Packers Made All the Right Moves to Extend Aaron Rodgers' Super Bowl Window

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystMay 3, 2018

FILE - In this Dec. 17, 2017, file photo, Green Bay Packers' Aaron Rodgers looks to pass against the Carolina Panthers during the first half of an NFL football game in Charlotte, N.C. Rodgers wants to follow Tom Brady's path and still chuck it when he's in his 40s. He also accepts that in today's NFL he might again follow Brett Favre's footsteps and one day don something other than the green and gold.  (AP Photo/Mike McCarn, File)
Mike McCarn/Associated Press

To say that the Green Bay Packers had a disappointing season in 2017 is akin to saying that the Cleveland Browns struggled to win games. It's technically true, but it doesn't begin to tell the whole story. 

When superstar quarterback Aaron Rodgers went down in Week 6 with a broken collarbone, the Packers went from contender to pretender in the blink of an eye. It was a stark reminder that as goes No. 12, so goes Green Bay. And at 34 years old, Rodgers' championship window isn't getting any wider.

That made the edict clear for new general manager Brian Gutekunst and the Packers in 2018: Improve the roster on both sides of the ball to again be a legitimate Super Bowl contender.

As the dust settles around the 2018 NFL draft, a quick look at the Packers roster shows that Gutekunst did his best to accomplish that goal.

As Jason Wilde reported for the Wisconsin State Journal, head coach Mike McCarthy praised Gutekunst's first go-round calling the shots in the Green Bay war room.

"I thought he did good. I thought he did real good," McCarthy said. "He was confident, knew the board and he knew exactly what he wanted. Very composed.

Green Bay GM Brian Gutekunst
Green Bay GM Brian GutekunstMike Roemer/Associated Press

"He needs to work on his introduction to the new players [after each pick]. And his handoff [of the telephone] to the head coach needs to be better. But we'll get that right next year."

Quips aside, the Packers draft class that's been generally well-received by pundits, with Lance Zierlein of ranking it among the 10 best in the league.

Early in the draft, Green Bay's focus was improving a pass defense that allowed 236.8 yards per game in 2017—23rd in the league. First-round pick Jaire Alexander of Louisville was the top-ranked cornerback on Mike Mayock of NFL Network's draft board other than Denzel Ward. In addition to Alexander, who allowed just one completion per 50 coverage snaps last year, the Packers picked up the New Orleans Saints' first-round pick in 2019 when they slid back 13 spots in Round 1.

Gutekunst went with a cornerback double-dip on Day 2. Bad combine or no, the fact that Iowa's Josh Jackson, who led the FBS with eight interceptions a year ago, was still on the board at No. 45 was one of the bigger surprises of the draft.

Per Wilde, it was a gift that Gutekunst just couldn't pass up.

"We were pretty surprised that Josh lasted as long as he did," Gutekunst said. "You're playing through all the scenarios as we started to get close to our pick, and you had a certain number of players (ranked) A, B, C, D."

Packers second-round pick Josh Jackson
Packers second-round pick Josh JacksonMatthew Holst/Getty Images

"We really liked (Washington wide receiver Dante) Pettis, but our A was there. So, we went with it."

It was a continuation of an overhaul in the secondary that's been going on since early in free agency. In addition to the youngsters, the Packers also brought back veterans Davon House and Tramon Williams.

Those additions should more than offset the losses of Damarious Randall and Morgan Burnett, and combined with players like Kevin King, Josh Jones and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, the Packers now possess a defensive backfield loaded with talent, youth and athleticism.

Some eyebrows went up when the Packers didn't address the pass rush in the draft. But Green Bay wasn't terrible in that regard (17th in the league with 37 sacks) in 2017. The team has a pair of capable rush linebackers in Nick Perry and Clay Matthews. The pair combined for 14.5 sacks last season.

And to be fair, the Packers did make an addition that could bolster the pass rush in 2018—a potentially huge one.

