Defensive needs may rule Packers' draft

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Bob McGinn/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Monday, April 23, 2012
— It would seem cut and dried that the Green Bay Packers will be drafting for defense at the end of the week.

The vast majority of Ted Thompson's selections in seven years as the team's general manager have corresponded to needs. You could pinpoint maybe seven so-called luxury choices made by Thompson in the first five rounds, but by and large he seems to have had a very good feel for what his coaches must have to win.

In no particular order, the Packers' needs would be pass-rushing outside linebacker, pass-rushing defensive lineman, cornerback, quarterback and safety.

They could jump on a running back in the first three rounds because the falling prestige of the position could offer value. There also would be fits for a center-guard and another tackle.

But remember this. Just when the Ted Thompson watchers think they've got a bead on the man, they often find out they really don't.

"I know this guy," a longtime National Football League personnel director said. "You never have to do anything in Ted's world."

Two months ago, coach Mike McCarthy cited pass defense, both rush and coverage, and tackling as the root cause of everything that went wrong for Dom Capers' unit last season.

The tackling issue will have to be resolved by Joe Whitt and Darren Perry. They coach the secondary, where Sam Shields, Tramon Williams, Charles Woodson, Morgan Burnett and Charlie Peprah each missed 10 or more tackles, and by inside linebackers coach Winston Moss, who watched A.J. Hawk and Desmond Bishop combine for 25 misses.

Green Bay allowed 4,796 yards in the air, 255 more than any defense ever had. Blitzing more than any team except New Orleans, the Packers still finished last in sack percentage, its mediocre coverage players laid bare on a routine basis.

The path toward respectability on defense must begin in the front five, meaning the linemen and the outside linebackers. This draft has better strength at those positions than in the secondary, and the Packers could invest as many as one-third of their 12 selections to upgrade the rush.

"In that building what they're thinking is real simple," one personnel man said. "We'll fix the secondary when we fix the pass rush. The quickest way to fix everything is to get the pass rush going."

In the Packers' three most recent Super Bowl appearances, their rankings in total defense were first in 1996, seventh in 1997 and fifth in 2010. They had Reggie White to rush the passer in the mid-1990s, and Cullen Jenkins, B.J. Raji and Matthews rushing two years ago when the club finished third in sack percentage.

"They have got to get this defense back to top-10 caliber if they want to win the Super Bowl," the scout said. "What are the common denominators the last two times they won the Super Bowl? Quarterback play and damn good defense. So they know what the formula is."

When Green Bay hired Capers and his fire-zone scheme in January 2009, the nominal starters outside were Aaron Kampman and Brady Poppinga. Those two players were lost through attrition, but in three years the personnel department has adequately filled just one of the two most important positions in the defense.

Thompson identified Matthews as a great player, one that Capers desperately needed. He delivered Matthews in a master stroke on draft day, but in the subsequent 36 months has failed to find another capable outside linebacker.

If the Packers' season were to open tomorrow, they'd probably have Brad Jones starting opposite Matthews backed by Frank Zombo, Jamari Lattimore and Vic So'oto. The future of Erik Walden, the regular last season, is pending based on draft developments.

Fortunately for Green Bay, the pool of players that appears suitable to play outside in its scheme runs about 10 deep. In no particular order, the group includes Boise State's Shea McClellin, USC's Nick Perry, South Carolina's Melvin Ingram, Alabama's Courtney Upshaw and Dont'a Hightower, Illinois' Whitney Mercilus, Clemson's Andre Branch, Oklahoma's Ronnell Lewis, West Virginia's Bruce Irvin and Miami's Olivier Vernon.

A number of scouts were less confident that Syracuse's Chandler Jones and Marshall's Vinny Curry would be able to make the conversion from collegiate defensive end to NFL outside linebacker.

"We have a bunch there," said A.J. Smith, the general manager of another 3-4 team, the San Diego Chargers. "There are pass rushers. A lot of them can bring the heat, but they've got all kinds of holes in them and everything else."

Smith was one of 22 evaluators with national orientation asked by the Journal Sentinel in the last three weeks to identify the best pass rusher in the draft regardless of position.

Most of the scouts gave the question considerable thought. Echoing a familiar refrain, one personnel man said, "There's no Clay Matthews or DeMarcus Ware in this draft. I didn't see any elite pass rushers."

Defensive end Quinton Coples of North Carolina was the leading vote-getter with eight. He was followed by Ingram and Irvin, each with four; Mercilus, three; and Curry, Perry and Upshaw, each with one.

You will find no better indicator of the NFL consensus on players and what NFL decision-makers as a whole

really are thinking than this poll and other Journal Sentinel polls on the draft.

With picks 28, 59 and 90 in the first three rounds, the Packers can be expected to draft at least one of those players. Then again, pass-rushing outside linebackers appeared to be a significant need for the Packers before the 2010 and '11 drafts and Thompson's only move was to take Ricky Elmore in the sixth round last year.

Those were just two of 12 examples during the Thompson years in which the Packers failed to do much of anything at a glaring position of need. Sometimes, especially in 2005 and '06, they had too many spots to fill. Other times, Thompson did something else.

In 2005, the Packers

didn't draft an offensive lineman until the fifth round after the departures of guards Mike Wahle and Marco Rivera. The performances of guards Adrian Klemm and Will Whitticker helped get Mike Sherman and his staff fired.

That same year, aging Ahman Green went into another season as the running back. When he went down, the ball-carrying duties fell on Samkon Gado, Tony Fisher, Noah Herron and Najeh Davenport.

In 2006, the Packers passed on running back again and decided to stand pat in the secondary. Green came through with his last 1,000-yard season, but Marquand Manuel was awful at strong safety and the duo of Patrick Dendy-Ahmad Carroll at nickel back didn't work.

Three years later, the Packers didn't do much at tackle, defensive end and punter. Allen Barbre almost got Aaron Rodgers killed at right tackle and Jeremy Kapinos was the league's worst punter, but Johnny Jolly came through with his best season at left end.

Having waved goodbye to Kampman in free agency, the Packers treaded water in 2010 with Jones and Zombo at right outside linebacker. At running back, they made no early move, but James Starks proved to be a sixth-round surprise after Ryan Grant went down early.

Last year, Thompson

didn't draft a defensive end until the seventh round, relying on Mike Neal and others to replace the soon-to-depart Jenkins. He also passed at outside linebacker.

On the other hand, the Packers have made some excellent choices under Thompson at positions of major need.

In 2005, they found Brett Favre's replacement in Rodgers and a starting safety in Nick Collins. A year later, Thompson traded Javon Walker and replaced him hours later with Greg Jennings.

Wide receiver James Jones fit a hole in 2007. The next year, Jermichael Finley arrived as the eventual successor to Donald Lee. In 2009, Raji and Matthews were phenomenal fits for the new 3-4 scheme and T.J. Lang partially filled a hole at tackle.

With tackles Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher nearing the end, Thompson landed the ideal replacement in Bryan Bulaga.

In a few days we'll find out what Ted Thompson is thinking.

Last updated: 8:05 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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