For the fifth consecutive year, Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson has used his first-round pick on a defensive player. Over the previous four drafts, he has used 19 draft picks on defenders — including 12 in the first four rounds and seven in the first two.
And still, the Packers’ defense is maybe a step above mediocre. Other than Clay Matthews and Mike Daniels, there isn’t a single playmaker on the defensive front seven.
To provide the kind of game-wrecking talent that the elite defenses ride to postseason glory, Thompson needs to make a bold move on Friday and trade up into the second round to get USC’s Su’a Cravens. The cost won’t be cheap — they’d likely have to give up their second- and third-round picks to do so — but it’s time for this cap-strapped team to make a serious move to get back to the Super Bowl.
Cravens led the Trojans in just about every key statistic in 2015, when he was first-team all-Pac-12 and a semifinalist for the Butkus Award, which goes to the nation’s top linebacker. He had team-leading figures of 82 tackles, six sacks, 15 tackles for losses and two forced fumbles. His two interceptions were one off the team lead and he was third with eight passes defensed.
Before the draft, with the help of STATS and Real Football, I put together statistical production charts for every position, including four for the inside linebacker prospects. Of our top 27, Cravens ranked second in sacks, fifth with 34 run disruptions and tied for seventh with 11.5 stuffs (defined as a tackle at or behind the line of scrimmage vs. the run). Perhaps more importantly for the Packers, who got by last season with Joe Thomas as the dime linebacker, Cravens is a stopper in the passing game. The safety-turned-linebacker allowed completions on 9-of-20 targets, a 45.0 percent completion rate that ranked fourth. He ranked second with eight passes defensed, meaning he got his hands on almost as many passes as he allowed completions.
At 6-foot 3/4 and 226 pounds, Cravens doesn’t exactly look like a linebacker. Would Thompson consider him, considering he hasn’t drafted a linebacker weighing less than 236 pounds during his previous 11 drafts in Green Bay? Or can he trust that defensive coordinator Dom Capers can find ways to mitigate Cravens’ lack of size but take advantage of his obvious playmaking skill?
With Matthews moved out of the middle, where he played most of his snaps the last season-and-a-half, the Packers need to add some juice at that position. He’d potentially give Capers the chess piece that he had with Matthews in a combo role and with the incomparable Charles Woodson. While Cravens lacks the stop-him-in-his-tracks muscle of Alabama’s Reggie Ragland, he’d add an athletic dynamic to a defense that has lacked that element for far too long.
Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PackerReport.