Most experts agree the Packers primary need in the 2022 draft is at the wide receiver position. They traded away all-world Davante Adams. MVS left for Kansas City as a free agent. There’s plenty of receiver prospects to consider. It’s easily this year’s deepest position. Many view Ohio State’s Chris Olave or George Pickens out of the University of Georgia as likely draft targets. While many Packers fans would be happy with either one of these receivers, it might be better to take a step back. Most skill position players don’t have a major impact until their third season. With that, a look back at the 2019 draft suggests what Packers fans can reasonably expect. It also offers some insight into how the Packers can avoid the mistakes of the Past.
Rashan Gary: Solid A-Grade
With the 12th pick in the 2019 draft, the Packers selected linebacker Rashan Gary from the University of Michigan. Many viewed his pass rush history at Michigan as a disappointment, but Gary was projected as a year-one starter. He registered 119 tackles, including 9.5 sacks over three seasons in Ann Harbor. Not exactly lights out production for the number seven prospect on ESPN’s 2016 top 100 high school prospects. Packers GM Brian Gutekunst ignored what he read on paper about Gary because of what he saw on his film. Gary’s athleticism was evident in college.
Gary’s 2019 season was widely regarded as somewhat disappointing, but 2020 showed much more promise. Gary registered five sacks over four starts in 15 total games in 2020. Not eye-popping numbers necessarily, but by the end of the 2020 season, every Packers fan knew who Rashan Gary was. Expectations for Gary’s 2021 season were high. When Za’Darius smith went down with a back injury in week one of the 2021 season, Gary made the most of the opportunity. Over the next 16 games, Gary would register 9.5 sacks and a forced fumble. He also compiled 20 QB hurries and eight tackles for lost yardage. Gary’s production is clearly on the upside and many expect the Packers to exercise his 5th year option in an effort to work on a long-term agreement to keep Gary in Green Bay for years to come. This was an obvious home-run choice in 2019.
Darnell Savage – Big Step Backwards in 2021: C-Minus
With their 2nd pick in the first round of the 2019 draft, the Packers selected Maryland safety Darnell Savage. Adrian Amos had just signed as a free agent. Cornerback Jaire Alexander had a breakout rookie campaign in 2018 and the future was looking bright for the Packers’ secondary, which had struggled over several years of draft misses and losses in free agency. NFL scouts graded Savage fairly high, with good ball skills, speed and range.
Following a decent rookie campaign, it looked like Savage was making a significant jump in 2020. He registered four interceptions over 15 starts, while allowing a passer rating of just 67.7. High marks for a second-year safety. While expectations for Savage were high going into the 2021 season, he didn’t play up to his performance from the prior season. Savage registered just two interceptions in 17 starts while allowing a passer rating of 117.4, a huge slide backwards from his production in 2020.
Some might attribute such a slide to the change in defensive scheme in 2021. In reality, it’s proof that even when a young player shows flashes of promise, the third year shows the reality of the situation. That reality suggests that Savage hasn’t lived up to his draft position and isn’t worthy of that next big contract, at least not at this point. Add to that Adrian Amos is entering the final year of his contract and isn’t getting any younger. The Packers still have a hole at the safety position. Nobody should be surprised if Green Bay goes safety in the first round – even before the more obvious need at receiver. Two players to watch here are Michigan’s Daxton Hill and Lewis Cine out of the University of Georgia.
Elgton Jenkins – Set the Curve: A+
With the 12th pick in the second round of the 2019 draft, the Packers selected Mississippi State center Elgton Jenkins. Not a sexy pick by any measure, Jenkins was drafted as a utility offensive lineman. The Packers were solid at both tackle positions and had an elite center in Corey Linsley, now with the San Diego Chargers. Guard Billy Taylor had just been signed as a free agent and Lane Taylor had established himself as a durable starter in both 2017 and 2018. The Packers had a recent history of shuffling offensive linemen due to injuries. Make no mistake, Jenkins was drafted for depth along the line.
To nobody’s surprise, Jenkins supplanted Lane Taylor as the starter at guard opposite Billy Turner. Jenkins started 14 games in his rookie season and firmly established himself as a long-term guard for the Packers. Jenkins entered 2020 as the Packers left guard next to all pro tackle David Bakhtiari. Such strength on the left half of the offensive line was enough to keep Aaron Rodgers healthy in 2020 as he went on to win his third career NFL MVP award.
Jenkins entered the 2020 season filling in for injured left tackle David Bakhtiari. Just as with his move from center to guard, tackle looked like his natural position. Jenkins was arguably playing at a pro bowl level at tackle in 2021. Unfortunately that ended with a week 11 injury in the Packers game at Minnesota. While his 2021 season was cut short, Jenkins’ play at tackle showed he is arguably the best Packers selection over the last several drafts. Elite tackle play is coveted in the NFL and Jenkins did just that, and it’s not even his natural position. Many fans cringed when the Packers selected Jenkins in the 2019 draft with Linsley already on the roster. Three years later, nobody cringes at the thought of Elgton Jenkins at any position on the Packers offensive line. Except maybe, for pass rushers from other teams.
Looking Back at the 2019 Draft as a Preview to 2022
Ultimately, the entire NFL draft is a crap shoot. Some players are obvious home runs, but the overwhelming majority of NFL draft picks are mostly based on speculation. Film study only goes so far. Even then, players who put legendary college highlight reels together aren’t guaranteed a thing. Every year there is players who are hyped as can’t miss. Then they’re suddenly riding the bench – or out of the NFL altogether in just a few years.
Since 2018, the first and second rounds of the NFL draft have been mostly friendly to the Packers. While a player or two taken over that time may be regarded as a disappointment, the Packers have found gold elsewhere. Rashan Gary shows us that steady growth builds elite rosters. Elgton Jenkins shows us that we sometimes need what we believe we don’t. Darnell Savage, unfortunately shows us that sometimes it’s better to pump the brakes. Early flashes of brilliant play don’t always translate to upside growth. 2021 made this crystal clear when looking back at the Packers 2019 draft picks.
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