At the Scouting Combine last month, I asked Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson how he viewed his team. Is it as the team that reached the NFC Championship Game? Or is it as the team that got blown out by Atlanta in that championship game?
“We start out every year the same, and this is kind of the start of it — getting ready for the draft, getting ready for free agency,” Thompson replied after initially calling it a “nasty” question. “We’re getting ready for one thing and it’s to try to get to the Super Bowl and win the Super Bowl. We don’t try for anything else. Every year that’s exactly what we’re going to do every time is try to win the Super Bowl. And we understand it’s hard to do. We understand that there’s twists and turns on the road. It’s unbelievable how difficult that is, but we try to do it every single year. We’ve come up short a few times but we’ve also done some battling.”
Just past the one-week mark of free agency, it’s become clear how Thompson intends to win the Super Bowl.
Rebuilding on the fly.
Based on how he’s handled his own free agents, Thompson must have viewed his team as the one that got clobbered by the Falcons more so than the one that battled its way to Atlanta by winning eight consecutive games.
The free-agent exodus has been astounding, considering this was a team with about $39 million of salary-cap space at the start of free agency. The group of defensive back Micah Hyde, guard T.J. Lang, tight end Jared Cook, center J.C. Tretter, running back Eddie Lacy and outside linebackers Datone Jones and Julius Peppers combined to sign contracts worth just shy of $100 million. Thompson could have kept any of them. He simply chose not to.
To be sure, Thompson’s approach has weakened his roster.
To work his extended-play magic, Aaron Rodgers needs a strong offensive line. Without Lang, will Thompson be forced to use an early-round draft pick in hopes of landing a Day 1 starter?
Ty Montgomery is a promising young running back, but there isn’t a running back on Earth who doesn’t need a capable running mate. Without Lacy, will Thompson be forced to use an early-round draft pick to add a complement?
Defensively, Green Bay finished 31st against the pass and 25th in opponent passer rating. In that light, how are the Packers better without Hyde, who had four interceptions in the final eight games? Did Thompson leave the Packers too thin at outside linebacker, especially after Clay Matthews’ subpar season?
All of that puts the pressure on Thompson — perhaps more than ever — to put together one hell of a draft.
That will be easier said than done. The defense obviously needed an extreme makeover. In the championship game, the Falcons had 24 points, 325 yards and 20 first downs in the first half alone. Getting that defense fixed, however, will be more difficult now that there is a guard and running back to draft.
Remember, the Packers aren’t exactly awash in picks. They have eight selections — Nos. 29, 61, 93, 134, 174, 184, 214 and 249. Can Thompson draft a starting-caliber cornerback (or two), an impact pass rusher (or two), a starting guard and a ready-to-play running back? It’s a daunting proposition to draft at least four (or more) immediate contributors when you’re picking at the back of every round.
But, with the exception of Lang and perhaps Lacy, this was probably the way to go. It’s imperative the defense plays better — much better — than it did last season. Hyde’s a good player. Peppers remains a viable rusher. Jones led the team in quarterback hits. But if there’s a common thread between those three, it’s that they are below-average athletes for their positions. Before Green Bay’s defense can get better, it needs to get faster. Letting Hyde, Peppers and Jones depart was the first step in that critical direction. Of course, that first step was the easiest step.
Finding upgrades at those positions will be the challenge. From there, the pressure will be on the coaching staff to get those young players up to speed in warp speed. During the final four regular-season games and the three postseason games, the Packers got a not-so-grand total of one start from a rookie. That just can’t happen this year.
The Class of 2017 is going to have to play. Right away. Ready or not.
To be sure, there will be some growing pains. But last year’s defense was fatally flawed. Give credit to Thompson for acknowledging that fact and opting for wholesale changes rather than Band-Aid approaches. Will the Class of 2017 get this defense trending in the right direction? Who knows. What is certain is the status quo was never going to be good enough. If losing Hyde, Peppers and Jones represented three steps back, maybe the draft will represent four steps forward.
Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PackerReport.