Muhammad Wilkerson's last two seasons with the New York Jets were admittedly something of a mess. But in 2015, Wilkerson had 12 sacks and made the Pro Bowl. If he can come close to recapturing past form, the one-year, $5 million pact he signed with the Pack will be one of free agency's biggest steals.

Muhammad Wilkerson
Muhammad WilkersonAl Pereira/Getty Images

With Wilkerson flanking Mike Daniels on the defensive line, Perry and Matthews should be that much freer to wreak havoc in the backfield.

Wilkerson wasn't the only big name who joined the team in free agency, either. In a departure from the Ted Thompson era, Gutekunst wasn't shy about landing big fish on the open market.

The addition of Jimmy Graham gives Rodgers the best tight end of his career. Over the last two seasons in Seattle, the 31-year-old found the end zone 16 times. He's averaged 8.7 touchdowns a season over his eight-year career.

As Mike Spofford reported for the team's website, one selling point above all others lured Graham to Green Bay: the opportunity to chase a championship with Rodgers.

Jimmy Graham
Jimmy GrahamRonald Martinez/Getty Images

"For me, it's about winning a ring, simple as that," Graham said. "I know this team. I know Aaron's hungry, I know the coaching staff's hungry, this franchise is hungry to win one. That was the defining factor for me."

Graham isn't Rodgers' only new passing-game playmate in 2018. Fourth-round pick J'Mon Moore is a big-bodied wideout who was the second receiver in Missouri history to post two 1,000-yard seasons. Marquez Valdes-Scantling, who was taken in Round 5, is a tantalizing mix of size (6'4") and speed (4.37-second 40). Sixth-rounder Equanimeous St. Brown (given name: Equanimeous Tristan Imhotep J. St. Brown) is an even lankier target at 6'5" with 4.48-second wheels of his own.

That's a whole boatload of potential.

Yes, Jordy Nelson's gone. And it's possible that Nelson's lousy numbers in 2017 had as much to do with Brett Hundley's play at quarterback as it did Nelson's age. But there's no denying those numbers were way down last year—his 482 receiving yards were Nelson's fewest since 2009.

It's fair to ask if the 32-year-old is in decline.

Then, of course, there's the return of Rodgers himself. The two-time MVP is arguably the league's best player at inarguably the most important position in football. And while much was written about Rodgers' unhappiness with some moves the team made (including Nelson's release), he Wilde (writing for that when the time comes, he'll be 100 percent ready to roll.

"The offseason is a great time to recharge and travel and work out and kind of get your mind right," Rodgers said. "But, as always, when the season rolls around, I'll be ready to roll and excited about my 14th season."

This just in...Aaron Rodgers is good.
This just in...Aaron Rodgers is good.Mike McCarn/Associated Press

Vegas oddsmakers appear to be buying the idea that Rodgers and the Packers are on the verge of a big-time bounceback. According to OddsShark, the Packers are tied with the Minnesota Vikings for the best Super Bowl odds of any NFC North team at 12-to-1.

Not bad for a team that went 7-9 in 2017.

It wasn't a perfect offseason for Gutekunst and the Packers. In addition to Rodgers' reported unhappiness with not being consulted on personnel moves, little was done to improve the offensive line. But Rodgers will get over it. The line was already pretty good. And the idea of a perfect offseason is a myth.

Gutekunst has significantly improved the weakest link on Green Bay's roster (the back end of the defense). He added both a veteran red-zone target and a bucket full of potential to the aerial attack. And the Wilkerson acquisition could be an absolute godsend for the front seven.

In his first season running the show in the house that Curly Lambeau built, Gutekunst took a team that was a Super Bowl contender before Rodgers went down and improved it both offensively and defensively. Losses have been compensated for. Gains have been made in necessary areas.

Over the last seven seasons, Green Bay has dominated the NFC North by winning five division titles. If this offseason was any indication, a sixth in eight years could be forthcoming.

The Pack is back. And while that championship window might not be getting any wider, it sure as heck isn't closing yet, either.


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