After falling one step short of the Super Bowl two of the past three years, one word describes what needs to change for the Green Bay Packers.
General manager Ted Thompson acknowledged that obvious fact by spending his first four draft picks on defensive players. That came on the heels of spending four of his first five draft picks in 2016 on defensive players.
The development of those eight players will be vital if the Packers intend to return to the Super Bowl for the first time since 2010.
“We sure hope so,” Thompson said when asked after the draft if the defense was better. “We do feel like we got better. We have a chance to grow and kind of spread our wings a little bit. I think sometimes you get a little stale in the roster, and that would be my fault if it happened.”
Going “stale” was a startling admission from Thompson, who had invested heavily in terms of money and draft picks on defense. That the Packers are basing a defensive turnaround on new players rather than a new coordinator tells you all you need to know on where the blame was placed in the offices of 1265 Lombardi Ave. Are the Packers better without defensive back Micah Hyde and outside linebackers Julius Peppers and Datone Jones? Definitely not. But the defense definitely was not good enough with those players, so Thompson essentially is rebuilding on the fly.
That starts with demanding more from last year’s draft class, which didn’t provide much of an immediate return on investment. First-round defensive lineman Kenny Clark (333 snaps, 32.6 percent playing time), third-round outside linebacker Kyler Fackrell (160 snaps, 15.6 percent), fourth-round inside linebacker Blake Martinez (438 snaps; 42.6 percent) and fourth-round defensive lineman Dean Lowry (157 snaps; 12.3 percent) made marginal contributions. While Clark surged down the stretch and Lowry became more of a factor, Martinez faded and became an afterthought and Fackrell never really was part of the equation at a position group filled with veterans.
Those four combined to play 1,088 snaps on defense. Contrast that number to Atlanta getting 3,225 snaps from its four top rookie defenders – first-round safety Keanu Neal, second-round linebacker Deion Jones, fourth-round linebacker De’Vondre Campbell and undrafted nickelback Brian Poole.
It might be pie-in-the-sky to even hope for that kind of contribution from this year’s rookie class of second-round cornerback Kevin King, second-round safety Josh Jones, third-round defensive lineman Martavious Adams and fourth-round outside linebacker Vince Biegel. At the very least, they must offset the free-agent defections of Hyde, Peppers and Jones, who combined to play 1,949 snaps last season.
The Falcons, of course, almost won the Super Bowl last year. Statistically, their defense was terrible, with only five teams allowing more points. However, in the eight games following their Week 11 bye, they allowed 21 points or less six times. With speed and pressure, they demolished the rampaging Packers in the NFC Championship Game.
So, here’s some unsolicited advice to Mike McCarthy: Play the young guys. A lot. Let Clark and Mike Daniels grow as the starting tandem, and put Adams and Lowry into attack mode as key reserves. Give King a chance to grow into a big-receiver stopper. Create packages to get Jones on the field, which will greatly improve the athleticism on the field. Give Biegel and Fackrell as many third-down reps as they can handle in hopes of bolstering a lackluster pass rush. Figure out if Martinez can be part of the solution, as well.
Take your lumps early in the season, knowing that quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the rest of the offense can win some games, anyway. And maybe, just maybe, all of those young guys – and the hoped-for rebounds of Clay Matthews, Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins – will have this team in position to hoist the Lombardi Trophy in seven months.
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.