It sure feels like this is re-tooling time for the front seven of the Green Bay Packers defense.
Already this offseason, one of the main cogs in the middle of that unit has unexpectedly retired, one is set to move back to his original position and another is on his way back from a season-ending injury. A top pass rusher also remains unsigned, a season-opening starter at middle linebacker was released and a promising young interior player was levied a four-game suspension.
All that activity has the upcoming Packers draft again feeling like a defensive one — at least at the top — like it has been for five of the last seven years dating back to 2009.
That was the offseason the Packers hired Dom Capers as defensive coordinator and made the switch to the 3-4 scheme. Packer Report’s magazine issue previewed the 2009 Packers draft saying it “could define general manager Ted Thompson’s tenure with the Green Bay Packers.”
In many ways it has.
His top two picks that draft — B.J. Raji and Clay Matthews — have been squarely in the news in recent months. Raji, the No. 9 overall pick in 2009, is taking what could be a one-year hiatus from football, and Matthews, the No. 26 overall pick in 2009, is expected to return back to playing more at outside linebacker, according to coach Mike McCarthy.
To do that, the Packers will need to shore up the middle of their defense. Raji’s absence will leave a hole on the depth chart and some flexibility issues along the defensive line. Matthews leaving his middle linebacker spot of the past season-and-a-half means that the Packers are essentially back to square one at inside linebacker. And since they have yet to address the front seven with any notable free agents, replenishment will likely come through the draft.
The big difference with this defense and the one Capers was hired to install in 2009 is that it is a less traditional 3-4. The Packers may start with that formation as their base but they are much more versatile and far less scheme oriented.
“Defensively, particularly in the sub packages when you get into situational football, everybody in this game is trying to create matchups,” said McCarthy at the Scouting Combine. “That’s really, at the end of it, what it’s really all about. Giving the opponent diversity and different things to look for. They’re watching how you rush. We’re watching how they pass protect. That’s just all part of the game-planning and how you want to approach it.”
For Matthews and outside linebacker-mate Julius Peppers, that could mean moving around some and not solely staying on the outside.
Each wreaked havoc in those roles near the end of last season. The Packers also plan to use Datone Jones as an “elephant” in their defense instead of a defensive end, as had been the transformation in recent years of Mike Neal, who remains a free agent after posting six sacks and 10 quarterback hits (including the postseason) in 2015.
Luckily, the Packers have Mike Daniels signed to a long-term deal, because the defensive line looks unstable. Letroy Guion is back, but Mike Pennel will serve a suspension to start the season and Josh Boyd is coming off injured reserve after a season-ending ankle injury in September. No one else on the roster has NFL game experience.
“I think you need big men. There’s only so many,” said McCarthy in a private session with reporters at the Combine. “We need to get bigger. We’ve been getting bigger and we need to continue to get bigger. That’s something we’re all focused on and so I think you really have to watch yourself. Everybody wants to take the best player available on the board, but you also have to be aware of your depth chart, too. It’s the balance in between that and I think that’s something our personnel department does a good job with.
“At the end of the day you have to trust your board. I look at this draft process no different than game planning. You spend all this time training your players and all this information — you want to be this, you want to be that — and you develop a call sheet. Then when you get in the game, you start changing? That’s not sound. It’s no different than draft day. … It’s a grind, first of all, as far as the activity, and that’s a real strength of Ted’s. He doesn’t waver too far from the board.”
Such was the case in 2009, when he had Matthews targeted after he took Raji first. In an unprecedented move for Thompson in Green Bay, he gave up one second-round and two third-round picks to the New England Patriots to move back into the first round to nab the USC linebacker.
The move has worked out well. Perhaps Thompson has something similar in mind this draft at inside linebacker. With the release of Nate Palmer (80 tackles, 10 starts), the Packers have just four true inside linebackers on the roster, counting the return of Sam Barrington from season-long injured reserve.
In 2009, Thompson used five of his seven picks on defense. Jarius Wynn and Brandon Underwood (sixth round) and Brad Jones (seventh) rounded out the group. Three years later, Thompson’s first six picks — out of eight total — were on defense. That came a season after the Packers posted a 15-1 regular season record but were bounced in the divisional round of the playoffs.
Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org