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Heir Jordan? Packers rolling the dice on first-round quarterback

When the first two episodes of ESPN’s highly anticipated docuseries “The Last Dance” concluded last Sunday night, viewers across America clamored for “More Jordan! More Jordan!” For the cross-section of those viewers who happened to be Packers fans, I don’t think this is what they had in mind.

After weeks of speculation about whether they would add a weapon for Aaron Rodgers or perhaps try to bolster a defense that was eviscerated in the NFC title game, Green Bay shocked just about everyone by doing neither. Instead, Brian Gutekunst traded up four spots to select Utah State quarterback Jordan Love with the 26th pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, in an apparent attempt to lock down Rodgers’ eventual successor.

Of course, Gutekunst wouldn’t explicitly admit to viewing Love as the heir apparent to the the two-time MVP, instead referring repeatedly to “the board” on a conference call with the media after the pick was made.

“The way the board fell, it was the best decision for the Green Bay Packers.”

“We build our board, try to stay true to the board, and take the best player available.”

“There wasn’t a lot of options left.”

“I’ve never really believed that you’re ever one player away. It was the way the board fell. If there was a game-changing type player at another position, we would have seriously considered that. We didn’t feel that there was.”

It’s not surprising to hear Gutekunst contextualize the pick that way–disciples of the Ron Wolf scouting tree have preached the importance of “trusting the board” for years. Most famously, Ted Thompson did just that when he selected Rodgers in the first round in 2005, despite having a three-time MVP on his roster in Brett Favre.

On the surface and in the moment, it was a surreal scene for Packers fans considering the similarities in the two scenarios. Except when you really break it down, the only real parallel between 2020 and 2005 is the fact that the team took a quarterback in the first round when they already had a Hall-of-Famer in the fold. Beyond that, the situations aren’t all that similar.

You’ll recall that around the time Rodgers was drafted, Favre had begun making decisions one season at a time, leaving the Packers in an awkward position as to whether or not he’d be around much longer. The 36-year old Rodgers, on the other hand, has consistently stated his desire to play into his 40s and to finish his career in Green Bay.

When Rodgers entered the draft in 2005, he was touted as the possible number one overall pick before his well-documented fall on draft night. Jordan Love, while considered a top-five quarterback in the 2020 class, was viewed as a fringe first-rounder coming out of college, with far more red flags in his game than Rodgers had coming out of Cal.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly when evaluating Gutekunst’s comments on “the board,” Rodgers fell into the Packers’ lap with the 24th pick–their original selection in the 2005 draft–when Ted Thompson decided to make the pick. In other words, that situation was the most cut and dry example of the board “falling” in your favor. Gutekunst, perhaps believing he was facing pressure from other teams who might want to make a move, traded up to get his guy. Even if you don’t consider a fourth-round pick to be worth a whole lot, he was still willing to invest more than just his first-rounder in Jordan Love. That seems more like a conscious choice rather than letting the board fall how it may.

In Gutekunst’s defense, I think there’s a pretty clear explanation for why he chose to characterize it that way. After all, for all we know, he could have been working the phones to try and move up for someone else (i.e. Justin Jefferson or Kenneth Murray) and couldn’t find a suitable trade partner. In that scenario, after Jefferson went 22nd to Minnesota, it’s very possible Love was the last player left on the Packers’ board with a first-round grade. Hearing rumblings about other teams possibly trading ahead of him to take Love, he decided to pull the trigger and get his guy.

Whether you like the pick or not, the rationale behind it is pretty clear. Like many, I was dumbfounded when Love’s name appeared on my television screen. Twelve hours later, I have to admit I still think it was a mismanagement of resources, but I can also say I understand the thought process. even if the thought process turned out to be a long-term gamble that could fundamentally change the franchise. Make no mistake–Gutekunst and head coach Matt LaFleur are now tied to this selection, for better or worse, and it will likely come to define their respective tenures.

The Wide Receiver Question

I, like a lot of other Packers fans, really hoped the team would draft a first-round receiver for the first time since 2002. When reports started surfacing that Gutekunst was letting other teams know he wanted to move up in the first round, I thought for sure he had his eye on one of the top four receivers.

As mentioned earlier, there’s no concrete proof that he wasn’t trying to trade up for one of those guys and just failed to find a suitable deal. But I think it’s more likely he never planned to take a receiver in the first round, and I think there are two reasons why. First, he spoke at length pre-draft about the depth of this year’s wide receiver class. Secondly, the Ron Wolf tree (in Green Bay specifically) has an impressive history of finding wide receivers in the second and third rounds.

Since Wolf was named general manager in 1991, the Packers have taken 12 receivers in the first three rounds,–the lone first-rounder being Javon Walker in 2002. Of the 11 others, seven were drafted in the second round and four came in the third. What’s more, six of them rank in the top 11 in receptions in team history, with seven in the top 15 in receiving yards.

See if any of these names ring a bell:

  • Robert Brooks (3rd round)
  • Antonio Freeman (3rd)
  • Greg Jennings (2nd)
  • James Jones (3rd)
  • Jordy Nelson (2nd)
  • Randall Cobb (2nd)
  • Davante Adams (2nd)

When you look at that pattern of success, it almost seems like it should have been obvious that Gutekunst would wait until day two to draft a receiver in such a deep class. Is it a guarantee that he’ll find a game changer? Of course not, but seven out of 12 indicates a pretty solid history of being able to do so.

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