It was inevitable, the moment the Green Bay Packers selected Georgia cornerback Eric Stokes with their first-round pick, No. 29 overall.
Of Green Bay’s last 10 first-round picks, nine have been used on defensive players. The only offensive player selected was Jordan Love in 2020. A quarterback.
Here came the social media graphics. And following that was the naysayers.
“Another defensive player?”
For those in the camp that suggest the Packers have not done enough to support quarterback Aaron Rodgers, the selection of Stokes was akin to pouring gasoline on a campfire. And the timing — Rodgers’ reported unhappiness with the Packers surfaced earlier on draft day — made for a convenient entry way toward a longstanding argument that the Packers haven’t added enough talent to its offense during Rodgers’ career.
Such an argument doesn’t hold much water when the Packers’ offense currently possesses an All-Pro wide receiver, and All-Pro left tackle, a Pro Bowl running back, a Pro Bowl left guard and one of 2020’s highest-scoring tight ends (and when the team last took the field, it did so with an All-Pro center).
Considering the Packers’ hit rate on those last 10 first-round picks, and Green Bay’s inability to field a consistently solid defense despite all those investments, it’s absolutely fair to question the team’s track record and whether its been a series of diminishing returns. After all, the NFL is a results-based business, and the results have been poor far more often than good.
However, referencing all nine of those defensive first-rounders in totality is disingenuous. Can you argue the Packers don’t need defensive help when the defense routinely allows 30+ points in playoff games? Can you suggest another cornerback wasn’t a worthwhile upgrade after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers routinely picked on Kevin King in last year’s NFC Championship Game?
When judging a draft-and-develop team, it’s imperative to remember that the developing aspect is equally as important as the drafting. Because it doesn’t matter who a team drafts if the coaching staff doesn’t put its players in a position to succeed.
More often than not, that’s where the Packers have erred. After BJ Raji and Clay Matthews in 2009, defensive first-rounders under Dom Capers hardly ever lived up to their draft billing. And while he was provided Jaire Alexander, Mike Pettine was plagued by the same shortcomings.
So was the drafting bad? Or the development? Or both? Or neither? Let’s break down those nine different defensive first-rounders into different categories:
Jaire Alexander, Kenny Clark
More often than not, the Packers favor easing their top draft picks into regular duty. That’s not too out of the ordinary. Some players need a little time to adjust to the NFL’s speed.
Not Alexander. In 2018, the rookie cornerback played at least 70% of the defensive snaps in 12 of the 13 games he played in. In a Week 8 matchup against the undefeated Los Angeles Rams, Alexander posted the best game of his young career, totaling seven tackles and defending five passes. That game showed that Alexander might not only be a good NFL cornerback, but that he might be special. In 2020, Alexander was named to his first Pro Bowl and was recognized as a second-team All-Pro by the Associated Press.
On April 30, the Packers exercised their fifth-year option on Alexander, ensuring he’ll remain in Green Bay through at least 2022.
Like Alexander, the 2016 first-rounder Clark has been named to one Pro Bowl. His arrival took a bit longer however, as he played only 32% of the defensive snaps in his rookie season. Clark’s path to national recognition will be blocked as long as Aaron Donald sticks around in the NFC, but he’s established himself as one of the NFL’s best interior rushers. His four-year contract worth up to $70 million officially begins this upcoming season.
SOME GOOD, SOME BAD
Nick Perry, HaHa Clinton-Dix
Selected in 2012, Perry was brought in to be Clay Matthews’ running mate on a defense that finished 28th in the NFL in sacks the previous season. Unfortunately, Perry’s size rendered him as a defensive tweener before the NFL truly embraced such players. Perry’s lack of availability hurt him throughout his career. And when he did play, it was typically after a week’s worth of injury report appearances.
Perry’s best season was, by far, in 2016 when he racked up 11 sacks in 14 games, and Green Bay later rewarded him with a five-year, $60 million deal. He was released two years into that contract, and has not appeared in an NFL game since 2018.
For all the social media debates he inspired between Packers and Bears fans in 2019, Clinton-Dix’s career got off to a promising start in 2014 as he was named to the All-Rookie team. Two years later, he was a second-team All-Pro safety. But with more experience, oddly, came more mistakes. Clinton-Dix’s tackle attempts were downright absurd at times. Despite three interceptions in seven games, Clinton-Dix was dealt to Washington at the 2018 trade deadline. He played one season for the Chicago Bears in 2019, and did not appear in a single game in 2020.
Both Perry and Clinton-Dix are examples of drafting for need, but missing on development. Pass-rushing help was atop the Packers wish list in 2012 and Perry was a highly-touted player. More than anything, his disappointing career can be chalked up to poor injury luck. The pick of Clinton-Dix in 2014 was a make-up for the egregious release of Hall of Famer Charles Woodson one year earlier. Early on, he had the look of a potential 10-year starter, but mental mistakes and bad habits prematurely ended his Packers career. Clinton-Dix is a prime example of a developmental miss.
Datone Jones, Damarious Randall
Picked in 2013, Jones was selected for one reason and one reason only: to stop Colin Kaepernick. Like Perry and Clinton-Dix, there was no argument that the Packers didn’t try to fill a significant need. Sometimes, it just doesn’t work out.
Jones didn’t start a single game his rookie season, a significant feat since 3-4 defensive end had turned into somewhat of a black hole for the Packers. He remained with the Packers until 2016, mostly as a rotational player. Unlike the aforementioned Perry and Clinton-Dix, Jones is still in the NFL, predominantly as a practice squad player.
Former Packers coach Mike McCarthy used to speak of “stacking success.” The selection of Randall was instead an example of multiplying mistakes. Needing to replace the departed Tramon Williams and prepare for a potential departure of Casey Hayward, the Packers picked Randall, a versatile safety out of Arizona State, with the 30th pick in 2015. Randall started nine games as a rookie and came up with three interceptions, paving the way for Hayward’s departure.
Without Williams and Hayward, as well as Shields who lost the 2016 season due to a concussion, the Packers desperately needed Randall to be a playmaker. While he was capable of the occasional interception, his immaturity led to a 2018 trade to the Cleveland Browns. It didn’t help that the Packers were playing him out of position.
If nothing else, he’ll be known as the first-round pick in Ted Thompson’s worst draft as Packers general manager.
TO BE DETERMINED
Rashan Gary, Darnell Savage, Eric Stokes
The three most recent defensive players selected in the first round by Green Bay, there hasn’t been enough playing time to adequately grade each. Gary essentially redshirted his 2019 rookie season, but was arguably the Packers’ best pass rusher by the end of 2020. Savage’s two-year career has had its peaks and valleys, but the lightbulb seemed to flick on midway through 2020, and he finished the year leading the Packers in interceptions.
Which brings us back to Stokes, the latest defensive prospect brought in to help solve the Packers’ woes. Brennen Rupp of Game on Wisconsin wrote prior to the draft that Stokes could be an immediate starter next to Alexander.
Even if Stokes doesn’t turn out to be an All-Pro like his cornerback counterpart, reaching solid starter status would make his selection worthwhile for Green Bay. That the Packers have gained only two definite long-term starters (so far) from their last 10 first-round picks is why drafting defense has become an annual Packers tradition, like a Brett Favre retirement or win at Soldier Field in Chicago.
Gary, Savage and Stokes living up to their draft billing would go a long way toward reversing the incessant need to improve Green Bay’s defense. And for Stokes, his selection must be graded in a vacuum, not by the shortcomings of prior draft picks. His success or failure will have nothing to do with the picks that preceded him.