That draft was infuriating. I’ve seen positive spins start to leak out, but honestly, I pay them no mind. Even if the players selected turn out to be good, the process was so bad that it hardly matters, much like a 5-yard Derrick Henry run.
Most people defending the Green Bay Packers’ draft are saying that we can’t judge players who haven’t even played yet. That’s true as far as it goes, and those who claim to know whether AJ Dillon will good or not are lying. He might be great. He might not. That’s also not the point. The point is he’s a running back, and one thing we know with near certainty is that taking running backs early is an enormous waste of resources. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. “Waste of Resources” was the ongoing theme of the night.
This draft was surprising, and I think my initial reaction is more shock than anything else. The 2019 draft seemed fine, and it made plenty of sense for how they wanted to improve the team at a high level. In free agency last year, Brian Gutekunst showed intelligence in signing the Smiths based on their pressure rates and the projectability for two players just entering their primes. Given that 2019 seemed so focused on defense, maybe the swerve on offense shouldn’t be such a shock, but it completely upends the Thompson (and Ball) regime’s careful focus on positional scarcity, metrics, and good common sense. It’s hard to think of a draft sin they didn’t commit in 2020, from high-level misunderstandings of how the run game functions, to drafting for scheme instead of talent, to mundane issues around the value of fullbacks.
The problem for me is deeper than the fact that they used a high pick on a running back. That’s stupid, sure, but even good, smart teams do it once in awhile. This draft was one giant square peg that Matt LaFleur is going to attempt to cram into a teeny tiny, and very round power run-shaped hole. While Gutekunst should get most of the blame as the man in charge, it’s hard not to see LaFleur’s influence all over this draft, from their pseudo-Derrick Henry selection to their pseudo-Kyle Juszczyk selection. All-22 in Green Bay isn’t so much a camera angle as it is an offensive philosophy. Anyway, let’s rank the badness. There’s so much of it.
1. Converting to a fake-Shanahan offense
While I’m the first to criticize Aaron Rodgers, he’s still a good passer, and passing is still the best way to win in the NFL. Moreover, I’m not entirely sure that Matt LaFleur gets the Shanahan offense — in his limited attempts at running it, his offenses have been worse than his predecessor’s and his successor’s. The trick of the 49ers is in creating power-based mismatches and running against light fronts using essentially the same personnel as they use in the passing game. It’s really a pass-based offense dressed up in run-based trickery. The 49ers were pretty efficient using this philosophy, but it’s worth noting a few important caveats. The first is that this only works if you still have great personnel to throw to. San Fran has the ultimate weapon here in George Kittle, an elite talent they happened to grab in the fifth round of the 2017 draft. If you don’t have George Kittle this all gets much more difficult. Maybe Jace Sternberger is that, but I doubt it.
The 49ers have also invested heavily in their wideouts, having spent a 2nd rounder last year on Deebo Samuel, a 2nd rounder on Dante Pettis, and traded a 3rd and 4th rounder for Emmanuel Sanders. In this draft they grabbed Arizona State’s Brandon Aiyuk in the first, just before Green Bay traded up for Love. If you really wanted to emulate the 49ers, taking one of the many Deebo-like receivers available in this draft, including Jalen Reagor, Laviska Shenault, or hybrid running back Antonio Gibson would have made a lot of sense. Shoring up the offensive line with Bryan Bulaga gone would have made a lot of sense. Spending high picks on a running back and fullback when Raheem Mostert was freely picked off the scrap heap and Kyle Juszczyk was signed as a free agent from the Ravens is insane.
2. Or maybe, Tennessee’s offense?
Many people have compared AJ Dillon to Derrick Henry, and everyone remembers Henry’s nice playoff run through the AFC where the Titans scored slightly less than they did during the regular season. Matt LaFleur has coached Henry before, and it’s fairly clear now that he has a thing for power backs. The problem is that while LaFleur was coaching Tennessee, they were terrible. Much of this can be blamed on constant quarterback injuries, but again, if you believe you can lean on a back like Henry without a good quarterback or passing offense, think again. The Titans came on last season because of Ryan Tannehill. Henry’s fine, but he’s been there all along, and has little impact on winning the vast majority of the time.
