Packers Needed 2019 Draft Class to Take a Big Step & They Did

The Green Bay Packers were banking on internal development to get them to the next level, and they received that from several members of the 2019 draft class. 

Without the cap space this past offseason to spend big money in free agency and with it being clear that early-round draft picks were more for the future than for now, many had their doubts that this Green Bay Packers team would improve in 2020. Actually, I believe many expected them to regress.
 
However, GM Brian Gutekunst was banking on the offense taking a big step forward in Year 2 of the Matt LaFleur system -- spoiler alert, they did -- and another hope, or perhaps 'expectation' is the better word, was that we'd see several members of the 2019 draft class leave their marks on this season. Which spoiler alert again, we did. 
 
Rashan Gary was brought along slowly as a rookie, playing less than 24 percent of the Packers' defensive snaps with The Smiths wreaking havoc ahead of him on the depth chart. While this upset many in Cheesehead Nation, at the time, I discussed that taking this approach was a luxury that Green Bay was taking advantage of. And it's a luxury that's paid off. 
 
This season, Gary has recorded 39 total pressures, which is the second-most on the team, and he's tallied five sacks. Pro Football Focus has a metric called pass-rush productivity, which is an efficiency metric that measures the rate at which a player generates a pressure and is weighted more heavily towards sacks. And out of 121 eligible edge rushers, Gary ranks 15th, ahead of both Za'Darius Smith and Preston Smith. 
 
Not only has Gary been very good as a pass-rusher but also against the run as well. Out of the same 121 edge rushers, Gary ranks 19th in run-stop percentage. 
 
"We all know he's explosive, he's fast, loves football, is very physical," OLB Coach Mike Smith said via ESPN. "Right now, he's doing a great job with the run, he's affecting the quarterback. He's playing really good football right now. The game's slowing down for him. Couldn't be more proud of him. The more we get going, the more reps he's going to get, and he deserves more reps. Just playing good football."
 
The Green Bay Packers' 21st overall pick, Darnell Savage, had a bit of a slow start to the season. But around Week 10, everything started to click, and since then, he has been one of the best safeties in the NFL. 
 
Savage has allowed just nine completions on 22 targets over his last eight games, he's also recorded two quarterback pressures, and he's come away with four interceptions. In fact, Savage's 11 combined pass-breakups and interceptions this season are tied for the second-most among all safeties in football, and the wild thing is, 10 of them have come since Week 10.
 
A contributor to Savage's ascent has been that he has played more of the robber role within this defense, which is really the best use of his skill-set and allows that ball-hawking ability of his to shine. 
 
"He's reading his keys faster, he's understanding what he's supposed to do and now he's letting the plays come to him other than trying to make a play," said DBs Coach Jerry Gary.
 
Matt LaFleur would recently add (via Packers Wire), "just really proud of him. He’s such a smart player, he’s so athletic. It’s so fun to see a guy work so hard and then start to have the results.”
 
The player from this class who had the best rookie season was Elgton Jenkins, and he's carried that momentum over to 2020. However, his versatility is what has really shined through this season as Jenkins transitions from one position to the next but continues to play at a high level. 
 
Due to numerous injuries along the offensive line, we've seen Jenkins take  27 snaps at left tackle, 691 at left guard, 300 at center, with 33 at right tackle. And even with all of that movement, Jenkins has allowed only one sack -- the only sack of his career -- and 14 total pressures. By ESPN's pass-block win rate metric -- which measures the rate at which a lineman can hold his block for at least 2.5 seconds -- Jenkins ranks ninth among all guards this season.
 
“Elgton’s been awesome, ever since he first got in here,” offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett said via the Wisconsin State Journal. “I think the big thing is, he’s a very intelligent player, and it’s not too big for him. He’s going out there and he’s feeling great with just the entire team, the offensive line room, with all of us. He’s just going out there and he’s balling. It’s great to see.
 
“You can see from him playing guard to tackle to center. He’s a guy that just steps up to the challenge, loves the game. And he’s so intelligent. He can do so much, and I think that’s just allowed him to play at a high level. It’s great to see the recognition that he’s gotten.”
 
While fifth-round pick Kingsley Keke hasn't had the same impact that the previous three players have, he has certainly improved in his sophomore NFL season. Despite playing only 40 percent of the Packers' total defensive snaps, Keke has 22 pressures, which is the fifth most on the team. This includes three games with at least three pressures. 
 
He's also recorded four sacks, 21 combined tackles, three of which were for a loss, and a forced fumble. 
 
“I just want to be good at everything, really, be versatile and be able to play the run and get to the quarterback,” Keke said this summer. “I want to be an every-down player so that’s something I’m working hard to do right now.”
 
There are four other members of this class, one of which includes Jace Sternberger, a player that many thought would have a breakout season in 2020. Sternberger has primarily been TE3 this year and missed some time recently with a concussion. However, when on the field, he's caught 12 of 15 passes for 114 yards with a touchdown. 
 
