Dougherty: Free agency does little to address Packers' most urgent needs
GREEN BAY - Going into free agency, the Green Bay Packers’ greatest needs were receiver, insider linebacker and tackle.
Now that they’ve signed a free agent at each of those positions, their greatest needs are receiver, inside linebacker and tackle.
Really, that’s not much of an exaggeration. The players signed – Devin Funchess, Christian Kirksey and Rick Wagner – are stopgaps. General manager Brian Gutekunst still needs to upgrade the talent at those positions with young, ascending players.
If I had to bet on Gutekunst’s first-round pick, I’d still take one of those three positions. But the signings at least mean the GM doesn’t need a rookie to start immediately, like he did last year with first-round safety Darnell Savage.
In fact, you can plausibly argue that Gutekunst’s first pick or two could come at almost any position. The only ones I’d rule out aside from specialists are guard, center, safety and outside linebacker.
Here’s a rundown on the rationale for using his first pick at any of the others, whether Gutekunst stays at No. 30 overall or trades back into the early second round:
With the depth of the prospects in this draft – there are starter-projected receivers through the third round – Gutekunst has to take one in the draft’s first two days. In fact, if you had to bet on one position in Round 1, this is it, even though the Packers haven’t drafted a receiver in the first round since 2002. Simply put, the Packers’ badly need to get more dynamic on offense, and anyone who watched them last season knows what they lacked most was talent at receiver. You can also throw in tight end, but this position looks light at the top in this draft.
Possibilities with first pick: Baylor’s Denzel Mims, Clemson’s Tee Higgins, USC’s Michael Pittman Jr., Arizona State’s Brandon Aiyuk, Colorado’s Laviska Shenault Jr., TCU’s Jalen Reagor.
With the way offenses spread the field for favorable matchups, inside linebacker is making a comeback. It takes an uncommon talent to disrupt the run game while also matching up with running backs and tight ends in the passing game. But does Gutekunst agree it’s worth the cost of a high pick? We’ll see.
Kirksey has attractive traits (4.58 40 coming out of college) but he’s a short-termer (he turns 28 in August) and has missed 23 games because of injuries the last two seasons. If he gets hurt, do the Packers really think they can replace him with Oren Burks, Ty Summers or Curtis Bolton?
For that matter, is defensive coordinator Mike Pettine still going to run all dime, all the time again this year, with only one linebacker on the field for most snaps? His problems last season stopping the run, driven home by the NFC championship game meltdown, suggest that needs re-evaluating. But to play more nickel, the Packers need a second inside linebacker who deserves to be on the field most of the time. That will take a draft pick, probably a high one.
Possibilities with first pick: Oklahoma’s Kenneth Murray, LSU’s Patrick Queen, Wisconsin’s Zack Baun.
Wagner has 87 starts in seven seasons and should be fine as a fallback starter on the right side. But tackle is a premium position in this league, and the Packers saw last season the value of having two good ones to protect against the talented edge rushers in this league. Gutekunst let Bryan Bulaga walk in free agency, understandably so considering the cost ($19.25 million guaranteed) and Bulaga’s age (31) and history of serious injuries. But the GM needs a quality talent for that position if not this year then one who’s ready to start in 2021. He and coach Matt LaFleur also need a backup swing tackle for the here and now.
Possibilities with first pick: Houston’s Josh Jones, Boise State’s Ezra Cleveland, USC’s Austin Jackson, Georgia’s Isaiah Wilson.
This game demands quality depth at cornerback for nickel and dime personnel, and also to fill in when inevitable injuries to starters strike. At this point the Packers don’t even have a clear No. 3. Maybe they’re waiting until after the draft to decide whether to bring back 37-year-old Tramon Williams for the nickel job. But for now their choices are Chandon Sullivan, who just signed one-year deal for $750,000; Josh Jackson, the former second-round pick who’s looking very much like a bust after two NFL seasons; and Ka’dar Hollman, a sixth-round pick who played four defensive snaps as a rookie last season.
Possibilities with first pick: Auburn’s Noah Igbinoghene, Alabam’s Trevon Diggs, Clemson’s A.J. Terrell, LSU’s Christian Fulton, TCU’s Jeff Gladney.
The 2019 San Francisco 49ers were just the latest example of what a dominant front can do for a defense. The Packers have big-time talent up front with Za’Darius Smith, Preston Smith and Kenny Clark. If Gutekunst thinks there’s defensive lineman of that caliber available at No. 30 to pair with Clark inside, how could he pass him up?
Possibilities with first pick: Texas A&M’s Justin Madubuike, TCU’s Ross Blacklock, Oklahoma’s Neville Gallimore.
In my book this leans toward luxury for the Packers, mainly because teams have found so many solid backs in the middle and later rounds in recent years – Aaron Jones, remember, was a fifth-rounder. But there’s a logic to adding a back early if Gutekunst sees something special in a guy.
For one, the outside zone run is a huge part of LaFleur’s offense, and the Packers took a big step down last year when Jones wasn’t in the game. With Jones’ injury history, can the Packers really count on him making it through a full season again this year? And even if he does, his touches need to be managed as well as they were in 2019.
Finally, if Gutekunst might need to replace Jones in 2021, if the GM gets squeamish about paying Jones a second contract based on the league’s recent history of second contracts at that position. The smart money says Gutekunst thinks he can find a capable back outside the first couple rounds, but don’t rule out this position.
Possibilities with first pick: Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor, Georgia’s DeAndre Swift, Ohio State’s J.K. Dobbins.
Is a first- or second-round quarterback a long shot? For sure. Still, it’s not too early for Gutekunst to start looking hard for Aaron Rodgers’ possible successor. Tom Brady and Drew Brees have made it past 40, but that doesn’t guarantee the 36-year-old Rodgers’ body will hold up as long. And if you have two good quarterbacks, you’ll have no trouble trading one.
The top four quarterback prospects – Joe Burrow, Tua Tagovailoa, Justin Herbert and Jordan Love – probably will be gone by the middle of the first round. But you never know. You also never know whether Gutekunst might see more in Jason Eason or Jalen Hurts than other GMs do.
Possibilities with first pick: Utah State’s Love, Washington’s Eason, Oklahoma’s Hurts.
Even after free agency, Gutekunst’s draft needs haven’t changed much. He can justify picking high at any number of positions. In theory, that gives him a better chance of finding the best guy.