Two weeks ago I was fortunate enough to make an accurate prediction. The Packers re-signed Letroy Guion and BJ Raji on Monday. These signings might have only made the defensive line more interesting as far as the draft is concerned. Ted Thompson eliminated the defensive line as a “need” pick. The defensive line is going to be fine so long as the internal improvement from the players that were on the defensive line last year is enough to push the team over the top.
The return of Raji and Guion on 1 year deals doesn’t eliminate the defensive line as a position of need for the 2015 draft. There doesn’t seem to be a long term answer at nose tackle on the roster yet, and if the Packers can secure a wide bodied player who can provide even a little pass rush don’t be surprised if they do so.
The weakest position that remains is inside linebacker. The Packers have released mainstays and fan/media whipping boys AJ Hawk and Brad Jones. That’s fine with me, neither player was ever an elite option and at this point in their careers, neither player is even replacement level. Any linebacker off the street can provide the production that Hawk and Jones gave the team a season ago. Jamari Lattimore is also gone, having signed with the New York Jets.
Technically, I suppose the Packers return their two starters in the base defense. After the week 9 bye the Packers inserted 2013 7th round pick Sam Barrington into the lineup next to Clay Matthews. Matthews, an OLB by trade, was allowed to attack runners going downhill, as opposed to setting the edge in Caper’s 3-4 system. His move inside also took an ineffective player (Hawk) off the field and put an adequate Matthews replacement (Peppers and Perry) in the base defense.
What the Packers don’t have is the player who plays next to Sam Barrington in the nickel defense when Clay Matthews lines up across from Julius Peppers. I’m not really 100% sold on Sam Barrington either. Barrington was passable, but not an impact player. He finished 34th out of 60 qualified inside linebackers according to Pro Football Focus. The Packers need two, not one inside linebackers to produce better than the group did last year. If that’s Sam Barrington making an improvement great, but he’s a 7th round pick. If it’s two rookies, or a rookie and a free agent (like Brandon Spikes) that’s great too.
Class Strength: 5/10
I’m not enamored with this class. I have a group of guys that I like, and then everyone else that I evaluate (with one possible exception) seems to be just replacement level. I think you could see something similar to what happened last year. Guys like Shayne Skov and Yawin Smallwood were widely mocked (and often to the Packers) in the mid-round area. Smallwood was selected in the bottom 5 picks of the entire draft and Skov went undrafted. The devaluing of 2 down linebackers is a lot like the devaluing of running backs. You win by throwing the football and defending those who throw the football against you.
There is a group of six linebackers that I like. Really no matter how this draft goes I’m going to be at least a little bit disappointed if none of these guys are on the team. In order: Shaq Thompson of Washington, Eric Kendricks of UCLA, Paul Dawson of TCU, Bernardrick McKinney of Mississippi State, Stephone Anthony of Clemson and finally Denzel Perryman of Miami.
Some will point to Georgia’s Ramik Wilson as the 7th man on this list. To me his inability to cover and the fact that he’s not then an elite run stuffer puts him on the “danger” list of guys that could really fall down the draft as they are seen as replacement level two-down ILBs. The one guy that I do like as a late round flier is Jake Ryan out of Michigan. He’s got great size and might be effective enough in zone coverage to stay on the field on all 3 downs. He’s actually my favorite ILB after the “Group of 6”.
Packers Positional Situation: D+
I’m not including Clay Matthews as an ILB with that grade, and I don’t really think that I should. As the Packers currently sit they have Sam Barrington, Carl Bradford, Nate Palmer, Josh Francis and Joe Thomas at inside linebacker, which is you know, terrifying. Even if you believe with all your heart in the Packers player development program and the coaching staff that’s still a terribly inexperienced group. Not only is the group inexperienced but there isn’t a lot of highly thought of talent to speak of either.
Barrington was a 7th round pick. Bradford was a mid round pick but he was originally supposed to be an outside linebacker. Palmer, Francis and Thomas are all undrafted guys. I don’t care how much you do or don’t value inside linebacker. Unless the Packers are playing some sort of 2-3-6 dime the Packers are going to have two inside linebackers on the field on every play. More has to be invested in a position like that than a 7th round pick, a position change for a mid round pick and 3 undrafted guys. I hope I feel a lot different about this position group come camp than I do right now.
Packers Level of Need at ILB: 9.5/10
The Packers really do need to address this position sometime in the first 3 rounds of the draft. Wisconsin stud ILB Chris Borland (since retired) was taken in the 3rd round of the draft. Inside linebackers taken in the top 100 have a pretty high “hit” percentage and inside linebacker, like running back is a position where young players make an immediate positive input. If the Packers take an inside linebacker in the first two days he can probably be expected to come in and start right away.
Borland, CJ Mosley, Kiko Alonso, and Luke Kuechly are just the headliners in a long line of inside linebackers taken early recently who made big impacts on their teams right away. The Packers need an inside linebacker to start next to Barrington in the nickel defense and maybe even another inside linebacker to push Barrington either this season or down the line.
Round to Start Targeting ILB: Round 1
If Thompson, Kendricks or Dawson are still on the board at 30 take them. If they’re all three still on the board trade down into the top of the 2nd round and take one of them then. I feel a lot better about cornerbacks that can be taken later than I feel about any linebacker in this draft outside of my top 6. If I had my druthers the only backup plan would be to take Maxx Williams in the 1st round and then pray for Anthony or Perryman in the 2nd.
My Favorite Fit for the Packers: Shaq Thompson, Washington
This was a difficult choice for me considering what I’ve seen on tape from Paul Dawson and how much I think of Eric Kendricks as a complete linebacker. With all that said, former safety Shaq Thompson is exactly what the Packers should be looking for in a running mate for Sam Barrington. No matter what you think of Barrington’s skill set he will never be an elite cover linebacker that you want going against skilled backs out of the backfield and downfield tight ends.
Thompson is exactly that. His ability to go sideline to sideline and make plays in addition to his ability to cover make him the ideal WLB in the Packers’ 3-4 scheme. His versatility in concert with the versatility of Clay Matthews would allow Capers to all sorts of stuff up front that he couldn’t do before with liabilities like AJ Hawk and Brad Jones on the field. I really want at least one of these six ILBs on the team after the draft is done, but specifically I prefer Thompson.
Other options: Eric Kendricks, UCLA, Paul Dawson, TCU, Stephone Anthony, Clemson