Now that the Packers’ season has come to an end, the front office will be switching gears from winning games to team building. There will be the inevitable turnover on the roster, and general manager Ted Thompson will start looking to shore up areas of weakness and attempt to make the 2015 version of the Green Bay Packers a stronger contender.
It’s no secret that one of the team’s Achilles’ heels was at inside linebacker. The week 1 Brad Jones experiment was a disaster, and AJ Hawk’s presence on the field diminished week by week to the point where many question if he will be sent packing during the off season. The position was such a liability, that the defense, at times, had to think outside the box and plug holes with players not used to that position. Clay Matthews functioned well as an ILB, but that certainly isn’t a permanent solution.
Quite simply, the Packers need to bring in new talent otherwise the lack of stability at this position will come back to bite them in 2015.
Not that Thompson has ever been a huge fan of signing powerhouse free agents in the off season, but this year’s pickings are rather slim at ILB. More like dumpster dining for so-so talent in this position. And no, the Packers do not want nor need Clay Matthews’ baby brother Casey who is listed among the Eagles’ free agents this winter.
Thompson, on the other hand, loves to build talent from the draft. It’s one of the reason the Packers remain one of youngest teams in the league year after year. But when it comes to finding the next ILB, it appears that this would be the only route.
Yet like the free agent prospects, the 2015 draft class is rather thin when it comes to ILBs. This draft class, on the other hand, is chock full of potential blue-chip defensive linemen that are already getting graded out as All-Pro potentials. While this remains one of the Packers’ needs, it is not an absolute first priority. The team is actively trying to retain veteran Letroy Guion who clearly rose to the occasion this past season, and there is still BJ Raji in the mix.
That coupled with the fact that the Packers will pick 30th means a lot of those rock star caliber linemen will likely be gone by the time the team is on the clock. So it makes it very possible that any of the top three graded ILBs will still be available to the Packers when the times comes to pull the trigger.
None of the top 3 ILBs score as high the best defensive linemen. While they aren’t in that upper echelon with the likes of Baltimore’s CJ Mosley, all three–Mississippi State’s Benardrick McKinney, UCLA’s Eric Kendricks and Miami’s Denzel Perryman–are clearly talented enough vie for starting positions on the teams that choose them. In fact, most pundit’s mock drafts have the Packers taking one of these three men with their 30th overall pick.
All three have the potential for that straight out-of-the-box, ready to go potential.
McKinney is a stereotypical tall yet strong linebacker. At 6’5″, he pushes 250 pounds and is known for his speed and ability to run down opponents in straight line pursuit but has also been show to have good side-to-side lateral movement on the field as well. He is best when defending the run. His sheer size should be intimidating to opponents, and he is ready to face the opposition face-on.
On the flip side, he plays a little on the high side and has a reputation for not optimally explosive at times. With that added intimidating height comes a higher center of gravity, and he may be awkward when abruptly changing direction. He can be soft in coverage and sometimes gives a little too much cushion when in zone coverage.
Miami’s Perryman is a smaller linebacker. While he weighs about the same as McKinney, he is a full five inches shorter at 6’0″ on a good day (Many say he is closer to 5’11”.) He packs a wallop when he hits. He has a good eye for the field of play, and can disengage and adjust to change on the field.
While he is stout and packs a punch, that also means he may be slow to rev up after changing gears and may struggle to meet the play outside his area of coverage. That said, he is more suited for zone coverage and may get smoked in man-on-man.
Meanwhile Eric Kendricks may be exactly what the doctor ordered. The same height as Perryman, he is the smallest of the three at 230 pounds. But remember he is still much an adolescent like the others, and still has the potential to add muscle mass and the associated increased strength through an NFL strength and conditioning program that also has McCarthy’s edict for optimized nutrition into the mix.
Kendricks has speed and an aggressive approach to defense. Unlike Perryman that may take time to get up to speed, Kendricks has the ability to cover to the sideline. He has been described by many as explosive, with abilities that exceed his small size. (Think Chris Borland with his much-bemoaned undersize label that hides more bang than realized for the buck.)
Like all players, he has his weaknesses. He needs to up his game and transition from the college game to the more pass-dependent game of the NFL. And if he wants to succeed in the NFL, he needs to be a bigger presence in the blitz. This will be crucial if Dom Capers plans to continue to roll out the NASCAR package on third downs.
For me, it appears Kendricks is the best fit for the Packers. His deficits appear to be the easily remedied with strength and conditioning. He will get bigger and stronger. There is no questions about that. He is the current Butkus Award recipient, the nation’s top honor for college linebackers. In addition he also won the Lott IMPACT Trophy that recognizes the college defensive player that has the biggest impact on his team.
Kendricks has been a team captain for both the 2013 and 2014 seasons. He has proven he has had leadership skills and will hopefully be a player that would make the transition from apprentice on the field to a journeyman starter in a quick period of time. With AJ Hawk potentially departing, there will be gaps in leadership on the defensive side of the ball. While veterans such as Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers ready to take on those leadership roles, it would be nice to start raising up a younger player and mold him into a leader for future seasons.
While the draft is modeled more times over than can be counted, it is impossible to crack the code entirely. The Packers need an inside linebacker desperately, and could find one in the first round. That said, if one of the blue chip defensive lineman fall in the draft, it is also very possible for Ted Thompson and company to go for the best man on the board approach. But as the first round nears its end, there could very well be some viable options to strengthen the linebacker corps. Don’t be surprised if the Packers use their first pick to just that.--------------