It’s the end of April and you know what that means!?! No, it doesn’t mean more snow, though Mother Nature has a menacing way of telling Punxsutawney Phil to pound sand. It’s the three-day event in which Ted Thompson makes his money. Because TT refuses to dabble in free agency, the Packers must hope to improve through this upcoming draft. And improve the Packers must.
A 26-6 regular season record with back-to-back NFC North titles is a run most teams would thoroughly enjoy (I know my compadre in ‘Sota would enjoy some sustained success after being trapped in Loserville, U.S.A. for the past several years.) But after winning the Super Bowl in 2010 with a team full of players entering their prime, expectations have been high for this Packers team. And back-to-back ugly losses in the playoffs to the G-Men and 49ers has left a sour taste in most fans mouths.
What the two playoffs losses have revealed is a Packers team that will be a perennial playoff team so long as Rodgers is playing, but is a team that still needs to improve – in many areas – to be a true contender. Now, this may be a tedious distinction because clearly the Packers are contenders with Rodgers. But, as built, the only way the Packers can win in the playoffs right now is if Rodgers reverts to supernatural Rodgers (playing the Vikings with Joe Webb at QB helps too). As good as Rodgers’ is, this is asking a lot.
In order to become a true contender, the Packers need to get tougher, nastier. Last year, TT devoted his draft to improving the defense, with an emphasis on getting “fast-twitched” and “quick” players. But in doing so, guys up-front like Worthy and Daniels were miscast in the 3-4 and had little impact. The result is the Packers’ front-seven on defense lacks toughness and grit.
With that in mind, I fully expect the Packers to draft players designed to bring that toughness and nastiness to the defense. Here is my list of positions of need:
1. DE/DT – With Worthy essentially lost for this upcoming season, the Packers enter 2013 with only Mike Neal boasting any type of pass-rushing acumen out of the DE position. Yup, Mike Neal. The Packers desperately need a difference maker out of the DE position. Similarly, B.J. Raji has continued to perplex fans and coaches with his flashes of dominance surrounded by spells of invisibility. And with a looming contract, the Packers need to have a backup plan to not only spell Raji to reduce his workload, but also in case Raji bolts in free agency.
2. MLB – I don’t hold out too much hope that TT will devote a high selection on MLB after signing Brad Jones to that ridiculous contract and still retaining Mr. T-Rex, A.J. Hawk. But, the Packers need to improve its MLB play. It cannot afford to have two more seasons like Hawk just had – i.e. no forced turnovers, tackles several yards down the field, and poor coverage. Some hope Terrell Manning can become the man (poor pun intended). But, I’d love a selection like Ogletree if he is available in round 1 – a sideline-to-sideline difference maker.
3. Safety – Morgan Burnett has proven to be a reliable and ever-improving safety. But, the Packers have yet to replace Collins – which is no easy task. M.D. Jennings and McMillian played just alright when given their opportunities last season. Neither showed enough to justify not selecting a safety in this draft – even if it is a high selection.
4. Wide Receiver / Tight End – TT has always done a good job of restocking the cupboards for Rodgers. With Jennings’ departure, Driver’s departure, and JMike’s uncertain future, it’s all but a guarantee the Packers will select a WR or TE on day two. Thankfully, TT has a terrific track record in selecting a WR or TE in rounds 2 and 3: Jennings, Jordy, Cobb, Jones, and JMike.
5. Offensive Line – There is no debating that the Packers need stronger play out of the LT than what Newhouse gave them last season. But, after spending first-round picks on tackles in 2010 and 2011 in Bulaga and Sherrod, I will be surprised if TT spends another top pick on OT. Plus, with Barclay’s solid production down the stretch, the Packers have 4 OT’s that give them some flexibility if they are willing to move Bulaga to LT. And as for the inside, Lang and Sitton are signed to long-term contracts, meaning they have solidified their positions. And EDS was recently signed, giving him the lead for the starting center gig. I expect the Packers to add some reinforcements in the mid- to late-rounds.
As for the first round, it is hard to pin-down exactly where the Packers will go. My guess is the Packers address the defensive line with the first pick. I am drawn to the potential of Margus Hunt (DE from SMU). At 6’8″, he has a unique blend of size and speed. He was a workout warrior at the combine, but its debatable whether that translates to the field. But, the potential is intriguing enough to warrant his selection at the end of round 1. Otherwise, there is a bevy of DT’s that will be considered: Sylvester Williams (UNC), John Jenkins (Georgia), and Jonathan Hankins (OSU).
My sleeper pick is Matt Elam, the diminutive, yet fearsome Safety out of FL. He is known for being a good tackler that is willing to lay the wood. He’d fill an area of need and, again, bring that nasty temperament so desperately needed. And my dream selection is Tank Carradine. I may be falling for the media-driven hype, but this kid was an absolute beast for FSU and was a likely top-pick had he not hurt his knee in November. Where, exactly, he’d fit in the Packers system is an unknown because he’s around 270 pounds. But, many believe he can bulk up and play DE, or slim down and play OLB. In either event, he’s a tenacious, hard-nosed player that can get after the QB.
Like last year, we will offer instant analysis for the Packers and Vikings selections each night and preview the next day’s rounds. And considering my prediction (kind of) of Casey Hayward last season, it’s readily apparent TT values the insight and analysis I sent him last season before the draft – or at least that’s what I tell myself. Enjoy the draft!