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Tom Oates: No reason for Packers to draft quarterback in first round
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PACKERS

Tom Oates: No reason for Packers to draft quarterback in first round

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Aaron Rodgers played in every regular-season game each of the past two years and eight times overall since becoming the Packers starting quarterback in 2008. In 2010 and 2011, he missed one game apiece.

If you think Green Bay Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst wouldn’t dare draft the heir apparent to 36-year-old quarterback Aaron Rodgers early in this year’s NFL draft, consider the following.

Multiple reports after last year’s draft indicated Gutekunst was willing to use his second-round pick — No. 44 overall — on Missouri quarterback Drew Lock. We’ll never know, of course, because Denver made a trade and jumped two draft slots ahead of Green Bay to snag Lock, but the Packers had done extensive homework on Lock and clearly were interested.

The most interesting discussion entering this year’s draft is whether Gutekunst would use his first-round pick — No. 30 overall — on a quarterback of the future. He said in February he wouldn’t hesitate to take the plunge if the right quarterback was available, not unlike what the Packers did in 2005 when Hall of Famer Brett Favre was 36 and Rodgers unexpectedly slipped to them at the 24th pick in the first round. The gutsy decision to take Rodgers instead of giving Favre more help has led to 28 consecutive seasons of championship-level quarterbacking for the Packers.

Should one of the top four quarterbacks in this year’s draft slide to the 30th pick or if the Packers have a first-round grade on one of the second-tier guys, Gutekunst will have to ask himself one question during Thursday’s first round: Can he afford to spend that much draft capital on a quarterback of the future when he has pressing needs at several other positions and a still-elite quarterback on a team that finished one victory short of the Super Bowl?

The answer is, no, he can’t. Gutekunst doesn’t have the luxury of using a first-round pick on a quarterback who won’t play for several years when his contending team has holes to fill at wide receiver, offensive tackle, defensive end and inside linebacker in a draft that should offer immediate-impact players at most or all of those positions.

Gutekunst has said it’s difficult to pass on a quarterback you have graded as a potential NFL starter, a lesson he learned from former Packers general managers Ron Wolf and Ted Thompson. Rodgers sat for three seasons behind Favre but has started for 12 and is a sure-fire Hall of Famer. Still, comparing this year’s draft to the 2005 version is largely invalid, and there are good reasons for that.

First, Rodgers isn’t going anywhere in the immediate future.

By 2005, Favre was threatening to retire every offseason. He didn’t for another five years, but the Packers didn’t know that at the time. They had a right to feel a pressing need to find a successor.

Rodgers, on the other hand, has said he wants to play into his 40s and his performance last season, though slightly off by his standards, was still good enough for the Packers to go 13-3 and reach the NFC title game. He should be even better during his second year in coach Matt LaFleur’s system, especially if the Packers can find a playmaking threat at wide receiver.

Besides, Rodgers’ contract, which has four years remaining, virtually assures he will be the team’s quarterback for at least the next two. Should the Packers release or trade Rodgers, the hit in dead salary-cap money would be $39.7 million in 2020 and $31.6 million in 2021, figures that would handcuff the Packers and derail the promising roster rebuild Gutekunst has been conducting since 2018.

Second, there won’t be another Rodgers available late in the first round like there was in 2005.

Rodgers landing in Green Bay was one of the greatest flukes in draft history. San Francisco had the first pick overall in the 2005 draft, a need at quarterback and considered Rodgers and Alex Smith for that spot before choosing Smith. Because no team selecting between No. 2 and No. 23 needed a quarterback badly, Rodgers sat unpicked in the green room for hours before the Packers rescued him.

Fifteen years later, the situation is different. LSU’s Joe Burrow, Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa and Oregon’s Justin Herbert are likely to go in the top six picks. The only one who could do a Rodgers-like slide is Tagovailoa, whose hip injury scares some teams, but it wouldn’t be all the way to 30.

Utah State’s Jordan Love has all the tools to be a top NFL quarterback but is a project because he is a suspect decision-maker who played in a simplistic offense. Sitting behind Rodgers might be a perfect learning experience for him, but the NFL’s need for quarterbacks has escalated since 2005. Love is unlikely to be on the board at No. 30 and the Packers have too many needs to trade up and get him.

Another option would be to take Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts or Washington’s Jacob Eason in that spot, though most teams rate them as second-round picks and Gutekunst would be unwise to reach for one of them.

Third, this draft is capable of providing exactly what the Packers need to take the next step.

The draft board is loaded at wide receiver and offensive tackle, two areas of dire need. It’s also possible a top-tier inside linebacker or defensive end could slide to No. 30. Those needs were exposed when San Francisco rushed for 285 yards against Green Bay in the NFC title game.

Clearly, the Packers must develop a succession strategy for Rodgers at some point. One of these years they’ll have to bite the bullet and find a potential starter, maybe even with a first-round pick. But with Rodgers still in fine form and the team only a few pieces away from the Super Bowl, now is not that time.


NFL draft 2020 | Quarterbacks: Another year to wonder if Packers will have ‘courage’ to pick Aaron Rodgers’ successor

Contact Tom Oates at toates@madison.com.

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Tom Oates has been part of the Wisconsin State Journal sports department since 1980 and became its editorial voice in 1996, traversing the state and country to bring readers a Madison perspective on the biggest sports stories of the day.

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