The Green Bay Packers have several key positions to fill this off-season. It appears that cornerback Kevin King won’t be re-signed this off-season. If the Packers choose to let him walk, the Packers will be in search of a starting cornerback opposite Jaire Alexander. Offensive tackle seems to be a spot that the Packers will need some help down the line at as well. They have starting left tackle David Bakhtiari locked up through 2024. However, Billy Turner, the usual starting right tackle, only has two more seasons on his free-agent contract he signed prior to 2019. They also need to shore up the interior of the defensive line that could use an infusion of talent. Then, there is inside linebacker and wide receiver. Both positions could use some upgrading. However, Packers fans shouldn’t expect general manager Brian Gutekunst to spend a first or even second-round pick on either inside linebacker or wide receiver in this year’s NFL draft.
Inside Linebacker and Wide Receiver Not High on the Packers to-do List this Off-Season
Brian Gutekunst, similar to former general manager Ted Thompson, emphasizes certain positions. Gutekunst has shown that he is willing to spend or even invest high round draft choices on certain positions.
Prior to the 2019 season, he spent big money to land outside linebackers Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith. Gutekunst felt that the Packers needed help for their pass rush. It didn’t just stop at the signing of the Smiths. Even after signing them, he spent a first-round pick on outside linebacker Rashan Gary in that year’s NFL draft. Similar to the Smiths, it appears that Gutekunst’s bet on Gary is going to pay off. He had a strong showing in 2020 and could leapfrog Preston Smith this season as one of the starters at outside linebacker.
Safety is another position that Gutekunst has put a lot of value in. In the same free-agent signing class with the Smiths, Gutekunst and the Packers signed free agent safety Adrian Amos. Gutekunst then went out and spent the Packers second first-round pick in 2019 on safety Darnell Savage Jr. Both Amos and Savage Jr. have been major contributors for the Packers defensive backfield the past two seasons.
Gutekunst has also shown that he is willing to invest in cornerbacks as well as interior offensive linemen. Gutekunst has been in charge of the past three drafts for the Packers. During that time, he has spent draft choices on three cornerbacks and five interior offensive linemen. But there are two positions that Gutekunst hasn’t spent much on. Those two positions being inside linebacker and wide receiver.
Current Packers Wide Receivers
In the three draft classes that Gutekunst has been in charge of, the Packers have selected just three wide receivers. All of those selections came in the 2018 NFL draft. That year, Gutekunst selected J’Mon Moore in the fourth round, Marquez Valdes-Scantling in the fifth round, and Equanimeous St. Brown in the sixth round. Moore washed out after just one season with the Packers while Valdes-Scantling and St. Brown are still a part of the Packers current roster.
The Packers have one of, if not, the best wide receiver in the NFL in Davante Adams. Adams is quarterback Aaron Rodgers top target. He is one of several successful Packers wide receivers that Ted Thompson spent second-round picks on. Joining Adams on that list are Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, and Greg Jennings.
The current starter opposite of Adams is Allen Lazard. Gutekunst signed Lazard, who was an undrafted free agent, from the Jacksonville Jaguars practice squad late in the 2018 season. He didn’t make the Packers opening day 53 roster for 2019, but was signed to the practice squad and was eventually promoted during the 2019 season. He earned a starting position for the 2020 season. As a starter, he hauled in 33 passes for 451 yards with three touchdown receptions after missing time with a core injury.
Adams is the star of this group. He not only is the Packers top receiver but he has shown that he is one of the top pass catchers and route runners in the NFL. Lazard and Valdes-Scantling have been contributors the past two seasons and have shown glimpses of big plays. However, neither have shown they are capable of being big-time NFL pass catchers. Solid, but not spectacular.
The Aaron Rodgers Factor
On the surface, it seems peculiar why Brian Gutekunst hasn’t done more for the wide receiver position. They have Adams, but he was a carryover from the Thompson era. Gutekunst spent three draft choices on the position in 2018. However, he still waited until the fourth, fifth, and sixth-round to address the position. Out of the three selected in that draft, Valdes-Scantling has been the biggest contributor, and even he has had his issues the past three seasons.
