GREEN BAY — Day 1 of the 2018 NFL Draft is in the books and the Green Bay Packers made plenty of noise under new general manager Brian Gutekunst.
Here’s our look at some of the main storylines from Thursday.
Brian Gutekunst makes his first pick
It came later than expected (we’ll get to that in a minute), but Gutekunst is on the board with his first-ever draft pick, taking cornerback Jaire Alexander.
“He was one of those targets early on that we liked quite a bit,” Gutekunst said late Thursday night inside the media auditorium at Lambeau Field. “He was a guy from early on in the fall that our (scouts) were really excited about.”
Alexander definitely fills a need. Prior to the selection, the cornerback room consisted of a number of unproven players, guys returning from serious injuries and veterans that have likely already seen their best days. Adding Alexander gives them an athletic and talented player that was a team captain at Louisville and played his best football in some of his biggest games, including a two interception performance against two-time Heisman Trophy finalist Deshaun Watson and Clemson in 2016. Limited by injuries last season, the 21-year-old ran a 4.38-second 40-yard dash and had a 35-inch vertical at the NFL Combine, both figures that were among the best for cornerbacks.
“Very few corners, when they play the game and the ball is in the air, can you feel them close space,” Green Bay’s director of college scouting Jon-Eric Sullivan said. “He’s one that, when you watch him play, you can feel him close space when the ball is in the air. The kid can run, and on top of that, he’s quick…[We’re] just excited about the skillset as a whole.”
But why does a guy that talented fall to No. 18? Well, it’s largely because he’s just 5-foot-10. In a big man’s game, Alexander is on the smaller side. Green Bay has long had a height threshold that cornerbacks needed to meet and Alexander doesn’t. Yet, he was the pick anyways, with Gutekunst saying the North Carolina native was right on the cutoff line in terms of his height.
“He’s very physical. He’s very aggressive,” Gutekunst said. “He’s a dynamic, explosive athlete. We felt really good about [him].”
The question is whether Alexander is a guy that can play both inside and outside in Green Bay’s scheme under new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine. Alexander estimated he played 70-percent of his time at cornerback on the outside and the other 30-percent in the slot as the nickel back during his sophomore season. His height would suggest he’s more suited to play inside, but the Packers weren’t putting any kind of limits on what he can do.
“He’s scrappy and he’s competitive,” Sullivan said. “Is he as tall as some others? No, he’s not. But I think when you watch the tape, he doesn’t play like a little guy. He’s very competitive. He gets in people’s business, but most corners do.”
Ah, yes, the confidence. Outside of quarterback, there may not be a position that requires an insane amount of confidence more than cornerback. You’re going to get beat and you have to shrug it off. Alexander comes across like a guy that has no issue doing that, and when he does make a play, he’ll let you know.
“That seems to help a lot,” Alexander said of throwing guys off their game by jawing with them. “I do a little bit of talking, but I definitely do it within [the rules].”
First picks for general managers in Green Bay have been all over the board since the resurrection of the franchise in the early 1990s. Mike Sherman’s first official pick didn’t come until 2002, but he pushed heavily for the team to take defensive end Jamal Reynolds with the No. 10 pick in 2001. He played in just 18 games over three years before being cut.
Nine years earlier, his predecessor, Ron Wolf, selected cornerback Terrell Buckley. Though Florida State product fizzled in Green Bay, he wasn’t a complete bust, going on to a 14-year career and picking off 50 passes. He’s since turned to coaching and was actually Alexander’s position coach at Louisville in 2015.
And then there is Ted Thompson, who made the very controversial, but ultimately right, decision to take quarterback Aaron Rodgers in 2005.
As you can see, there are varying levels of success there. If Green Bay can get something between Buckley and Rodgers, they should be ecstatic.
The draft was playing out like so many Green Bay fans had hoped. A run on quarterbacks kept pushing impact defensive players down to Packers, and when they went on the clock with pick No. 14, there was a bevy of talent right there, including Florida State safety Derwin James and Virginia Tech linebacker Tremaine Edmunds.
But any excitement quickly faded, as Gutekunst traded out of the spot with New Orleans. It was a move straight out of Thompson’s playbook and left many grumbling. It netted Green Bay the Saints’ first-round pick in 2018 (No. 27), their fifth-round pick (No. 147) and their first-round pick in 2019.
“The ability to get a first-round pick in next year’s draft wasn’t something we started off thinking about trying to acquire, but it was just too good to pass up, quite frankly,” Gutekunst said of the trade. “Those first round picks don’t come around very often. We just thought it was in our best interest to do that.”
At first glance, it made you shake your head. Why is Gutekunst leaving impact players on the board when the defense clearly needs one? Even taking into account the draft trade chart — that overwhelmingly favored Green Bay in the transaction — how will this help the team right now? Does Gutekunst have such a low opinion of his roster that he needed to add another pick to the 12 they already had?
All those questions were answered rather quickly, when just minutes later, the Packers traded back up, this time with Seattle, whose GM just happens to be John Schneider, someone Gutekunst worked under in Green Bay. The Packers ended up giving the Seahawks picks No. 27, No. 76 (third round) and No. 186 (sixth round) for the No. 18 pick — used on Alexander — and No. 248 (seventh round).
“You haven’t mapped out to move that far back and then come back up, but you kind of knew what the likely trade partners might be for something like that,” Gutekunst said. “There was a lot of action from the beginning to the end. I knew once we got back to 27, that if I wanted to get back up, (Seattle) was one of the first calls.”
What it meant was the Packers essentially moved down four spots, gave up a third-round pick and gave themselves two first-round picks in 2019. But it also now sets up, like it did last year when Green Bay opted to trade down and missed out on drafting Wisconsin outside linebacker T.J. Watt, the possibility that the guy they did take — Alexander — will be compared to the guys they didn’t take — James and Edmunds.
“All those guys are good players,” Gutekunst said of James and Edmunds, who both came to Green Bay on pre-draft visits. “We would have been happy with either one of those players as well, but we just thought this [trade] was something we couldn’t pass up.”
The second and third round of the NFL draft will commence Friday night. As it stands, Green Bay has just one pick (No. 46), but don’t be surprised if that changes considering the team still has 11 picks to play with.
“The way our board looks right now, I would assume we would move around a little bit,” Gutekunst said. “We’ve got a lot of picks, and there’s areas of the board we feel really good about, so I would assume we would.”
— Just because Green Bay spent its first-round pick on Alexander, doesn’t mean Gutekunst is satisfied with where his secondary or roster currently stand.
“I don’t know if we ever feel like we’re set anywhere. If we have an opportunity to take good players anywhere, despite what our team looks like right now, we’re going to take good players,” Gutekunst said. “I feel really good about the additions we’ve made, but I think getting our defense to a championship level is something we’re still very much in progress [of doing].”
— Gutekunst said there were discussions about moving up in the draft, but those went by the wayside when certain guys came off the board early. Though he didn’t mention names, the likely targets would have been Ohio State cornerback Denzel Ward and N.C. State linebacker Bradley Chubb.