The 2021 NFL season unofficially started last month with the opening of free agency, but the league’s first landmark event of the season begins tonight in Cleveland. After conducting an entirely virtual draft last spring, fans will once again attend the league’s premier offseason affair, where the newest members of the National Football League will walk across the stage to don their new team’s colors for the first time.
My Baltimore Ravens draft preview was especially sunny thanks to an impeccable showing by general manager Eric DeCosta last spring. My look into the Green Bay Packers, however, will be a bit … different. You’ve been warned.
Let’s get things started by comparing four 2020 rookies, all of whom went early in last year’s draft.
Player 1: 16 games played, 67 receptions, 908 yards, six touchdowns
Player 2: 14 games played, 58 receptions, 600 yards, five touchdowns
Player 3: 16 games played, 68 receptions, 873 yards, nine touchdowns
Player 4: zero games played, zero games active
Player 1 is Cincinnati Bengals receiver Tee Higgins. Player 2 is Jacksonville Jaguars receiver Laviska Shenault. Player 3 is Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Chase Claypool.
All three are players Gutekunst should have drafted instead of Player 4, Packers quarterback Jordan Love. The move seemed to ruffle the feathers of starting quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who now appears primed to force his way out of Green Bay altogether. Although the Love pick is not the sole reason for Rodgers’ frustrations, it may have been the genesis of where Rodgers and the team stand today. This afternoon’s news, and it’s connection to last year’s first-round selection, makes the Love pick even more indefensible and represents a shocking turn for a man who put on a master class in maneuvering during his first draft in charge of the team. Instead of becoming the latest in a line of successful Packers GMs, Gutekunst may be forever known as the man who forced Rodgers out of Titletown.
Gutekunst could have salvaged his 2020 draft effort with a good use of his subsequent picks but failed in that regard as well. Despite making eight selections after the Love gaffe, Gutekunst failed to add a player who made a significant contribution to a team that fell just short of a Super Bowl appearance. Only one — running back A.J. Dillion — made a measurable impact for the Packers last season.
2021 team needs
WR, CB, ILB, OLB
My buddy Dave and I play a game with obscure Packers players. When we see a player sporting a previously famous number, we jokingly suggest said player has returned to the team. When Allen Lazard came over from the Jaguars in 2019, I latched on to him because he wore Chris Jacke’s no. 13.
Unlike most of the targets of our game, Lazard turned out to be a pretty good player. He has been my guy ever since the 2019 preseason.
“Pretty good” and “my guy” don’t make a no. 2 receiver, however. Lazard had every chance in the world to prove he was a legitimate second option to Davante Adams and has failed to do so. Gutekunst must address this early in this weekend’s draft.
The hole at cornerback opposite Jaire Alexander isn’t as glaring as the one at receiver but it is close. Green Bay simply cannot enter the 2021 season with Kevin King as its no. 2 cornerback.
King is simply not up to the task — I have been saying it since he was drafted in 2017 and it was on full display during the NFC title game. Alexander is a top-10 corner in the league, and could break into the top five in 2021, but he needs help.
Finally, Gutekunst should take a hard look at his inside linebackers and draft accordingly. Christian Kirksey was solid last season but Gutekunst cut the 28-year-old in February. Krys Barnes and Kamal Martin, both rookies last season, appear to be the front-runners to start. That does not, and should not, inspire much confidence.
Terrace Marshall (WR, LSU)
College teammate Ja’Marr Chase is widely considered the best receiver in the 2021 class, but Terrace Marshall is another immensely talented former Tiger who could make a big impact in the NFL.
Marshall is a proven playmaker who combines size (he’s 6'4") with game-changing speed. The deep threat the Packers chased during their flirtation with now-Dolphins receiver Will Fuller, Marshall is also effective in the short and intermediate passing game. Some teams have dropped Marshall from their boards due to injury concerns, but if Green Bay is not one of them, Marshall would be a great fit alongside Adams and Lazard.
Greg Newsome (DB, Northwestern)
What is better than one ball-hawking cornerback? Two ball-hawking cornerbacks, of course. Pairing Northwestern’s Greg Newsome with burgeoning superstar Jaire Alexander would give the Packers a pair of playmakers to anchor the outside. Newsome is a bigger and more aggressive player than Alexander and could complement him the way Marcus Peters does Marlon Humphrey for my beloved Ravens.
Nick Bolton (LB, Missouri)
Adding a third inside linebacker with little pro experience may not be ideal, but Gutekunst could do worse than spending a second-round pick on Missouri’s Nick Bolton. Although a bit underdized at 6'0" and 232 pounds, Bolton is a live wire who is capable of making plays anywhere on the field. Bolton needs to work on his skills in pass coverage but his fantastic football instincts suggest he could excel with the right coaching.