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Packers use draft to improve versatility on defense

April 28, 2019
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell announces that Rashan Gary of Michigan will be headed to the Green Bay Packers during the first round at the NFL football draft, Thursday, April 25, 2019, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell announces that Rashan Gary of Michigan will be headed to the Green Bay Packers during the first round at the NFL football draft, Thursday, April 25, 2019, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

GREEN BAY, Wis. (AP) — Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst insisted he went into the NFL draft prepared to go for the best available player with each of Green Bay’s eight picks.

He thinks that plan worked out well for its biggest need: Defense.

“I feel really good right now” about the defense, said Gutekunst on Saturday after finishing his second draft with Green Bay.

“These guys have to come together as a team, and that takes a lot of work and a lot of time. I’m excited about (second-year defensive coordinator) Mike Pettine and the second year in the system, but the additions we made, I think we’re very optimistic about what these guys can do.”

First-round picks Michigan edge rusher Rashan Gary and Maryland safety Darnell Savage, who the Packers traded up to get, should have an immediate impact for Pettine.

On Saturday, three of the Packers’ four picks were defensive players: Texas A&M defensive lineman Kingsley Keke, Toledo cornerback Ka’dar Hollman and TCU inside linebacker Ty Summers.

“I think we’ve added a lot of playmakers on the defensive side of the ball,” Packers first-year head coach Matt LaFleur said. “I think we definitely upgraded our ability to rush the passer. Being an offensive coach, there’s nothing harder on an offense, especially if you can rotate guys through.”

In his first year as defensive coordinator, Pettine’s injury-filled unit finished the season ranked 18th in total defense (354.4 yards per game) and 22nd in scoring defense (25.0 points per game). In his previous seasons as the defensive coordinator for the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills, Pettine had never had a group finish outside the top 10 in total defense.

Having already added three projected starters on defense in free agency in outside linebackers Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith and safety Adrian Amos, the Packers have only a few projected defensive contributors who are older than 26: Cornerback Tramon Williams (35), defensive lineman Mike Daniels (29) and outside linebacker Kyler Fackrell (27).

“Again, a lot of these guys — last year’s draft — and some of the guys we acquired ... obviously there’s an adjustment period,” Gutekunst said. “But I’m really excited about what we have.”

WHO THEY GOT

While the focus turned out to be on defense, the Packers did fill two glaring offensive needs: Offensive line depth and a young, athletic tight end. In the second round, they took Mississippi State center/guard Elgton Jenkins, who should compete for the starting right guard job. In the third, they got Texas A&M tight end Jace Sternberger, who will develop behind veterans Jimmy Graham and Marcedes Lewis. Sternberger, who the Packers feel can be both an effective pass catcher and in-line blocker, could flourish in LaFleur’s system.

“Jace, he’s got a pretty cool skill set. He’s a tight end who can separate,” LaFleur said. “That becomes a little bit of a matchup nightmare for a defense.”

SURPRISE MOVE

Gutekunst used both of the team’s fourth-round picks to trade up to get Savage. Gutekunst said he had to make that trade to ensure he got him — “I know for a fact we would not have gotten him at 30,” he said — but it did make for a difficult morning.

“Historically, we’ve tried not to have those gaps,” Gutekunst said. “It was a long wait. But our numbers were strong, which was nice.”

HOW THEY DID

When he watched the Packers defense last season, Gutekunst felt Pettine didn’t have what he really needed — versatile players. And now Gutenkunst feels he’s given Pettine a more flexible crew.

“Mike’s big on moving pieces, and I thought we needed to get a lot more pieces for him to move around,” Gutekunst said. “I feel much better now than I did previously.”

WHAT’S NEXT?

Having been more active in free agency than they had been under Gutekunst’s predecessor, Ted Thompson, the Packers have most of the pieces they plan to go into training camp with. That said, Gutekunst has said from the moment he got the GM job that he will use every avenue of player acquisition, and the team also has a history with undrafted players contributing.

The team did stand pat at wide receiver, but having picked three receivers in last year’s draft, that wasn’t entirely surprising.

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