3. Even if AJ Dillon and Josiah Deguara turn into good players, they were picked far too early
While there are no guarantees, most mock drafts had both players going no earlier than the fourth round, and I’ve seen plenty where they were available in the fifth and sixth. Using his Consensus Big Board as a basis, Arif Hasan of The Athletic found the Deguara pick in particular to be one of the biggest reaches in the entire draft. Running backs are also among the most replaceable players in all of professional sports. There’s never a reason to reach for one, because there will be another, just as good, coming along shortly.
Reaching for both players directly impacted their ability to grab a quality receiver or fill some other position of need. Even if you like the potential of each guy, they’re still bad picks because, well, actual good players at less-replaceable positions of need could have been taken in the 2nd and 3rd, and the Packers still could have wound up with either or both of these guys.
The choice here wasn’t just between taking these backs (again, UGGGGGGH) and taking a WR. The choice was between taking a wide receiver or two and still feasibly getting these players later, or just taking them when they did. There is a right and a wrong answer here. A good, strong analytics team would have been screaming bloody murder at this.
When I’m in a fantasy league I occasionally fall in love with some sleeper I’ve identified and get excited about grabbing him. In my younger days I would often make the mistake of reaching for that player, when the entire point of a sleeper is that he’s available later. I’ve since learned not to do this. It would be nice if the Brian Gutenkunst would catch up.
4. Aaron Rodgers hasn’t been as good since his weapons dried up, and the Packers are no longer savants in getting good receivers later.
Most quarterbacks aren’t going to be any good with poor talent at the receiver position and Aaron Rodgers is living proof. This isn’t necessarily intentional. When Ted Thompson was in his prime few teams were better at finding elite receiver talent outside of the first round, but the rest of the NFL caught up with the Packers and those gems stopped slipping through the cracks.
The Gutekunst regime kicked off by aggressively addressing the defense, which is fine because it was quite bad, and is still pretty bad. Rodgers has suffered for it, putting up mediocre numbers for about five seasons now, and this figured to be the draft to kick-start the offense as the receiving talent was deep and varied. It’s okay to not draft for a position of need, but when the best players available happen to address a need, it’s inexcusable not to take them. The team can try to spin this as moving to a rush-focused attack all they want, but you still need receivers to make that work.
If your goal is to open up play action passing, you need guys to get open deep and catch the ball. The Packer receivers were atrocious last season, especially Geronimo Allison and MVS. Despite being the highest-paid tight end in the NFL last season, Jimmy Graham was average at best for his position (19th out of 48 qualifiers by DVOA). Jake Kumerow is just a guy who isn’t good on special teams. This happened:
Aaron Rodgers' receivers cost him at least 648 yards last season because of drops. The average for qualifying quarterbacks was 282 and the second-placed quarterback had only 507. pic.twitter.com/UCkG2iYXpM— QB Data Mine (@QBDataMine) April 19, 2020
After quarterback, receiver is probably the most important position on offense. You can run the ball all day, but if the team can’t pass, no one will respect the run or the pass.
5. “The worst time to be looking for a quarterback is when you need a quarterback” is a big fat lie.
Jordan Love might be good. It’s possible. I don’t think he will be, but it’s tough to scout quarterbacks and I could be wrong. What I’m sure I’m not wrong about is the immediate consequences of drafting Love and the poor economics of doing so. Drafting Love cost the Packers a first and a fourth round pick, which, again, could have been used to bolster immediate areas of need.
More importantly, Aaron Rodgers will absolutely be a Packer through at least 2021 due to his cap number. First-round quarterbacks are-cost controlled for their first five seasons (though the 5th can get pretty pricey), and if you draft a guy who can start right away, you can gain a huge advantage from the added cap savings of having QB on a rookie deal. Moreover, the vast majority of rookie quarterbacks who end up being good players are good enough to start right away. There just aren’t that many developmental success stories (Rodgers being the obvious exception), and having a player sit on the bench robs you financial flexibility.
