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Seeing the 2017 Draft Through Ted Thompson’s Eyes, Part III: Defense

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Seeing the 2017 Draft Through Ted Thompson’s Eyes, Part III: Defense

Welcome back for Part III of this season’s “Seeing the Draft Through Ted Thompson’s Eyes.”  In Part I, we identified the five factors that matter most when Thompson is deciding how to use his limited draft choices, roster spots, and salary cap space.  In Part II, we looked at Thompson’s current job postings for the Packers’ offense, and tried to identify a few leading candidates for each opening. 

Today, it’s the defense’s turn.

DEFENSIVE LINE

For years, Mike Daniels was surrounded by a ragtag ensemble of has-beens, never-weres, and never-will-bes.  All were big enough to occupy blockers, just not good enough to beat them.  Thompson desperately tried to find talent worthy of sharing the stage with Daniels.  He auditioned and auditioned, but try as he might, Mike Daniels and the Pluggers just kept getting gigs. 

In last year’s draft, Thompson went back to the drawing board.  He’d drafted 16 defensive linemen over the years, and only two—B.J. Raji and Mike Daniels—played well enough to stick around after their rookie contracts expired.  Raji and Daniels shared a couple traits that Thompson’s busts did not.  They both came from major college conferences where they faced 300-pound blockers who can move—unlike Khyri Thornton (Southern Mississippi) and Christian Ringo (Louisiana-Lafayette), who spent their senior years darting past undersized stiffs.  And unlike Datone Jones and Jerel Worthy, Daniels and Raji didn’t rely on speed and dance moves to get around linemen.  They won the way heavyweight wrestlers do, with leverage and oomph.

So Thompson drafted UCLA’s Kenny Clark and Northwestern’s Dean Lowry, and they rewarded him for getting back to basics.  Both were disrupting backfields by year-end, and they’re slated for regular duty this fall.  That allowed Thompson to dump a couple Pluggers, and start filling Daniels’ stage with more suitable talent.

But Thompson knows a trio is not enough to keep a DL rotation fresh.  That’s why he’s still paying $4 million a year to Letroy Guion—who hasn’t sacked a quarterback since 2014—and why he’s spending another $2 million to rent Plugger Ricky Jean Francois for a year.  Their presence means Thompson doesn’t have to take another good lineman.  But he’d sure like one.  Thompson can’t count on the two remaining Pluggers to be healthy come playoff time, and neither is under contract next year.

Quality DL prospects like Daniels, Clark, and Lowry don’t come cheap.  All three of them were taken in the first four rounds.  But if Thompson’s willing to pay the price, there are few prospects in this draft who could square that trio into a proper rotational quartet:

DALVIN TOMLINSON, Alabama.  If Thompson’s getting back to basics, he’ll see Tomlinson as classic Coke.  Daniels and Clark both wrestled in high school, but neither did it as well as Tomlinson, a three-time state champ in Georgia.  He’s about the same size as Clark, and wins the same way, by getting low and cranking corkscrew power from his hips.  He doesn’t shoot past blockers for quick sacks, but he can launch them into the backfield and make a mess.  On passing downs, Tomlinson specializes in the stunts and twists that Capers likes to run.  And Tomlinson’s no knucklehead, either:  he turned down an academic scholarship from Harvard to pursue his football dreams with the Tide.  

OTHER OPTIONS:  Michigan’s Chris Wormley will never be confused with a Plugger.  He’s about the same size as Lowry (6’5”, 298), and like Lowry, he doesn’t have many moves other than “try to knock ‘em over eventually.”  But Wormley’s an eager-beaver team captain who can get low and stay on his feet, and DL coach Mike Trgovac can work with that.  Charlotte’s Larry Ogunjobi and Mississippi’s D.J. Jones are low-altitude power plugs with nimble feet and short arms.  Some GM care about those short arms, but not Thompson.  For better (Raji, Daniels, Clark, Lowry) or worse (Thornton, Josh Boyd), Thompson takes short-armed defensive linemen all the time. 

