6:50 AM ET
Bill BarnwellESPN Staff Writer
- Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for ESPN.com.
After the hype suggesting that this would be a wild 2020 NFL draft because of the coronavirus-enforced information gap between organizations, the weekend actually went mostly by the book. Teams generally stayed put and chose the prospects or attacked the positions we would have expected. Most of the trades were mild. Last year, we had two shockers across the first six picks with edge rusher Clelin Ferrell going to the Raiders and the Giants drafting quarterback Daniel Jones. There was no similarly stunning pick in the first half of the first round this time around.
Of course, by the time we got to Saturday night, there were a few puzzling moves. We saw the Green Bay Packers and Philadelphia Eagles unexpectedly draft quarterbacks and infuriate a portion of their fan bases in the process. In a draft that didn’t contain much controversy, those two quarterback situations stand out as the most controversial decisions.
Let’s run through them and try to see what each organization might have been thinking. From my perspective, while we don’t know anything about which quarterback prospects are likely to pan out, these teams can justify their decisions pretty easily.
What were the Packers thinking?
How on earth could the Packers draft a quarterback in the first round when Aaron Rodgers desperately needs receiving help? While we won’t know whether the decision to trade up four spots to No. 26 to draft Utah State’s Jordan Love was the right one for several years, the arguments I’ve seen surrounding their decision don’t hold up under much scrutiny. At the very least, they’re slightly off. Let me start with the most obvious one:
Green Bay is not one receiver away from winning a Super Bowl.
I know it’s tempting for Packers fans to look at what happened in 2019 and think they’re a break or two away from a title. The Packers went 13-3 in coach Matt LaFleur’s first season with the team and made it to the NFC Championship Game. They have every right to expect to be in the mix again this season, given that they’ll return just about every key player from last year’s team. We all know that Rodgers is capable of just about anything if the Packers get into the playoffs.
All of those facts about 2019 are true, but upon closer inspection, it’s tough to expect Green Bay to win with the same formula in 2020. I write about this every year over the summer when I look at the teams that are most likely to improve or decline, and I’ll get to that as we get closer to the NFL season, but this team is arguably the league’s most likely to decline next season.
Start with that 13-3 record. The Packers outscored their opponents by a total of 63 points. We can use their Pythagorean expectation to estimate that a team with that sort of point differential typically wins about 9.7 games, and we can use history to find that the vast majority of teams with that sort of difference between their actual win total and expected win total almost always decline. By that measure alone, we would expect the Packers to drop off to about 10-6 in 2020.
By DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average), the Packers were the 10th-best team in football, alongside the Eagles and Rams and behind the Cowboys. They outperformed their point differential and DVOA because they went 6-1 in games decided by seven points or fewer and had two additional wins by eight points.
Rodgers was 34-34-1 in starts decided by seven points or fewer before the 2019 season began. Anything is possible, but the vast majority of teams that have such a lopsided record in one-score games don’t keep that up the following season. Teams that won five more one-score games than they lost in a given year since 1989 were 92-114 the following season, including last season’s Rams, who went from 6-1 in one-score games in 2018 to 3-3 last season.
The Packers also benefited from having a healthy Rodgers for all 16 games, and that can never be guaranteed. (Adding Love is quietly an advantage in the short term if Rodgers gets injured again, although they didn’t need to use a first-round pick to find a viable backup quarterback.) Opposing offenses were able to start their Week 1 quarterbacks 11 times against Green Bay last season, with the Packers also facing a pair of rookies and three injury replacements. Most notably, they went up against Matt Moore as opposed to Patrick Mahomes in their 31-24 win over the Chiefs. Narrow victories over the Chiefs, Lions and Panthers might have gone differently if those teams had been able to use their typical starting quarterback.
Green Bay was also incredibly healthy on defense after being forced to play defensive backs off the street because of injuries in 2018. While possible starting linebacker Oren Burks tore a pectoral muscle in the preseason, its 11 starters on defense heading into the season missed a total of four games all campaign. Darnell Savage missed two games, Kevin King was out for one and B.J. Goodson missed one after stepping in for Burks.
