Skip to main content

With 11 more picks, Packers ready to build upon impressive 2023 draft class

Last year’s rookie class combined to play more than 5,000 snaps in Green Bay

WR Jayden Reed, WR Dontayvion Wicks
WR Jayden Reed, WR Dontayvion Wicks

GREEN BAY – As dust settled on one of the busiest Packers drafts of the seven-round era, General Manager Brian Gutekunst walked into the Lambeau Field media auditorium last April to review the 13 selections, and two trades, Green Bay made over a frenzied 48 hours.

After taking a moment to thank his scouts and support staff for their tireless work, Gutekunst finished his opening remarks with a word of optimism for the prospects the Packers had just acquired.

"We had a great three days. I feel really good about it," said Gutekunst at the time. "Just really, really excited about what we were able to do."

It's easy to see why. What followed is one of the greatest year-over-year returns on draft investment in franchise history, as 11 of Green Bay's 13 picks made the 53-man roster and contributed to extraordinary production for an incoming rookie class:

  • 158 regular-season games played with 52 starts.
  • 5,013 regular-season snaps played (2,138 offense, 1,998 defense and 877 special teams).
  • 219 points scored.
  • 186 touches for 2,199 yards with 16 touchdowns.
  • 133 tackles with 17 quarterback hits and 8½ sacks.
  • 17 passes defensed (one interception), three fumble recoveries (one forced) and a field-goal block.

And that was only the draft picks. Four undrafted rookies – running back Emanuel Wilson, receiver Malik Heath, edge rusher Brenton Cox Jr. and tight end Ben Sims – also made the Packers' roster, with Heath becoming the first undrafted rookie receiver to start Week 1 for Green Bay since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger.

Some of that was a byproduct of injury and circumstance and some was a manifestation of prospects seizing opportunities and not letting go, especially at the skill positions. Selecting five pass-catchers in the same draft class – also a first for the Packers since 1970 – proved to be a wise wager.

Former Michigan State receiver Jayden Reed, drafted with the second of the team's two second-round picks, led Green Bay in receiving yards (793) and touchdowns (eight, tied), while shattering Sterling Sharpe's 35-year-old franchise record for single-season receptions by a rookie with a team-high 64 catches. The 5-foot-10, 191-pound receiver also added 119 rushing yards and two rushing TDs.

Prior to drafting Reed 50th overall, the Packers traded back twice from their original slot at No. 45 to gain additional picks in the fifth and sixth rounds. Those picks turned into Virginia receiver Dontayvion Wicks, who led Green Bay in explosive receptions with 18 catches of 16-plus yards, and Bowling Green defensive lineman Karl Brooks, who plowed his way to six QB hits, four passes defensed and four sacks.

While standing pat in the third round, Green Bay managed to get a tight end (Tucker Kraft) on whom they had a similar grade as its initial second-round pick, Luke Musgrave, who was selected 42nd overall with a pick the Packers acquired in the Aaron Rodgers trade with the New York Jets.

"We took Luke Musgrave where we took him. We really liked Tucker and couldn't believe he was still there in the third," said Gutekunst earlier this week. "If we would've kept moving back, or if Jayden wouldn't have been there, we could've taken him and felt really good about it because those guys were rated right there."

Selecting tight ends inside the first three rounds for the first time in team history was a prudent move following a changing of the guard at the position earlier that offseason. Despite playing a position known for a long development process, Musgrave and Kraft produced immediately for Green Bay's offense.

Although a lacerated kidney sidelined Musgrave for six weeks, the 6-foot-6, 253-pound tight end still tied Bubba Franks' team record for most single-season receptions by a rookie tight end (34). In Musgrave's stead, Kraft caught nearly all of his 31 passes for 355 yards, finishing just eight yards shy of Franks' rookie tight end yardage record.

Along with Sims, Musgrave and Kraft helped the Packers become the first team in the Super Bowl era to have three tight ends catch a touchdown pass in the same rookie season, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. When factoring in its college free-agent class, Green Bay's rookie pass-catchers combined for 2,227 of quarterback Jordan Love's 4,159 passing yards (53.5%) and 17 of his 32 touchdowns (53.1%).