INSIDE LINEBACKERS

Another year, another “just good enough not to get fired” performance from the inside linebackers.  Thompson’s not surprised.  That’s about the most a GM can hope for when spending fourth-round picks on ready-to-go players, and that’s what Jake Ryan and Blake Martinez were.  They have instincts and smarts, and Thompson knows that’s enough to get by.  That’s all Thompson had when he played, and he survived for a decade as a 3-4 inside linebacker.

It’s not that Thompson wouldn’t love to find someone who combines those great instincts with shot-from-a-cannon explosiveness and speed.  Guys like Brian Urlacher and Luke Kuechly change defenses.  But those kinds of players are unicorns, and they go quickly in the draft.  In 2014, for example, Bob McGinn reported that the Packers wanted C.J. Mosley, who fit that description.  But the Ravens snagged him before Thompson could, so he took Ha Ha Clinton-Dix instead. 

This year’s draft has four unicorn-looking prospects at ILB, an unusually high number.  Thompson surely wishes he could have one—especially Vanderbilt’s Zach Cunningham, a smart team leader who sliced through SEC offenses like they were moving in slow motion.  But none will be around for Thompson’s second-round pick, and he knows he can’t take one in the first.  The Packers can win a Super Bowl without a unicorn ILB; they’ve done it twice in the last couple decades.  But they can’t win a Super Bowl without cornerbacks who can cover big, fast receivers, as the Atlanta disaster proved.  And if Thompson doesn’t take one of those CBs with his first pick, the good ones may be gone by his second.

Ryan’s signed for the next two seasons, and Martinez for another after that.  Thompson needs another body or two for depth, preferably one who can serve as a coverage specialist upgrade over Joe Thomas.  Thompson won’t pay more than he must for insurance coverage, and this draft has a few policies with low, late-round premiums:

ERIC WILSON, Cincinnati.  Wilson is a supercharged version of Joe Thomas.  He’s a converted safety who’s a little taller and a lot faster than the man he’d replace.  (Wilson could hang with pre-injury Jordy in a footrace.)  Like Thomas, he’s too small for every-down duty.  Wilson’s 10 to 15 pounds lighter than Ryan and Martinez, and he’ll get banged around by blockers even more than they do.  But Wilson’s a reliable tackler in the open field, and he can do everything that’s required of a passing-game specialist.  He’s also a demon on special teams coverage units, and Ron Zook can always use a few more of those.

OTHER OPTIONS:  Dom Capers had to play Thomas full-time down the stretch last year, and Martinez struggled all season.  If Thompson wants to bring in stiffer competition and better every-down depth than Wilson can offer, then Ohio’s Blair Brown and Missouri State’s Dylan Cole are right up his alley.  They’re master tackle hunters who are too short for most teams’ tastes, but not for Thompson’s.  He plucked 5’10” D.J. Smith and 6’1” Sam Barrington in 2011 and 2013, and neither of them could run as fast as the 5’11” Brown and 6’0” Cole.

OUTSIDE LINEBACKERS

Last year, Thompson took a third-round “redshirt” in Kyler Fackrell, who boasted all the features of a first-round model—except one.  He wasn’t ready to play, at least not very well, and needed a year to put more meat on his 6’5” bones.  One wasted year is 25 percent of a rookie contract, and most teams weren’t willing to make that sacrifice in the early rounds.  But at the time, Thompson had outside linebackers coming out of his ears:  Clay Matthews, Nick Perry, Julius Peppers, Datone Jones, Jayrone Elliott.  He could afford to wait for Fackrell to pack on the pounds.

Then, in a now-or-never season, Perry chose “now.”  Thompson locked him up for another five years this offseason.  Between Perry, Matthews, and Fackrell, there are no foreseeable openings for a starting OLB job in Green Bay for at least two years.  Elliott’s back for another go, as well, and he can probably get the team through a game without opponents sticking a bullseye on his back. 

