In the midst of a pandemic, the 2020 NFL Draft offered a small opportunity for fans across the NFL to escape normal quarantine routines and divulge in the optimism the event provides for their favorite franchises.
But for fans of the Green Bay Packers, the weekend became a talking point for entirely different reasons. They drafted a quarterback in the first round? They didn’t draft a wide receiver? An H-back in the third round? Has general manager Brian Gutekunst lost his mind? There were more sounds of hopes crashing than being elevated in regards to the Packers’ ability to contend in the competitive NFC.
After reflection, there were several underlying questions and projections that arose from the team’s medley of selections. In today’s article, I will try to outline a few of those and provide a bit more optimism than draft day offered.
David Bakhtiari‘s Green Bay tenure may be on a separate track from other interior line starters
With both David Bakhtiari and Corey Linsley entering contract seasons, it made sense for the Packers to go the route of adding developmental reinforcements before next offseason. After adding a former college center in Elgton Jenkins last draft and extending Lucas Patrick, there was somewhat of a backup plan in place for Linsley should he leave. Green Bay further bolstered that plan with the sixth-round addition of experienced college center Jake Hanson and two other interior linemen who could potentially add depth with a position change. Drafting another center seemed telling of Linsley’s future in Green Bay following this season.
Bakhtiari’s future, however, is a bit more murky. Green Bay has not often extended the contract of players nearing the age of 30 and Bakhtiari will be 29 during the 2020 season. Still, the Packers passed on several offensive tackles in a decent 2020 draft class and have few comforting left tackle possibilities on the current roster. Sure, the Packers could seek another tackle next offseason, but having a replacement waiting in the wings to protect Aaron Rodgers’ blind side seemed like a very logical Packers move. With a fairly healthy career to this point, perhaps there are plans to keep Bakhtiari for the long term.
As a side note to both impending free agents, the Packers’ decision to add a number of sixth-round interior linemen raises the question of right guard Billy Turner’s place on the team over the long haul. Turner signed a four-year contract last offseason, but has a potential out after next season. If the Packers see enough between Patrick, Cole Madison, Alex Light, and their new additions over the next season, Turner could be a cap casualty.
A running back in round two was a surprise, but there are layers to unveil
I was as curious and perplexed as any Packers fan when A.J. Dillon was selected in round two. A running back? Aaron Jones had a Pro Bowl-caliber 2019 season with 19 total touchdowns and his first 1,000 yard season. Jamaal Williams continued to be a serviceable change of pace and third-down back. It seemed to be a reach for a player at a position without need.
But there are pieces to this puzzle.
First, Jones and Williams will be free agents after the upcoming season and fellow backs Tyler Ervin and Dexter Williams are far from locks to make the final roster even in 2020. Dillon should provide plenty of depth in the short-term, while potentially serving as the starter already in 2021 while the Packers reload at running back.
Dillon also should provide Green Bay with the type of power back it has lacked since Eddie Lacy and a good fit for the kind of rushing attack Head Coach Matt LaFleur wants to create after coming from Tennessee. Dillon is not Derrick Henry, but he could provide a similar impact for the Packers. In the cold weather, defenses are not going to want to keep tackling a back like Dillon, which should help him, Jones, and the Packers’ offense as a whole.
Speaking of Jones, the addition of Dillon should help keep the veteran fresh without sacrificing the team’s rushing punch when Jones is off the field. One of the issues Green Bay has had is keeping Jones healthy, often limiting his touches to not only prevent injury but keep him fresh over the course of an individual game and entire season. With Dillon in the game, Green Bay should have a back that can improve on the career-average of 3.9-yards per carry that Williams has accumulated. While Williams has been a solid third-down back, Dillon’s presence should put pressure on him to step up his own game.
Finally, Green Bay’s offense has struggled mightily in third-and-short situations. Dillon, who can bounce off contact and break arm tackles, should help significantly in short-yardage and goal-line situations.
This draft should provide contributions, even if it lacks star power
One of the major criticisms of Gutekunst’s first two drafts, and the final drafts of his predecessor Ted Thompson, is the lack of impact those players had on the Packers, namely the low number of bodies remaining on the team. While the Packers may not have drafted extremely high-ceiling players in the 2020 NFL Draft, they certainly added players capable of filling certain roles both immediately and over the next three seasons. Many, like Dillon and third-rounder Josiah Deguara, should immediately see the field and others, notably Kamal Martin and Vernon Scott, should have an opportunity to carve out roles in certain defensive packages.
It was a bit alarming to me that the Packers seemingly overdrafted in every round but the first and last, and it left a bitter taste at the conclusion of the draft. Outside of Jordan Love, the number of high-ceiling players Green Bay selected is very low, opting more for experience than high-reward potential. However, it is hard to knock the Packers for seeking contributors and players to fill a variety of niche roles after many forgettable drafts.
This draft will either lift up Gutekunst or tear him down
It is safe to say that the calling card for General Manager Brian Gutekunst at this point is that he is an aggressive drafter. Gutekunst has now wheeled and dealed in the first round of each of his three drafts, including trading up in the last two and surrendering fourth-round picks. After watching Ted Thompson mostly trade down during the draft and Ron Wolf insist on not giving up fourth-rounders, Gutekunst’s strategy strays from the norm. And it’s a strategy that makes a GM look good when it works and lose his job when it doesn’t.
Last year, the decision to trade up appears to have been an acceptable one considering Darnell Savage’s early impression. However, it is going to be a hard sell this year with Jordan Love. Not only will Love not impact the team for the next several seasons barring injury, but he cost the team a first-rounder and a fourth-rounder that could have. Perhaps Love will go on to have an illustrious career like his Packer quarterback predecessors and this point is moot. Gutekunst will be a genius and a smooth maneuverer in the eyes of his divisional rivals seeking stability at quarterback. But if Love does not, Gutekunst will continue to face heavy scrutiny for the first-round draft capital spent on him in light of the Packers’ run to the NFC Championship Game last year.
The Love pick invites drama both internally and externally into the organization for the foreseeable future and Gutekunst will need to answer to it.