The Packers dominated the NFC North in a way that’s also unlikely to keep happening. They went 6-0 in the division for the first time since 2011. There have been 21 prior cases of a team going 6-0 inside its division since the league went to its current structure in 2002, and just one of those teams — the 2013 Colts — repeated the feat the following season. The other 21 teams won an average of 3.3 divisional games the following season.
When Caesars Sportsbook posted its over/under totals for the 2020 season before the draft, it seemed shocking to some that the Packers were posted at just 8.5 wins, 4.5 wins below their 2020 record. I suspect the factors above might have contributed to what seemed like a pessimistic expectation. Anything can happen, but the most realistic expectation for this team would be to take a step backward and finish somewhere in the 9-7 range.
Of course, if we’re working off the idea that the 2020 Packers aren’t likely to be as good as they were in 2019, you could make an even stronger argument that they needed to draft somebody who was more likely to impact the team in 2020 than a quarterback prospect. My response there is to say …
The Packers needed another defensive piece more than they needed a weapon for Rodgers.
Offense was not the problem for the Packers last season. While they looked better on defense by raw totals, they finished the season eighth in offensive DVOA and 15th in defensive DVOA. Mike Pettine’s defense most notably finished 23rd in run defense DVOA, a weakness that was exploited to no end when the 49ers ran for 285 yards and four touchdowns in the NFC title game. (Another argument against the “we’re one game away” idea is the fact that the Packers were never in either of their games against the 49ers.)
Green Bay was able to succeed on defense because it forced the league’s third-highest interception rate and was the fourth-best defense at holding teams to field goals in the red zone. Neither of those elements of the game are particularly stable from year to year. To keep things close to home, the 2018-19 Bears are a good example of a defense that thrived in those categories, but they fell from first to 26th in interception rate and fifth to 13th in red zone touchdown rate last season.
Dan Orlovsky and Marcus Spears explain what the Packers’ drafting Jordan Love means for Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay, and Spears even suggests that Rodgers might ask for a trade.
As I mentioned earlier, this defense is also all but guaranteed to face more injuries in 2020. This offseason, they lost linebackers Blake Martinez and Kyler Fackrell while adding only oft-injured former Browns starter Christian Kirksey to replace them. I understand there are Packers fans who might see moving on from Martinez as addition by subtraction, and this defense has four first-rounders on the books from their prior four drafts, but defense is still the problem dragging down the team. Drafting linebacker Patrick Queen could have made the most significant impact if the Packers wanted to improve their 2020 team.
I agree with the general sentiment that the Packers haven’t done enough to surround Rodgers with talent over the course of his career. The stat floating around noting how he has thrown just one touchdown pass to a first-round pick over the course of his career is mind-blowing.
After former second-round pick Davante Adams, it’s impossible to argue that Rodgers has much in the way of highly touted receivers with whom to work. His top two wideouts after Adams were undrafted free agent Allen Lazard and former fifth-round pick Marquez Valdes-Scantling. The Packers used a third-round pick last year on tight end Jace Sternberger, but receiver has not been a position of priority in Green Bay going on a decade now. Their last significant selection before Adams was Randall Cobb, who was taken with the last pick of the second round in 2011.
That’s indisputable, but what I also would say is …
While Love is a risky prospect, so are wide receivers in that range of the draft.
If the comparison was between Love and a wideout who was absolutely, positively guaranteed to make an immediate impact over the next two seasons, the choice would be easy. Pick the wide receiver. As you can probably guess, though, it’s not that simple. Take a look at the list of receivers who were drafted between the 21st and 31st selections between 2009 and 2018. I’ll include the receiving yards they racked up over their first two pro seasons:
It’s a huge swath of talent with totally different careers, many of which are still in progress. The average production from these wideouts over their first two seasons, when they would be expected to have an immediate impact for the Packers, is 1,151 yards, or slightly more than what Valdes-Scantling (1,033 receiving yards) has racked up over his first two campaigns. A rookie wideout with Rodgers could expect to be in better shape than, say, Demaryius Thomas was with Tim Tebow, but you get the idea here: Adding a wide receiver at the bottom of the first round isn’t a guarantee that the Packers would have upgraded on Valdes-Scantling or Lazard.
