Packers double up on Georgia defenders in first round

GREEN BAY — A year after hitting it big on one Georgia defensive player in the first round, the Green Bay Packers doubled up on former Bulldogs in the opening round of the 2022 NFL Draft.

With pick No. 22, the one acquired from Las Vegas in the trade for wide receiver Davante Adams, general manager Brian Gutekunst went with inside linebacker Quay Walker. He followed that up by selecting defensive tackle Devonte Wyatt with the 28th pick.

“Georgia is such an outstanding program,” said Gutekunst, who used his first-round pick in the 2021 draft to land Bulldogs cornerback Eric Stokes. “What they’re coming from is about as close as you can get to the National Football League.

“Certainly they’ve been on the big stage, they’ve been in really really big games. Both of these guys have played against NFL players their entire career, not only during games, but during practice. I think that is always extremely helpful for the transition to the National Football League.”

Walker was projected to be a late first-round or early second-round pick after putting together a very good season for a Georgia unit that finished second in the country in total defense and helped the Bulldogs win a national title.

The 6-foot-4, 245-pound Walker had to wait until his final two years to get on the field consistently, but did produce when given a chance. He finished with 67 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks and 25 quarterback pressures in 2021 when he started all 15 games. That included a team-high 8 tackles and 6 quarterback pressures in the National Championship against Alabama. He was one of the more athletic linebackers in the draft and a scout that saw his pro day told The Athletic it was one of the most impressive he’s ever seen.

“I just think I’m a hard-nosed guy. I’m a guy you want on your defense,” Walker said. “Of course I’m big and fast but at the same time I challenge myself to be smarter.”

The Packers had not spent a first-round pick on an inside linebacker since taking AJ Hawk in the 2006 draft. It seemed as though it was far from a priority before the team saw the impact De’Vondre Campbell had last season on his way to earning All-Pro honors.

“He’s got some similarities to (Campbell) and having kind of two interchangeable pieces there I think just gives our defense so much flexibility,” Gutekunst said. “Maybe to stay in a certain personnel grouping with that, not really knowing how we’re going to play. I think that was certainly attractive.”

While Walker was speaking with reporters, the Packers made the selection of Wyatt, who became the fourth of five Georgia defensive players that would be taken in the first round. The 6-foot-3, 315-pound Wyatt started his post-high school journey at a junior college in Kansas before joining the Bulldogs in 2018. He was a two-year starter and earned second-team All-American honors from the Associated Press in 2021 when he had 39 tackles. 2.5 sacks, 7 tackles for loss and 27 quarterback pressures.

“I think he’s such a disrupter on the line of scrimmage,” Gutekunst said. “He can play the one (technique), he can play the three (technique). He’s a dynamic pass rusher. His ability to scrape and get to the ball on the running game is almost linebacker-like.”

Walker ran a 4.77-second 40-yard dash at the combine, which was the fastest of any defensive tackle. He told reporters that he knew he was fast when he was told to start running with the linebackers during his pre-draft training in Arizona.

Some teams reportedly had Walker off their draft boards due to an arrest in 2020 for a family violence incident and for three other domestic violence incidents. The charges for the 2020 incident were eventually dropped.

“We went into that pretty deep to make sure that we felt comfortable with the human being,” Gutekunst said of background check on Wyatt. “The incidents that he had, he’d never put his hands on anybody, never hurt anybody. It was just to two or three incidents that I think as a young person, he stubbed his toe. And, again, we don’t have a lot of tolerance for that. But we wouldn’t have brought him here if we didn’t feel good about the person.”

With Wyatt and Walker in the mix, the Packers now have seven former first round picks on their defense, including four in the defensive line and linebacker groups.

“I’m really excited about that front seven,” Gutekunst said. “The depth there is maybe a little bit better than we’ve had in the past. And then the speed, I just think our ability to cover ground and our ability to take away passing lanes, to rush the passer, to affect the passer. Again, we got a long ways to go. We haven’t even really had a first practice yet. But I do like us on paper right now.”