GREEN BAY — There has been a noticeable change in perception during the NFL draft since it went to a three-day format a few years back.
The second and third rounds have been devalued since they were split off from the first round and moved to the second day of the draft.
In the eyes of many people, the truly important part of the draft ended with the completion of the first round on Thursday night. They tune out once the opening round is over and the names of the players drafted start getting a little less familiar.
For this year’s Green Bay Packers, however, nothing could have been further from the truth. The second and third rounds were every bit as important as the first round they completed Thursday night where they ended up with two potential defensive playmakers.
In order to hit a home run in this draft, general manager Brian Gutekunst had to nail the second and third rounds Friday night. It was as simple as that, largely because it was Gutekunst’s last real chance in this draft to land players who could have a significant impact on the Packers’ depleted roster during the upcoming season, either as starters or key rotational players.
After drafting edge rusher Rashan Gary of Michigan with his first pick in the opening round, Gutekunst wanted to add speed and playmaking ability at safety so badly that he traded his two fourth-round picks, plus a late first, to move up in the opening round and take safety Darnell Savage of Maryland. Though he entered the draft with more draft capital than most general managers, Gutekunst spent most if not all of it to make that move upward, leaving himself with only third-day picks in the fifth through seventh rounds, where teams mostly draft developmental players.
With no fourth-rounders in hand, the pressure was on Gutekunst to get it right with his remaining premium picks. Despite not having the wherewithal to trade up during the two rounds for a player he might really covet, Gutekunst had a productive night, adding promising talent at two positions of extreme need with rock-solid guard Elgton Jenkins of Mississippi State in the second round and late-blooming tight end Jace Sternberger of Texas A&M in the third.
“Once we traded those two fourth-round picks yesterday, our ammunition was a little less than what it was to be able to move around in these rounds,” Gutekunst said. “I kind of felt that might be how it would shake out. But we feel fortunate to get the two guys we got.”
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Jenkins, a four-year starter in the SEC, including the past two at center, should challenge for a starting job at guard as a rookie. Guard was a disaster area last year — the safety position of the offense, if you will — and the versatile Jenkins could contend at either guard spot.
Sternberger is coming off a monster season as a pass receiver at A&M, his last stop on a multischool journey through college football. After averaging 17.3 yards per catch and grabbing 10 touchdown passes, he should be able to stretch the field as a complement to veterans Jimmy Graham and Marcedes Lewis in a tight end group that underachieved last season.
While remaining non-committal, Gutekunst wouldn’t discount immediate contributions from either player.
“We took ‘em pretty high,” he said. “I certainly would hope that they could make solid contributions to our team this year. But until they get here, and then they can prove it on the field, it’s really early. We like their long-term potential and we always feel the draft is kind of a long-term investment, but these guys were taken high for a reason.”
Jon-Eric Sullivan, the Packers’ co-director of player personnel, offered a scouting report on the pair that seemed to indicate they will be given every chance to contribute immediately in an offense that needed help in the line and at tight end and (still) wide receiver. Better yet, both players are solid fits for the offense being installed by first-year coach Matt LaFleur, which will be more run-oriented and use a variety of receivers.
“With Jenkins, we got a guy who can play up and down the line of scrimmage, you know?” Sullivan said. “He’s started games at center, at guard, at tackle. He’s a big, powerful man who’s a very good athlete. (He has) the positional versatility, he’s wired right, he’s tough. He’s a guy that just gives you a lot of value. And then with Jace, (he’s) just a guy who’s an ascending player at a position of need, so to speak, and a guy who we feel like has very, very intriguing athletic attributes to be a very good player in this league as a tight end.”
The Packers have had considerable success with fourth-round picks over the years, adding stalwarts such as Josh Sitton, T.J. Lang, Mike Daniels, David Bakhtiari and Blake Martinez in that round. They could still trade back into the fourth round when the draft is completed today, and Gutekunst even smiled and said, “We’ll see,” when asked if that was a possibility.
No matter what happens today, a team with a roster as barren as the Packers’ was at the end of last season couldn’t hope to fill every need in one draft. But after adding four potential starters or key rotational players in free agency, they drafted four more in the first three rounds.
That’s not a bad haul at this point in the offseason.