The Packers 2022 season is over. Plans were put in place to go all in for a championship, another Super Bowl trophy. Many decisions went into the preseason moves of the Packers. The 2021 Packers had outplayed the 49ers at Lambeau Field only to have those offensive and defensive accomplishments shuttered by special team failures that cost the team the victory. Their defense had improved and could create steady pressure on opposing quarterbacks even though their best pass rusher, LaDarius Smith was hurt most of the season. The team seemed poised to compete for a championship, but the preseason moves and injuries in 2022 took their toll and contributed to the overall failure.
The Signing of Aaron Rodgers and the Offensive Line
The MVP quarterback was thrown more money than any other player in the history of the NFL. That move cost the Packers, but it wasn’t the move that ultimately derailed the Packers. This move was the biggest risk/reward for Gutekunst. Not only because of the age of Rodgers but also the high price tag. Signing Rodgers contributed to the release of Billy Turner and Lucas Patrick. Gutekunst thought he had able replacements in Royce Newman and Jon Runyan. He was fifty percent right, Runyan was a steady player, but Newman regressed instead of making a jump.
Bakhtiari’s prolonged injury, the failure of Royce Newman and Jake Hanson to make next year jumps combined with up and down performances from Josh Meyers and Elgton Jenkins made life rough for Rogers and the running backs early in the season. Jon Runyan has been the most reliable lineman. He took over at left guard early, then was switched to right guard during the season having never played the position and has held his own. His jump in play has not been matched by Josh Meyers. Meyers has a PFF grade of 61 for his combined pass and run blocking. At the bye week Meyers has given up three sacks. Jenkins, coming back from major knee surgery, started slow playing tackle, but has improved at left guard as the season has progressed.
While the receivers and Rodgers have taken much of the blame for the offensive woes of 2022, the real key to success or failure has been the struggles of the offensive line. What was an offensive line unit bordering on elite in 2021 has come crashing down to earth and played with mediocrity in 2022. Gone are the days when Rodgers has all day in the pocket to ad lib heroic magic. Until the last game in Chicago, the pressure has been persistent and the offense and Rodgers have both felt the impact. Add to that Rodgers decreased mobility due to age and a receiver corps that is old and slow or still learning the NFL game and you have a recipe for a poor passing offense.
That and the injuries to Bakhtiari and Jenkins took the offensive line back to a liability. Yosh Nijman battled but was injured. Zach Tom is small for an NFL tackle and inexperienced. For 2022, the line could not consistently keep Rodgers clean or open holes for the running backs. Against Detroit the Packers vaunted running game averaged 3.7 yards a carry. They could not run in the red zone. Three rushing attempts gained two yards.
The Loss of Davante Adams
In 2021 Davante Adams asked for top wide receiver money. Gutekunst refused his asking price knowing he was under contract for another year. Adams saw the move as a sign of disrespect and he had a plan- B. Adams chose to force a trade with the Raiders. Adam’s master plan to move to a Super Bowl contending team with what he described as a “hall of fame” worthy quarterback ended in a failure that makes the Packer season look hope filled. His dearest friend, Derek Carr, was demoted and “took time away from the team so as not to be a distraction”. Carr is in all likelihood done with the Raiders. The Raiders had Adams, Darren Waller at tight end and Hunter Renfrow on the other side. Even with a trio that outclasses the Packers at each position, they put up 25 more points than the Packers and had just over 300 more yards of offense, the Raiders lost more games after leading in the first half than any other team in the league. Fourteen interceptions by Carr in 15 games, twenty seven sacks, and a fumble contributed but so did poor defensive execution. Carr’s year end QBR was 86.3.
Adams’ decision did not work out well for the Packers either. Green Bay received two high draft picks for Adam’s but the drafting of three rookie receivers and the reliance on Allen Lazard, Randall Cobb, and Sammy Watkins failed spectacularly. Watkins was actually straight up released before the crucial game with Detroit. Lazard is a solid #3 receiver and Cobb is old and slow and missed multiple games to injury.
The passing game was under construction during training camp. Rogers, though he was paid handsomely and knew his targets included three rookies, stayed away from OTA’s, allowing Love to run the team. The preseason also had Rodgers on the sidelines even though the year prior had proven disastrous for the Packer offense in their first game with the Saints. The preseason decision is on LaFleur. The signing decisions on LaFleur and Gutekunst. The OTA decision in on Rodgers. This move by Adams caught Gutekunst off guard. He could not recover by signing another big money receiver and sign Rodgers so he drafted rookies and the team paid a price that arguably kept them out of the playoffs.
