GREEN BAY — This was the year it was supposed to happen.
After an offseason that saw the Green Bay Packers trade Davante Adams and let Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Equanimeous St. Brown leave in free agency, the 2022 NFL Draft was going to be the time that a team with a desperate need at wide receiver would take one in the first round. Heck, they had two chances at it with their pick and the one gained in the trade with Las Vegas for Adams. General manager Brian Gutekunst even had extra ammunition — a total of four picks in the top 60 — to trade up to get one of the top guys at the position. And yet, as the night played out and team after team made moves to get their guy — there were nine first-round trades made Thursday, including two involving elite wide receivers in AJ Brown and Marquise Brown — the man overseeing his fifth draft in Green Bay stayed put at pick No. 22.
By that point six wide receivers had come off the board — USC’s Drake London (No. 8 to the Falcons), Ohio State’s Garrett Wilson (No. 10 to the Jets) and Chris Olave (No. 11 to the Saints), Alabama’s Jameson Williams (No. 12 to the Lions), Penn State’s Jahan Dotson (No. 16 to the Commanders) and Arkansas’ Treylon Burks (No. 18 to the Titans). We learned later from quarterback Aaron Rodgers that those were the six players that the Packers had first-round grades on at the position.
“There was a couple — there was a few,” Gutekunst said when asked if any of the guys that went were enticing enough to go up and get. “That run happened pretty early and they’re really good players. At the same time, I think you got to kind of look at the asking price and does that make sense.”
So, not seeing any receiver worth taking at that spot — and thereby making it 20 straight drafts without taking one in the first round — Gutekunst went to work improving an already solid front seven on defense. He grabbed Georgia linebacker Quay Walker with his first pick and then tabbed another Bulldog in defensive tackle Devonte Wyatt with the 28th pick. The duo was part of a unit that ended up having five defensive players drafted in the first round, the most in an opening round from a single school in NFL history.
“The two things with these two particular players, and obviously they’re different, but their speed and explosiveness is off the charts,” Gutekunst said. “I think their ability to create havoc in the run game and in the passing game — just the all-around nature of those players was something that really drew us to them.”
The addition of Walker and Wyatt meant Gutekunst has now spent six of the seven first-round picks he has made on defensive players since taking over in 2018. No one can question the quality of those picks. Cornerback Jaire Alexander is one of the best at his position. Linebacker Rashan Gary appears poised to be at the same level after a big jump in his play in 2021. Safety Darnell Savage has not consistently performed at the level he can but is still a quality starter, while Eric Stokes is already being talked about as one of the better young cornerbacks in the league.
Still, as Gutekunst addressed reporters after the first day of the draft, many questions were about his decision not to add to a wide receiver group that currently features two older veterans in Randall Cobb and Sammy Watkins, a solid option in Allen Lazard, a potential contributor in Amari Rodgers and not much else. It means they have to draft at least one in the second or third round Friday night, right?
“No, I don’t think we have to,” Gutekunst said. “I think there’s some really good receivers left in this draft, and we’ll kind of see how it plays out. We have nine picks left, we’ve got a lot of ammunition, whether we stick and pick or move around. We’ll kind of see how that goes. But I don’t feel you have to do that. I like our football team. I think I’ve spoken on that before. We’d like to add players at every position and the receiver position is no different. But I don’t feel like I have to, so we’ll kind of see how it unfolds (Friday) and on Saturday.”
While some fans took issue with Gutekunst once again not investing premium picks in an offense that scored 10 points in a brutal home playoff loss three months ago, the one guy that didn’t seem overly concerned about the lack of help in the pass game was Rodgers. Speaking for the first time since deciding to return to the Packers in March, the quarterback said in an appearance on the Pat McAfee Show that he had been in contact with the team throughout the day and had a pretty good feeling that they liked Walker and Wyatt. He, like Gutekunst, noted there’s still time to add guys.
“We’ve had a lot of success with second- and third-round receivers in Green Bay,” Rodgers told McAfee. “You look at Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, James Jones in the third round, obviously Davante Adams in the second round. Those guys turned out pretty good.”
All of them did, though none had more than 47 catches in their rookie season. Nelson, Cobb, and Adams were all pretty far down the list of options for Rodgers to throw to. With the number of passes thrown Adams’ and Valdes-Scantling’s way in the last few years, the void to fill is immense and counting on guys that are not considered premiere talents is asking for trouble.
That said, there are some intriguing players still on the board. North Dakota State’s Christian Watson, Georgia’s George Pickens, Western Michigan’s Skyy Moore, Alabama’s John Metchie III, Cincinnati’s Alec Pierce and a host of others could all receive calls from NFL teams at some point Friday night. What everyone will be waiting to see is whether any of those will come from a 920 area code.
“We play in September. And like I said, we got nine picks the next couple days, and obviously, a whole summer before we get to that first game,” Gutekunst said. “I think certainly by the time we get to that first game we’re going to add some way or another to that room. Hopefully, it’ll fall right for us the next few days. But if it doesn’t, I don’t think we can reach and make bad decisions just because they’ve got a W-R by their name.”