Thompson could use some more depth at OLB, but it doesn’t need to be the early-round, starting-caliber variety.  There aren’t enough available snaps to put early-round talent to its fullest use, and unused talent doesn’t add value—it’s insurance.  Meanwhile, there’s a five-alarm blaze raging next door at cornerback.  Capers would rather have a fire hose at corner than a state-of-the-art-sprinkler system at outside linebacker.

The team does need more fresh legs at OLB, though, for special teams if nothing else.  Thompson isn’t looking for someone with a starter’s profile, but he’d rather not spend a draft choice on run-of-the-mill depth, either.  (He can always peruse the resumes of between-jobs veterans looking for temp gigs.)  If Thompson’s going to spend a pick on a mid- to late-round OLB, then it needs to be someone with a special skill that Capers can put to use.  It must be a skill that’s different than what Fackrell already offers; otherwise, Capers would just use him for the job instead.

In the mid- to late rounds, this draft offers Thompson a few such men with unusual skills.  Meet Mr. Bull, Mr. Cheetah, and Mr. Badger.

IFEADI ODENIGBO, Northwestern. Odenigbo’s the bull.  Armed with a fierce bull rush—and nothing more—he led the Big Ten in sacks last year.  He won’t find the same panicked prey in the NFL as he did in college, and he has no other tricks up his sleeve.  But at 265 pounds, he packs a heavier punch than Matthews and Fackrell, and Capers can use him on passing downs to give lighter tackles a jolt.  He’s also athletic enough to become something more, if linebackers coach Winston Moss can teach him another move or two.  In the meantime, the thought of Odenigbo stampeding down the horizon gives returners something to think about as they’re watching the kickoff descend.

SAMSON EBUKAM, Eastern Washington.  Ebukam’s the cheetah.  He’s faster than Jordy Nelson.  Faster than Randall Cobb.  And much, much faster than Nick Perry, Clay Matthews, or any other linebacker on the Packers roster.  Of course, he’s also smaller than any OLB on the Packers’ roster; Ebukam’s more the size of Jake Ryan and Blake Martinez, who play inside.  And if an NFL blocker can catch him, he’s toast.  NFL players have learned how to win blocks using good technique, while Ebukam has not.  But Ebukam was a team captain with academic honors, so he ought to be willing and able to learn.  Once that training is complete, Capers has a 240-pound bolt of lightning who knows how to escape a block.  Capers can find ways to put that to use.  And you won’t wipe the smile off Ron Zook’s face when he reports for duty on special teams.

VINCE BIEGEL, Wisconsin.  Biegel is the badger, who always gives ‘em hell.  He knows the 3-4 defense, he’ll be responsible with his assignments, and he’ll punch blockers in the mouth on every play.  He’ll always have a hard time winning those fights, at least at outside linebacker, because NFL offensive tackles have three inches and 70 pounds on him.  Biegel doesn’t have the speed or power to do much more than tire them out. 

Thompson won’t normally spend draft picks on players who are destined to start every physical matchup from behind.  But Biegel is different, because he can probably play inside linebacker too—and at that position, his physical disadvantages go away.  He’s bigger than Jake Ryan and just as fast, and Biegel’s instincts and football-junkie study habits are more useful at ILB anyway.  That makes Biegel a two-for-one depth option who’ll never look lost, and a surefire special teams maniac to boot.  Thompson couldn’t resist another undersized Wisconsin team captain in the fifth round in 2014, when he took Jared Abbrederis.  Biegel’s versatility is probably enough for Thompson to convince himself it’s OK to do it again.

DEFENSIVE BACKS

After Sam Shields went down early, Packer fans took our seats in the jury box for the year-long trial of Good Receivers v. Randall, Rollins & Gunter.  Would the second-year corners prove ready to tangle with opponents’ top targets?

