Why drafting for need in first round makes sense for the Packers

Green Bay Packers
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The Green Bay Packers enter the 2024 NFL Draft with surprisingly few glaring needs to address.

General manager Brian Gutekunst seems adamant about adding talent in free agency or trade to upgrade certain positions, but with a Jordan Love mega-extension imminent, he'll have plenty of strategic decisions to make for the roster.

Historically, the Packers are not a team that spends their first-round pick drafting for need. Instead, they tend to prioritize the best player available on their draft board who also meets their high athletic score standards.

However, with new defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley in town in what needs to amount to a home run hire for head coach Matt LaFleur, the draft strategy should revolve around what will immediately upgrade the defense.

Unfortunately for the many mock drafts predicting an offensive tackle to Green Bay in round one, it makes little sense, and it's simply not in the team's DNA—quite the opposite. No team excels at hitting on offensive line draft picks in the mid-to-late rounds while entirely neglecting the position in round one of the draft like the Packers.

The last time the Packers selected an offensive lineman in the first round was 13 years ago when they picked Derek Sherrod. Seventh-round left tackle Rasheed Walker, filling in for injured David Bakhtiari, tied for the best pass block win rate of all offensive tackles (96%).

Fourth-round right tackle Zach Tom has arguably become the Packers' most vital asset on the O-line. Tom's 91% pass block win rate was the fourth-highest mark of all OTs, and he only allowed a combined four sacks/QB hits, the second-fewest among OTs with 600 or more snaps.

After the Packers answered most question marks about the offense in Jordan Love's first season under center, with seemingly every young skill player blossoming into an impact player, the defense still needs to get on track.

So if the Packers are to take the next step in their very quick "rebuild," they need to add another day-one starter and future building block on the defense via their first-round draft pick. This would involve stepping slightly outside their drafting norms and drafting for need. With five picks inside the top 100, it's a move they can afford to make while still being able to address possible upgrades to other areas throughout the first three rounds.

The needs? Cornerback and safety.

The case for the Packers drafting a cornerback

Yes, Packers fans, another cornerback in the first-round pick is in play. But for the 2024 season, it makes more sense than many years for them to land one of the top defensive backs in the draft to immediately upgrade a hole on the roster.

Hafley is bringing in a whole new scheme to the defense that more closely matches the current talent. With Kenny Clark under contract, the rapid emergence of Karl Brooks, Devonte Wyatt making drastic improvements as a pass rusher, and TJ Slaton being the team's primary run-stuffer, the Packers are stocked up on the defensive line to account for Hafley's primary 4-3 defensive scheme.

Rashan Gary, Lukas Van Ness, and Preston Smith will round out the edges with their hands in the dirt more often as pass rushers. So, addressing the defensive front seems unlikely in round one.

The scheme will also include more press-man coverage, a change that plays incredibly to the skillset of top cornerbacks Jaire Alexander, Carrington Valentine, and Eric Stokes. The issue is that since Stokes's impressive rookie season, he has struggled mightily to stay on the field. Valentine was a welcome surprise stepping in for Stokes and may be a long-term option opposite of Alexander. Stokes should be able to come back next season and offer competition for the role and still has tremendous upside if he can stay healthy, but there is no guarantee that happens.

Where the Packers could use the most help is at slot cornerback. Keisean Nixon currently occupies the spot but is no guarantee to retain a starter role on the defense, which might push him to pursue options in free agency. Despite allowing only 9.7 yards per catch, he simply does not make many plays on the ball. He was the second-most targeted slot cornerback in the NFL, yet only produced five pass breakups and is prone to missing tackles.

If the Packers go cornerback with their first-round pick, Terrion Arnold out of Alabama would be the strongest fit to provide an immediate upgrade. As a converted safety, he brings elite athleticism, is scheme versatile with his strength being in press-man, and is a top run-defending cornerback in the class, including 6.5 tackles for loss in 2023.

His high IQ and elite ball skills constantly shined through and are a big reason he's a top riser in the draft. After a season of proving he's best in class at mirroring receivers in man and passing off routes in zone, he is almost certain to be a lock for a day-one starting job wherever he lands. Arnold would give Hafley's defense an immediate boost to round out the cornerback room and could also thrive on the boundary if needed.

The case for the Packers drafting a safety

Darnell Savage is coming off a tough stretch of seasons to close out his rookie contract. Hafley frequents single-high safety looks acting as "centerfielders," which may provide an opportunity for Savage to come back on a prove-it deal to find his rookie-year form from before Joe Barry entered the picture.

Even so, there are no guarantees Savage is in the picture much longer for the Packers, so the team needs to prioritize a long-term solution that can be another first-round building block on the defense for years to come.

Other Packers safeties, Anthony Johnson Jr., Jonathan Owens, and Rudy Ford, are similarly in no position to be considered viable long-term solutions, nor should they be considered irreplaceable or locks as starters. Ford had the best year of the group, but he's approaching 30 with only one season as a full-time starter.

Joe Barry's defense revolved around not giving up explosive plays, one area in which Hafley's defense will likely be noticeably different. With a scheme that prioritizes aggression at the line of scrimmage with only one free-ranging safety, the Packers need to explore the best possible talent to fill the "centerfielder" role in a defense that will trade a few more explosive plays for overall improvement.

Two names jump off the board in the upcoming draft as possible options that fit the needs of Hafley's scheme to a tee: Cooper DeJean from Iowa and Kamren Kinchens out of Miami.

DeJean had a great college career as a cornerback and can be moved around the defense thanks to his scheme versatility and elite abilities as a run defender. However, he is at his strongest in zone-heavy schemes, which would trigger a move to safety if drafted to Green Bay's new press-man-dominant scheme.

He is not the strongest with his back to the quarterback and mirroring stronger route runners, but his awareness to seemingly always be in the right spot with his shoulders squared to the line of scrimmage in zone coverage is second to none in his class. He plays well at all depths, and his ability to make a play in space will award him playing time early in his career.

On the other hand, Kinchens may be the more natural fit to provide a maximum, immediate boost to the Packers defense. He carries 11 interceptions over the past two seasons and is widely considered the top ball-hawking safety in the class, specifically in the "centerfielder" role.

The fit could not be better for what safeties will be called upon to do in Hafley's defense. He has flaws against the run, but it would be difficult to find any player in the 2024 draft with better deep-range abilities, which Kinchens has been touted for over his college career.

In an ideal world, assuming the Packers do not move up or upgrade in free agency, Kinchens falls into their lap with their first-round draft pick. He is not only a premium talent who fills a glaring need but also the best fit in this draft class for the Packers' new defensive scheme.

No other position on the team has the instant pathway to a day-one starter role that will provide as much immediate impact to a team looking to take the next step.

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