The Green Bay Packers two big needs that were identified by the masses going into the draft were cornerback and inside linebacker. Would a tight end have been a nice luxury item? Sure. Would it have been good to get a long term replacement for Julius Peppers? Absolutely. Would it have been worthwhile to draft a pass-catching back to impact 3rd downs and eventually replace James Starks? Why the hell not. But corner and linebacker were the big spots.
The two positions became issues for two different reasons. The cornerback position might have been the strength of the team (besides Aaron Rodgers) in 2014. The team was legitimately 5 deep at the position: Sam Shileds, Tramon Williams, Casey Hayward, Micah Hyde and Davon House were all capable starters. House and Williams have since departed on high-dollar free agent deals. Normally that would be fine. You’d tell me that that leaves the Packers with 3 starting caliber cornerbacks when some teams only have one and that they drafted a developmental player in the 6th round last year (Demetri Goodson).
Yes, that wouldn’t be an issue normally, but there’s an element of the unknown. The Packers really only played 3 cornerbacks on the outside. Sam Shields and Davon House played outside exclusively, and Tramon Williams was really the only corner over the last two seasons that the Packers have trusted to play any and all of the corner spots.
The corner issue, though, was addressed immediately. The Packers spent their first two picks of the 2015 draft on cornerbacks and they still have the aforementioned Goodson developing. Whatever you want to say about the cornerback situation, both contracts that were given to Williams and House were basically unmatchable by the Packers. Considering that those two were not realistic options the Packers spent quite a bit of capital rectifying that issue.
Inside Linebacker was absolutely not the strength of the team. It hasn’t been for a number of years. Here are some alarming Pro Football Focus Rankings for Packers inside linebackers over the last two seasons:
Brad Jones: 28/55: -4.0 overall grade over 594 snaps
AJ Hawk: 47/55: -10.0 overall grade over 1014 snaps
Sam Barrington: 34/60: -4.1 overall grade over 364 snaps
AJ Hawk: 52/60: -11.6 overall grade over 852 snaps
That’s real bad. The Packers have gotten by on defense despite having inside linebacker play that is at or near the bottom of the league. It’s very possible that the Packers don’t value the position. After all it’s the least important position in pass defense, and this is now a passing league. It’s also very possible that the team just hasn’t liked a lot of the players that have been available in the early rounds of the last two drafts.
It’s possible that the Packers already have part of the answer. Sam Barrington was about as average as it gets last season. The fact that he’s a guy going into his 3rd years in the league and his first year as an unquestioned starter provides hope. He’s on a faster career path than Desmond Bishop was, and Bishop was an elite player in the league (for a very short time). If Barrington can become one of the best 20 or 25 inside linebackers on this list of 60 guys that would be a big improvement for the Packers.
The big question is the other position. The Packers released both AJ Hawk and Brad Jones this offseason. This was both expected and necessary. Both players were detrimental to the defense over the last two seasons and carried contracts that weren’t very cap friendly. It’s been certainly possible that the Packers will use superstar Clay Matthews in either an inside role or a hybrid role, but Matthews is the best edge rusher on the team.
The need for a second inside linebacker is what makes the selection of Michigan’s Jake Ryan so interesting. It’s not that Ryan isn’t a good player (I think he is), or that I wouldn’t have taken him in that spot (I would have). It’s that the Packers waited until the 129th pick to take him. It’s that the Packers let 9 other off-the-ball linebackers go off the board before they took one.
Ryan could be huge for the Packers. I can’t remember a time a 4th round pick was slotted to have such an impact on a season. I certainly remember when David Bakhtiari was thrust into the left tackle spot his rookie season but going into everything he was just depth. If Matthews is considered a starter at OLB then it’s Ryan vs. Carl Bradford, Nate Palmer and Joe Thomas for the other spot.
So what does Jake Ryan actually mean to the Packers? What if he’s good? What if he isn’t? Let’s take a look:
If he’s good: In this scenario Jake Ryan comes in and plays like Chris Borland did last year. Ryan’s actually a little bigger and and a little faster than Borland, but not as quick and certainly not as instinctive. Young inside linebackers come in and play elite football all the time. The top 10-12 of Pro Football Focus’ rankings are littered with young players at the inside linebacker position season after season. Inside linebackers often win Defensive Rookie of the Year, it’s an easier transition than most.
If Ryan comes in and is immediately elite, it completely transforms the defense. Barrington steps into the support role he’s probably more suited for (a la Morgan Burnett), Matthews resumes his role as a 3-4 OLB and Ryan uses his 4.65 speed to do a much better job shutting down the middle of the field than his predecessors. Instead of just “being there”, Ryan makes plays on a consistent basis. Like safety a season ago, the biggest weakness on the team becomes a strength. If this happens the unit has top 10 potential.
If he’s average: In this scenario Ryan steps in and gives the Packers league average play. Something along the lines of what DeMeco Ryans gave the Eagles or Manti Teo gave the Chargers just a season ago. Ryan still plays at least 500 snaps, but cedes some of his play to Matthews inside. This allows the Packers to play Perry and Peppers together.
What not everyone understands is that league average play would be a revelation compared to what Hawk and Jones have given the team over the last two seasons. If Green Bay were to get average play from the inside linebackers, the rest of the defense would be able to pick up the slack. The packers have a very talented secondary and one of the best edge rushing tandems in the league. If the inside linebackers can shore up the run defense and the pass coverage in the middle of the field, the unit could certainly be “above average”, but probably not elite.
If he’s bad: If Ryan can’t make the jump to being a major contributor and plays slow (like Hawk) or makes big mistakes (like Jones) then the Packers are right back where they were (albeit for a lot less cap space). Matthews will have to play a ton inside, and not just doing the fun stuff like blitzing and stunting, he’ll have to bang inside and play the run.
If Ryan can’t contribute at all, the Packers will have to turn to the Carl Bradford reclamation project, or hope that Nate Palmer’s transition goes well. Joe Thomas is an interesting former undrafted free agent, but he has the look of a special teamer and a role player (kind of like Rob Francois) and little more at this point. Even if Ryan doesn’t contribute positively right away, it doesn’t mean that he won’t in the future, it just means that the defense doesn’t have the same upside in 2015.