The other big issue with a mid-first round quarterback is the sunk cost fallacy. The late first round is just a graveyard of QB failure, again with Rodgers as the notable exception. Of course, Rodgers was discussed as the #1 overall pick, while Love was never in the conversation, and Rodgers didn’t require a trade up. If you never pick Love and Rodgers starts to decline, you are more likely to have a season where you can grab a quarterback with a top-5 pick, and those picks are much more likely to pay off. But if you’ve recently picked a quarterback, it’s tough for a GM to swallow his pride and pick another, even if the incumbent is clearly terrible. The Packers are likely saddled to Love for the next five seasons and if he’s bad, he’s likely to keep them bad.
6. They Traded Up
Did I mention they traded up for the privilege of drafting Love? Trading up is almost always a bad idea because of the nature of the draft. More tickets in the lottery give you a better chance at success, and scouting is an imprecise enough practice that you should never really be confident enough to move up for a specific player. I will say that the one scenario where I’m fine with a trade up is for a quarterback, but Love is a flawed prospect, and the lack of an immediate impact first and fourth rounder is killer for the 2020 season (if there is one). Moving up sometimes works, but there’s a reason more teams are generally looking to move back.
7. It’s a four round draft
Green Bay wound up with three impact picks, none of which will likely start in 2020. That’s incredible. Some of their late-picks were fine, but late picks are really just lottery tickets, and even those picks were not really focused on areas of need. After Kamal Martin, who will have a chance to take over for Blake Martinez, they took three consecutive interior offensive linemen. Offensive line is certainly an area of need, but fixing issues in the 6th round is an exercise of hope, not a plan, and it’s the tackle position that really needs to be addressed.
8. The 9-7 Packers
When you start to plan for the off-season, smart front offices understand that their real team will more closely reflect Pythagorean (or third order) record, taking into account record in one-score games, and not their actual record. I’ve seen many refer to the Packers as being a step away from the Super Bowl, which, while technically true, isn’t actually reflective of the team moving forward. Green Bay played something like a 9-7 or 10-6 team last year, not a 13-3 squad. They had an unsustainably good record in one-score games last season, which will almost certainly regress, and they will probably play a harder schedule.
Maybe the front office actually does understand this and plans to lean into the regression to completely change offenses. I suppose that is a plan of sorts. I think it’s more likely they believe they have the luxury of making a few vanity picks because there aren’t many holes on their 13-3 juggernaut.
If the Packers wanted to improve their running game, they went about it in a funny way. Aaron Jones and a good line already made them an excellent rushing team, but the loss of a key member of that line and cutting into Jones’ carries will likely make them worse, not better. Failing to add a receiver will likely leave the passing attack unchanged, and another year of 12 has me betting on a decline, not an improvement.
The Packers also still have big holes in the secondary with Tramon Williams likely not returning. Jaire Alexander is their only solid talent at the position, and many of Kevin King’s problems were glossed over due to a nice interception total. While the safeties are fine, this team will still struggle to cover opposing wide receivers. While they added an inside linebacker, they also did nothing to increase their bulk on the defensive line, and they are as vulnerable to teams like the 49ers as they are to pass-heavy teams.
Brian Gutekunst and Matt LaFleur drafted to implement a new offensive scheme while failing to address every major hole. They did so with a buffet of outstanding receivers offered up to them. The teams they are attempting to emulate have all spent high picks on receivers over the past several seasons because even the few run-based teams still understand that passing is king, and that the run can’t set up the pass if the pass is bad.
They failed to understand the relative value of the players they really wanted, reaching for low-value halfbacks and fullbacks when both likely would have been available later.
They picked a questionable quarterback prospect and will lose two key years of financial flexibility as result. And they traded up for the privilege.
It’s honestly hard to imagine a team having a worse draft.