The Smith Brothers Decisions
Gutekunst decided early that he would not resign Za’Darius Smith. Smith spent nearly the entire 2021 season on the sideline recovering from a back injury. Gutekunst made the calculated decision to let him walk. Smith signed a three year deal with the rival Vikings on what turned out to be a cap friendly (approx 3.35 million 2022 cap hit) and has 9.5 sacks in 14 games. Gutekunst was correct that he had an elite replacement for Smith in Rashan Gary and he smartly drafted a late round backup in Kingsley Enagbare. Unfortunately, the season ending injury to Gary impacted the Packer pass rush and highlighted the loss of Za’Darius Smith.
Gutekunst signed Preston Smith to a cap friendly deal instead of Za’Darius. Clearly, Gutekunst is not responsible for injuries and many teams have had playoff hopes derailed by injuries. But the end of the Packer- Z. Smith relationship seemed to sour before the end of the season. Smith said he signed with the Vikings because he felt disrespected by the Packers. LaFleur responded saying that Smith’s comments about the lack of communication by Packers coaches and front office to get back on the field where not what he remembered.
In the end, the Packer front office did not communicate to Smith that they were interested in retaining his services. Gutekunst made a decision to pay the outside linebacker with a history of reliability and jettison the one who was still recovering from back surgery. You can’t argue with that logic. But in one year Gutekunst and the coaching staff was able to alienate two of their All-Pro caliber players. Adams and La’Darius Smith. That should never happen. Period.
Resigning the Defense
Gutekunst took the rest of his remaining cap money and spent it on defensive players he thought would allow the Packer defense to be an elite unit. De’Vondre Campbell, Jaire Alexander, and Rasul Douglass had all played at an elite level in 2020 or 2021. They did not come cheap. Gutekunst then spent a small amount on a defensive line addition in Jarran Reed. As plans go, Gutekunst was given praise for his defensive priorities during the spring and summer. The defense had played well under first year defensive coordinator Joe Barry in 2021 and the players he resigned created optimism that the second year in the new defensive system would put elite results on film in 2022.
Gutekunst had prepared for this eventuality by drafting multiple offensive lineman in previous years. The plan on offense was to build the game plan around the best running tandem in the NFL and Adams, Lazard, Randall Cobb and Robert Tonyan as the key pass catchers. To do this they needed contributions on the offensive line from All-Pro David Bakhtiari and Elgton Jenkins and improvement from young starters Josh Meyers, Jon Runyan and Royce Newman. As described above, another failed set of moves.
De’Vondre Campbell’s play regressed in part due to injury. Rookie Quay Walker could not fill his shoes. The Packers allowed 5 yards a carry. To put that into perspective, the 49ers allowed 3.4 yards per carry. Add on defensive penalties, botched assignments in the passing game, a plethora of missed tackles and a lack of turnovers made a good defense on paper a paper tiger. Gutekunst’s plan looked solid but the zone defense scheme of Joe Barry did not defend crossing patterns and allowed teams to focus on the weaknesses of Quay Walker and Darnell Savage.
With limited cash on hand Gutekunst signed Sammy Watkins who was cut in December. His defensive signing was Jarran Reed. Reed played plenty of snaps and earned his paycheck. Fifty two combined tackles and 2.5 sacks and one forced fumble should earn him a bonus. He was no savior, but that was never his role.
Before we review the draft let’s review experts draft statistics that realistically look at how many players actually succeed in any given draft. One percent of all players drafted become All-Pro. Only seven percent of all players play well enough to earn a second contract. Less than thirteen percent start for multiple years for the team that drafted them. Fifty percent of first round picks fail to sustain a starting position for a full year. The numbers get worse as the rounds go on. So complaining about a third round pick that fails to start is not a reason to fire a GM. Ron Wolf defined a successful draft as three quality starters. From that premise, we review this draft.
In the 2022 draft Gutekunst had eleven picks in the draft, heavily weighted at the beginning and end of the draft. Four picks in rounds one and two were an unprecedented gold mine of options for the Packers. After losing arguably the best receiver in football the need for a dynamic pass catcher seemed obvious.
