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Why now's the time for the Green Bay Packers to pick a first-round receiver (or two)

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GREEN BAY, Wis. -- It’s hard to find a mock draft that doesn’t have the Green Bay Packers taking a wide receiver with one of their two first-round draft picks. There are even a few that have general manager Brian Gutekunst doubling up with receiver at picks No. 22 and 28.

It seems everyone believes it’s time for Gutekunst to break from tradition and take a first-round receiver.

“For a while now,” Gutekunst joked.

Gutekunst is right. Before at least his last two drafts, the calls for a first-round receiver were plentiful. There finally might be reason to think it could happen Thursday night (8 p.m. ET, ESPN/ABC/ESPN app).

The NFL is a different game now than it was the last time the Packers took a receiver in the first round. In 2002, when the Packers took Javon Walker at No. 20 overall, rookie receivers didn’t dominate.

“We drafted Javon with the first pick, and I think it was about middle of Year 2 where he just took off and then for about a year and a half there, he was playing about as good as anyone,” Gutekunst said Monday during his annual pre-draft news conference. “So that was kind of the rule of thumb back then: [It] took about a year and a half to really get into where they knew what was going on.

“Hopefully it'll be quicker if we go that route this year.”

He has seen evidence of it all around. Two years ago, the Minnesota Vikings drafted Justin Jefferson at No. 22 -- a few spots ahead of the Packers -- and Gutekunst watched him make an immediate impact to the tune of 88 catches, 1,400 yards and seven touchdowns. Last year, two rookie receivers -- No. 5 overall pick Ja'Marr Chase and No. 6 pick Jaylen Waddle -- each went over 1,000 yards.

The Packers haven’t taken a receiver, tight end or running back in the first round since Walker. That’s the longest drought in the common draft era (since 1967), according to ESPN Stats & Information. The lone first-round receiver selection in the past 30 years means the Packers have the fewest first-round receiver picks by any team in that span.

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Of course, the Packers have found success with second-round receivers, the most recent of which was Davante Adams in 2014. It’s Adams’ departure in last month’s trade to the Las Vegas Raiders that magnifies their need. Adams was targeted on 32% of his routes last season, the highest rate of any NFL wide receiver, according to ESPN Stats & Info. Between Adams and Marquez Valdes-Scantling, who signed with the Kansas City Chiefs in free agency, the Packers lost two of their three most targeted receivers from last season.

“You know our history with receivers, specifically, in the second round,” Gutekunst said. “I think that’s always part of the equation. [Former Packers GM] Ted [Thompson] always used to say, 'You've got to have some pass catchers around here.' Whether that's tight ends, running backs, receivers, you've got to have guys who can catch the ball. Certainly, that's a big part of how we look to build our team.

“I do think the guys that come from more pro-ready systems have it a little bit easier. Like we talk about a lot, and I know you guys have heard me say this, our philosophy on the draft is very much a long-term decision, not short-term.”

The Packers signed veteran receiver Sammy Watkins, a former first-round pick, in free agency, but his one-year contract that contained only $350,000 guaranteed means he’s not even a lock to make the team, although Gutekunst said Monday he thinks Watkins has “got some juice still left in him.”

Randall Cobb and Allen Lazard are the only other established veteran receivers on the depth chart. Last year’s third-round pick, Amari Rodgers, remains a project.

This might be the most opportune time for a rookie receiver to produce right away in Green Bay given the depth chart. While Rodgers has been hard on young receivers in the past -- “I've witnessed it,” LaFleur said earlier this offseason -- he may have softened on that of late.

“I always look and am like, 'Wait, who are you? ... Why didn’t I get that treatment?'” Cobb said. “He definitely is a lot more Zen, and he’s better at communicating with some of the younger guys and not being too forceful with it like he used to be. ... I definitely look forward to seeing how he is with some of the younger guys in the situation that we'll be in this year.”