GREEN BAY — Jace Sternberger always wanted to play big-time college football. But as he languished on the Kansas Jayhawks bench for his first two college seasons, then landed at a junior college that requires fact-checking just to make sure the name isn’t made up — Northeastern Oklahoma A&M — Sternberger admitted he never imagined what happened to him Friday night:
Being selected in the third round of the 2019 NFL Draft by the Green Bay Packers, in turn giving him the opportunity to catch passes from two-time NFL MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
“If you were to tell me (back then) that Aaron Rodgers would be my quarterback in about four years,” Sternberger said in a conference call with Wisconsin reporters, “I would have laughed at you and called you a liar.”
But lo and behold, that’s exactly what happened to Sternberger after his circuitous collegiate route, which took a sharp turn when he was recruited to Texas A&M over the phone by head coach Jimbo Fisher, who never actually visited him at the Miami, Oklahoma community college’s campus.
“I was actually on my third offensive coordinator at Kansas, just wasn’t the best fit overall,” Sternberger explained. “I always dreamed of playing big-time college football, and I felt like the JUCO was the best way for me to get re-recruited by everybody, so from there I went JUCO, then coach Fisher, he just gave me the ultimate opportunity to be the main tight end at Texas A&M. And I took that opportunity head-on and it worked out for the better.”
Green Bay general manager Brian Gutekunst and the Packers’ scouting staff didn’t see much drop-off from the two tight ends who went in the first round — Iowa’s T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant. That might explain why they felt good about passing on some of the other tight ends who went before Sternberger, including Alabama’s Irv Smith Jr., who went in the second round — six picks after the Packers used the 44th overall pick on Mississippi State offensive lineman Elgton Jenkins.
“It was more than just a couple (tight ends) at the very top that we thought had a chance to potentially develop into difference-maker tight ends,” Gutekunst explained. “We had (Sternberger) graded high. We liked his skill-set, we really did. We’ve always looked for a guy that can be a matchup problem and stretch the field — and he fits that.”
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Gutekunst said the Packers felt they needed to bring Sternberger to Green Bay for one of their allotted 30 pre-draft visits because he only had one year of college production (48 receptions for 832 yards and 10 touchdowns) but that it certainly didn’t scare them off.
“I just think we got a chance to spend more time. Not only myself and our scouts, but our coaches as well just kind of spend some more time to see how he was going to fit,” Gutekunst said. “He’s a coach’s kid, grew up playing sports, he’s been competitive all his life. Those are some of the things that drew us to him.”
Not a reach
There was some sentiment nationally that Gutekunst paid an unnecessary price — two fourth-round picks, to the Seattle Seahawks — to move up from No. 30 to No. 21 on Thursday night to take Maryland safety Darnell Savage with the second of his two first-round picks.
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…
Gutekunst acknowledged that the Packers have a history of striking it rich in the fourth round — all-pro left tackle David Bakhtiari and Pro Bowl defensive end Mike Daniels were both fourth-rounders — and admitted it wasn’t cheap to make the trade with the Seahawks to move up and get Savage. But, he said Friday night, he had to do it to get his guy.
“I know for a fact we would not have gotten him by staying at 30,” Gutekunst said forcefully.
The Baltimore Ravens, who were set to pick at No. 22, and the Indianapolis Colts, who were set to pick at No. 26, both traded back out of those picks after Savage came off the board.
The Packers have only four picks left on the last day of the draft: One pick in the fifth round (No. 150), two in the sixth (Nos. 185 and 194) and one in the seventh (No. 226). … Gutekunst said he did get trade offers Friday to move back and add a fourth-round pick to help make up for the picks he’d used in the Savage trade but nothing wowed him. “When it came down to pick today, both in the third round and in the second round, the distance we had to move back to acquire the right compensation just wasn’t something I wanted to do,” Gutekunst said. “We had players at those times we felt really good about picking.” … Gutekunst refused to rule out moving up into the fourth round, however — even though that might mean giving up one of his sixth-rounders to do so. “We’ll see.”
Jason Wilde covers the Packers for ESPN Wisconsin. Listen to him with former Packers and Badgers offensive lineman Mark Tauscher weekdays from 9-11 on “Wilde & Tausch” on your local ESPN station.