting Aiyuk, that moment came all the same. So Gutekunst went and got his guy, giving up the team’s fourth-round pick to move up four slots to 26.

And when the pick was not LSU linebacker Patrick Queen, was not a receiver like Mims or Michael Pittman, was not an offensive tackle like Josh Jones, but rather a quarterback, all hell broke loose in Packerland.

For Jordan Love, there are no questions whatsoever about his physical abilities. Possessing arguably the strongest arm in this draft class, Love’s great throws are truly spectacular. But after a tremendous sophomore year in 2018, his 2019 season was a complete mess. Yes, new coaches and an entirely new receiving corps were major contributing factors, but the fact remains that Love got Gunslinger’s Disorder. He trusted the rifle attached to his right shoulder too much — a fact that he readily admits — making countless poor decisions and throwing 17 interceptions after just six the prior year.

This pick is about projecting that that the Packers’ coaching staff can help Love harness his innate abilities to become a top-flight NFL quarterback. The opportunity to sit behind Aaron Rodgers for some time before being asked to take over the reins of an NFL team is probably the best situation he could have asked for.

Et tu, Gutey?

15 years to the day after Aaron Rodgers’ draft fall, the Packers picked his heir apparent. While surely a coincidence, the symmetry of that fact is clear. But the situations are different in a few critical ways.

When Rodgers fell to the Packers with the 24th pick in the draft, he was a true blue-chip prospect, a serious candidate for the number one overall selection. Love is not. In 2005, the rumblings about Brett Favre retiring had already begun; the Ol’ Gunslinger had thrown around the idea at that time, at least forcing some doubt about the length of time that he would play into the minds of the front office. Again, that is not the case with Rodgers today, as he has said repeatedly that he plans on playing into his 40s.

There are valid comparisons between the situations. But those stark differences must go along with them. And one must wonder how Rodgers — who famously finds any possible slight as motivation — reacted to the news of the pick on Thursday night.

Then there is the matter of resource allocation. The best-case scenario for the Packers is that Rodgers continues playing at a high level for the foreseeable future, keeping Love on the bench for the bulk of his rookie contract. But a high-quality starting quarterback on a rookie deal is one of the most valuable commodities in football. Even if Love is that high-quality player, getting value out of his selection would require the team moving on from Rodgers within the next few seasons, something that is not practical until 2022 at the earliest. That would leave Love with three seasons left on his rookie deal (counting the fifth-year option) before getting a big paycheck.

Ultimately, the depth of the 2020 draft class suggests that the Packers indeed can find day-one contributors with their picks on Friday night. But this selection leaves the Packers with far more questions than answers. The same was true 15 years ago. That situation worked out beautifully, and hopefully the same can be said about 2020 when fans look back another 15 years down the line.

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