It’s no secret that in this day and age, NFL general managers are often heading into the draft looking for immediate impact players. Gone are the days where quarterbacks were given 3-5 years to develop, where wide receivers aren’t expected to have an All-Pro level rookie season and where 3rd round picks are expected to develop for a few years before seeing quality snaps. General managers and fans both want to see their teams’ selections on the field, making an impact as soon as possible. And honestly, with some of the talent coming out of college the past few years, it’s completely understandable.
Due to salary cap situations around the league and star players demanding (and receiving) bigger contracts than ever before, it’s hard to not see where the incentive for immediate impact comes into play. Rookie deals allow organizations far more flexibility and having an impact player at any position on a rookie deal is the closest thing to a “cheat code” as you’ll be able to find. However, as teams continue to throw players into the fire and expect results from the get-go, the Green Bay Packers have continued to rely on drafting and developing their picks over the “long” term, a route that angers fans but has paid dividends in some cases. And while there are plenty of cases where this route has hurt the Packers chances of potentially winning a Super Bowl for that given year, there are plenty of highlights to look at over the last decade. Below, I’ll overview how this methodology has benefited the Packers over the last decade.
I won’t waste time talking about the Packers willingness to draft and develop their quarterbacks, as we’ve seen Aaron Rodgers win four MVP’s and a Super Bowl since he was sitting behind Brett Favre for his first three years. Jordan Love is about to go into his third year and will likely be rostered as QB2 for the entirety of it. Atypical? Yes. Successful? So far, so yes.
If Love does end up becoming the Packers next franchise QB, the QB development model in the NFL may very well change compared to what it is now. Patrick Mahomes sat for a year. Tom Brady and Brett Favre did as well. Those three + Rodgers make a decent grouping to justify giving rookie QB’s a year or two to take the reins. Love will be an interesting study over the next couple years and I’m sure I’ll come back around to follow up on that.
The Offensive Line
One of the most evident position the Packers have utilized the “draft and develop” mindset has been at the offensive line position. This isn’t to say that the Packers don’t let their drafted offensive linemen take snaps while still green, but rather allow them to develop into true starters before tossing them into the starting lineup. Players like David Bakhtiari, Corey Linsley, and Royce Newman come to mind when thinking of Packers that played every game as a rookie. Josh Meyers was likely on his way before getting banged up. But looking at other starters than have seen significant snaps recently, it’s no secret that the Packers would prefer to have them learn the ropes before stepping onto the catwalk.
Take for example Lucas Patrick, who started 28 games for the Packers in 2020 and 2021 before signing with the Bears this offseason, started only 6 games in his first 3 years and played 29%, 29% and 15%, respectively, of snaps. He was rostered for 40 games, but the team had decided to allow him to continue to develop before giving him the reigns at a Center, LG, and RG. He was considered a liability in his few spot starts during his first few years, but was developed into a solid NFL lineman by the time he was named the starter in 2020, Playing 90% and 82% of snaps in his last two years.
Jon Runyan Jr. played very limited snaps (15%) during his rookie year, filling in when injuries occurred. He was by no means bad in those snaps, however, the team decided to rely on more proven commodities following a player getting banged up. He started 0 games in his rookie season. After an entire year and two off-seasons of development (and a few injuries taking place), he started 16 of 17 games during the 2021 season and played far better than he had during his rookie campaign. While there is still room to improve, the Packers allowed him to put on more weight and get a feel for the NFL pace before naming him a starter.
Last year’s unsung hero, Yosh Nijman, is another great example of the Packers developing and waiting until the time is right. After being signed (he was an UDFA out of college), the Packers developed him for his entire rookie year, giving him 14 snaps all season and 0 starts. That’s not unexpected for an UDFA, however, when Elgton Jenkins tore his ACL playing left tackle in relief of Bakhtiari, Yosh was thrust into the starting role in the most important spot on the line. He started 8 games for the Packers and filled in magnificently. He was a very raw prospect across the board and was in no condition ready to start after his rookie year, but through Adam Stenavich’s development model, was ready to step in when called upon. I’m not an offensive line development guru, but it’s clear to see that whatever development method is in place is working, as quality starters have been molded from Day 3 picks and UDFA’s on a consistent basis.
