Defensive draft, not trade, likely to fill Green Bay Packers coverage gaps

Sep. 23, 2011

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Donít look for Ted Thompson to trade for injured safety Nick Collinsí replacement.

Thatís simply not the way the Green Bay Packersí draft-and-develop general manager works.

With Collins out, plus the precarious state of depth at cornerback as exposed by Tramon Williams missing last week at Carolina, Thompson is looking at a defense-heavy draft next year.

But as he showed last season when he decided not to give up a third-round draft pick for running back Marshawn Lynch to upgrade his teamís stalled run game, Thompson abhors parting with a good player or relatively high draft pick to fill an in-season hole.

Thompson hasnít even added a safety to the roster since the Packers announced this week that Collinsí season is finished because of a neck injury. They in essence have a roster spot open and might add a safety soon, but Thompson is content to see how things go before making a move even for a backup. Itís hard to see him paying the price for a starting-caliber player, if one is available, in a sellerís market.

Once the season starts, Thompson goes with the players on hand and replaces the injured with practice-squad promotions and street free agents. In his six previous seasons as GM, heís made only two trades after the first regular-season game, neither noteworthy.

After the opener in 2006, he swapped backup running backs with Houston by trading Samkon Gado for Vernand Morency, and last year he acquired backup safety Anthony Smith for a conditional seventh-round pick that he never had to give up because the condition (Smith being on the active list for five games) wasnít met.

In-season trades have become relatively rare in the NFL, an average 5.2 over the last five years, and most of those involved lower-roster players and late-round draft picks. By subjective count, only 11 of those 26 deals were significant, and a couple illustrate the risk of allowing the urgency of now to override longer-term thinking.

For instance, last year Minnesota desperately needed a playmaker because of receiver Sidney Riceís hip injury and took a chance on the mercurial Randy Moss. Former coach Brad Childress paid a relatively high price, a third-round pick, to get Moss and a seventh-round pick from the Patriots. Moss had minimal impact (13 passes for a 14.2-yard average and two touchdowns) and is out of football.

Then there was Detroitís in-season fleecing of Dallas in 2008. The Cowboys badly needed another weapon in their passing game and spent a first-round pick plus three others (third-, sixth- and seventh-rounders) for Roy Williams, a player who caught 91 passes in 2 2/3 seasons and was cut after last offseasonís lockout.

Itís easy to cherry pick the bad deals, but itís worth noting only three of the 26 in-season trades were by teams that advanced deep into the playoffs: The New York Jets, who traded for receiver Braylon Edwards in 2009; San Diego, which acquired receiver Chris Cambers in í07; and Indianapolis, which acquired defensive tackle Anthony McFarland in í06.

So itís hard to see Thompson parting with a decent draft pick for a starting safety who might be only marginally better than Charlie Peprah.

And while Thompson has the depth at receiver to trade, say, James Jones, last year showed the value of holding onto depth when you have it. Going into the regular season, the Packers had a glut of inside linebackers (Nick Barnett, A.J. Hawk, Brandon Chillar and Desmond Bishop) and the apparent need for a starting outside linebacker. It turned out they got along well enough at outside linebacker and needed every bit of that depth to win the Super Bowl after season-ending injuries to Barnett and Chillar.

As former GM Ron Wolf often said, sometimes the best deals are the ones you donít make, though the guess here is Wolf would have traded for Lynch last year and might have moved for a safety after Collins went down. Wolf had a higher risk tolerance than Thompson.

Maybe the season will show that the Packers didnít need significant help at safety. Perhaps second-year pro Morgan Burnett will ascend and become, if not as good as Collins, good enough to mitigate the loss.

If not and Thompson resists a deal, the Packers then will need some luck.

Like in 1996, when the Cleveland Browns unexpectedly released an insubordinate Andre Rison, and voila, the Robert Brooks-less Packers had another receiver who could make some plays.

That happened to a lesser degree last year, when the New York Jets got fed up with defensive lineman Howard Greenís weight issues and dumped him midseason. The Packersí defensive line was decimated at the time because of a temporary injury to Cullen Jenkins and season-enders to Justin Harrell and Mike Neal. Green ended up playing a surprisingly substantial role in the Packersí title run. The more important development was Jenkinsí return as a pass rusher, but give Thompson and his scouting department credit for snapping up Green, who helped anchor a struggling run defense.

But you canít count on that kind of help. More likely, Thompson and coach Mike McCarthy will make do this year and replenish the defense in next yearís draft. Thatís the way they always do it.

The Packers donít have any holes in their starting lineup on either side of the ball, but the NFL-worst 800 yards passing theyíve allowed in the first two games has revealed soft spots on defense.

Start with safety, where Collinsí neck injury could be a roster changer. The Packers wonít know until next week at the earliest about Collinsí future, but they have to brace for the possibility he wonít play again. If he doesnít, that almost guarantees Thompson will draft a safety in 2012 and opens the door to using a high pick.

Then thereís the need for quality help at cornerback. Last week at Carolina exposed Capersí dependence on Williams and Sam Shields as outside cover men to let loose Charles Woodson as a playmaker in the middle of the field. Capersí more limited playbook made life easier for Carolina rookie quarterback Cam Newton, Woodsonís two interceptions notwithstanding.

Davon House, a fourth-round pick this year, showed interesting talent as a cover man in training camp before a hamstring injury knocked him out for 2Ĺ weeks in the preseason and an ankle injury sidelined him the first two regular-season games. But donít be surprised if Thompson uses a top-three pick at cornerback next year.

Outside linebacker will be a possibility for an early-round pick as long as the Packers donít have a stud playing opposite Clay Matthews.

And Mike Nealís injury history leaves open the possible drafting of another inside pass rusher in the first three rounds.

In Thompsonís seven drafts with the Packers, heís selected 28 offensive players, 39 defensive players and one kicker. That includes nine defensive players and 14 offensive in the first three rounds.

Over the last five years, those numbers overall are 16 defense, 28 offense and one kicker; in the first three rounds, six defense and nine offense. Look for that trend to change in 2012.

ó and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.

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