Were Packers right to pass on needs to draft QB Jordan Love?
In NFL.com’s Press Coverage series, columnists Judy Battista, Jeffri Chadiha, Michael Silver and Jim Trotter engage in a back-and-forth discussion on a timely topic, issue or theme. In this edition, with the 2020 NFL Draft in the rear view, Judy Battista kicks off a conversation focused on the Green Bay Packers’ decision to pass on immediate needs to draft a potential quarterback of the future.
Last Saturday night, I tweeted that this was my favorite draft ever. I loved the shots of players, coaches and general managers at home with their families. I loved seeing Roger Goodell about to doze off in his basement near the end of the third round. I loved Bill Belichick’s dog. Not long after the tweet came this reply: "I am sure you are not a Packers fan."
No, I’m not @fernando_fq, but your point is well-taken. In what was an otherwise almost entirely predictable draft, I, and pretty much everybody else, did a double-take at my television when Goodell announced that the Packers had selected quarterback Jordan Love after moving up in the first round. Aaron Rodgers is only 36. The Packers got to the NFC Championship Game last season. They really, really need offensive weapons. So, what on earth are the Packers doing, other than recreating their own past and planning for their future?
Head coach Matt LaFleur and general manager Brian Gutekunst have said all the right things so far about wanting Rodgers there until he decides to stop playing. But just as when the Packers selected Rodgers while Brett Favre was still years from being done, this at last starts to raise the question of how much longer Rodgers will be the Packers quarterback.
Attention camera operators: We’re going to need a lot of cutaway shots of the interactions between Love and Rodgers, because, even though Love said Rogers reached out to him after he was picked, we’re going to be obsessing over their relationship. Sportswriters should probably start making hotel reservations for Green Bay whenever training camp opens (Shout out to Green Bay Residence Inn, where I spent many a night during the extended Brett Favre-Packers split).
No doubt, we will all write thousands of words about Rodgers and Love in the seasons to come, but let’s get our initial thoughts on the table now. Did the Packers do the right thing in passing up other immediate needs to take Love?
Michael Silver: Ah, yes, the Summer of Favre. I spent some extra nights at the Cambria Suites, writing about the surreal stretch in 2008, when Favre re-emerged from retirement and attempted to reclaim his job, only to be shipped off to the New York Jets — at which point Judy and Rachel Nichols, a few others and I were finally free to flee Green Bay.
But I digress: Like everyone else in the NFL, I worked from home Thursday night, spending much of my night getting virtual access to Jaguars general manager Dave Caldwell’s makeshift draft room — thanks to the Houseparty app and his very patient wife, Joelle.
Late in Round 1, I took a break and spent a few minutes at the dinner table with my wife and kids. It was then that the Packers traded up and drafted Love, creating a great deal of commotion in my household.
Because my wife and I are Cal grads who groomed our three children to be blue-and-gold cult worshippers (OK, one of us did), there was a ripple effect: When Rodgers got drafted in 2005, my sons (who were then 6 and 2) became Packers fans, and now their older sister (herself a Cal grad) and mother have been coopted into Cheesehead loyalty.
Suffice it to say that the decision to pick a quarterback in the first round was not greeted warmly. My wife was particularly perplexed. Granted, her understanding of the subtleties of team-building may be somewhat lacking, but she does have a PhD in clinical psychology, and she began breaking down the impact the move might have on the locker room and its most important resident.
My sons were mostly aghast at the opportunity cost: By trading up to get Rodgers, the Packers missed out on the chance to add a playmaker on offense, or an enticing defender like linebacker Patrick Queen.
"Why are they doing this?" my wife asked. "Call Matt LaFleur."
The next morning, I did — and wrote about it, simultaneously serving my employer while crossing an item off my honey-do list. What’s my draft grade?
Obviously, I don’t have all the answers, but here are some initial thoughts as to what this all means:
Rodgers, even if he’s far from thrilled (and the fact that the Packers didn’t take a single wideout in this receiver-rich draft likely added to his displeasure), will be self-aware enough to conceal it. He won’t feel threatened by Love in the short-term, and as long as his young backup isn’t abrasive or entitled — word is, the former Utah State QB is far from it — they’ll get along fine.
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If the Packers win games and Rodgers plays well and isn’t banged up or injured, this won’t be a thing for awhile. Of course, this is football, and he’s 36, and those are big ifs. But I know what kind of a competitor Rodgers is, and I believe there’s a strong chance he’ll channel these emotions into something special.
