Dougherty: Packers poised to emphasize explosiveness in rich draft for wide receivers
GREEN BAY - Brian Gutekunst’s receiving corps reflects his oft-stated belief that the NFL is a big man’s game.
His Green Bay Packers have five receivers who top the 6-foot-4 mark: Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Equanimeous St. Brown, Allen Lazard, Jake Kumerow and recently signed Devin Funchess.
Length and catch radius obviously mean a lot to the Packers’ general manager.
But it’s also hard not to think he’ll shift his emphasis from size to explosiveness at receiver, which has to rate as his greatest need heading into the April 23-25 draft.
“I assume they’d be looking for speed, just watching them play last year,” said a high-ranking scout for another NFL team when we started discussing the receivers in this year’s class.
By many accounts, this just might be the deepest receiving class in the NFL’s draft history. With the possibility of 20 going in the first three rounds, Gutekunst will have to decide whether he should use the No. 30 pick overall on the best receiver he can get, or on a scarcer position, thinking he can add a high-quality receiver prospect in the second or third round.
But there’s also the possibility Gutekunst rates a receiver or two within reach at 30 as a clear cut above what he can get later, and thus pulls the trigger, or trades back a few spots thinking he can land that guy early in the second round.
Here's a look at the receivers Gutekunst likely will be considering at the end of the first round or early in the second. The assumption is the top three receiver prospects will be off the board by No. 30: Alabama’s Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III and Oklahoma’s CeeDee Lamb.
Justin Jefferson, LSU (6-0¼, 202, 4.43 40): Early draft entry had a monster season last year at LSU (111 catches, 18 touchdowns, 13.9-yard average). Can play outside and excels in the slot. The best guess at this point is he won’t make it to No. 30 — three of the four scouts consulted here predicted he’ll be taken in the 20s.
“People thought he was a 4.53 (40) guy; well, he’s a 4.43 guy,” said a scout who watched the video of every LSU game last season. “He’s got toughness, he’s a good route runner, he can escape, he’s got a great catch radius, he’ll go get the football, he’s really good run after catch. When you watch Joe Burrow throw him the ball, Burrow hit him on the move, hit him up the field. You give him an accurate ball, he can do some damage. That would be a really good pick for the Packers.”
Brandon Aiyuk, Arizona State (5-11⅝, 205, 4.50 40): At just a shade under 6-0, he’s far from Gutekunst’s prototype, though his 80-inch wingspan tied for fifth widest among the 55 players at the NFL scouting combine and is a compensating factor. More importantly, Aiyuk is the kind of dynamic player with the ball in his hands that the Packers’ receiving corps lacks. He averaged 18.3 yards on his 65 receptions last season, and according to draft analyst Dane Brugler, that included 11.1 yards after the catch.
One scout likened his all-around abilities to former Packers receiver Greg Jennings.
“This guy’s got the whole thing,” the scout said. “It’s really close (for him being available at 30), because he’s going in the first round. It’s really close. He’s a sleeper.”
Aiyuk also excels in the return game (26.2 yards on kickoffs, 11.7 yards on punts in two seasons at Arizona State). His stopwatch time (4.50 40) wasn’t impressive, and last week he had surgery for a sports hernia.
“He ran 4.50 and plays much faster than that,” another of the scouts said. “No one ever catches the guy.”
Said a third scout: “Against Cal it was like a 7-yard pass and it ended up being like a 75-yard play. It was a slant and just explosion up the field. That’s what you get, you get really good run after catch, you get a guy that securely catches the football, natural hands, good size to him, is very competitive. I’m a big fan of that guy. Right around (30) is probably where he needs to go.”
Jalen Reagor, TCU (5-10⅝, 206, 4.47 40): The son of former NFL defensive tackle Monte Reagor is a shorter, explosive receiver similar to Aiyuk though minus the exceptional wingspan (74⅜). He averaged 15.2 yards on 148 career catches and 17.0 yards as a punt returner.
“If (the Packers) are running that kind of San Fran offense I could see Reagor being intriguing for them,” one scout said. “Comparing him to what Emmanuel Sanders was like the second half of last year, what Calvin Ridley is like in Atlanta in that same kind of system. (Reagor) is super-fast, he’s good with the ball in his hands, the best punt returner in the draft. He’s not just a fast guy, he’s super quick. He can run all the routes, good hands. Powerful — he’s under 6 feet, 200 pounds, but he’s powerful. A little bit raw in terms of he didn’t have 100 catches or 70 catches like some of these guys did. But just talent-wise he’s a first-rounder.”
Another of the scouts described Reagor as high maintenance but still had him just behind Aiyuk on his board.
“Go watch his reel as a punt returner, he makes incredible runs through defenses,” the scout said. “Talk about go get the football, secure it, high-point it, snatch it, whatever you want to do, this guy can get after it, and he’s so explosive after the catch. Everybody thought he was going to run a really fast time at the combine, there was a lot of pressure on him to run in the 4.3s. It didn’t work out that way. But he plays really fast on tape.”
Denzel Mims, Baylor (6-2⅞, 207 pounds, 4.38 40): At just under 6-3, his size surely appeals to Gutekunst, plus he has the sub-4.4 speed to go with it. Averaged 15.7 yards on 186 receptions in college. Though he times faster than Aiyuk and Reagor, he’s not as quick.
“There’s a lot to like,” one of the scout said of Mims. “The Baylor system is real simple, so recent years there have been some struggles with those guys coming in to play right away. Every kid is different so that’s probably unfair. They get all their routes from the sideline, they don’t have to really think on their feet too often. He’s big, he’s fast, he’s got good hands, he was productive. A little bit straight line but most big, fast guys are a little bit straight line.”
Said another scout: “The problem with Mims is you can watch him play against certain teams, you watch him play against (highly rated TCU cornerback Jeff) Gladney, and I wonder if the better the competition the harder it is for him to play. I will say this, red-zone target can contort his body to make plays, play in a small area along the sidelines, sideline awareness, get the foot down, snatch the ball. All those things are real pluses with this guy.”
Tee Higgins, Clemson (6-3⅝, 216, 4.58 40): Has the size and length — his 34⅛-inch arms tied for the longest among receivers in this draft — that Gutekunst loves, and put up big numbers at Clemson (18.1-yard average, 27 touchdowns). But his pedestrian 4.58 40 makes me think he’d be redundant in the Packers’ receiving corps.
“I wouldn’t think Higgins would be what they’re looking for,” said one of the scouts. “I’ve heard his name mentioned less and less as we get closer as a first-round guy. He’s a 4.57 that plays like that. It’s not like he shockingly ran a slow time.”
Said another scout: “I have a chance to be really wrong about him. I’ve got him right underneath those top (four) receivers in the first round. You talk about the length, the route running. His routes are run always at the same speed. You never see any variance of his routes. It’s never like he has to start, stop, do things like that. His route running is outstanding, and he does it all at the same speed. He catches everything in sight. I love his toughness, I love his willingness to go inside.”
Laviska Shenault Jr., Colorado (6-0⅝, 227, 4.58 40): Had a better ’18 season (86 catches) than ’19 (56) but played with a core-muscle injury last year that required surgery immediately after the scouting combine. Probably not a candidate for Gutekunst unless the GM trades back into the early second round.
“I would pick Shenault (ahead of Mims),” one scout said. “But he’s not necessarily that fast guy. He’s a little like the kid N’Keal Harry that the Patriots took (in the first round) last year, kind of a run-after-the-catch guy, really good size, not a detailed route runner.”
Said another scout: “He’s another guy that physically looks great. I have him as a third-round guy. Wanted to like him in the second but just couldn’t bring myself to do it.”