Another position I want to highlight where the Packers allow more time than other teams before moving on is the wide receiver position. There hasn’t been a rookie wide receiver in recent memory that has come close to being a WR1 and the most productive has probably been Marquez Valdez-Scantling, a drop machine his rookie year (and years following). Likely due to the fact that the Packers haven’t used a first-round pick on a receiver since Javon Walker in 2002, the Packers have found themselves in the position where they have no choice but to either be patient and develop their second and third day picks, or go spend in free agency on guys that may or may not end up fitting their system.
Davante Adams, arguably the best receiver in the NFL, posted just 38 catches, 446 yards and 3 touchdowns his rookie season, with a handful of drops to compliment. I can still remember fans saying to cut him and to keep and start Jeff Janis (Hail Mary GOAT). His second season wasn’t much better, posting a 50/483/1 stat line and again struggling to hold onto the football. But the Packers front office didn’t flinch and in Adam’s third year, he posted a cool 75/997/12 line. Since then, he’s added 57 more touchdowns, just under 6,200 yards and 506 catches in 5 years. Not bad. But if today’s model would have been followed, he would have been gone or replaced after a disappointing first two years in the league.
Jordy Nelson, one of Aaron Rodger’s most productive receivers throughout his career, started his career by throwing up 100 receptions, 1,268 yards and 6 touchdowns in his first three years in the league. In his fourth year alone, he posted a 68/1,263/15 stat line. It should be noted that this was Aaron Rodgers first MVP season but nonetheless, Jordy Nelson’s development played a massive role in Rodgers taking the award home. He tore his ACL the year after but came back 280 catches, 4,090 yards and 35 touchdowns during the next three years.
James Jones averaged just over 460 yards a season throughout his first three years in the league (676 his rookie year with Brett Favre) but struggled immensely with drops and his route tree. After that third year, he averaged over 760 yards a season and even led the league in receiving touchdowns in 2012 with 14. Most players say the biggest difference between the college game and the NFL is the speed at which any given play needs to be made. While there’s no scientific evidence, it appears as though a mixture of adjusting to the NFL speed and continually gaining chemistry with your quarterback is a good starting point for young receivers.
Before concluding this, I’d like to highlight one other player that the Packers truly took an outside development approach with, Rashan Gary. Taken 12th overall in 2019, this selection left fans dumbfounded with the team having signed Preston and Za’Darius Smith to play the outside backer positions in their 3-4 scheme. Gary was truly a “raw” prospect, being the #1 recruit out of high school and registering just 9.5 sacks throughout his three years in college. An athletic freak, the Packers selected him at 12 to merely be the 4th OLB on the depth chart. After letting Kyler Fackrell walk in free agency the following year, he played just 48% of snaps in his second year, compiling 5 sacks to pair with an impressive pressure rating.
However, in his third year, with Z. Smith missing much of the season, Gary came into his own. He played almost 70% of the snaps and registered 9.5 sacks. With every year that passed, Gary looked more and more like the physical specimen that he was talked up to be when selected in 2019. Instead of rushing the raw prospect into a starting role and hoping he could work through the inevitable frustrations, the Packers took an alternative route and allowed him to sit, learn and take in as much as he possibly could so that when his time came, the moment couldn’t be too much and he could build off his successes. As with everything in the NFL, there’s no telling what next season will bring, but if I was a betting man (I am), I would (did) put my money on Gary taking yet another step towards being a premiere edge rusher in the NFL.
Looking back at this, I do want to make note that while the Packers have shown they’re more than willing to wait until the time is right, they are still looking to draft immediate impact players whenever possible. Jaire Alexander, Darnell Savage, Clay Matthews and Bryan Bulaga all come to mind when thinking of first rounder that saw the field all season long.
Eric Stokes did so as well and figured out his play after just a few games. But to be completely honest, a first-round pick playing quality snaps is the absolute minimum for most cases, so this is somewhat like comparing apples to oranges. Quay Walker and Devonte Wyatt look to be in line to receive heavy snaps and ideally would follow suit of their predecessors, so let’s hope the development department can get these guys ready for Week 1. If not, we’ll get to see Dean Lowry and Krys Barnes (a day three pick and an UDFA) show how the process works in Green Bay, as they’ll be better than they were last year – after another year of development.