The key to all of this is how he and LaFleur do in Year 2 together, in the wake of a first season that went better than most could have reasonably expected. If they can continue to adjust to one another, both schematically and interpersonally, the 2020 Packers can be really, really good, and Love will be an afterthought, for the moment.
Then again, any time there’s an opening — a bad half, sore calf, two-game losing streak, or weird, over-scrutinized sideline interaction — LaFleur is going to have to answer questions about the succession plan, and that puts him in an uncomfortable position, especially given that Gutekunst is the guy who calls the shots on draft night. And whatever answers he gives, suffice it to say that my wife won’t be the only one psychoanalyzing the situation.
Jeffri Chadiha: I don’t have the ties to Cal — or as intense of a personal story to tell about watching this play out — but my jaw didn’t drop like others around the country. I get the pick and it’s right for this reason: Aaron Rodgers isn’t going to be in Green Bay forever. If LaFleur and Gutekunst really loved Love that much, then they should’ve fully committed and taken their man. I recall the Kansas City Chiefs trading up to take a certain high-risk, high-reward pick in the 2017 draft and then letting him sit for a year behind Alex Smith. As great as Patrick Mahomes is today, there were plenty of folks who forget how valuable it was for him to develop at a pace that truly benefited him.
And yes — I understand that Rodgers is immensely better than Smith, and that it’s hard to see Love turning into Mahomes. The point is that the Packers had to draft a successor at some point. Would this feel any more shocking if it happened next year? If anything, it gives Green Bay a couple years to allow Love to learn behind Rodgers, while Rodgers continues to play at a high level. If that happens, you’re talking about an organization having to think about parting with a quarterback closing in on 40 years old.
Keep in mind — it’s very likely that LaFleur and Gutekunst wanted to have their own hire moving forward. These are both young, smart guys who surely understand the politics that come with easing a future Hall of Fame quarterback out of town. And even though they could’ve drafted a receiver or two, there’s no guarantee in this climate that a rookie is going to have an immediate impact. Something called COVID-19 has impacted offseason workouts severely, so much so that I can’t see many first-year players making an easy transition.
Jim Trotter: I’m with you, Jeffri. The Packers absolutely did the right thing. We all know the NFL is a quarterback-driven league, so if you have a chance to acquire a prospect who you believe has elite talent and will be a franchise player — while locking him into a rookie contract for five years — you make the call and select him, even if Rodgers is on the roster.
That said, there’s no justifying what the Packers did thereafter. Starving for perimeter help on offense — they had only one wide receiver with more than 35 catches last season — they did not use any of their eight remaining picks in a receiver-rich draft on a wideout. Worse, they used their second-round pick on a running back despite the presence of Aaron Jones, who rushed for 1,084 yards and 16 touchdowns last season. They also used their third-round pick on a "sleeper" tight end.
Those are curious moves for a team that fell one game short of the Super Bowl last season. Nothing is guaranteed, but it seems plausible that a couple of impact players at positions of need could have helped in their quest to take the next step this year. Also, Rodgers is 36 with a contract that expires after the 2023 season. What was the point of signing him to a $134 million extension two years ago if they weren’t going to give him the ammunition to win now? The fact that the Packers have not drafted anyone from the skill positions in the first round since taking Rodgers in 2005 is borderline criminal.
I thought the culture had changed last year when Gutekunst broke with the longstanding tradition of predecessor Ted Thompson and took a deep dive into free agency to upgrade the roster. Thompson was allergic to spending big money on outsiders, preferring to build through the draft. But that philosophy brought only one championship to Titletown, making me wonder if Thompson’s stubbornness had wasted the prime years of Rodgers’ career.
Gutekunst looked to be cut from a different cloth a year ago when his free spending on defense, notably for linebackers Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith, helped the Packers record their first winning season in three years and advance to the NFC Championship Game. But last weekend’s draft makes me believe the culture has not shifted as dramatically as I first thought.
Sadly, I fear we will be left to debate an uncomfortable topic when Rodgers’ tenure in Green Bay is up: Has any organization ever wasted Hall of Fame QB talent as badly as the Packers?
Battista: That’s the part that gets me, too, Jim. Not that the Packers took Love — the great Ron Wolf believed you took a quarterback every year, after all. It’s that in a historically deep wide receiver class, they didn’t take one with any of their other picks either. That feels negligent.
