Bill Huber/Packer Report

Packers GM Ted Thompson’s Draft Gamble Could Imperil Season

Green Bay Packers GM Ted Thompson tripled-down at running back. He should have taken that approach at another position.

Three running backs.

One outside linebacker.

Those are the defining numbers from the Green Bay Packers’ 2017 draft class.

Outside linebacker, cornerback and running back were the three major positions of need entering this week’s draft. Thompson took care of cornerback with his first pick, cornerback Kevin King. He took care of running back with a strength-in-numbers approach of fourth-rounder Jamaal Williams, fifth-rounder Aaron Jones and seventh-rounder Devante Mays.

Thompson, however, didn’t do nearly enough to address outside linebacker. As coach Mike McCarthy pointed out afterward, the Packers lost about 1,100 snaps with the free-agent departures of Julius Peppers and Datone Jones. To be sure, neither were vital cogs in the defense, though Peppers finished second on the team with 7.5 sacks and Jones leading the team in quarterback hits.

It’s not just the snaps played and pressure applied by Peppers and Jones:

— Clay Matthews, who will turn 31 in two weeks, had by far the worst season of his career with five sacks and 24 tackles. His previous worsts? Six sacks and 50 tackles. During his first seven seasons, he averaged 3.1 turnover plays (forced fumbles, fumble recoveries and interceptions). Last year, he had one (forced fumble).

— Nick Perry capitalized on a one-year contract by piling up 11 sacks. However, he’s never played all 16 games, with two missed games last season and 20 missed games in five seasons.

— Kyler Fackrell, last year’s third-round pick, hardly made a ripple as a rookie with two sacks in 13 games. After Week 4, Fackrell had no sacks and four tackles in nine games.

— Jayrone Elliott’s regular season started with an injured hamstring and ended with a broken hand. He had one sack and 13 tackles in 11 games.

Is Matthews a declining player? Can Perry stay healthy and put together a big-time encore? Can Fackrell and Elliott develop into reliable role players and part-time starters, should Matthews or Perry get hurt?

Despite such uncertainty at a critical position in Dom Capers’ defensive scheme, Thompson added only one player at the position: Vince Biegel in the fourth round. Biegel is athletic (among the better testers at every phase of the Scouting Combine) and intelligent (semifinalist for the Campbell Trophy, which is also known as the Academic Heisman) with off-the-charts intangibles.

“He’s a tenacious player,” senior personnel executive Alonzo Highsmith said. “You could tell his passion for the game. He likes playing football, and I think he’s a real guy in the aspect of he checks all the boxes of a football player. Everything — his makeup, his personality, how he goes about being a professional. You can tell he’s a professional by the way they play and I think he plays that way.”

Biegel was a three-time all-conference selection at Wisconsin. But he had only four sacks and six tackles for losses as a senior — big dropoffs from eight sacks and 14 tackles for losses as a junior and 7.5 sacks and 16.5 tackles for losses as a sophomore.

Can Biegel really be the solution at outside linebacker? Maybe. You could have asked the same thing about Williams. Can Williams be a solution at running back? Maybe. Thompson wound up taking two more running backs as insurance. He didn’t take any other pass rushers. Essentially, Thompson is betting the entire season on Perry and Matthews dominating for 19 or 20 games, and some combination of Fackrell, Elliott and Biegel making a splash at a demanding position.

I don’t like the odds.

Bill Huber is publisher of 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 www.twitter.com/PackerReport.


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