Receivers: Gutekunst had to hit on a receiver and most predicted a first round pick. Gutekunst sent many fans into a frosted frenzy when he waited until day two to pick Christian Watson. The kid had played in the second division of college football in a run focused offense. He came to camp injured and missed big chunks of practice time. His first drop on the first play of the game against Minnesota in the opening game led to a meltdown that foretold the first half troubles of this Packer team. After game 13, he looked like a potential draft steal. But Gutekunst was not done looking for wide receivers. In round four he drafted Romeo Doubs and in round seven, Samori Toure.
In 2018, Gutekunst also went for three wideouts but he was not rewarded. Of the three in 2018 only Marquez Valdez-Scantling had decent numbers but Gutekunst deemed him and Equanimeous St. Brown expendable. While Doubs lost time to injury and Toure has had limited targets, all three seem to have the potential to improve the Packer receiving corps. Toure, a seventh round pick, has 5 catches for 82 yards and one touchdown. All totaled, the three rookies had combined for 11 touchdowns in the first 13 games. They have been pressed into duty due to injuries and Watkins failure. Doubs looked to be busting into stardom but came down to earth against Detroit dropping two critical passes. At the bye week break, all the rest of the 21 rookie receivers in the NFL have 22 total touchdowns. If you were going to nitpick on the Watson pick, it would be giving up too much to draft him. By giving away two second round draft picks Gutekunst gave up big draft capital for Watson. If he had drafted him in the first round, leaving the 24 year old Wyatt on the board, he would have had two second round picks.
First Round Picks: While focusing on defense was a good plan for the Packers, the picks by Gutekunst could haunt the Packers for years to come. Quay Walker was picked at 22. Devin Lloyd, the Utah linebacker and Butkus award finalist was still on the board. While both their careers are just beginning, Lloyd’s 115 tackles, 3 interceptions, 2 fumble recoveries, 2 quarterback hits and 8 passes defensed have impressed the NFL. Walker has been a weak link on a defense that has failed to stop the run and the pass. Walker’s also made crucial penalties, the last leading to his second ejection in 17 games. His attempt to shadow the QB in Philadelphia was a disaster. Most opponents running plays run at his gap.
The second first round pick was 24 year old Devonte Wyatt. Wyatt has been slow to get on the field. He was a backup and only saw real snaps when Dean Lowry was injured. In the last two games he showed real potential. For a first round pick at age 24, he has not shown the abilities of former 1st round pick Kenny Clark who was 20 went he put on the Green and Gold uniform as a rookie. If you look at other defenders picked around Wyatt, George Karlaftis and Logan Hall have both struggled, although Karlaftis had 6 sacks. To really know if these two picks will succeed, both players will need to have big jumps in 2023.
Third Round: Sean Rhyan. All signs are Rhyan is the biggest draft bust in years. Even with performance enhancing drugs he could not make the 53 man roster. Ends his rookie year suspended. Just sickening.
Rounds 4-5: After picking Doubs, Gutekunst drafted OT Zach Tom and OLB Kingsley Enagbare. Enagbare is now starting due to the injury to Rashan Gary and Tom has started at tackle and guard. The development of these two players may have a lot to do with the success or failure of the Packers in the future. If Gutekunst could find a dependable tackle in the 5th round he will have sealed the success of this draft class. Enagbare is a work in progress. When he is pared up with Walker on the same side opponents are running at them with success. Enagbare had three sacks and has potential as an edge setter. Tom started games with only a few minutes notice and held his own. All signs point upward for the young tackle.
Round 7: While Toure has found success in limited opportunities, Carpenter, Ford and Walker are still developmental players. If any of these players can become a quality starter the draft success could rise to greatness. But 2023 and perhaps 2024 will be needed to judge these three.
The 2022 Packer draft has all the potential necessary for greatness. It is the most optimistic piece of this 2022 Packer puzzle. Outside this draft Gutekunst seems committed to extending Jordan Love. That decision, and the next decision with Rodgers, will truly be the determining factors in what will ultimately be Gutekunst’s legacy. But neither Love nor Rodgers can win alone. A quality offensive line and offensive weapons will be needed. Both have future potential thanks to Gutekunst’s recent picks. The defense is still a puzzle. Finding linebackers and defensive backs that don’t miss tackles or assignments and another Kenny Clark on the defensive line are all necessary for this team to truly shine. Can Gutekunst pull it off? Only time will answer that question.