In last year’s draft, which had the deepest group of prospects at the wide receiver position in recent NFL draft history, Brian Gutekunst bypassed the position altogether. The Packers chose to use their first three picks in 2020 on a quarterback of the future, a running back, and tight end/h-back/fullback. The decision to not use a pick on a wide receiver shows that Gutekunst and his staff don’t value the wide receiver like most NFL teams do, wrong or right.
Don’t expect things to change in this year’s draft either. If Gutekunst didn’t pull the trigger last year, fans shouldn’t expect anything different this year. It can be argued that Gutekunst doesn’t value wide receivers because of who he has at quarterback.
Most would believe that getting Aaron Rodgers more weapons would only benefit the Packers. Still, the thought could be that the Packers know that Rodgers can get more with less talented wide receivers than most quarterbacks can. Rodgers has done that throughout his career and continues to do so. Because of his ability, the thinking might be that the Packers are better off improving other positions with their top draft picks.
Devin Funchess, who was signed prior to 2020 but sat out because of COVID concerns, is expected to return this season. However, it is unknown what he can bring to the team with missing a season of action and trying to learn the Packers offense. Bringing in a first or second-round pick, or even signing a free agent wide receiver, would help. History has shown that isn’t how the Packers approach wide receivers.
Looking for a Play-Maker at Inside Linebacker
The last time that the Packers used a first or even second-round pick on an inside linebacker was in the 2006 NFL draft. That season, the Packers used the fifth overall pick to select A.J. Hawk. While Hawk was durable and made a lot of tackles (mostly after five to six-yard gaines) he never met the expectations of being a fifth overall pick.
Since the drafting of Hawk, the highest the Packers have selected an inside linebacker was in 2018 when Gutekunst spent the 88th overall pick on Oren Burks. Burks has been a major disappointment. He rarely has taken the field for the Packers defense and most of his contributions have come on special teams.
Without spending a first or second-round pick on an inside linebacker, the Packers have had to rely on either mid to late-round picks or even undrafted free agents to shore up the inside linebacker position. They did this last season when they relied on undrafted free agent Krys Barnes and former fifth-round pick Kamal Martin at the position.
Barnes was a good story. To be an undrafted rookie free agent and be a big part of the Packers defense was quite the feat. However, he struggled with injuries and also struggled with certain parts of the game. He could improve, but there is a reason he went undrafted in the 2020 NFL draft.
Out of the two, Martin has the most upside. But like with Barnes, Martin dealt with some injuries. He had an injury history while he played at the University of Minnesota. The Packers staff seems to be high on both Martin and Barnes, another reason it is doubtful that the Packers will spend a first or second-round pick on an inside linebacker.
Joe Barry: The Inside Linebacker Whisperer
Another possible factor Packers fans shouldn’t expect Brian Gutekunst to use a first or second-round pick on an inside linebacker is the hiring of Joe Barry as their defensive coordinator.
Barry brings with him a long history as an inside linebackers coach. Barry, deserved or not, has received a lot of credit for his work with inside linebacker Cory Littleton. Littleton arrived with the Los Angeles Rams as an undrafted free agent, where Barry was his position coach. Littleton became a backup linebacker in 2017 and then in 2018 he was named second-team All-Pro and went on to the Pro Bowl. When he became a free agent in 2020, he signed a big-money contract with the Las Vegas Raiders.
Littleton’s success and Barry being attached to it probably didn’t go unnoticed to Gutekunst and the Packers staff. For an organization that doesn’t value inside linebackers as the Packers do, if they have bought into the success Barry has had with unknown inside linebackers, it could confirm their thinking of not selecting an inside linebacker in the first or second round.
Don’t Buy into Mock Drafts
NFL mock drafts are the craze this time of year. So-called “experts” who throw out jargon like “RB1”, “tight hips”, or “great upside” will have you believe that their 38th mock draft will be right.
The two most popular positions for the Packers in first-round mock drafts are inside linebacker and wide receiver. Many have the Packers taking inside linebacker from Tulsa Zaven Collins or wide receivers Rondale Moore or Rashod Bateman in the first round of this year’s NFL draft.
All three players would be good selections for the Packers, but sorry Packers fans, don’t expect any of them to go in the first round to the Packers. History shows that the Packers don’t value the positions they play, especially to use a high pick on one.