Nope.  Not even close.  Each week, opponents brought us fresh evidence to prove that Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins were unfit for duty, especially against taller receivers.  Ladarius Gunter couldn’t help them, either.  Gunter could scratch and claw and hold his own against the weak and the slow, but everyone else just turned on their jets—and then it was bombs away.  Even run-of-the-mill 6’2” receivers had career days against the Packers last season.  By the time the Good Receivers turned to Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu for closing arguments, Dom Capers was pleading for mercy. 

The Good Receivers will be back this fall, and Capers needs corners who won’t fold under cross-examination.  There’s no reason to take any little, sub-six foot guys; Randall, Rollins, and Demetri Goodson are still around, and they can handle opponents’ small fish.  And there’s no need for any safeties, at least in the early rounds.  Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Morgan Burnett are back, and heat-seeking missile Kentrell Brice might be ready to replace Burnett if Thompson can’t re-sign him by year-end.  Undrafted rookies are always hanging off the bottom rung of the roster in case of emergency.

That leaves Thompson with Capers’ distress calls for help with the Good Receivers.  Thompson hasn’t answered them yet.  He brought back Davon House after his Jacksonville washout, but House was never Capers’ first choice against the Good Receivers when he was here—and House didn’t get any better in his time away.  Capers needs tall, fast corners who can survive against tall, fast receivers.  The more the merrier.

Those types of products are always in high demand, and they always go early.  The Urban Meyer CB Factory spit out a couple new models in Marshon Lattimore and Gareon Conley, but Conley is under criminal investigation and Lattimore will be sold out while Thompson’s waiting in line.  The same goes for Connecticut’s 6’4”, 220-pound superfreak Obi Melifonwu, who seems genetically engineered to stop Julio Jones.  But Thompson might still see some name brands in stock at pick 29, and with some dented cans and knockoffs on the shelves behind them.  Here are some of the ones he’ll consider putting in his cart:

CHIDOBE AWUZIE, Colorado.  Micah Hyde got $6 million a year from Buffalo because he can do just about anything a defense needs him to do.  He can play zone; he can tackle; he can get home on a blitz; he can cover slower targets.  Awuzie can do all those things, plus one more:  he has the wheels to cover fast targets, too.  Now, mind you, he won’t shut them down completely.  (If scouts expected that, Thompson wouldn’t get a whiff of him at pick 29.)  But he’s versatile, he’s reliable, and Capers will always be able to put him to use.  And he should keep the winning culture alive:  he was a captain, four-year starter, and team MVP for a Colorado program that rose from the dead while he was there.

KEVIN KING, Washington.  King’s just as fast as Awuzie, but he’s a Richard Sherman-sized 6’3”, 200, with a 40-inch vertical jump and the best agility drill tests of anyone— big or small—at the scouting combine.  Alas, he doesn’t play as fast as he tests.  That’s OK.  Given the choice, quarterbacks would rather not throw the ball anywhere near 6’3” corners who can jump.  So long as King can stay reasonably close to his man—and three years of work in the Pac-12 suggests he can—he won’t look like a very appetizing meal in coverage. 

FABIAN MOREAU, UCLA.  Keeping up with the Julio Joneses of the league requires corners with beef and speed.  Moreau has them:  he’s a broad-shouldered ex-running back with turbo boosters.  He’ll need that nitro once he sees the field, because he’s currently out of commission with a torn pectoral—meaning he’ll lose the chance to get rookie goofs out of his system in preseason.  He’ll probably be back in action by October, however, and the Packers’ schedule from mid-October to mid-November is pretty soft.  If Moreau can get the hang of things by Thanksgiving, then much tougher assignments await. 

