(WLAX/WEUX) – For the Green Bay Packers, it will go down in franchise history as the draft that was overshadowed.
Overshadowed by drama in the aftermath of a bombshell ESPN report on the afternoon of the first round that quarterback Aaron Rodgers wants out of Green Bay.
The excitement of a solid class of new talent augmenting an already talented roster was tarnished by the speculation and attention on how the Packers can resolve the tense situation with their leader and reigning league MVP.
In the post-draft press conferences Saturday night with general manager Brian Gutekunst and head coach Matt LaFleur, it didn’t take long to address the elephant in the room.
The opening question to Gutekunst concerned allegations that Rodgers wants him terminated. His reply?
“You know, Aaron hasn’t said anything like that to me, and certainly hasn’t said anything publicly, Gutekunst said. “So, I think it’s a little unfair to put that on him. But listen, you certainly don’t like to hear those things, but at the same time, it’s kind of part of the gig in the National Football league. But no, nothing has been communicated directly to me.”
His questions then turned to the draft class. Gutekunst said the “stars aligned” for the Packers on the first two days of the draft as the team addressed three critical areas of concern on its roster.
Snapping his streak of trading up or down in the first round in his first three drafts, Gutekunst stayed at No. 29 overall to select speedster, Eric Stokes of Georgia, to bolster the cornerback position. Stokes will challenge incumbent starter Kevin King and back-up Chandon Sullivan for playing time.
With the 62nd overall pick, Gutekunst replaced departed Pro Bowler Corey Linsley with another former Buckeye: 6-foot-5-inch, 310-pound center Josh Myers.
Then Gutekunst made a move for an explosive player he coveted: versatile wide receiver Amari Rodgers of Georgia. He consummated a trade with the Tennessee Titans to move up from the 92nd spot to No. 85 to snare the dangerous slot/gadget receiver to add a new dimension to the Green Bay offense.
Only time will tell if Packers fans at Lambeau Field will hear this season the public address announcer blare: “Touchdown, A-Rod to Amari Rodgers!”
Green Bay had six picks—three on offense, three on defense—in rounds 4-7 on Saturday, adding versatility and depth to position groups and special teams units.
LaFleur, whose first three questions were Aaron Rodgers-related, said, “Anytime you add talent like we did over the last three days, that versatility is vital to our success.”
It was a draft that seemed to fill many needs on the team—in contrast to the 2020 draft that featured a focus on the future with the first-round selection of quarterback Jordan Love.
For several draft picks made on Saturday, the best way to showcase their talent and potential and earn a roster spot in August is via special teams.
“We always look at the value each player in the draft brings us in special teams,” Gutekunst said. “As we got later in the draft, you want to give these guys the best opportunity to make your team, and certainly special teams is a big factor in that. It was on our minds quite a bit as we went through the final four-five picks.”
In the fourth round, Gutekunst took a versatile offensive lineman at No. 142 with Royce Newman of Ole Miss. Newman played left guard and right tackle in Lane Kiffin’s spread offense and will compete for playing time, especially with David Bakhtiari out and rehabbing during the early portion of the season.
Jon-Eric Sullivan, Packers co-director of player development, said Newman’s intelligence and versatility impressed Green Bay scouts and coaches.
“Number one he’s a smart kid, he’s bright,” he explained. “So that allows him mentally to kind of move up and down the line of scrimmage. He has really good initial quickness, lateral movement which allows him to play guard and also allows him to function out there at tackle. He’s just a versatile piece. . . gives us some flexibility.”
In Round 5, the Packers went big, drafting a run-stopper at No. 173 and five picks later adding a staff-favorite cornerback.
Tedarrell (T.J.) Slaton, a 6-foot-4, 330-pound defensive lineman from Florida, may have the best opportunity of Saturday’s selections to make an immediate impact.
Slaton beefs up the defensive line rotation and he can spell Pro Bowler Kenny Clark at times. Stopping the run is paramount for any defense, especially in Green Bay went the weather makes passing the ball challenging in November and December.
“T.J.’s a monster,” Gutekunst said. “He’s really tough to dig out of that inside there. He’s one of those guys that can clog up the middle, eat up space and find the ball.”
Packer scouts lobbied for the selection of Shemar Jean-Charles of Appalachian State, who led the FBS in passes broken up last season. He adds depth at cornerback, a position that can never be deep enough in the pass-happy NFL.
While first-round pick Stokes will push for playing time right away, Jean-Charles’ roster ticket may be determined by his play on special teams as he assimilates the Packers’ defensive scheme under new coordinator Joe Barry.
“He was a favorite of our scouts,” Gutekunst said. “As it unfolded, I got a lot of taps on my shoulder during those periods of times about him being on the board and available. So we were thrilled to be able to select him.”
In the sixth round, Green Bay native and Wisconsin Badger Cole Van Lanen was chosen at No. 214 and six picks later Boston College linebacker Isaiah McDuffie was taken.
“For me going to Green Bay is just unbelievable,” said Van Lanen, a Bayport standout who grew up a die-hard Packer fan. “I’m beyond excited.”
Van Lanen will be groomed to play guard and tackle and will compete with fellow rookies Myers and Newman for playing time. Van Lanen is a solid run-blocker, but will most likely contribute as a back-up and special-teamer his rookie year as he hones his pass-blocking skills at the pro level.
The undersized McDuffie, 6-foot-1 and 227 pounds, is noted for his speed and aggressiveness. He is a sure tackler, which makes him a perfect fit for special team coverage units. “I’m a Swiss Army knife,” he said. “I’ll do the nitty-gritty jobs, whatever it takes to help the team.”
Gutekunst said the Packers had hoped to address the inside linebacker position earlier in the draft.
“Didn’t happen to fall that way for us,” he said. “I’ve talked a lot about roster building being 365 days a year, so we’ll continue to look at that. . . We were super happy to get there to the end and pick Isaiah McDuffie, not only as an inside linebacker, but we think he has a really good chance to be a special teams player.”
In round seven, Green Bay chose running back Kylin Hill of Mississippi State with the 256th selection. Hill is a 5-foot-10, 214-pound power runner who has a legitimate chance to become the number three back behind Aaron Jones and AJ Dillion.
“We were surprised to see him on the board that late and were kind of holding our breath there in the seventh round, but we were excited to get him,” Gutekunst said. “He’s an explosive athlete as a runner, catches the ball really well, and he may be able to add some special teams value as well. . . He’s a very talented individual.”
No matter where the nine newest members of the Green Bay Packers were drafted, they have to earn their spot.
“Everything’s an unknown at this point,” LaFleur said. “Everybody feels good about their draft class. The bottom line is guys have got to come in and they’ve got to prove it.”
And that won’t be easy on a team with Super Bowl aspirations. “We have a very good football team coming back,” Gutekunst said. “Our football team is going to be a hard team to make.”