Doing something that seems like it’s going to help Rodgers doesn’t guarantee it’ll actually move the needle. How many Packers fans were in favor two years ago when general manager Brian Gutekunst added a weapon for Rodgers by signing Jimmy Graham to a three-year, $30 million contract? It was easy to envision Rodgers and Graham working in lockstep for red zone touchdowns, but the tight end scored just five times and averaged just under 34 receiving yards per game during his time in Green Bay.
When you consider the relative positional scarcity of quarterbacks and wide receivers, the Packers had a far better chance of finding a useful receiver outside of the first round than they did of finding their quarterback of the future, especially given the depth in this draft. And while we know a little more now than we did then, it’s also important to make the case that …
The first-round pick wasn’t the Packers’ only chance at improving at receiver.
The Packers’ decision to draft running back AJ Dillon with their second-round pick (No. 62) was far more curious to me than taking Love in the first round. If you evaluate Love and think he’s a franchise quarterback, the value in drafting a quarterback is clear. There are only so many of those guys available, and if you have a chance to take one and can see a future where you don’t have one, you take him.
A running back, though? I get that the Packers might not want to sign Aaron Jones to an extension, but running back is the position you can fill with a midround pick. Jones himself was a fifth-round selection. Dillon is a powerful back, but he carried the ball 845 times at Boston College and caught a total of just 21 passes. In the modern NFL, there’s a near-endless supply of backs who are useful zone runners but don’t offer much as a receiver. Love offers the possibility of enormous upside; Dillon can’t really do that as a second-round running back given his skill set.
The Packers already have added one veteran wide receiver to the mix. I understand fans aren’t necessarily excited about Devin Funchess, who missed the final 15 games of 2019 with a collarbone injury, but he averaged 558 receiving yards per season during his time with Carolina, which is right in line with what those first-round picks averaged during their opening two seasons. It’s not out of the question that Funchess outproduces rookies Tee Higgins or Michael Pittman Jr., who were the first wideouts off the board after the Packers chose Love.
While I would question the Packers not selecting a single wideout during the entire draft, it’s not out of the question that they’ll be able to add a veteran receiver over the next few months. Those receivers get cut every year over the summer and through training camp, and some of them make an impact in their new places. James Jones’ 2015 season with the Packers comes to mind.
I mentioned him in my piece on wideouts likely to be cut or traded in the coming months, but Kenny Stills is an obvious candidate for the Packers. He is due $8 million in 2020, which wouldn’t typically be tenable for a fourth wideout in Houston. It’s also not difficult to imagine scenarios in which veterans such as A.J. Green, Tyrell Williams, Curtis Samuel and Dante Pettis come available via trade, and the Packers should pursue them if they do. If they take advantage of one of those opportunities — or if someone else totally unexpected comes available — the decision to pass on a wideout in Round 1 won’t be as damaging to their short-term chances.
One more reason Green Bay fans are upset about passing on a wide receiver is that they’re not confident about Love. I have to admit that I’m also skeptical of Love, given that he wasn’t particularly good in the Mountain West Conference, where he nearly threw as many touchdowns (20) as interceptions (17) in 2019. What I will say is …
This situation isn’t all that different from when the Packers drafted Rodgers in 2005.
I could do a whole other article on this, so let me be brief. With hindsight, we can look back and say that it was easy for the Packers to draft Rodgers and that there was a dramatic difference between him and Love as prospects. That’s not realistic. There were plenty of reasons NFL teams were skeptical of Rodgers at the time, most notably the idea that he was another product of Jeff Tedford, who had sent first-rounders such as Akili Smith, Joey Harrington and Kyle Boller to the pros, only for them to fail.
The idea that Rodgers was in the mix for the first overall pick and then wasn’t really an option for other teams before the Packers snapped him up at No. 24 is also revisionist history. The Dolphins drafted Ronnie Brown at No. 2 and started a 34-year-old Gus Frerotte at quarterback. The Browns added Braylon Edwards as opposed to upsetting their mix of Trent Dilfer and Charlie Frye. Teams starting Chris Simms, Mark Brunell, Drew Bledsoe, Jake Delhomme, Trent Green, Kyle Boller and Kerry Collins all passed on drafting Rodgers before the Packers took him. Most of the league passed on Rodgers until he fell to a roughly similar spot as Love.
