Updated: Apr 28, 2020
Just three months ago, the Green Bay Packers played the San Francisco 49ers with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line. The Packers were a dominant yet flawed 13-3 regular season team that had just defeated the Seattle Seahawks led by Russell Wilson the week before. All this mind you, with a rookie head coach in Matt LaFleur and a second-year GM in Brian Gutekunst. The 49ers, a team that’s been building for years – destroyed them. The Packers defense gave up over 200 yards before contact on defense and were overwhelmed by the Niners pass rush on offense. They were in a completely different league than the Packers.
Again, Green Bay was a good, yet flawed, 13-3 team. The reason for the flaws? The current leadership inherited one of truly the worst rosters in football back in 2017 outside of the quarterback position. Gutekunst knocked his first draft out of the park, acquiring an extra first round pick for the next season while hitting on a game-changing corner. He turned those two first round picks into two more defensive players, while signing three others last offseason. That same offseason, he also gave long-time head coach Mike McCarthy the pink slip, bringing in Matt LaFleur and officially ushering in a new age in Green Bay.
The Pack were 60 minutes away from the Super Bowl, so when the heralded Green Bay Packers selected a quarterback 26 overall this past weekend, the whole football world’s collective jaw hit the floor. Why would they needle their current Hall of Fame QB by drafting another one? Why would they draft a player that likely won’t see the field for two to three years? Why would they opt for the future over a player that could help them now while they still have an elite quarterback? All fair questions. Questions that were exacerbated when the Packers continued to ignore glaring roster holes on the second day of the draft, selecting a runningback and a tight end.
Green Bay turned out to be the story of the draft, and left many – including myself, wondering ‘What are they doing?’ It’s fair to be critical of Green Bay’s draft. It’s fair to crush their draft. But let’s provide some context before we do. Aaron Rodgers is the same age now as Brett Favre was when the Packers decided to draft Rodgers, who was dropping like a rock through the first round. After the Niners passed on the hometown kid in favor of Alex Smith, there wasn’t much keeping Rodgers from sliding all the way down to the Packers, who capitalized on his value and turned one Hall of Fame QB directly into another, defying odds.
But that situation was different. Quarterbacks weren’t playing to the age they are now, and in Favre’s case, it was public knowledge that he was nearing the 18th hole in his career. Now, Tom Brady is about to play as a 44-year-old and Drew Brees is about to be 40. Aaron surely wants to be able to play as long as his peers, which would put him still five years from retirement at best. What the Packers first round pick has done, is all but assure he won’t finish his career in Green Bay. It’s always shocking when it happens, but it really shouldn’t be all that surprising. Joe Montana finished his career with the Chiefs, Favre with the Jets and Vikings, and now Brady with the Buccaneers. Aaron has also started to develop a long string of injury history, coupled with a drop off in his play the last couple seasons. Even if he decides to play as a 40-year-old, it’s fair to ask – would the Packers want him starting then?
Green Bay drafted Love in a similar manner to Rodgers. A player they didn’t think would be available to them, but one they felt they couldn’t pass up. LaFleur has already been quoted as saying he didn’t think there was any shot they’d be able to get Love, and the consensus around the league was that he’d be drafted in the teens to early twenties. Revisionist history would lead you to believe Rodgers was a much better prospect coming out of college, but he was picked apart in the media and by the league in the draft process as well – hence the reason Green Bay was able to select him. In fact, in the end, Love and Rodgers were picked just two spots apart. The crutch of the draft has always been reaching for a need rather than going with the best player on the board, and Green Bay clearly felt if Love dropped to them, they had to pull the trigger.
So let’s look at the economics of the selection and how the Packers brass planned for this. Rodgers carries a massive dead cap hit in both 2020 and 2021, making him basically the unquestioned starter for the next two seasons. The dead cap hit drops to 17 million in 2022, but even then, his cap hit ($39MM) is so high, it’s tough to envision a team wanting to trade for it given his age. That means Green Bay is still locked into Rodgers as the starter likely through the next three seasons. As is the case with most contracts in the NFL, the final year of the deal is very easy to get out of. It would cost the Packers just 2 million in dead cap money to cut or trade him. Why take a QB this year then? Isn’t it too early?
The NFL has seen this situation play out before – recently in fact. Typically, you’d rather make moves a year early than a year late. The Patriots drafted Jimmy Garoppolo well before Tom was ready to hang it up. So, what did they do? They ended up flipping him for a second round pick. The moral is QB’s have value, whether you end up using the value for yourself or not. It’s not perfect, but if you believe in the player and the value is there, the team must pull the trigger. If Rodgers starts for the next three years, it would be the exact amount of time Rodgers ended up sitting behind Favre. Another similarity that was surely kept in mind.
Because the Packers selected Love in the first rather than the second, they have team control over him for up to five years instead of four. It puts them in an advantageous position to groom Love for the long-term while still possessing a current Hall of Famer on the roster. If the Packers indeed decide to turn the reigns over to Love in three years, they still have two years of control on his rookie contract, with the ability to franchise tag him for another if need be. Green Bay has put themselves in a position to transition seamlessly to the next QB, and if it doesn’t work out – they’re only contractually obligated to him for two years max as the starter. All in all, the likelihood Love ends up being as good as Rodgers is slim to none. Rodgers is a top five quarterback in the history of mankind. But the hope is that he’s a franchise level starter for ten-plus years, something much more attainable.
So the Packers decided they couldn’t pass up on the opportunity to secure the franchise’s future in round one. No big deal. If he’s good, then the pick is a thousand percent worth it. But Green Bay continued to shock when they took a runningback and then a tight end with their second and third picks, again passing over glaring roster needs. A.J. Dillon out of Boston College, and Josiah Deguara out of Cincinnati. Drafting runningbacks high is typically a bad idea in a league where throwing the football is becoming increasingly more prevalent.
In the case of the Packers, they’re again planning for the future, rather than trying to fill holes on the roster for 2020. Starter Aaron Jones and compliment Jamal Williams are both set to be free agents after this fall after coming in together. The Packers will not be keeping both, if any of them. They’re also day three picks, and while they’ve exceeded their draft slot – both are limited. With the Packers clearly trying to move to a more run-heavy zone scheme, Dillon more fits what they want to do – and he’s cheaper, and potentially better. He’s basically a budget Derrick Henry that should contribute a little more in the passing game.
However, yet again – the Packers appear to have been punting on the present in favor of the future. And they tripled down in round three, drafting another player at a position that already has starters slated for the 2020 season. Deguara is considered an H-back, who lined up as an in-line tight end about as often as he did split out in the slot. The Packers seem inclined to use him in a role like the 49ers employ FB Kyle Juszczyk.
To recap, the Packers continuously opted for long-term options, rather than trying to draft starters at positions of need. Where you can fairly crush the Packers is in their strategy and value - not the players selected. It's easy to see the line of thinking, but it's fair to question whether or not it's the correct strategy. Green Bay could've drafted Queen in the first round to be a game-changing signal caller in the middle of the defense. They could've taken a receiver or tackle on day two to bolster weaknesses offensively - worrying about the contract problem at runningback next year. They could've tried to fill as many holes as possible to try and make a run at the Super Bowl before Rodgers retires, and worry about Rodgers' replacement later.
But they didn't. As is always the case, time will tell whether the Packers draft class is a good one. But the value of where they selected players, especially in rounds 2-7, can and will always be argued. The truth always lies somewhere in the middle. The class won't be as horrid as some seem to proclaim, and it definitely won't be remembered as one of the great classes in their history. However, if the Packers get the heir to Favre and Rodgers out of this class - the rest is just gravy, and that's what they're hoping.