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By CHRIS HAVEL
Packers’ GM Thompson tasked with filling gaping limitations in Green Bay’s 3-4 defense
The Packers’ opportunity to have a championship-caliber season is tremendous. One of the most critical steps to get there seems fairly obvious.
In order for Green Bay to reclaim the NFC North title and regain its place among the conference’s elite teams, the Packers’ “3-4” defense must add quality depth at inside and outside linebacker.
Of course, Aaron Rodgers and the offense needs to find its way, but with healthy returns by Jordy Nelson, Ty Montgomery and the offensive line, plus Eddie Lacy’s reconditioned body, the Packers’ offensive production should skyrocket. That means it’s up to the defense – and the linebackers in particular – to do their part of the heavy lifting.
So where does the help come from? The remaining free agent options resemble a bin of picked-over fruit. The price may be right, but the quality is minimal and the product is beyond ripe.
That leaves the draft and subsequent pool of undrafted players. Packers GM Ted Thompson subscribes to the “draft the best available player” philosophy, rather than the “best player that fills the greatest need” approach.
Frankly, I believe it but only to a point. I have to think Thompson would select a linebacker, rather than a receiver in this year’s draft, if everything else was equal.
My point is this: On draft day nothing is equal. You take the best player for your team – period.
The Packers’ decision to take Michigan’s Jake Ryan in the fourth round last draft made sense. Ryan was projected to play inside and outside linebacker. The Packers needed help at both. He also had a fair amount of college experience which suggested he could play sooner than later. The Packers needed help sooner and Ryan eventually cracked the starting lineup.
Clearly, Ryan was an improvement over the Packers’ other inside linebackers (Clay Matthews the exception), otherwise he wouldn’t have become a starter. But that doesn’t mean he is the solution as one of the two starters at inside linebacker.
What it means is the Packers’ inside linebackers were so average that a fourth-round draft pick managed to crack the lineup. Ryan even made a few plays along the way. If you pair Ryan and a high draft pick together inside the Packers should be significantly improved from a year ago.
This is even better: Select an inside linebacker in the first or second round, and add an edge pass rusher (outside linebacker) who may (preferably) have the ability to move inside in the second or third round.
Doubling down at linebacker makes sense on several levels:
- There is no arguing that the inside linebackers specifically, and the linebackers in general, have been a disappointment. They are the weak link in a “3-4” that demands at least “four” quality linebackers.
- If the high draft pick fails to emerge, Ryan and the other linebacker (second or third round) should be able to do the job.
- If both high picks develop it solves immediate and long-term problems. The inside linebackers get better, while Matthews and/or Julius Peppers’ replacement is already on the roster.
Obviously, the big names at linebacker in this year’s draft have been identified. Alabama’s Reggie Ragland is a fierce hitter with pass rush ability who is suited to play inside on early downs. Ohio State’s Darron Lee is a speedster (4.4 40-yard dash) who is in the mold of Arizona’s Deone Buchanon and would be used in the heart of the defense on sub-packages.
Myles Jack of UCLA is a phenomenal athlete and quite likely a top 10 pick. Notre Dame’s Jaylon Smith is coming off a major knee injury (ACL and MCL) and would be tempting beyond the second round.
Here are several other possibilities:
- USC’s Su’a Cravens (6-1, 226) ran a 4.69 40-yard dash with the ability to get stronger in the NFL. He would be intriguing for a defensive coordinator who could utilize his play-making talents at or near the line of scrimmage.
- Arizona’s Scooby Wright III is a six-foot, 239-pound thumper who plays faster than he times.
- *Blake Martinez of Stanford is another pure inside linebacker type who would compete for playing time immediately.
Chris Havel is a national best-selling author and his latest book is Lombardi: An Illustrated Life. Havel can be heard Monday through Friday from 4-6 p.m. CDT on WDUZ FM 107.5 The Fan, or on AM-1400, as well as Fan Internet Radio (www.thefan1075.com). Havel also hosts Event USA’s MVP Parties the evening before home games.