GREEN BAY — Even with an offensive-minded head coach and a two-time NFL MVP quarterback closer to the end of the line than the beginning, the Green Bay Packers went for defense with their two first-round picks in the 2019 NFL Draft Thursday night.
Taking Michigan defensive end/edge rusher Rashan Gary at No. 12 overall and Maryland safety Darnell Savage at No. 21 after a trade with the Seattle Seahawks, Packers second-year general manager Brian Gutekunst fortified the defense rather than spending his top picks on weaponry for veteran quarterback Aaron Rodgers and new head coach Matt LaFleur.
“I do have an offensive head coach sitting to my left the entire day in the room,” Gutekunst joked late Thursday night after the first round ended at 10:53 p.m. Wisconsin time. “We’ll see how he is (on Day 2) as we get rolling.
“(LaFleur) was great, really supportive. Understood exactly what we were doing. … Football is the ultimate team game, and we’ve got to build this roster to be as strong as we can at every area. We’re going to try to take the best players available that we can (going forward). If there’s more defensive players that fall our way, we certainly have room for them.”
Before the draft, Gutekunst had said that his defensive free-agent additions in March — outside linebackers Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith and safety Adrian Amos — wouldn’t preclude him from taking players at those positions in the draft. As it turned out, his first two picks were spent on those exact positions.
Take a look at the strengths, weaknesses and backgrounds of all 32 players taken in the first round of the 2019 NFL draft on Thursday night in…
“It obviously was a focus of ours. We wanted to improve our defense,” Gutekunst said. “We’ve added a lot of bodies to it … and we’re really excited.”
The 6-foot-5, 281-pound Gary, who turns 22 in December, entered Michigan as one of the highest-rated high-school recruits in the nation but didn’t have massive production. He played in just nine games last season, missing three with a right shoulder injury, and finished the year with just 3.5 sacks, seven tackles for loss and 45 overall tackles for the Wolverines. He ran a 4.58-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine in February with a 38-inch vertical leap.
In a conference call with Wisconsin reporters after the pick, Gary said he had “minimal” contact with the Packers in the run-up to the draft before quickly adding, “But I’m happy to be a Packer.”
Gary was a hand-on-the-ground defensive end for the Wolverines, but Packers college scout Joe Hueber, who covers the Midwest, said Gary will start out at outside linebacker in Green Bay. That said, Gary also figures to move around in defensive coordinator Mike Pettine’s scheme.
“He’s got rare gifts — a guy that size that runs that speed and moves on his feet like that. And he can really bend,” Hueber said.
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Asked why his athleticism didn’t translate to more production, Hueber replied, “He commanded a lot of attention at Michigan. Double teams, triple teams, taking on the tight end. Really, you saw in some of his teammates, they got freed up and they were able to (have) the production. It’s not like he wasn’t impacting the game. When you watch him, he was all over the place, taking on these blocks and getting a lot of pressure too.”
Gary said his right shoulder will not require surgery.
“My shoulder is 110 percent,” Gary said. “I can’t wait to strap on the pads and get ready.”
Shortly after picking Gary, Gutekunst went back to the phones and swung a deal with the Seahawks to move up and take Savage, whom he didn’t expect to last until the 30th overall pick.
Gutekunst sent both of the Packers’ two fourth-round picks — Nos. 114 and 118 — to the Seahawks to move up nine spots to No. 21 to take Savage, who should have every chance to start at free safety as a rookie. Asked if he’s up for that challenge, Savage said he is.
“A confident person would say that,” Savage said. “But at the end of the day, whatever role I'm assigned to, whatever I'm asked to do, I'm going to do it at the highest level."
The 5-foot-10, 198-pound Savage, who turns 22 in July, was a three-year starter at Maryland and ran a blazing 4.36-second 40-yard dash at the NFL scouting combine.
He started his college career at cornerback but moved to safety after his freshman year, going on to start all 12 games each of his final three seasons for the Terrapins, registering eight interceptions and 22 pass break-ups.
“This is one of the better defensive drafts in a long, long time,” Gutekunst said. “It was a good day.”