Likewise, when the Packers drafted Rodgers, they were coming off a winning season. Green Bay went 10-6 and won the NFC North before losing at home in the playoffs to the Vikings. Those Packers didn’t need a wide receiver, as both Donald Driver and Javon Walker topped 1,200 receiving yards in 2004. On defense, though, they finished 29th in DVOA and allowed the league’s second-highest passer rating (99.1). They desperately needed defensive help and chose to draft Rodgers in lieu of helping a 35-year-old Favre. The Packers didn’t make the playoffs over the next couple of years, but they made it to the NFC Championship Game in 2007, Favre’s final season with the team, before Rodgers took over.
Things weren’t exactly the same. Rookies weren’t bargains back then, so Rodgers’ five-year deal was for a total of $7.7 million, which would amount to $17.8 million after adjusting for cap inflation. Love’s four-year pact will come in around $12.4 million; he could top Rodgers’ mark with his fifth-year option, but Green Bay won’t have to decide on that for several years.
As an aside, don’t buy the arguments that Rodgers is about to leave or get traded. It’s not financially feasible. The Packers would owe $51.1 million in dead money if they moved on from him this year and $31.6 million if they did so in 2021. They could spread that across two years if they make Rodgers a post-June 1 release after this season, but that would take an Antonio Brown-sized blowup with the organization. The most likely time frame would be 2022, when cutting or trading him would cost $17.2 million in dead money. With the cap possibly hitting $250 million that year, the Packers could move on from him without feeling too much of a pinch.
And one final question: Are we sure adding Love is going to be a negative thing for Rodgers? All I’ve seen and heard is the perception that drafting Love is going to make Rodgers angry. Isn’t there a chance it lights a fire under Rodgers, too? I have no doubt that he wants badly to win and didn’t need another quarterback to convince him as much, but this is the first time in a decade that the Packers have exhibited any doubt in his ability to be their quarterback for years to come. Rodgers was motivated by skepticism when he entered the league; he might also be motivated by skepticism as he approaches the end of his career too.
What were the Eagles thinking?
While the Eagles didn’t draft Jalen Hurts in the middle of the second round to replace Carson Wentz, Philly fans hoping to add more talent around their star quarterback were angered by the move. We’re only a little over two years removed from the Eagles winning a Super Bowl with backup quarterback Nick Foles, but they have struggled to build on that title run. The wide receiver and cornerback positions have been consistent sources of frustration. They have won one playoff game over the ensuing two years, and even that took a Double Doink.
While general manager Howie Roseman successfully added speedy weapons for Wentz by drafting Jalen Reagor (Round 1) and John Hightower (Round 5) and trading for veteran Marquise Goodwin, the decision to use the No. 53 overall pick on Hurts attracted a mixed reaction. It fits Philadelphia’s philosophy and offers both short- and long-term value. Here’s why:
The Eagles can’t count on Wentz staying healthy.
While the former No. 2 overall pick has missed a relatively modest eight regular-season games across four seasons, Wentz has played just one playoff quarter out of 24. He tore an ACL in 2017, suffered a season-ending back injury in 2018 and then was knocked out of the game by a borderline-dirty hit from Jadeveon Clowney during the wild-card game against the Seahawks last season. Wentz has done enough to get the Eagles to the playoffs, but he hasn’t been able to finish a season since he was a rookie in 2016.
Nobody doubts his toughness, but as was the case with Andrew Luck, there are questions about whether Wentz can protect himself and stay out of situations where he’s liable to get injured. The 2017 and 2019 injuries both came on plays in which Wentz left the pocket under modest pressure, improvised and was hit as a scrambler. Injuries aren’t predictive — Matthew Stafford missed time in each of his first two seasons and then didn’t miss a game across the subsequent eight years — but the Eagles can’t afford to count on Wentz playing all 16 games and throughout the entirety of the playoffs. It would be naive. It also would go against something we know about the Eagles …
This organization has always prioritized having a second viable quarterback.
