This is the eighth in a series of stories previewing the Packers' draft.
GREEN BAY — Nowhere on the field have the Green Bay Packers invested greater top-end draft capital in recent years than in the secondary. Unfortunately for them, the return on their investments has been mixed at best.
In 2014, the Packers used their first-round pick (No. 21 overall) on Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.
In 2015, then-general manager Ted Thompson went back-to-back with defensive backs, taking Arizona State safety/cornerback Damarious Randall in the first round (No. 30 overall) and Miami (Ohio) cornerback Quinten Rollins in the second (No. 62).
In 2017, Thompson did it again in the last of his 13 drafts as GM, taking Washington cornerback Kevin King with his first pick (No. 33 overall) after trading out of the first round, then taking North Carolina State safety Josh Jones (No. 61) a little while later.
And then last year, in his first draft in charge, Brian Gutekunst went cornerback-cornerback with his first two picks as GM, selecting Louisville’s Jaire Alexander in the first round (No. 18 overall) and Iowa’s Josh Jackson in the second (No. 45).
And yet, despite all those premium picks spent in the defensive backfield, the Packers had to go out and sign ex-Chicago Bears safety Adrian Amos in free agency and enter Thursday night’s first round of the 2019 NFL draft still in search of more safety help.
Speaking at his annual pre-draft news conference Monday at Lambeau Field, general manager Brian Gutekunst said he felt good about what the team has in its secondary entering the draft but acknowledged that more additions could be coming, even though he was pleased with what he saw from Alexander and Jackson during their first NFL seasons and expressed hope that King, who has battled injuries his first two seasons, will be on the field consistently. Among Gutekunst’s first personnel moves last year was bringing back longtime cornerback Tramon Williams, who provides the group with a much-needed veteran voice.
“I’m really excited,” Gutekunst said Monday when asked specifically about the secondary. “Obviously Jaire and Josh, I thought they had so much playing experience as rookies, I’m excited for them to take the next step. Obviously, we added Adrian (in free agency). Hopefully Kevin can get the health thing right and be out there. And then Tramon kind of holds that room together. So I feel really good about the group.
“We’re just at such the beginning stages of 2019, we’ll kind of see where everything goes. But yeah, I think that’s a different group than it was a couple years ago and it’s a very competitive group. I like the wiring of that group. So, I feel pretty good about it at the moment.”
When Gutekunst says it’s a “different group” than it was, he’s politely saying that in his estimation, it’s better. But not necessarily complete.
Gutekunst dealt Clinton-Dix to the Washington Redskins at the trade deadline last October, getting a fourth-round pick in return. After a Pro Bowl nod in 2016, Clinton-Dix had a down year in 2017 and ended up signing with the rival Chicago Bears in March after not finding any lucrative, long-term offers in free agency.
The Packers played Randall out of position at cornerback before trading him last offseason to the Cleveland Browns, who immediately moved him to safety and saw him start 15 games last year. Rollins, an ex-basketball player, never really clicked and after a myriad of injuries was let go last year. King has flashed potential when healthy while Jones has been up-and-down as he searches for the right fit in the scheme as a linebacker/safety hybrid.
If the Packers are going to spend another premium pick on a defensive back, it figures to be a safety, and one with top-level ball skills at that. Amos, while certainly capable of playing centerfield, is physical and spent more of his time closer to the line of scrimmage while Eddie Jackson played free safety. Their interception numbers — Jackson had six INTs last season, Amos has three over the past four seasons combined — are indicative of that.
Delaware’s Nasir Adderley, a distant cousin of former Packers cornerback and Pro Football Hall of Famer Herb Adderley, is the top-rated safety in the draft and had 11 career interceptions, including nine the past two seasons. After him, it’s Washington’s Taylor Rapp, Maryland’s Darnell Savage, Mississippi State’s Johnathan Abram and Florida’s Chauncey Gardner-Johnson atop a deep class at the position.
“There are more quality safeties than I’ve ever seen in my life,” said longtime NFL analyst Gil Brandt, a former Dallas Cowboys director of player personnel.
Meanwhile, the top-rated corners are Washington’s Byron Murphy, LSU’s Greedy Williams, Temple’s Rock Ya-Sin, Central Michigan’s Sean Bunting and Georgia’s DeAndre Baker. But given the depth of the safety class, it would be a surprise if the Packers didn’t make their latest investment in the secondary there — with the hope, of course, of a better ROI than in those past drafts.
“There’s different areas that are stronger than others, just like every year,” Gutekunst said of this year’s prospects. “(After) some of the things that we’ve done, I think where our team sits today, I’m not super-concerned about, ‘Hey, we absolutely have to do this or absolutely have to do that.’ We can sit back, see where the draft board is strong, try to get there and then take the best players available.
“We’ve always looked at this as a long-term type thing — the draft, specifically. I think it’s a really good draft overall and I think we have a chance to help our team.”