"I always felt the players you have currently are going to be the ones who are going to shape your team," Gutekunst said. "I do think if you give them the opportunity early to make the mistakes and get to the other side of it, they can profoundly impact your team in the second half of the season and maybe into the playoffs. … I think last year that certainly helped us."

On top of drafting a quarterback (Sean Clifford) for just the second time in nine years, the Packers also took a kicker (Anders Carlson) for the first time since Ted Thompson selected the franchise's all-time leading scorer Mason Crosby in 2007. Like Crosby, Green Bay acquired Carlson in the sixth round.

Carlson made a field goal in 17 consecutive games to tie Crosby's team record between the 2013-14 seasons. Carlson's 27 made field goals were the third most by a Green Bay rookie behind only Chester Marcol (33 in 1972) and Crosby (31 in 2007).

Defensively, all five of the Packers' selections saw the field over the course of the 2023 campaign. Brooks and fourth-round pick Colby Wooden rounded out a deep defensive line, while seventh-round picks Carrington Valentine and Anthony Johnson Jr. came out of nowhere to buoy the back end.

After playing cornerback for four years at Iowa State, Johnson Jr. switched to safety during his final season in Ames and parlayed that momentum into 24 tackles, three passes defensed and an interception in 12 rookie appearances with four spot starts.

Valentine, who turned 21 the day before the regular-season opener in Chicago, shined during Green Bay's offseason program and wound up leading all Packers cornerbacks in passes defensed (nine) and playing time (695 snaps). In his 12 regular-season starts, Valentine often lined up across from the opponent's top perimeter threat.

"The positions we put him in this past season, he answered the bell quite a bit throughout and some of those were on short notice," said Gutekunst at last month's NFL Annual Meeting in Orlando. "To come in and compete like he did, you don't see a lot of that out of seventh-round players, but he had a lot of belief in himself. When the opportunities came, he certainly capitalized on them."

Perhaps the most promising development of all came during the final month of the season with the emergence of first-round pick Lukas Van Ness. Drafted 13th overall out of Iowa, the 6-foot-5, 262-pound edge rusher registered seven QB hits and four sacks in his last eight games (including playoffs).

After playing with his hand in the dirt for most of the final stretch, Van Ness seems like a natural fit for the 4-3 scheme new defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley plans to run in Green Bay.

With 22 of their 24 draft picks from the past two seasons still on the roster, the Packers hope to push the envelope even further this week with a league-high 11 selections in this year's NFL Draft. During a 30-minute news conference on Monday, Gutekunst redirected any praise for Green Bay's success in recent drafts to the players more than himself.

If you ask Matt LaFleur, though, the Packers' sixth-year head coach says you can't talk about the Packers' bright future without mentioning the work of Gutekunst and his staff.

"I think Gutey and his staff do a great job. They're so thorough," LaFleur said. "Not only the talent that we brought in, the character of the men, I think that's a big part of it, as well.

"Hopefully, we can hit like we did last year. Certainly had a lot of contributors from our rookie class and that's what we're going to need again."

2023 Packers draft class (13 selections, most since 2000) (all stats are regular season only)

1st round (No. 12 overall): Lukas Van Ness – 32 tackles, 10 QB hits, four sacks

2nd (42): TE Luke Musgrave – 34 catches for 352 yards and one touchdown

2nd (50): WR Jayden Reed – 64 catches for 793 yards and eight TDs; 11 carries for 119 yards and two rushing TDs

3rd (78): TE Tucker Kraft– 31 catches for 355 yards and two TDs

4th (116): DL Colby Wooden – 17 tackles, two QB hits, half sack

5th (149): QB Sean Clifford – 1-of-1 passing for 37 yards and 41-of-59 passing for 391 yards with 1 TD and two interceptions in preseason

5th (159): WR Dontayvion Wicks – 39 catches for 581 yards and four TDs, 1-of-1 passing for 14 yards

6th (179): DL Karl Brooks – 20 tackles, four sacks, four passes defensed, two fumble recoveries (one forced) and one blocked field goal

6th (207): K Anders Carlson – 27-of-33 field goals (81.8%), 115 points

7th (232): CB Carrington Valentine – 41 tackles, nine passes defensed

7th (235): RB Lew Nichols – no longer with team

7th (242): S Anthony Johnson Jr. – 23 tackles, three passes defensed and one INT

7th (256): WR Grant DuBose – spent season on practice squad

Related Content