PACKERDRAFT 2009 TEAM NEEDS AND OVERVIEW Jerry Gilbert 1/19/2009
The question as to what players may be selected by the Green Bay Packers in the 2009 College Draft may have been totally changed by the hiring of Dom Capers to coach the Defense. If Capers has been added to install a 3-4 defense, the players to man such a unit may not be in place. On the other hand, the addition of one or two outstanding talents could improve the defense regardless of what scheme or combination of schemes will be employed.
We turn first to the players now on the roster, beginning with the defensive line. In 2008 the defensive line proved to be inadequate. It could not stop premier running backs nor generate consistent pressure on the passer. Adding to the problems is the fact that its best player last season, end Aaron Kampman, doe not appear well suited to a 3-4 alignment. On the other hand, nose tackle Ryan Picket played fairly well and should be adequate in a 3-4, provided that he has good back-ups, so that he can stay fresh. Colin Cole and Justin Harrell were not up to that task last season. Harrell may have the talent, but we will not know how he will perform until next season. Tackle Johnny Jolly regressed in 2008 and he faces serious criminal charges in Texas. Veteran Michael Montgomery will not be adequate in either a 4-3 or 3-4, and rush ends Jason Hunter and Jeremy Thompson are works in progress.
A sign of hope is found in the other starting defensive end, Cullen Jenkins, who missed most of the season with an injury. When he did play, it was at a very high level. At 6-2 305, Jenkins may have the bulk to contribute in a 3-4 alignment. Assuming that he returns at full strength, Jenkins should be able to play very well in the four-man front. If he is available and can stay focused, Johnny Jolly is another player who can contribute in either system.
Even with the return of Cullen Jenkins, the Green Bay defensive line has a serious need for better players. An outside pass rusher is one priority. An inside pass rush presence is equally important. If General Manager Ted Thompson can find such a player at one or both of these positions, who is also solid against the run, the defense will be better. In terms of immediate improvement, adding a veteran defensive tackle seems to be a priority. However, veterans who can make such an impact are hard to find. Expect the Packers to draft defensive linemen early and often.
Going into last season, linebacker was considered a position of strength. With the possible exception of newcomer Brandon Chillar, none of the linebackers played up to expectations. The hiring of Dom Capers adds to the unsettled nature of the position. Assuming better play from the defensive line, not a solid assumption at this point, the existing linebackers should be up to the task in a 4-3 defense. However, none of them would appear to be ideally suited to the 3-4. Defensive End Jeremy Thompson may be a candidate for outside linebacker, but there are no obvious 3-4 backers on the roster. On the other hand, Capers may well be the coach to bring out the very real talent of Nick Barnett, A.J. Hawk and the rest.
Despite the arrival of Capers, it is not likely that a linebacker will be a high draft choice for the Packers. However, as the scouts and coaches evaluate defensive ends, they may be looking for a player who can excel either as a linemen on passing downs in the 4-3 or as an every down outside linebacker in the 3-4. They will be paying close attention to pass coverage drills at the combine and in college Pro Days.
Evaluating the Green Bay Packer secondary is pretty much the same story as last season. There are two quality but aging corners in Charles Woodson and Al Harris and a pretty good nickel back in Tramon Williams. Behind them is a candidate for the street in the error-prone Jarrett Bush and two talented but unproven players in Will Blackmon and Pat Lee. Lee is the wildcard because he was injured in his rookie season, and the team will not know if he will be a solid contributor until after the Draft. As with the linebackers, this position is pretty well set, again assuming an improvement in the pass rush. On the other hand, there is no heir apparent to start at cornerback except Williams, and given the fact that an older player can suddenly decline in effectiveness, a first day selection is likely to be used on a cornerback.
At safety, the situation was also affected last season by injuries. Nick Collins stepped up to be a needed big play presence, but Atari Bigby was ineffective when available and mostly unavailable. There remains a question whether he can return to the level of play he displayed in 2007. Aaron Rouse remains a question mark capable of great plays and great blunders. Next year should be a make or break situation for Rouse, as we learn whether he can be a consistent performer in the secondary. In the last preseason, Charlie Peprah appeared to be making a challenge for the starting lineup until an injury eliminated his season. He remains a candidate at safety. Depending on how Dom Capers evaluates the existing players for his system, a safety may be part of the Draft Day strategy for the Green Bay Packers.
The Packer offense was statistically much better than the defense in 2008, and going into the College Draft, there are not many holes to fill. The team appears to be set at quarterback and wide receiver, and in fairly good shape at running back, full back and tight end.
Naturally, a superior talent at any skill position may catch the eye of Ted Thompson on draft day, and unexpected contract issues could prevent the signing of established players. However, as of now, a wide receiver is not likely to be added on draft day. On the other hand, we could see a running back from either of two categories. Many NFL teams have recently had success with the smaller speedy backs, such as Darren Sproles and Jerious Norwood, as situational game changers. A pile moving short yardage back is another possibility. The Packers could use another weapon to help convert third downs.
Tight end is another position which may be addressed on Draft Day. Starter Donald Lee was, for some reason, used less as a receiving threat than in the previous season, while rookie Jermichael Finley seemed to be coming on late in the year. The blocking performance of the tight ends position was questioned from time to time. How the coaches evaluate the potential of Finley may well determine whether this position is addressed in the 2009 Draft.
Unlike the skill positions, the offensive line will almost certainly be addressed in the upcoming draft. Right tackle Mark Tauscher is not signed for the upcoming season, and he is coming off a serious injury. How much to pay an aging player always presents a problem and injuries and available alternatives are also part of the calculus. The other issue at right tackle is whether the Packers continue with the zone-blocking scheme. Tauscher is not skilled as a cut blocker even though he is at least average at backside support. On the other hand, should there be changes in the blocking scheme, the team may look for more of a traditional wide-bodied road grader to help the run game. The incumbent candidates to replace Tauscher are Daryn Colledge, Breno Giacomini and possibly Josh Sitton, in the event another candidate emerges to replace Sitton at right guard.
Left tackle may also be addressed. Neither Daryn Colledge nor Allen Barbre has shown the ability to be an every down left tackle. The replacement for Chad Clifton within the next year or two may come from the 2009 Draft. Clifton had some problems this season, but if he can stay healthy he should be adequate for another campaign. How Ted Thompson evaluates Clifton will be shown in whether he looks for a ready to go left tackle or a talented project. Tackle will be addressed in this Draft.
It would not be a total surprise if an interior lineman were drafted in the mid to later rounds. The problem the team had converting short yardage situations suggests that they need a reliable run blocker who can, when needed, move virtually any defensive tackle. Josh Sitton may become such a player. If the Packers are not sure that will happen, a big guard might be drafted.
The last area of concern is special teams. The Packers have two long snappers and two punters on the roster. However, a punter might be added in the late rounds in search of a long-term answer. In spite of some inconsistency, Mason Crosby will likely be the kicker for years to come.
The 2008 Green Bay Packers were better than their record but not as good as the record they achieved in 2007. I agree with Charles Woodson that the addition of the right veteran or two would improve the team irrespective of the position played. The team needs more players who can show the team how to win a close game. In the Draft, there should ban an outstanding player in the 9th spot of the first round. Whether an offensive tackle, defensive lineman, or other position, this player needs to make an impact next season.