When discussing Sternberger, it's important to keep in mind that the tight end position is one that often takes time to develop into at the NFL level--even for high draft picks. They have to know blocking assignments and techniques like a lineman and route trees like a receiver. Given this learning curve, we need to keep in mind that Sternberger has just 301 total NFL snaps under his belt. 
 
Meanwhile, sixth-round cornerback Ka'dar Hollman has seen 108 defensive snaps this season, allowing six receptions on 14 targets with one touchdown given up. Dexter Williams, who is behind Aaron Jones, Jamaal Williams, and AJ Dillon on the depth chart has spent much of the year on the practice squad, and seventh-round linebacker Ty Summers is one of Green Bay's core special teams players. 
 
To some degree, every member of this draft class, other than Williams, who has just seven carries, has made some sort of impact this season, with several playing significant roles in the team's success.
 
While many outside of the organization wondered how this Packers team was going to improve in 2020, Gutey and LaFleur trusted the players that they already had on the roster. And the 2019 class has proven them right for doing so. 

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Born and raised in Green Bay, WI and I still call it home. After my family, watching the Packers, sharing my opinions on the team through my writing and interacting with other fans is my greatest passion. You can find me on Twitter at @Paul_Bretl. 
 

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Comments (27)

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Bearmeat's picture

January 08, 2021 at 11:42 am

The 2019 class has been awesome this year. Still waiting for Gary to blow up. But it's been promising. Next year, with P Smith possibly gone, will tell that tale. Savage, Keke have been great. Jace needs time.

The 2018 class has been Jaire and a bag of balls though. Sometimes, you get lucky. Sometimes, not. Scouting is hard.

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dobber's picture

January 08, 2021 at 02:09 pm

The Packers are doing--with the 2019 class--what salary cap football requires teams to do: draft and make good on picks. Good teams typically have a number of good players elevating their play on cheap rookie deals. At some point, you have to rely on young players to do the job...it's a gamble.

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Coldworld's picture

January 08, 2021 at 02:20 pm

Spot on. Economics requires enough hits outside the first round to beat the parity system.

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slant_route's picture

January 09, 2021 at 09:10 am

I took a few minutes to look at past drafts back to 2010. (https://www.pro-football-reference.com/teams/gnb/draft.htm)

2018 right now is one all-pro, 2 starters (MVS/Scott - yes you can debate quality of starter), rotational WR in ESB. Right now I'd take the 2018 draft over '10, '11, '12, '15, '16, and a toss-up with '17. 2019 is a franchise changing draft.

I can't imagine how difficult the scouting job is. "sometimes you get lucky" - agree.

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4thand10's picture

January 09, 2021 at 12:07 pm

Did Preston and Z both get 4yr deals when they were signed? I could be mistaken, but it doesn’t seem that long ago. Pretty sure they were signed after the 18 season.

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Stroh's picture

January 09, 2021 at 10:10 pm

Pretty sure both P and Z have 4 yr contracts. They are 1/2 way thru now, not counting playoffs

Z got 4 for 66M
P got 4 for 54M

At least if memory serves without looking it up.

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Lphill's picture

January 08, 2021 at 12:13 pm

I have supported Gary from day 1 and received many thumbs down , he just needed snaps and will continue to improve , I also think Sternberger will have his day and prove himself as well , just some bad luck slowing him down .

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Coldworld's picture

January 08, 2021 at 02:37 pm

I have also been a fan of the Gary pick. Overall, if you see a player with plus ability, being really good justifies time. Upside wins in the end if you scout effectively. I’m mildly surprised it’s got us this far this fast. Always going to whiff on some. We seem ahead of the odds at this point.

Alexander, Savage and Gary, even MVS, are high upside players who seem to have a work ethic and desire to improve. They all have from different starting positions. I don’t think any have peaked yet. If they continue, we could have a great period with Tonyan (Greene when healthy), Barnes and Lazard as non draft bonuses and maybe EQ and Sternberger will join the party as well as the likes of Dillon, Deguara.

Thus far, outside of a certain TE, the FA signings
have been astute. The Smiths helped turn this team around, Amos has created a platform for Savage and the backfield. Wagner had been a huge help and better value and Turner is looking to be the Tackle I suspected that they saw him becoming.

Given the above we are well ahead of where I thought we’d be. Gute has gone a great job on this roster by every means available. Still areas to address of course, but we are so far beyond what he inherited and younger to boot. Yet we still see Gute boo birds. Take your heads out of the gift horse’s mouth and enjoy!

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Lphill's picture

January 08, 2021 at 12:15 pm

safety and tight end may be two of the most difficult positions to master , both are tasked with playing multiple roles.

