A six-week review of the NFC North's 2021 draft class seems to suggest Packers General Manager Brian Gutekunst did pretty darn well without the help of Aaron Rodgers and his overinflated sense of personnel expertise.
Coming off consecutive 13-3 seasons and trips to the NFC Championship Game, the Packers presumably went into this year's draft with the strongest of the four 53-man rosters. And yet their rookie draft picks now lead the division in games played (43), snaps on offense/defense (1,068) and are tied with Detroit's class for most starts (15).
One would expect Detroit to have 15 starts and 1,055 non-special teams snaps from rookie draftees. The Lions were 5-11 last year and are still full of holes as the NFL's only winless team this season.
But the Packers? They were the NFC's No. 1 seed a year ago. They are 5-1. They have won five in a row, joining the Ravens (5-1), Cowboys (5-1) and Cardinals (6-0) as the only teams with winning streaks of at least five games.
The Bears, who made the playoffs at 8-8 last year, had a seven-man draft class that's down to a division-low four players still on the active roster. Those four have 447 non-special teams snaps, 18 games played and six starts. Quarterback Justin Fields has six of the games played, four starts and 272 snaps.
The Vikings, who went 7-9 last year, drafted a division-high 11 players. Six of them haven't played. The five who have played have posted division lows in starts (one) and non-special teams snaps (126).
Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman was asked Tuesday if he is disappointed with the early lack of production from this year's draft class.
"I wouldn't say disappointed," he said.
First, Spielman cited left tackle Christian Darrisaw's recent return to good health as one reason for his patience. The first-round draft pick finally overcame his groin injury and looked exceptional while playing 117 snaps with one start the past two weeks.
Good point. But that still leaves 10 other rookie draft picks with a combined zero starts and nine snaps on offense (four) and defense (five).
By comparison, a Chiefs team that went a league-best 14-2 en route to its second consecutive Super Bowl appearance has gotten the following out of a six-man draft class that didn't include a first-round pick:
- Five picks have combined for 32 games played, 18 starts and 1,269 non-special teams snaps.
- Right guard Trey Smith, a sixth-round pick, and center Creed Humphrey, a second-round pick, have played every offensive snap.
- Veteran left tackle Orlando Brown Jr., acquired in a trade that cost Kansas City its first-round pick, also has played every offensive snap.
- The Brown trade also came with Baltimore's second-round pick. The Chiefs used that pick on linebacker Nick Bolton, who has started all six games.
Before y'all grab your "Fire Spielman!" placards and head for TCO Performance Center, at least listen to more of what the Purple GM had to say while defending his draft.
According to Spielman, his philosophy was to fill the many holes in this year's roster with veteran free agents on one-year deals. That, he said, allowed him to use the bulk of his draft picks on special athletes "with unique physical traits" that can be developed for 2022, when all these one-year deals and others, such as linebacker Anthony Barr's, expire.
All told, Spielman did 13 one-year deals to give coach Mike Zimmer the veteran presence the team lost a year ago. Among those 13 players are defensive starters Patrick Peterson, Everson Griffen, Xavier Woods, Nick Vigil and Bashaud Breeland and key defensive contributors Mackensie Alexander, Sheldon Richardson and Stephen Weatherly.
"Every year is different," Spielman said. "This year's draft class, guys may not have to contribute this year because of who we have in front of them and how we built this roster.
"So some of the [draft picks] we took some swings on, especially on [Day 3], may not have been ready right away, but they have such unique physical traits that we're going to be able to take some time to develop those guys."
Part of Spielman's two-year plan requires some leaps of faith. Like third-rounder Kellen Mond (zero snaps) becoming an NFL quarterback capable of replacing Kirk Cousins in a couple years. Or third-rounder Chazz Surratt (zero defensive snaps) being able to replace Barr next year.
Or raw third-rounder Patrick Jones II (zero defensive snaps) maximizing his unique, eye-popping physical traits to the point where he could start if the Vikings and Danielle Hunter hit a financial deadlock when $18 million of next year's $20 million salary comes due on the fifth day of the league year. Or fourth-rounder Camryn Bynum (four defensive snaps) being able to replace Woods one year after moving from college cornerback to NFL safety.
One could go on, but you get the idea. If the current Spielman/Mike Zimmer regime survives an eighth season together, hard decisions will have to be made to finesse the roster into 2022. If the current regime doesn't survive, the next one will just detonate, start over and spend next year talking about "changing the culture."
"As we go forward and have to manipulate the cap next year and try to make decisions on contract extensions and everything, a lot of these [rookie draft picks] are going to get the opportunity and are going to have to step in and fill some of these roles," Spielman said.
Meanwhile, the Packers chose a different path. Not only did they fill a need in the first round (cornerback Eric Stokes) they found starting offensive linemen in the second and fourth rounds.
Second-rounder Josh Myers replaced All-Pro center Corey Linsley, starting five games (including four with 100% of the snaps). And fourth-rounder Royce Newman has played every snap at right guard.
Rodgers might not like it, but players playing and GMs GMing appears to be going pretty well in Green Bay so far this year.