The 2024 NFL Draft is four months away, but draft priorities can be based on current player/production deficiencies. It’s too early to focus on individual players that might be available, but areas of need have become clear after 16 games of the 2023 season.
The Packers under Brian Gutekunst have spent a disproportionate amount of first round picks on defensive players. Gutekunst went defense on his first three picks in 2018. His 2019 draft went defense on his first two picks.
Focusing on improving the defense was a good strategy, every fan knew the defense needed to improve. Unfortunately, out of the 5 picks, two have been outright busts and one, Darnell Savage, is a player that needs to be replaced.
Savage can’t or won’t consistently tackle and his speed is better than his ball skills. The other two players, Josh Jackson and Owen Burks were both gone before their rookie contracts were up and have never made impacts in the NFL.
Of the two picks that can be argued were good selections, one, Jaire Alexander, is now struggling both on the field and in the clubhouse. Gutekunst made him the highest paid corner in the league.
Since signing his big deal Alexander has been injury prone and played so poorly recently the Packers would be foolish not to, at a minimum, listen to trade offers if one presents itself. Alexander could heal and return to his All-Pro form, but his shoulder injuries have repeatedly kept him from playing and seems to have changed his willingness to tackle.
His replacement, Corey Ballentine, is a willing tackler. If the Packers are actually interested in changing the culture of the defense, tackling has to be a priority. The last player of the Gutekunst Five, Rashan Gary, is a force as a pass rusher but still struggles with consistency in diagnosing the run, especially misdirection run to his side.
Gutekunst’s next first round defensive pick, Eric Stokes, spent his sophomore campaign as a Packer getting beat repeatedly then suffered a major injury and was out for more than a year. In his recent return he looked lost and gave up two touchdowns.
Between Savage, Alexander and Stokes, the Packers need to realize the recent production doesn’t match the hype. Film doesn’t lie. If the defense wants to improve, they need to draft secondary replacements for these three players.
Tied for the biggest need for improvement would be the inside linebacker position.. De’Vondre Campbell is old, injured and publicly quit on the team. His tweet;
Compare and contrast that with the praise and admiration this week for former Packer Ken Bowman who passed away at the age of 81. Bowman, a true warrior that never blew his own horn, played through incredible injuries and is now part of Green Bay’s championship legacy.
While much has changed since the Lombardi era in the NFL, that tweet by Campbell, does not a champion make. Campbell was a senior leader on the defense. Expect Campbell to be released or retire. New leadership is needed.
Next to him Quay Walker leads the team in tackles. And yet he has not been a consistent run stopper, nor is he quick to diagnose plays or run with receivers on pass downs.
The decision on Walker may be the most critical for the Packers. Perhaps with one dominating replacement for Campbell, Walker can play out his rookie deal, but either way a priority has to be inside linebacker.
The defensive line and outside linebackers have young ascending players with Kenny Clark still playing well. An interior D-lineman would help the depth.
Offensive line issues plagued the Packers early in the season. The two tackle positions, manned by Zach Tom and Rasheed Walker have proved competent down the stretch.
Jon Runyon has been splitting time with Sean Rhyan and Yosh Nijman split time with Walker, an NFL oddity that has worked for the Packers this year. The unspoken reality coming into a critical game against the Bears on Sunday, is that Luke Butkus, offensive line coach of the Packers, could have saved the jobs of the entire coaching staff and the front office.
Without the incredible improvement of Walker, Tom, Myers, and Runyon/Rhyan this team is the laughing stock of the league that showed up in weeks three thru six. His decision to split time during games on back-to-back drives not only got the best performances out of his athletes, it also created experienced depth that will help next year’s team.
Even though two young players are playing tackle well, Runyon and Myers are contract renewal questions so prioritizing the offensive line in the draft makes sense. Running back is the next priority.
Aaron Jones is getting older, and A.J. Dillon only comes back at an attractive contract price. The Packers offense starts with the run to set up the pass and having a real weapon in the backfield makes the opposing defense play honest. A running back should be in this Packer draft.
Five positions of critical need before the ever-present factor of injury is thrown into the equation. Luckily the Packers have 5 picks in the first three rounds. But will Gutekunst hit it big with these picks?
His 2023 draft seems like a home run. The 2024 Packers will thrive or die on the vine based in no small part on Gutekunst’s April picks. Judging by his track record, it could go either way.
His first two drafts had a number of big busts while his last two have looked good so far. The Packers need a third good draft in a row to make the big jump to title contender.
Because as fun as it has been to watch this team improve, their win total includes a number of teams that were missing starting quarterbacks and other vital players. The 2024 team cannot count on a soft schedule to pad their win total. They must improve from within.