OTHER OPTIONS:  Capers may raise an eyebrow if Thompson answers his distress calls with Alabama’s Marlon Humphrey.  Humphrey’s scouting report reads the same as Damarious Randall’s did in college—right down to his addiction to risky behavior in coverage, which sometimes gets him burned.  But Humphrey’s a couple inches taller than Randall and just as fast, and—Randall aside—it’s still easier for CB coach Joe Whitt to muzzle an attack dog than rouse a timid one to fight.  Clemson’s Cordrea Tankersley isn’t the athlete Humphrey is, and his grabby habits will be hard to break.  But Tankersley’s healthy, he’s fast enough, he picks off passes, and he can play press coverage.  If Thompson’s in a beggars-choosers situation at the end of round 2, he can live with Tankersley.

If Thompson uses his first-round pick to hand Capers a polished stone, he’ll feel freer to go foraging for diamonds in the rough later on.  Awuzie’s Colorado teammate, Ahkello Witherspoon, could be a high-karat one.  He has the same 6’3” height and physical gifts as King, and he knows how to use them; he broke up more passes than anyone in college this year.  So why isn’t he going near the top of the draft?  Because skinny, weak, and afraid-to-tackle is no way to go through life in an NFL defense, especially if your job is defending big receivers.  Witherspoon won’t even get to use his fancy coverage skills:  big receivers will just snag short passes, smack him into the turf, and flee the scene before Sheriff Burnett arrives.  But if Thompson can toss Capers another, more well-inflated life preserver at corner in the first, then maybe the Packers can afford to lock Witherspoon in the weight room for a year to blow him up.

If that gangly back-room curiosity doesn’t tickle Thompson’s fancy, he can find more standard-issue projects on the shelves.  Central Florida’s Shaquill Griffin didn’t face good competition, and when he did, Michigan’s Amara Darboh ate his lunch.  But he has all the tools for the job, he deflects a lot of passes, and he’s not bashful about throwing his body around.  Pittsburgh’s Ryan Lewis only started one year in college, but Thompson doesn’t care.  Sam Shields showed him that fast athletes with playmaking instincts can pick things up as they go along.  Lewis doesn’t have Shields’ supersonic speed, but he’s faster than anyone in the Packers’ secondary now, and he made a couple big interceptions in big moments last year.

There’s a Swiss Army knife waiting for Thompson in the middle rounds, if he wants to replace the one he lost in Buffalo this offseason.  Virginia Tech’s Chuck Clark can play safety or cover slower targets, which does little to distinguish him from the rest of the Packers secondary.  But he’s faster than Gunter and more reliable than Rollins, and he has “future emotional leader of the special teams units” stamped on his forehead.

*              *              *

That concludes this year’s tour of the draft through Ted Thompson’s eyes.  Thanks for coming along.  

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Fan friendly comments only: off Comments (16) This filter will hide comments which have ratio of 5 to 1 down-vote to up-vote.

the REAL Packman's picture

2 Scenarios for Final Draft- the second with a Trade QB Hundley

1. Jabrill Peppers - Peppers will fall to the Packers unless Pittsburg leaps ahead to snag him. This pick will solidify the Packers secondary woes and allows DC to put Peepers anywhere on the field. This will be a great pick. He is a legitimate playmaker with size and speed.
2. Joe Mixon - He may not be here as his stock is rising. 1st Round talent
2. Trade Up (2017 5th and 2018 3rd,4th) ... TJ Watt OLB ... Mathews eventual replacement... More beef on the edge.
3. Fabian Moreau CB - SPEED,SPEED SPEED
4. Kyle Kalis- Restocking the OLINE
5. Chad Hansen WR - Jordy's replacement
5.(traded to move up )
6. Keith Beckwith ILB ...1-2nd round talent before injury.. can rehab a year and rotate with Ryan,Martinez
7. Ben Braden OG .. Another mauler

2017 Draft with Hundley trade
1. Jabril Peppers- DB/Athlete
2. Joe Nixon RB
3. (Hundley trade along with 2018 5th) TJ Watt OLB
3. Fabian Moreau CB
4. Kyle Kalis G
5. Chad Hansen WR
5. Montravious Adams DT
6. Keith Beckwith ILB
7. Ben Braden OG

