After a year in which the Green Bay Packers gave up the second-most regular season yards in NFL history, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist, a brain surgeon or a blogger to know the Packers need help on defense.
Their two biggest needs are obvious: outside linebacker and defensive lineman. The right player could step in immediately and become a starter.
But the Packers have a litany of other, lesser needs. Like any team, they need depth, the next generation of players that will play specific, smaller roles immediately and hopefully develop into productive starters down the road.
With the Packers very likely to have 12 draft choices (one in each of the seven rounds, four compensatory draft choices for 2011 free agents losses and one for the trade of offensive lineman Caleb Schlauderaff to the Jets), they’ll have plenty of opportunities to find players to fill those holes and the roster.
The following is one man’s opinion of the hierarchy of needs the Packers have entering the 2012 offseason:
1 and 1A) Everyone can debate the Packers biggest need until the cows come home. Is it outside linebacker or defensive lineman? Flip a coin. They need both. A good player at either position could take pressure off the other. All things being equal, they should just take the player they think will be better, if they happened to be forced to make a decision between the two. Outside linebacker is listed first for no particular reason.
1) Outside linebacker––The Packers need a running mate opposite Clay Matthews. A revolving door of players was experimented with in 2011 with no one taking the bull by the horns.
Erik Walden occasionally held his own, but rarely stood out and could not hold his own against the run. Brad Jones got his chance late in the season, made a handful of sacks, but doesn’t appear to be the answer. Frank Zombo couldn’t stay healthy. Vic So’oto and Jamari Lattimore were undrafted rookies and are no sure thing.
History has shown that the outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense can be a big-time playmaker, the type of guy that’s ideally a big-time pass rusher and gets double-digit sacks. A three-down type of player would also play big roles in run defense and in pass coverage as well.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have had a dynamic outside linebacker duo with James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley the past several seasons. Their defensive success over time has been demonstrated. The Packers could benefit from their own productive pair.
1A) Defensive lineman––The absence of Cullen Jenkins has been well documented. His pass rush ability, in particular, was sorely missed this past season.
In a perfect world, a new addition to the Packers defensive line fills two roles. He joins B.J. Raji and Ryan Pickett in the base 3-4. And he’s paired with Raji as their one of their two defensive linemen in the nickel sub-package.
It will be the job of the scouting and personnel department to find a player that isn’t just a one-trick pony. They’ll want to find a guy who’s the best combination of run stuffer and pass rusher as possible, and that’s not an easy task.
There are plenty of guys that can do one or the other well. And there’s even more who can do both marginally well. Now that the all-star game circuit is over, the Packers will use the Combine, pro days and visits to find a three-down defensive lineman effective in all phases of the game.
2) Safety––The immediate need at the position is tied directly to Nick Collins. After a serious neck injury that forced him to miss most of the past season, he’s weighing the pros and cons of playing versus retiring.
Collins has said he’ll make a decision in March. If he chooses to resume his playing career, the need for a starter at safety is much less in 2012, but still not absent entirely.
There’s always the chance, God forbid, Collins suffers a setback or another neck injury. And Charlie Peprah, while a reliable short-term backup, would be a liability if the Packers need him to be a long-term starter.
At the very least, the Packers need depth at safety and possibly a player that can step into the starting lineup.
3) Center––Like safety, the immediate need at center is tied to Scott Wells.
From all appearances, Wells is set to test the free agent market. The best situation for both parties would be for Wells to return, once again, all things being equal. The Packers need his services, and Wells would be best off playing for a team where he knows the players and the system.
But entering his ninth season, and very likely his last chance at a big-money contract, Wells is going to make sure he gets the money he deserves. If nothing else, it might be a scare tactic to force the Packers to pay him like a top five NFL center.
With Scott Wells, the Packers are set at center for the next several seasons. Without him, they need a replacement or settle for Evan Dietrich-Smith as the starter to open 2012.
4) Quarterback––Matt Flynn isn’t long for Green Bay no matter how he leaves, via free agency or the less likely “tag and trade” route.
Graham Harrell is the incumbent and will be given every chance to become Aaron Rodgers’ primary backup next season. But there’s a very good chance the Packers will draft a rookie to compete with him.
The winner of the competition will become the second-string quarterback, while the loser will likely be the No. 3 QB either on the 53-man roster or the practice squad.
5) Cornerback––Charles Woodson has lost a step and isn’t getting any younger. Tramon Williams didn’t have anywhere near as good a season in 2011 as he did in 2010. And Sam Shields also took a step backwards.
It would be nice for the Packers if Davon House developed into a reliable cornerback, but that’s no given.
In today’s NFL and its emphasis on the passing game, no team can have enough cornerbacks for their nickel and dime packages.
6) Tackle––Bryan Bulaga might be on the verge of stardom, but beyond him, the other tackle job is up for grabs.
Chad Clifton is on his last legs, may retire or be cut. Marshall Newhouse has potential but isn’t necessarily above replacement. Derek Sherrod is a question mark after suffering a broken leg that ended his 2011 season.
The opportunity is there for the right player to work his way up the depth chart.
7) Running back––Ryan Grant is a free agent and may or may not be gone. Meanwhile, James Starks is the unquestioned replacement, but he has to prove healthy and not be prone to mental mistakes.
Alex Green is coming off a torn ACL, and Brandon Saine must show he’s more than just a speed merchant.
Recent history is showing effective running backs can be found in the late rounds or even after the draft, so the Packers can see if they can find a suitable running back without making a significant investment.
8 ) Fullback––John Kuhn’s knee injury in the playoffs makes his status uncertain for next year. There’s every chance he’ll recover and go back to being his old self, but that’s not a 100% guarantee.
So the Packers have a decision to make, do they eliminate the fullback position like a lot of other teams? Or do they go the route of using H-back including the several they already have on their roster?
9) Inside linebacker––Between Desmond Bishop, A.J. Hawk and D.J. Smith, the Packers are pretty well set at inside linebacker for 2012, but depth is always a concern.
There’s always the possibility for injury, and some suspect Hawk’s salary makes him expendable beyond 2012.
That’s 10 potential positions of need and 12 draft choices to start filling them.
Assuming the Packers don’t trade any of their draft choices, and it’s certainly a longshot that general manager Ted Thompson doesn’t make a single trade, that’s allows for the Packers to draft one player at each of the 10 positions and two extras to take an extra outside linebacker and defensive lineman.
The odds that all happens according to plan are slim to none as well. But perhaps the point being is, the Packers have plenty of needs beyond outside linebacker and defensive line, but they should also have plenty of draft choices to help fill them.