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Packer_Fan's picture

January 08, 2021 at 01:54 pm

A big difference with this team is the development of players, which did not happen well with the Thompson/McCarthy era. That is good to see and fueling the success of the team. And LaFluer's system is helping the players excel too. There has been a few busts (Jackson), but it is good to see the development happening. Bodes well for the future.

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Coldworld's picture

January 08, 2021 at 02:40 pm

I agree and it’s a very good point that having a coach who schemes to help his players generally and to maximize their strengths is such a breath of fresh air over later MM, who seemed to feel that it was necessary to always swim upstream.

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Qoojo's picture

January 08, 2021 at 06:14 pm

I would say that it did not happen late in the era after Thompson starting having some issues. The earlier picks did develop, but then the defensive misses started piling up. But early on there was Raji, Matthews, Rodgers, all the WRs, Bakh, ...

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Swisch's picture

January 08, 2021 at 02:38 pm

*** A good reminder about it taking time for players develop not only as they figure out the game at the level of the NFL, but as coaches figure out how to put them in the best positions to succeed.
*** It's good to hear about players who love the game of football. It seems those guys are more likely to put in the work and make the improvements.
*** It is a tricky thing about how fast to bring rookies along into meaningful roles. Sometimes it seems that just when they get to be good, their first contract is over and they're gone. I guess you generally hope by at least year two or three there's something significant happening on the field.
*** I like the philosophy of draft and development for the Packers, but I'm also glad they're willing to pay for free agents if it's done on a selective basis. Sometimes we can't wait for draft picks at a certain position.
*** I also like the way the Packers bring in a steady stream of undrafted free agents, such as Lazard, Tonyan, Barnes, and Dafney. It seems that should be taken into consideration when evaluating any draft year.

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PatrickGB's picture

January 08, 2021 at 02:55 pm

With the cap being what it is it is incumbent upon the team to develop lower picks from this season on forward. Who on this team going forward are going to take the next step? Let’s face it it’s up to the younger and often undrafted players from now on. We will lose a lot of quality players next season and will be at the bottom of the draft order. So I will enjoy this season for as long as it lasts!

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Ferrari-Driver's picture

January 08, 2021 at 06:49 pm

I'm glad I'm not the GM for the Packers. I hated the Gary pick and pegged him to be a looks like "Tarzan", plays like "Jane" blown pick by the Gute. I'm very happy to say that I stunk on my evaluation of Gary. However, like a Monday Morning Quarterback, I am now jumping on the Rashad Gary bandwagon.

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raedwallaceee's picture

January 09, 2021 at 11:55 am

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HankScorpio's picture

January 09, 2021 at 05:02 am

A series of poor drafts forced the Packers to dip their toe deeper into the FA waters in the recent past. Now they are starting at losing Aaron Jones and Corey Linsley, among others. So yes, they needed 2019 rooks to step up. Next year, they will need the 2020 rooks to do the same.

The cap dictates over half the team will be players that are not yet eligible for UFA or not worthy of earning big deals. You more you have of the former, the less you need of the latter. Good teams draft well.

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PeteK's picture

January 09, 2021 at 08:47 am

Undrafted free agents Ramsey, Nijman, and Ento might also develop. Perhaps my favorite part of drafting are the free agents that eventually contribute. Lazard and Tonyan are in that class even though not directly drafted by us.

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PhantomII's picture

January 09, 2021 at 12:49 pm

I was down on Gary as a #1 pick #12 should not be a project, but start day 1. I did not doubt that Gary would not eventually be good but the time to get there would be at contract time. Basically took 4-5 yrs to be awesome and we couldn't afford to pay him then and he would not have achieved greatness on the cheap. Gary has worked his butt off and having a couple vets playing at a high level in front of him has also helped. I think Gary is ahead of where I thought originally and will start next year over Preston Smith. Savage was chosen with another #1 and a couple #4's I believe. I thought Savage was handed the job right out of the draft for no other reason as we had no better Safety already on hand. He flashed here or there but with Pettine's system I thought it slowed down his development. These last 4 games or so he has really came on like a light switch. After years of seeing HHCD, what a relief. I will also say though not a pick Amos had trended down year over year and lately as well has really played solid, his best ball this year. I have always liked having vets in key spots on offense and defense to show talented younger players what work you have to put in to be great players and community leaders. I think the Pack has the right mix. I see a lot of greatness and a lot of Love around the team. The O and D coaching staffs have done good as well. Pettine is a bit too conservative for me. I hope he turns it up a notch. We will need to. GPG

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Qoojo's picture

January 09, 2021 at 12:57 pm

That's an unrealistic expectation for any draft pick. Drafted players are an investment by the team, and generally, the returns are not finalized for 3 years. Most DL/OL draft picks need at least one offseason to bulk up for the nfl, but there are rare exceptions. Some draft picks can and do start, but the expectation of starting is really just wishful thinking and cannot be banked on.

