Fourth Pick First in Importance

Is the Packers' most important pick fourth-rounder Jake Ryan? It's not an overstatement to say that the Packers' defense hinges on the Michigan linebacker's ability to play as a rookie.

Photo by Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY

Since the first NFL Player Selection Meeting in 1936, has any team ever emerged from the immediate aftermath of the draft having its fourth-round selection being the most important pick?

Such is the case for the Green Bay Packers, however, with the 2015 draft in the books.

Does first-round safety-turned-cornerback Damarious Randall have to be anything more than a role player as a rookie? No, not as long as Sam Shields, Micah Hyde and Casey Hayward stay healthy.

Does second-round point guard-turned-cornerback Quinten Rollins have to contribute right away? No, same deal.

Does third-round receiver Ty Montgomery have to emerge as a contributor on offense? No, considering the Packers led the league in scoring and coach Mike McCarthy has hyped up Jeff Janis’ progress.

So what about Ryan?

As the only inside linebacker selected, his importance is obvious at a position group that wasn’t good enough when A.J. Hawk, Brad Jones and Jamari Lattimore were on the roster. That turned a position group that was short on talent into a group short on numbers.

That chasm on the depth chart notwithstanding, coach Mike McCarthy and the other decision-makers at Lambeau Field wouldn’t put any pressure on Ryan to become an immediate starter.

“There’s been no starting positions assigned today and there won’t be tomorrow,” McCarthy said after the final picks were made on Saturday.

That’s true but Ryan, the 129th overall selection, arrives as the most accomplished inside linebacker on the roster not named Sam Barrington. Maybe Carl Bradford, the 121st selection last year, made leaps-and-bounds gains during a transition year that saw him inactive for all 18 games. Bradford was a sensational defensive end at Arizona State, so it’s not as if he’s lacking in talent.

But so much about playing middle linebacker is about instincts. And those instincts are what stand out about Ryan — and are unknown about Bradford. Ryan moved into the middle of Michigan’s defense as a senior and turned in an all-conference season that included 14 tackles for losses among his 112 stops.

“With his instincts, the ability to get off the spot as an inside linebacker is really important and he finds the ball really quickly. That’s why he was so productive,” director of pro personnel Eliot Wolf said on Friday, hinting that the Packers graded Ryan higher than some of the eight inside linebackers taken before him.

Added McCarthy: “I think he has the ability to play on all four downs. I think that’s the highest compliment you can give to a player.”

Whether it’s Ryan or Bradford, the Packers need someone to take charge at the position. Clay Matthews was sensational while moving between inside and outside linebacker last season, with his play being one of the biggest factors in Green Bay reaching the NFC Championship Game.

However, the more Matthews plays inside, the more Julius Peppers has to play outside. Between forced fumbles, fumble recoveries and interceptions, only J.J. Watt had more big plays than Peppers last season. However, at age 35, the Packers need to be judicious with his snaps to keep him fresh for the critical games of December and beyond.

If Ryan can prove he’s ready to be an immediate contributor, that would enable defensive coordinator Dom Capers to pick and choose the times to move Matthews around.

“No. 1, Clay is an outside linebacker. He’s a pass-rusher. That’s his premium position,” McCarthy said. “I think it’s very evident after the bye week that moving Clay around, his productivity definitely went up. I’ve had people tell me in studies and so forth that his production is probably ranked as one of the highest, or the highest, of inside linebackers. Just the way he played the position, that’s a big credit to Clay. Clay is going to both meetings. I was in the inside linebacker meeting on Friday with Clay. He’s getting ready to play wherever he needs to play. The most important thing is creating opportunities for your big-time players to make plays, and that’s what we’ll do with Clay.”

Ultimately, the final grade on this draft will be written based on the play of all eight picks. Can Randall move to cornerback as easily as his college coach says he will? Is Rollins fast enough? Can Montgomery be a four-down playmaker? Will Brett Hundley fetch the Packers a first-round pick in a trade in two or three years? Will any of the sixth-round picks be steals?

But for 2015 and the Packers’ championship hopes, there isn’t a more important draft pick than Ryan. That might be a bold statement. And it might put a lot of pressure on Ryan. But, as a two-year team captain coming from a family full of achievers, he'll be able to handle it.

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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