Bearmeat's Phantom Downvoter's picture

I disagree with the author that we have adequate depth and talent at OLB, for 4 reasons:

1. After QB, and arguably LT, pass rush is the most essential component of a successful team.

2. It's also the 2nd most difficult type of guy to find. Above pass coverage.

3. Good pass rush can mask deficient coverage, but good coverage breaks down eventually if there's little pass rush.

4. I don't trust CM3 to be healthy, or a difference maker any more. I don't trust Perry to be healthy. I don't trush Fackrell or Elliot to make a jump.

We NEED OLB and CBs. But we need quality OLBs more than we do quality CBs.

dobber's picture

"Good pass rush can mask deficient coverage, but good coverage breaks down eventually if there's little pass rush."

This is a huge part of how the Packers 'ran the table' last fall. ARod had a huge amount of time to find receivers, even against really good defenses.

"We NEED OLB and CBs. But we need quality OLBs more than we do quality CBs."

Hear here!!!
...and a dual purpose guy who slides inside on passing downs to generate pressure alongside Daniels would be really nice, too.

Finwiz's picture

Excellent commentary Bearmeat, primarily because I agree with all four points 100%

MarkinMadison's picture

Yeah the article made me laugh but I tend to think OLB is more of a need than the author does. We'll see how the draft board falls out. Bottom line is that there are a lot of good CB and OLB prospects this year, so it should be a good draft. Then again, knowing TT, he'll probably go WR, WR, QB in rounds 1-3 just to screw with everyone.

Nick Perry's picture

4. "I don't trust CM3 to be healthy, or a difference maker any more. I don't trust Perry to be healthy. I don't trust Fackrell or Elliot to make a jump."

Unfortunately the Packers are in a position of not only not having proven depth behind Matthews and Perry, they don't really have depth period. Yes we need CB's and OLB though I'm tending to lean towards OLB as the top priority. Especially if they plan on moving Matthews around more. Plus can they really count on Clay's hamstrings holding up for 16 plus games as BM suggested?

chugwater's picture

Yeah. I'm with you guys. Not really confident that Perry and CM3 can hold the fort down with their injury history. And while I'm not sour on Fackrell, I haven't seen anything from him that leads me to believe he's anything more than average. Elliott has had several years to ascend and right now he's just a guy.

NitschkeFan's picture

Another really good article. Keep up the great work.

dobber's picture

Agreed! Thanks for your work on our behalf!

Matt Lynch's picture

Thanks for reading, everyone. I might agree on OLB, if this were the draft through my eyes. But Thompson invested heavily in that position with Perry, Matthews, and Fackrell; they're all signed for a while; and unlike WRs, there's a limit to how many OLBs the team can put on the field at once. More pass rush helps, no doubt about it, but it would be out-of-character for Thompson to draft another OLB with a high pick this year.

MarkinMadison's picture

Fair enough. I think where we might part a bit is that I don't view Matthews as a full-time OLB anymore, and I think his days at the position are numbered. Looked at this way, you have one starter identified for the 2018 season, but still need to fill the other position. I think this is what TT does, looks not at this year, but next year.

chugwater's picture

I'll second this Matt. Great content.

Packer Fan's picture

I am with the REAL Packman and trading to get another 2nd or 3rd round pick and getting more defense help. Especially CB. But no running back early. OL & RB in later rounds. But we will see shortly.

PatrickGB's picture

I have been pleased to read some good quality articles here. I remain torn on whether we need an OLB or a CB in the first. Either one would be good and both in the first two rounds would be fine with me.

melenchon2017's picture

Oh come on ! I so disagree with PatrickGB !
<a href="http://comparatif-poussette.info/">comparatif poussette pour bébé 2017</a>

melenchon2017's picture

Well, it's my webiste : http://comparatif-poussette.info/

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