Grading Thompson on the Outside Linebackers

General manager Ted Thompson has drafted nine outside linebackers, including six since the team switched to the 3-4 in 2009. Some of those recent picks probably will make it necessary for the team to draft another in a couple of weeks.

Photo by Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY

This will be Ted Thompson’s 11th draft atop the Green Bay Packers, meaning there’s a decade’s worth of history to examine as this year’s draft approaches. We are taking a position-by-position lookback to see where he and his scouting department have turned up gems and where they have turned up fool’s gold.

Outside linebackers

Note: Team changed to 3-4 in 2009

2005, 4th round — Brady Poppinga, BYU (6-3, 259): Poppinga started from 2006 through 2008 and played in 81 games (44 starts) with the Packers in six seasons. He was tough as nails, a quality run defender and a fun guy in the locker room. In eight NFL seasons, he finished with five sacks. Poppinga was the 17th of 32 linebackers selected. Of those taken after him, only Michael Boley (fifth round) played in more games. Grade: B-minus.

2005, 7th round — Kurt Campbell, Albany (6-2, 228): Campbell was drafted after a remarkable pro day performance that included a 4.43 in the 40-yard dash and a 42.5-inch vertical. He didn’t make the roster and never played a snap in the NFL. Campbell was pick No. 245; tight end Billy Bajema (No. 249), quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick (No. 250) and fullback Madison Hedgecock (No. 251) have carved out lengthy careers. Grade: F.

2008, 4th round — Jeremy Thompson, Wake Forest (6-4, 264): Thompson was drafted as a defensive end under the old 4-3 scheme but made the move to outside linebacker in 2009. He played in 15 games in two seasons, with all three career starts coming as a rookie. He retired due to a neck injury sustained at a practice late in 2009. Thompson was the 11th of 20 defensive ends selected. Taken one pick later by Tennessee, William Hayes played in 91 games over seven seasons and recorded 24 sacks. Grade: D.

2009, 1st round — Clay Matthews, USC (6-3, 240): Matthews served notice in 2014 that he remains one of the best defenders in the league. After logging only 7.5 sacks during an injury-plagued 2013 and just 2.5 during the first half of 2014, an expanded role seemed to energize Matthews. He had 8.5 sacks in the final eight games — fifth-most in the league — including 6.5 in the final four games. In his part-time role at inside linebacker, he solidified a porous run defense. Since entering the league in 2009, he is tied for fifth in the NFL with 61 sacks. Of the 30 linebackers selected, Matthews has five of the nine Pro Bowls. Grade: A.

2009, 7th round — Brad Jones, Colorado (6-3, 232): Think back to Jones’ time in Green Bay for a moment. How fast do you think he ran his 40 at pro day? How about 4.54? You never would have known it. That’s not to say he was a bad pick. He started 36 games in six seasons — 13 at outside linebacker in 2009 through 2011 and 23 at inside linebacker in 2012 through 2014. After Desmond Bishop and D.J. Smith went down with injuries, Jones recorded 100 tackles in 10 starts. He added 98 tackles in 12 starts in 2013. He started the 2014 opener but played only occasionally after that and was released during the offseason. Jones was one of 18 linebackers taken after Detroit took DeAndre Levy at No.76 of the third round. Of those 18, Jones ranks first in starts, second in games and second in sacks. Grade: B.

2011, 6th round — Ricky Elmore, Arizona (6-5, 255): Do workout numbers matter? Sometimes. Elmore had 21.5 sacks during his final two seasons at Arizona but ran in 4.95 at the Scouting Combine. He’s had stints with five teams but never was on an active roster. Taken after Elmore, who was pick No. 197, seven players have started at least 10 games. Grade: F.

2012, 1st round — Nick Perry, USC (6-3, 271): In three seasons, Perry has played in 32 games with 15 starts and recorded nine sacks and four forced fumbles. As a pure role player — a tough customer against the run and a bull rusher — he’s a quality player. But he lacks the quickness and lateral agility to be an every-down player. Perry was pick No. 28. Baltimore took Courtney Upshaw, another touted 3-4 outside linebacker candidate, at No. 35. Upshaw has started 36 games but has only three career sacks. Derek Wolfe, who was on Green Bay’s radar, was taken at No. 36 by Denver and been an outstanding fit on its defensive line. Grade: D-plus.

2013, 6th round — Nate Palmer, Illinois State (6-2, 248): With 17 sacks in two seasons at Illinois State, Palmer was worthy of a late-round pick. Because of injuries, he played a lot as a rookie — eight games and two starts. He was in jeopardy of being released in training camp last summer so got a shot at inside linebacker. A knee injury sent him to injured reserve. Palmer, the 21st of 26 linebackers selected, was pick No. 193. Of the next 17 selections, seven have played at least 25 games. Grade: D-plus.

2014, 4th round — Carl Bradford, Arizona State (6-1, 250): Measurables are important. Bradford was a flat-out dominant defender at Arizona State with 21.5 sacks, 44 tackles for losses, two forced fumbles and six recoveries in three seasons. His short arms, however, made him completely ineffective at outside linebacker during training camp. He was moved to inside linebacker late in camp and practiced there throughout the season. Bradford, the 14th of 35 linebackers selected and the 121st overall selection, was inactive for every game as a rookie. Of the 21 linebackers picked after Bradford, 11 played at least 14 games and six started at least once. Grade: F.

Overall grade: A 3-4 scheme revolves around the big plays from the outside linebackers. Since the move to the 3-4, Thompson has drafted six outside linebackers. Two aren’t on the roster (Jones and Elmore). Three were moved to inside linebacker (Jones, Palmer, Bradford). Perry, the only early pick over the last five drafts, has been underwhelming. Matthews, of course, has been brilliant , and one great pick outweighs a bunch of duds. Grade: C-plus.

What it means (if anything) for 2015: The Packers will have to select an outside linebacker — and probably relatively early. Perry and Mike Neal will be free agents at the end of this season and Julius Peppers — who probably wouldn’t have been signed had Perry not been so mediocre — will turn 37 in January. Fortunately for the Packers, the talent pool is deep.

Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.


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