Fans hoping the Green Bay Packers’ 2016 draft will push this team over the top will be sorely disappointed this season.
“Just like I told the football team, our No. 1 opportunity for improvement is the nine-weeks offseason program,” coach Mike McCarthy said after Saturday’s draft was in the books.
He’s right because this draft will provide few, if any, immediate upgrades to a roster that has fallen short of the Super Bowl the past five seasons.
And that’s OK. In a forward-thinking draft, general manager Ted Thompson made several selections to stay ahead of the curve and, hopefully, keep the team in the championship chase. Just call the Class of 2016 “The Replacements.”
First-round pick Kenny Clark, obviously, was Thompson’s reaction to B.J. Raji’s decision to not play in 2016.
“Yeah, theoretically,” is all Thompson would say. “But still, we drafted this young man because we felt like he was the best player available.”
At a position at which Thompson has repeatedly struggled to find quality players, Clark merely must come in and be a key cog on defense.
“I really believe he has enough ability to help us get over the hump,” West Coast scout Sam Seale said. “He’s a young kid, and there’s a lot of growth potential in that kid.”
Second-round pick Jason Spriggs was a preemptive strike with three of the team’s starting offensive linemen scheduled to become free agents next offseason, including left tackle David Bakhtiari.
“It’s always good to add another player that we think can play in the National Football League and compete at a very high level. So, yes, we’re glad to have him,” is all Thompson would say on that topic.
Starting left tackles cost a fortune — seven average more than $10 million per season and six more average at least $8 million per season — and Bakhtiari won’t come cheap as an ascending talent. Or, if the Packers are able to keep Bakhtiari, perhaps Spriggs goes to right tackle and Bryan Bulaga moves inside to guard, where Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang will be free agents. Regardless, with the Packers ranking in the bottom third in available cap space in 2017 despite having the fifth-fewest players under contract, Spriggs should be a Year 2 starter — which is why Thompson no doubt felt compelled to buy some insurance by moving up nine slots at the expense of two picks.
“We were sweating it, looking at the board, and it just didn’t look like the board was going to hold up all the way,” Thompson said, adding later: “We felt like we were dancing with the devil if we waited too much longer.”
Third-round pick Kyler Fackrell might not have to play much on defense as a rookie. But he might be starting in 2017. Outside linebackers Julius Peppers, Nick Perry and Datone Jones will be unrestricted free agents and Jayrone Elliott will be a restricted free agent, leaving only Clay Matthews and Lerentee McCray under contract for next season. For now, pencil in Fackrell in Peppers’ spot in 2017.
The players with the best chance of providing an immediate upgrade were taken in the fourth round.
Fourth-round pick Blake Martinez was the choice at inside linebacker after Thompson bypassed Alabama’s Reggie Ragland and Myles Jack in the first round and coveted Spriggs over Deion Jones and Su’a Cravens in the second round. Will Martinez win a job in front of presumptive starters Sam Barrington — also in his final year under contract — and Jake Ryan? Will he at least beat out Joe Thomas as the dime linebacker?
“I kind of like everything about him,” director of football operations Eliot Wolf said. “He’s athletic. He’s productive. He played big-time football at Stanford. Can cover. Can blitz. Can sift over the top and make tackles on the outside. Thought he was a pretty versatile guy.”
Fourth-round pick Dean Lowry further addressed the glaring needs on the defensive line. Not only is Raji not playing, but Mike Pennel will start the season with a four-game suspension and Jones was moved to the elephant position because he never panned out as a pure defensive lineman. Lowry was one of the most productive defensive line prospects in the draft — and one of the most athletic, too. He’s going to need to earn a role right away given the state of the group.
“A 100 percent guy all the time,” Thompson said. “Very intelligent. Strong. The leader of that team or one of the leaders of that team. Just one of those blue-collar football players that the more you watch, the more you appreciate it.”
Fifth-round receiver Trevor Davis was the one and only luxury pick of the seven selections. He’s got the speed to stretch the field and hands to snatch the ball — he dropped only one pass, according to STATS. With Jordy Nelson and Ty Montgomery returning from injuries to join Randall Cobb, Davante Adams, Jeff Janis and Jared Abbrederis, obviously nothing is going to be handed to Davis.
Sixth-round pick Kyle Murphy, like the Spriggs pick earlier, is all about the future. Other than blocking on extra points and field goals, he might not play a snap all year. But he might be starting at guard in 2017.
The Packers have received instant impact from the last three draft classes, with Eddie Lacy and Bakhtiari in 2013, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Davante Adams, Richard Rodgers and Corey Linsley in 2014, and Damarious Randall, Quinten Rollins and Jake Ryan in 2015 emerging as rookie starters. That probably won’t be the case this year. But for the Packers to remain legit challengers in 2017 and beyond, Thompson needs this group to provide a major second-year payoff.
Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PackerReport.