GREEN BAY, Wis. – At this point last year, the Green Bay Packers appeared to have a long climb to catch the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC.
As it turns out, the 49ers weren’t the Packers’ problem this season. Injuries in 2020 did what the Packers couldn’t do on the field in 2019. Instead, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have blown past the Packers. They routed the Packers in the regular season, upset the Packers in the NFC Championship Game and hammered the Kansas City Chiefs in the Super Bowl.
It’s easy to see how the Buccaneers are the new king of the mountain. Taking advantage of favorable draft positioning, Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht has assembled three consecutive top-notch draft classes. Paired with the arrival of legendary quarterback Tom Brady and some other veterans, the Bucs went from three straight losing seasons to world champions.
“Jason gets all the credit for the roster, and I just try to get out of the way and not screw it up,” Bucs coach Bruce Arians said.
Over the first four rounds of the last three drafts, Licht landed nine starters out of 14 selections. The crown jewel is stud inside linebacker Devin White. The fifth pick of the 2019 draft dominated both matchups against the Packers. This year’s first-round pick, right tackle Tristan Wirfs, does a pretty mean impersonation of a brick wall. He completely silenced the Smith Bros. in the championship game.
Tampa Bay’s secondary, which did such a good job in limiting Green Bay’s passing attack in both games, was built entirely over the last three years with starting cornerbacks Carlton Davis (second round, 2018), Sean Murphy-Bunting (second round, 2019) and Jamel Dean (third round, 2019), and starting safeties Jordan Whitehead (fourth round, 2018) and Antoine Winfield (second round, 2020).
Along with Davis, the 2018 draft produced defensive tackle Vita Vea in the first round, big-play running back Ronald Jones in the second round and guard Alex Cappa in the third round.
In his three drafts running the Packers, general manager Brian Gutekunst hasn’t come close to matching Licht’s success rate. Over the first four rounds of his three drafts, Gutekunst has made 11 draft picks. While he’s hit home runs with Pro Bowl cornerback Jaire Alexander, rising safety Darnell Savage and Pro Bowl guard Elgton Jenkins and a strong contributor in outside linebacker Rashan Gary, the other eight picks contributed next to nothing this season.
After Alexander in 2018, Gutekunst drafted cornerback Josh Jackson in the second round, linebacker Oren Burks in the third round and receiver J’Mon Moore in the fourth round. After Gary, Savage and Jenkins in 2019, he drafted tight end Jace Sternberger. In 2020, he selected quarterback Jordan Love in the first round (at the expense of his fourth-round pick), running back AJ Dillon in the second round and tight end Josiah Deguara in the third round.
Not only has Licht built a young and talented roster, his Bucs are $15.2 million under the projected cap of $180.5 million, according to OverTheCap.com. The Packers, on the other hand, are $28.2 million over the cap.
In the NFL, everything changes. Maybe Brady will get old. Maybe Dillon will be a breakthrough star, and perhaps Jackson and Burks will flourish in a new defensive scheme.
But, as it stands, Licht’s draft hits and Gutekunst’s draft misses have made for a huge gulf that’s going to be difficult to bridge in 2021.
First Four Rounds of Last Three Drafts: Packers
2020: First, QB Jordan Love; Second, RB AJ Dillon; Third, TE Josiah Deguara.
2019: First, OLB Rashan Gary; First, S Darnell Savage*; Second, G Elgton Jenkins*; Third, TE Jace Sternberger.
2018: CB Jaire Alexander*; Second, CB Josh Jackson; Third, LB Oren Burks; Fourth, WR J’Mon Moore.
First Four Rounds of Last Three Drafts: Buccaneers
2020: First, OT Tristan Wirfs*; Second, S Antoine Winfield*; Third, RB Ke’Shawn Vaughn.
2019: First, LB Devin White*; Second, CB Sean Murphy-Bunting*; Third, CB Jamel Dean*; Third, S Mike Edwards; Fourth, DE Anthony Nelson.
208: First, DT Vita Vea*; Second, RB Ronald Jones*; Second, CB M.J. Stewart; Second, CB Carlton Davis*; Third, G Alex Cappa*; Fourth, S Jordan Whitehead*.
* denotes starter