GREEN BAY, Wis. (AP) To get back to the playoffs, the Green Bay Packers‘ defense needs to improve against the pass.
Adding three tall receivers to the offense for quarterback Aaron Rodgers can’t hurt either.
The two-time NFL MVP got help in the passing game on the third day of the NFL draft after the Packers prioritized pass defense in the early rounds.
They took Louisville’s Jaire Alexander in the first round and Iowa’s Josh Jackson, who led the nation with eight interceptions last year, in the second.
”Their ball skills are exceptional,” coach Mike McCarthy said Saturday. ”I think they’re a great fit to how we want to play defense.”
Pass defense was a problem again for a team that finished 7-9 last season. The Packers didn’t make the playoffs for the first time since 2008.
The setback set up an offseason of change. Longtime executive Brian Gutekunst was promoted to general manager to succeed the retired Ted Thompson in January. McCarthy overhauled the coaching staff, including the hiring of Mike Pettine to replace Dom Capers as defensive coordinator.
Cornerback was the top priority. Besides drafting Alexander and Jackson, the Packers brought Tramon Williams back as a free agent to add another presence in the secondary.
”With the competition in the cornerback room, and the defensive back room, it’s vastly improved,” McCarthy said.
The focus shifted to offense for the late rounds on Saturday. The passing attack slipped to 25th in the league last season after Rodgers was limited to seven games because of a broken collarbone.
Gutekunst drafted three wideouts, starting with Missouri’s J’Mon Moore in the fourth round. The 6-foot-3 senior had team highs of 65 catches and 1,082 yards last season.
Opportunities abound in the receiving group behind Davante Adams and Randall Cobb after veteran Jordy Nelson was cut in the offseason.
Other highlights from the Packers’ draft class:
CATCHING ON: Besides Moore, the Packers also took two 6-5 receivers in South Florida’s Marquez Valdes-Scantling in the fifth round and Notre Dame’s Equanimeous St. Brown in the sixth round. Valdes-Scantling offers an intriguing blend of size and speed after he ran the 40-yard dash at the NFL combine at 4.37 seconds. Brown played with Packers backup quarterback DeShone Kizer for two seasons at Notre Dame.
CREATING COMPETION: By taking three receivers, the Packers stockpiled prospects to fill depth at a skill position for a second straight year. The strategy worked at running back in 2017, when fourth-round pick Jamaal Williams and fifth-rounder Aaron Jones emerged as solid contributors.
”You hope the guys embrace it and are pros about it and try to get better,” scout Matt Malaspina said. ”The whole group gets better as each guy gets better.”
THAT’S SPECIAL: There might be competition at punter, too, after the Packers drafted JK Scott from Alabama. Scott had just five punts returned as a senior, crediting the success to a renewed focus on hang time. Last year’s punter, Justin Vogel, was seventh in the NFL in net punting average at 41.6 yards.
Green Bay also took a long snapper with the second of their three seventh-round picks in Mississippi State’s Hunter Bradley.
LATE PICKS: The selection of offensive lineman Cole Madison from Washington State in the fifth round addressed another position of need. The 6-5 Madison played tackle in college. But the Packers like his versatility and plan to use him at guard. Green Bay has questions on the right side of the line.
Green Bay returned to defense with its two other seventh-round picks, selecting end James Looney from California and edge rusher Kendall Donnerson from Southeast Missouri State.
STILL NEED: Unless Looney or Donnerson prove to be late steals, the Packers will still need help in the pass rush. Clay Matthews turns 32 this year, while Nick Perry was limited to 12 games last season because of injuries. They could use more production out of third-year backup Kyler Fackrell. Vince Biegel should start the season healthy after missing the first seven games of his rookie season with a foot injury.
”The biggest gains that we’ve always made have been our returning players,” McCarthy said.
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