I think so much of the public resistance to the drafting of Love is rooted in everybody’s projection that the poisoned dynamic between Favre and Rodgers is about to be repeated by Rodgers and Love. Rodgers’ initial phone call would suggest that even if he does not actively mentor Love — and remember, Eli Manning said his job was not to mentor Daniel Jones last year, so why should Rodgers feel differently? — he is also not going to be outwardly hostile to him. Nobody thinks Love to ready to play right now anyway. Let him sit for a while, learn by watching one of the all-time greats and then you have a very nice decision to make when Rodgers approaches the end of his contract or a nice safety net if Rodgers gets hurt at any point along the way.
But the best teams plan for the future while also doing their best to win right now (see: Belichick drafting Jimmy Garoppolo when Tom Brady was, yes, 36 years old), and that is where the Packers are failing Rodgers. I just don’t understand why they haven’t gotten more help this offseason, particularly after seeing the leap the team took with the new marriage of LaFleur and Rodgers last season. Pray for Davante Adams’ good health everybody. The Packers’ passing game was 17th in yards last season when Adams played 12 games.
The question Jim raises is a valid one. If Drew Brees retires after this season with just one Super Bowl, we’ll at least know there were some very bizarre circumstances that contributed to it. Not the case if Rodgers never wins a second Super Bowl and you can’t blame him if, with that thought in mind, he is chilly to the brain trust even if he embraces Love.
Silver: Here’s one possible byproduct of this move: If navigated correctly, it might allow the coaches and Rodgers to form a sort of ‘us against management’ alliance, whether or not there’s an actual philosophical gulf.
As long as Rodgers feels supported by LaFleur and his assistants (chiefly offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett and quarterbacks coach Luke Getsy), which I believe he will, he may feel empowered to let it rip and make Gutekunst’s reality more complicated. And deep inside, the GM has to know that this could be a good thing. Even if he and LaFleur are in lockstep on most matters, it behooves Gutekunst to play the heavy here — to be The Guy Trying To Replace Aaron Rodgers.
That frees up LaFleur and his assistants to align with Rodgers and reinforce the fact that they’ve got his back, even if adversity hits.
In a weird way, for the first time in a long time, Rodgers may feel like he has less pressure on him.
Chadiha: I don’t know if this is so much about pressure on Rodgers as it as about leverage and positioning for management. I was told that Rodgers had that entire organization in a death grip when he was heading into his contract negotiations following the 2017 season. That was the year when he missed nine games because of a broken collarbone. From what I was told — and this came from someone inside the Packers front office — his absence resulted in a huge hit on TV ratings, merchandise sales, attendance, you name it. Rodgers was the whole show and Green Bay management knew that gave him a huge advantage when he was looking for that four-year, $134-million extension he eventually received.
I bring all this up because we know how much people covet control in pro football. Everyone wants it — from the players to the coaches to the general managers. As great as Rodgers has been, I suspect the Packers were looking far down the road to ensure they controlled the cards when it came time to transition to another quarterback. We all remember how toxic that situation was when Favre didn’t want to leave. I don’t see Rodgers creating that kind of problem but this move certainly gives Gutekunst and LaFleur more ammunition if this ends in an ugly divorce.
By the way, I totally understand the viewpoint that the Packers could’ve drafted a receiver to help them. However, most of the top prospects were gone by the time the 62nd overall selection (the one used on AJ Dillon) rolled around. Only three wideouts were drafted between that second-round spot and Green Bay’s third-round pick. I actually liked Devin Duvernay of Texas, who went to the Baltimore Ravens two picks before the Packers’ selection in the third, but I also don’t know he graded on Green Bay’s draft board.
I know I sound like an apologist on that front. But I also am swayed by recent history. The New England Patriots kept Tom Brady until he was 42 and now they’re looking at a quarterback room that includes Jarrett Stidham and Brian Hoyer. They’re likely to have a rocky road on offense unless they acquire another veteran quarterback. The Packers can at least believe, for now, that they have a better option in place once their star signal-caller moves on (and I already can see Raiders head coach Jon Gruden grinning at the idea of making a play for Rodgers once that day comes).
Trotter: The Packers better hope things go more smoothly on the field this year than they did the last time they were in this situation, in 2005, when they drafted Rodgers just as the aging Brett Favre was seeking to add weapons before the sand expired from his hour glass. After five consecutive winning seasons leading up to the 2005 draft, Green Bay suffered back-to-back non-winning seasons, with Favre posting one of his worst seasons in 2005, tossing a career-high 29 interceptions and only 20 touchdowns, which matched a 12-year low.
Battista:I’m going to trust that won’t happen, and David Bakhtiari knew exactly what he was talking about during the Draft-A-Thon when he said, "Look out! Aaron is about to be on fire." That would make this draft a big Packers win after all.
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