This is a habit going back to Andy Reid, who might be the NFL’s best coach when it comes to developing young passers. This organization drafted A.J. Feeley and Kevin Kolb before trading them both for second-round picks. Reid also drafted Nick Foles before the Chip Kelly regime packaged Foles with a second-round pick in a deal for Sam Bradford. On the veteran side, the Eagles brought in Jeff Garcia and Michael Vick as backups to Donovan McNabb before eventually using each of them as starters on playoff runs.
Unsurprisingly, Roseman has been similarly aggressive toward backup quarterbacks. After regaining power from Kelly in 2016, Roseman handed Chase Daniel a three-year, $21 million deal to be Bradford’s No. 2 before immediately drafting Wentz. Roseman then cut Daniel in 2017 and signed Foles to a two-year, $11 million deal. With Philly adding voidable years to deals to create short-term cap room and moving on from players such as Malcolm Jenkins and Nigel Bradham for cap purposes this offseason, it doesn’t appear like it was a serious player for veteran backups like Foles or Marcus Mariota in March.
While the Eagles have professed their affection for undrafted free agent Nate Sudfeld, who has spent the past three years with the organization, Hurts has a higher floor and a higher ceiling. Sudfeld is on a one-year, $2 million deal, while the entirety of Hurts’ four-year rookie contract should cost somewhere around $6 million. He’s a low-cost option to fill the backup role behind Wentz. With coach Doug Pederson in the same league as Reid when it comes to quarterback development, Hurts should have some meaningful trade value by the time 2023 rolls around.
The former Chiefs coordinator’s work with Foles and Wentz suggests Pederson should be able to do just fine with Hurts in the long term. In the short term, Hurts also can make a difference …
Hurts can handle a Taysom Hill-sized workload for the Eagles, even if he doesn’t play like Hill.
Let’s be clear here. Hurts’ game is nothing like Hill’s, regardless of how much the Saints just committed to their quasi-quarterback. Hill has played 423 offensive snaps over the past two seasons and thrown a total of 13 passes. He has caught 22 passes over that same time frame. Hurts is not that kind of threat, though I suspect the Eagles will try to integrate at least one package in which they use Hurts and Wentz on the field at the same time to try to confuse opposing defenses.
Hurts is not a receiver. He’s not a running back. He’s a true quarterback who also can serve as an effective runner. The Eagles can make use of those skills, even while Wentz is healthy. To start, the Eagles (or Wentz himself) have been aggressive about sneaking their starter. Wentz carried the ball 14 times on third or fourth down with 2 yards or less to go last season, which was as frequently as Ravens QB Lamar Jackson carried the ball in the same situations. Only the Bills’ Josh Allen ran the ball more frequently in short-yardage last season.
Tim Tebow expects that Jalen Hurts will force opposing defenses to prepare for hours before they play the Eagles.
It’s easy to imagine a scenario in which the Eagles sub in Hurts in those situations. He carried the ball 12 times in short-yardage situations over the past two seasons, converting 11 for first downs or touchdowns. (He lost 11 yards on the other try.) Bringing Hurts into the game into those spots allows the Eagles to run high-efficiency sneaks without exposing their starting quarterback to extra hits. I’d also fully expect the Eagles to “borrow” some of the run-pass options Hurts ran at Alabama and Oklahoma to make the quarterback’s life easier as he adjusts to the speed of the NFL. Of course, Hurts also has the passing ability to threaten teams as a pocket passer and could be absolutely devastating off play-action.
Hurts doesn’t have a realistic chance of usurping Wentz as the full-time starter, but he doesn’t need to do so to return value for the Eagles. It’s not difficult to imagine a scenario in which he contributes on a handful of offensive plays per game, starts a game or two per year when Wentz gets injured, and either nets a compensatory pick or gets traded for a draft pick at the end of his deal. In a league in which effective backups cost somewhere in the range of $6 million to $7 million per season, Hurts could turn out to be a worthwhile use of a second-round pick for Philadelphia.