The last time the Green Bay Packers drafted this top-heavy on one side of the ball was 2004, when former coach and general manager Mike Sherman selected four defensive players and a punter with his first picks.
This year, General Manager Ted Thompson, looking to augment a young roster coming off a Super Bowl win, picked offensive players with his first three selections and five with his first six picks.
But while Thompson waited until the later rounds to augment two defensive areas of need, outside linebacker and defensive end, there were real needs for the offensive positions he filled early: An offensive lineman (Mississippi State’s Derek Sherrod) in the first round to start at tackle whenever Chad Clifton is finished, and maybe even to compete for the starting job at left guard this year; a receiver (Kentucky’s Randall Cobb) in the second round who’s a potential successor in the starting lineup to 36-year-old Donald Driver and was picked in part to immediately upgrade the return game; and a running back (Hawaii’s Alex Green) in the third round for a depth-intensive position where one key player, Ryan Grant, is 28 and in the final year of his contract.
The need, though, wasn’t as acute at tight end, where Thompson selected two players on the draft’s final day: The undersized but potential playmaker D.J. Williams of Arkansas in the fifth round and later a special teams-type backup in Ryan Taylor of North Carolina. The choices, especially Williams in the fifth round, showed Thompson and coach Mike McCarthy did not see their needs at defensive end and outside linebacker as critical enough to pass on players they liked better at other positions.
“It’s about improving your football team, it’s about improving competition throughout your team,” McCarthy said Saturday after the draft’s conclusion. “I understand everybody looks at their depth chart and they think you may need a player here or a player there, but that’s a mistake you can fall into. You have to bring in players that have value, that can compete and make your team.”
Thompson in the end did enough wheeling and dealing to come out of the 2011 draft with 10 players, one more pick than he had going in, and he spent four on defense: Cornerback Davon House of New Mexico State in the fourth round, inside linebacker D.J. Smith of Appalachian State in the sixth, outside linebacker Ricky Elmore of Arizona in the sixth, and defensive end Lawrence Guy of Arizona State in the seventh.
Still, the offensive orientation was impossible to ignore, especially for a team that has one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks and offenses, probably better than its ranking of ninth in the NFL in yards and No. 10 in points last season suggests.
Also impossible to ignore was the two tight ends added to a group that already contains rising star Jermichael Finley, 2010 fifth-round pick Andrew Quarless, Tom Crabtree and Spencer Havner. Williams (6-foot-2 1/8, 245 pounds) caught 147 passes in his final three seasons at Arkansas, ran the 40-yard dash in a swift 4.59 seconds at the scouting combine and was considered one of the best receiving tight ends in this draft, though his size is a liability in blocking. He might be a better receiving prospect than Quarless, and his drafting raises at least a question about whether the Packers might feel unsure they’ll be willing to pay Finley what he can make in the free-agent market when his contract runs out after this season.
Teams rarely allow playmakers of Finley’s ability to leave, and McCarthy makes liberal use of two tight-end sets, so Finley’s next contract might not be the issue. But there’s no denying the Packers’ glut at that position, especially after drafting Taylor in the seventh round.
“We were literally going value today, what we thought was good football players,” Thompson said. “In both their cases we felt like they might have a good chance to come in and compete and play. And Mike likes a lot of tight ends.”
McCarthy said: “I just know calling plays in this league, when you’re designing offenses, the ability to attack the middle of the field is something (important).”
For the other early picks, McCarthy said Sherrod probably will work on the left side when he joins the team, though McCarthy didn’t specify tackle, which opens at least the possibility the Packers will have him compete for the starting job at left guard. Cobb is the closest to a guaranteed contributor this season as their punt and kickoff returner, and he might get his share of touches as the No. 4 receiver, depending on whether James Jones is a free agent this offseason. And Green’s experience in Hawaii’s spread offense makes him a possible third-down back at the least.
“We feel we have more to offer, we feel have more offense that we really never got to last year,” McCarthy said, “and we feel like we can do a better job looking forward.”
The Packers waited until far deeper into a draft to address outside linebacker and defensive end. Later-round picks more often than not are developmental players at best and sometimes rejects, but as recent Packers drafts have shown, that’s not always the case. Just last season, Quarless, sixth-round running back James Starks and seventh-round defensive end C.J. Wilson were playing regularly by the end of the season and making meaningful contributions to the team’s Super Bowl run.
For the second straight draft, Thompson didn’t use any of his most valued picks to augment outside linebacker, where the Packers would like a bona fide playmaker opposite Clay Matthews. Elmore (6-4½, 255) had 21½ sacks as a defensive end the past two years and will get a good look at right outside linebacker, but the front-runners for the starting job remain the same as when the offseason started: Frank Zombo, who started nine games (playoffs included) as undrafted rookie last season, and Brad Jones, the third-year pro who went on injured reserve after the seventh game because of a shoulder injury. There’s also Erik Walden, the street free agent who started five games, including three in the postseason, when Zombo was injured.
“I feel a lot better about the options at outside linebacker than I did last year at this time when we stood up here,” said defensive coordinator Dom Capers before the Packers drafted Elmore late in Saturday.
At defensive end, the Packers didn’t add anyone until Guy with their final pick, No. 233 overall. The need there wasn’t acute with Ryan Pickett and space-eating Howard Green returning, along with Mike Neal coming back from rotator-cuff surgery after his promising play early last season as a second-round pick, plus Wilson, who improved over the course of his rookie season as much as anyone on the roster.
But the Packers could lose their best inside rusher with defensive end Cullen Jenkins likely to leave in free agency, not to mention Johnny Jolly’s career with the Packers probably ending because of his problems with the law. So this was a position the Packers would have strongly considered had one of the first-round defensive ends been available to them at No. 32, and yet they didn’t take one until Guy in the seventh. Guy entered the draft after a junior season in which he had six tackles for a loss and 1½ sacks. Those numbers were down from seven and 4½ respectively, as a sophomore.
Among the things that caught the Packers’ eye was his 4.96-second 40-yard dash, which is excellent for a player his size (6-4 1/8, 305).
“He’s a big man that can run really fast,” Thompson said. “He’s a junior coming out early, I think he’s still developing. We had our defensive staff and (defensive line coach) Mike Trgovac do a lot of study on him, and we think there’s a lot of things he can add to our defense.”
The first defensive player the Packers selected, House in the fourth round, is the highest Thompson has drafted a cornerback since Pat Lee in the second round in 2008. House (6-0½, 200) is a size-speed prospect (4.44 seconds in the 40) expected to push Lee, Jarrett Bush and Brandon Underwood for the No. 4 cornerback job.
“Very good athlete, really gifted,” Thompson said. “His pro day was a very good exhibition of athleticism.”