Patience.

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PhantomII's picture

January 09, 2021 at 01:33 pm

Chase young, Jenkins....Our #1 pick should have been Claypool 12+ TD's ROOKS all. Jenkins #2 pick, nailed it. # 3 Deguara would be starting if not injured. Either you nail the #1 pick or you don't, it's a simple as that unless you already have a pro bowl/ all pro in a depth spot up for contract. A full off season definitely helps but expecting a #1 pick to start is not far fetched. Gary will be better than Z in a year. Savage will only get better. Gute is nailing the drafts as of late. Our offensive line has a ton of depth. We're in good shape. If Love is like the rest long term we are good. Him learning from greatness, all the better, even though short term I would have liked a WR in case Adams is double/ triple covered. ML offense has widened Rodgers super bowl window.

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Stroh's picture

January 09, 2021 at 10:31 pm

Most teams draft for need, so the 1st rd pick is required to play as a rookie, whether he is ready or not or even doesn't deserve to start. The Packers routinely draft BPA (or maybe BPP - Best Potential Player) and consider them investments and treat them as such! Gary being a perfect example. And Gary might well be starting for the Packers, except they signed 2 veteran FA. When the draft came Gary was BPP and a premium position (which is another draft strategy the Packers employ). They almost always use 1st ed picks on the most important positions (QB, OT, CB, PASS RUSH). Go check it out! Been that way since Wolf took over!

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PhantomII's picture

January 10, 2021 at 01:30 am

I looked it up all teams #1 picks start or are worked in at some point their rookie year. Gary didn't play the position making him a project. He's ahead of the learning curve. Gute was handed a mess. He has turned the ship around to a large degree. I think looking at nearly all of his picks are pretty good. I'm not a GM but I do write down the players who are available to fill positions I know we need. I pick at least as good as most do. Gary will be better than Z next year. I would have gotten a DT next to clark on the cheap. Gary is good with upside, Savage is good with upside. Jenkins is awesome right out of the gate no matter where they put him. Dillon? Potential for sure. Degura started until hurt and looked good, Alexander is shutting down everyone this year. A lot of OL extras with depth potential minimum. I was just being honest in my take on things. I was pleasantly surprised in Gary's growth in the position.

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Stroh's picture

January 10, 2021 at 08:09 pm

How many of those 1st ed picks had 2FA signings starting in front of him?! Much less that those FA each had double digit sack numbers (13.5 & 12). You can't take that kinda production off the field just to get a rookie some snaps when your playing for division championships or conference Championships!

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Thegreatreynoldo's picture

January 10, 2021 at 05:19 am

The difference also is in the overall pick. We're so used to picking 26th or worse that one forgets what a top 12 or even top 20 pick looks like. If they don't start, they play a lot. Here is a 45 year recap of top 20 picks:

#12: Gary - played 1/4 of snaps.
#18: Jaire - 1st year starter.
#9: BJ Raji. Played a lot.
#16: Harrell - bust
#5: Hawk - 1st year starter
#10: Reynolds - bust
#14: Bubba Franks - 1st year starter
#19: Vinnie Holiday - 1st year starter
#16: Aaron Taylor - 1st year starter
#15: Wayne Simmons - 8 game starter
#5: Terrell Buckley - 1st year starter
#19: Vinnie Clark - rotational
#18: tony Bennett - played rarely, IIRC
#19: Darrell Thompson - 2nd RB
#2: Mandarich - I don't remember rookie yr.
#7: Sterling Sharpe - 1st year starter
#4: Fullwood - rotational #2 RB
#7: Ruettgers - I don't remember his rookie yr.
#12: Carreker - 1st year starter
#11: Tim Lewis - 7 gm Starter/played a lot
#6: Campbell - QBs don't count
#4: Bruce Clark - 1st yr starter but elsewhere
#15: Eddie Lee Ivery - played 1 gm ACL, 2nd year starter
#6: James Lofton - year 1 starter
#9: mike Butler - 1st year starter

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stockholder's picture

January 10, 2021 at 09:19 am

Trading Simmons was a big mistake. A bigger one was letting Ted Hendricks go.

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stockholder's picture

January 10, 2021 at 08:59 am

Were winning! I don't agree with drafting need any longer. The reason this team is better is because of 4 Veterans signed. Smiths, Amos,and Turner. Not to mention the departed Tramon Williams. They no longer have to rush any player. They can fill any position with un-drafted Free Agents and still win. They can sign cast offs and still win. They can draft late and still win. Players want to be part of winning. Winning makes players step up. Execution is everything. Brady left the patriots and looked what happened. If Rodgers leaves, forget winning. BG players stepped up because of Chemistry. Opportunity! But mostly leadership. Arron Rodgers is the franchise. And he only needed to know he wasn't alone. Veteran leadership can do that.

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