About *that* draft pick and the trade the Packers should have made
In a surprise move, the Packers took an off-ball linebacker with their top draft choice. But the bigger shock came earlier when A.J. Brown went to another team.
The Green Bay Packers entered the first day of the 2022 NFL Draft with glaring needs at wide receiver and in the trenches. Instead of addressing those areas with their top pick, they selected Quay Walker, an off-ball linebacker from Georgia.
The decision seems strange at first blush and stranger when considering the wider context. The selection comes less than two months after the Packers paid handsomely to retain All-Pro De'Vondre Campbell, the player to whom an overwhelming number of draft evaluators compared Walker. Furthermore, the Packers have not invested a first- or second-round draft pick on a non-pass-rushing linebacker since A.J. Hawk in 2006, a wait nearly as long as the team's well-documented absence of a Day 1 wide receiver.
Like the many other teams that rarely spend top draft capital on off-ball linebackers, the Packers have their reasons. The position doesn't typically return significantly higher value in the first round compared to later selections. Indeed, just one of the first-team All-Pro linebackers over the past three seasons went in the first round, the same number as those taken on Day 3.
So given the positional value of a linebacker versus the larger needs in other areas, one can justify raising an eyebrow at the Walker selection. Even if he pans out, the Packers might have better utilized that resource in another way (more on that later).
The argument for Walker centers on his size and robust athleticism. As mentioned earlier, the Georgia product possesses similar stature to Campbell, measuring in at 6-foot-4 and 241 pounds at the NFL Scouting Combine earlier this year. Walker also produced strong numbers in every drill save for the vertical leap.
And while Walker's athletic testing will garner the most attention, he has the production to go along with it. The Bulldogs featured him in their pass coverage, especially during his final season in Athens (299 coverage snaps, according to Pro Football Focus). Despite the heavy usage, Walker never allowed a touchdown during his college career. Those skills could materially impact the defense from the jump, particularly if his presence prevents the Packers from leaning as heavily on a third safety as they did last season.
Still, the most compelling argument for Walker has more to do with untapped potential as a pass rusher. He entered the collegiate ranks as an outside linebacker who shifted inside due to roster demands at Georgia. While the move paid dividends for Walker, he didn't receive many chances to harass the quarterback until his final season when generating 25 total pressures, according to Pro Football Focus. If the Packers can meaningfully augment their pass rush with Walker, his value proposition transforms completely.
Of course, finding out whether Walker develops into such a player could take years. Right now, the Packers have to explain why they invested one of the two big draft picks acquired in the Davante Adams trade for a prospect at a non-premium position.
Help for Kenny Clark but not the receiving corps
The Walker selection and the ensuing discourse overshadowed the potentially most impactful decision the Packers made later in the first round. With the No. 28 overall pick, the team selected Devonte Wyatt, a defensive lineman also from Georgia.
Wyatt's age became part and parcel with his draft stock. Already 24, the former Bulldog became the oldest player selected Thursday, coming in at more than three years older than fellow 2022 first-rounders Travon Walker, Derek Stingley Jr., Drake London, George Karlaftis, and Kaiir Elam.
Wyatt's age probably would have taken him out of consideration for the Packers under previous general manager Ted Thompson, who infrequently selected rookies early in the draft entering their age-24 season or older. However, current GM Brian Gutekunst has shown more flexibility on that front, keeping older prospects like Wyatt in play.
The Wyatt selection should take significant pressure off the shoulders of Kenny Clark, the Packers' star interior lineman and anchor of the defensive front. Clark has largely operated as a one-man wrecking crew in recent years with limited assistance coming from Dean Lowry, Kingsley Keke, and the cadre of other forgettable defensive linemen. Wyatt offers more upside as a pass rusher — he amassed 78 total pressures over the past three seasons, according to Pro Football Focus — and has the necessary size and athleticism to help address Green Bay's notoriously shaky run defense.
But like the pick of Walker, Wyatt's selection came at the exclusion of a wide receiver, the area of greatest weakness for the Packers. To a certain degree, that determination occurred well before the team came on the clock as six wideouts went over the opening 18 spots. Green Bay assessed, probably wisely, that the run at the position had ended and the options still available would last until Day 2.
Of course, that doesn't necessarily mean the Packers won't regret waiting. Barring a trade, they won't draft again until the 21st pick of the second round at which point more wideouts will likely have come off the board. The Chicago Bears, Kansas City Chiefs, and Baltimore Ravens could all use a pass catcher, and each holds a pick before Green Bay's next selection.
Missed opportunity to add A.J. Brown
Arguably the biggest move from the draft's first day centered around an established NFL star. The Tennessee Titans shipped disgruntled wide receiver A.J. Brown to the Philadelphia Eagles for picks just over a week after general manager Jon Robinson shot down trade speculation.
This trade didn't materialize out of the ether the moment the Eagles came on the clock. Because Philly needed to hammer out an extension with Brown as part of the exchange, these talks surely began before draft day. That means other teams like the Packers could have forced their way into the Brown sweepstakes with a superior offer.
And Green Bay could have feasibly put a better package on the table. The Titans recouped a first-rounder (No. 18 overall) and a late third-rounder (No. 101). The Packers could have easily topped that offer with their earlier first-rounder (No. 22) and the later second-rounder (No. 59). While not a small price, they could have landed one of the premier young wideouts in the game and still had something left over from the Adams trade (a six-spot improvement in the second round) to show for it.
As for Brown's contract, he reportedly agreed to a four-year extension worth $100 million with $57 million guaranteed at signing, terms approaching but not quite matching that of Adams' deal with the Las Vegas Raiders. Though the Packers would have needed to aggressively structure such a deal to stay under the salary cap in 2022 and still have room for their rookie class, they had the financial flexibility to do so.
And while Brown will rank among the top earners among wideouts, that bar will move up again next offseason when the new TV money hits the league's books. The 24-year-old star merits that kind of compensation and would have given Green Bay the closest approximation of Adams available on the trade market.
All of which underscores how the Packers missed their best opportunity this week to bolster their receiving corps. They can still make meaningful additions to the group during the draft, but none will match Brown's impact, at least not in 2022.
-- Jason B. Hirschhorn is an award-winning sports journalist and Pro Football Writers of America member. Follow him on Twitter: @by_JBH