Let the search begin! Packers seek gems at NFL scouting combine

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GM Ted Thompson needs huge impact from 2017 rookie class if he isn’t going FA route

The Green Bay Packers’ offseason begins in earnest this week. The Packers seldom make trades or participate in free agency.
That leaves the NFL Draft, as well as undrafted free agents, to once again represent the team’s primary avenue to acquire talent. In some cases, it’s the only avenue the Packers try.
That’s why the NFL scouting combine, which takes place Feb. 28 through March 6 at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, is a critical component of the team’s success.
The ability to evaluate players at the combine affords the Packers’ personnel department the opportunity to reaffirm or refute the scouts’ reports and recommendations on players.
Since the Packers signed Charles Woodson as a free agent in 2006, Thompson has signed just five free agents in 10 years. They are cornerback Frank Walker, linebacker Brandon Chillar, center Duke Preston, defensive end Anthony Hargrave and center Jeff Saturday.
None made a significant impact.
Julius Peppers was a “street free agent” – he had been released by the Bears – so he doesn’t count as an unrestricted free agent.
So what is going to happen with the Packers and free agency this offseason?
Frankly, as much as I’d like to believe Packers GM Ted Thompson will change his attitude and play in free agency, I will be shocked if he becomes a serious participant.
History suggests it won’t happen.
The Packers haven’t added a restricted free agent in the 23 years since that route was available to teams.
History also suggests the Packers won’t select a running back in the first round – Darrell Thompson was the last in 1990 – and the Packers are all but compelled to draft defense.
An edge rusher such as Wisconsin’s T.J. Watt or a cornerback like USC’s Adoree’ Jackson would be too hard to pass up late in the first round.
It’ll be interesting to see which players appear to particularly pique the Packers’ interest at the combine. An emphasis on defense in general, and corners and pass rushers in particular, should be a priority.
Thompson plays it close to the vest, although his genuine interest in at least a handful of players typically comes to light during the combine.
Scouts and coaches talk to players, and then to the media, and even the most tight-lipped teams can’t stop the info stream.
Naturally, Thompson will decline to speak in specifics, and he will stress (once again) that the Packers draft the best player, not the best player at a position of need.
Hopefully the best player and the greatest need will intersect. At the least, let’s hope the team’s holes on defense demand that Thompson adopt a “defense breaks ties” approach.
The Packers received a fifth-round compensatory pick last week, the 184th overall, for the loss of cornerback Casey Hayward.
The Packers can trade the pick this year.
Perhaps Thompson will package it with another pick or two and move up in an attempt to find a defensive impact player.
It’s worth noting that the Packers’ all-time leading sack artist – Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila – was a fifth-round pick. So was running back Dorsey Levens. In more recent years, Brett Hundley, Corey Linsdley and Micah Hyde were all fifth-round draft picks.
There are gems to be had if a team can unearth them.
However, it’s awful risky to believe any team can sufficiently upgrade its defense without playing in free agency.
The Packers would need to have one of the all-time great drafts to provide defensive coordinator Dom Capers with a pair of impact players. Unfortunately, that’s what needs to happen if Green Bay is going to field a championship-caliber defense.
It’s why this week’s combine is so important.
The Packers can’t afford any major misses due to unforeseen injuries, off-the-field issues or merely because they overrated or reached for a ‘tweener or a project.
The defense needs plug-and-play help.
Let’s hope one of two things happens – or in a perfect Packers’ world both happen: Green Bay hits it big in the draft and/or gets busy spending some money in free agency.
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.