Tom Silverstein of the Journal Sentinel, writing for Sporting News, brings up something I've been worried about, and in the process, doesn't exactly allay my fears.
The Packers came out of the gate this past season with a dynamic pass rush, almost all of it due to the defensive line. The unusual depth provided by Johnny Jolly (who ended up being a starter), Colin Cole, Corey Williams, Cullen Jenkins, and later Justin Harrell, gave the rotation of interior lineman a distinct advantage in the 4th quarter against worn down offensive lines. However, as the season progressed and the Packers lost Cole and, more importantly, Jolly, players like Williams and Harrell were asked to play far too much and as a result, their limitations were exposed (Williams - undersized, easily worn down; Harrell - too heavy, no first step in the pass rush).
Looking toward next year, we can assume that Williams will be gone and that Johnny Jolly will be back, along with Harrell, to play the majority of snaps on 1st and 2nd down next to Ryan Pickett. As Silverstein notes, Harrell will be counted on to improve in all phases of the game, but his pass rushing skills need the most help. (Harrell actually played the inside run quite well this season, his problem in the run game came when he needed to shed blocks and get outside) Johnny Jolly had a bit of a breakout year, but to my eyes, he never really provided much of an inside rush. Sure, fans remember all the batted balls he had, and those are good plays, but the reason a lineman is batting down passes is because he's not getting to the passer.
So what to do? Thompson has as much cap room as he'll ever need and a full slate of draft picks, minus his 6th round pick which he gave up for Ryan Grant, not to mention the fact that he will no doubt receive one or two compensatory picks for the loses of Ahman Green and/or David Martin. He could have plenty of ammo on draft day to move up and land a premier defensive line prospect. (Of course, this would be Bizzaro-Thompson, and I would be shocked if he actually traded up. Ever.)
I hear the howells of protest already - "They just took a defensive lineman in the first round! They need a corner!" and if Thompson stands pat as he's always done in round one, that's the position I expect him to fill. But remember this - for better or worse, McCarthy has dedicated himself to Bob Sanders and this defensive scheme. The scheme calls for the bulk of the pass rush to be generated by the front four, and the front four alone. All the quality corners in the world won't do you a bit of good in this scheme if the quarterback can comfortably take his drop and scan his reads. (For an example of this, please see Manning, Eli in the NFC Championship Game).
As Bill Walsh said, football comes down to a fourth quarter pass rush. Those that have it, win. Those that don't, lose. The Packers, both in select important games and on the season as a whole, did not have a rush in the fourth quarter. They need to protect themselves on the defensive line by overstocking, if you will, and making sure they have quality players left in the defensive line rotation in December and, more importantly, January.
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