General manager Ted Thompson and the rest of the Green Bay Packers’ scouting staff must have been aghast watching Bryan Bulaga get carted off Lambeau Field two weeks ago, and for more than one reason.
Yes, Bulaga’s season-ending hip injury put a dent in a team that has realistic Super Bowl aspirations. But there’s also long-term concerns, because Bulaga and Derek Sherrod, both recent first-round draft picks, were the future of the Packers’ offensive line. Now both have sustained serious injuries.
Last December, Sherrod’s rookie season ended when an accidental leg whip broke both bones in his lower right leg. He returned to practice this week but appears headed for injured reserve in a little more than a week, when the rules for the physically unable to perform list mandate the Packers either activate him or shut him down for the season.
Maybe both players will come back fine from their injuries and be productive players next year and beyond. It will be a good sign if Bulaga doesn’t need surgery, which doctors will determine in about three weeks. But hip injuries to offensive linemen are of special concern, because that’s their power source. So nothing’s a given here.
The severity of Sherrod’s injury is obvious now that he appears likely to miss an entire season. Maybe he’ll be like former Packers center Mike Flanagan, who missed two seasons because of a career-threatening broken lower leg that also included collateral nerve damage, and went on to a fine career. But the Packers have to hedge their bets.
So here we are, not two years removed from back-to-back drafts (2010 and ’11) in which Thompson selected tackles in the first round, and that position again has to rank among the Packers’ highest draft priorities for next year. There’s a premium on protecting their franchise, i.e. quarterback Aaron Rodgers, and enough reason for concern for Sherrod’s and Bulaga’s futures that Thompson could be compelled to protect the team by drafting a tackle with a high pick, even a first-rounder, in 2013.
The Packers have a lot of football to play this season, so their priorities for next year’s draft could change based on performance and injuries over the next two months. But they’ve played more than half their schedule, so there’s plenty of evidence to make preliminary judgments about where they most need help.
Along with tackle, the Packers also are a decent bet to draft a center, though the round depends in part on Evan Dietrich-Smith’s play at guard as part of the shuffling to replace Bulaga. The early signs suggest Dietrich-Smith could become a viable candidate for starting center next season. The Packers also thought enough of undrafted rookie Greg Van Roten to promote him from the practice squad to the 53-man roster five weeks ago. Though he played tackle in college, the Packers are working him mainly at center and by season’s end might think he has a chance to be a starter, too. Still, it will be no surprise if Thompson drafts a center, or a guard who could move to center, with a pick in the first three rounds.
A high-priority position, with a caveat: Buyer beware when it comes to drafting a back in the first round. It’s a brutal position with a high risk of injury and short life span where age often starts showing at 27 or 28. Running backs are becoming more devalued as the game evolves, but paradoxically, a team might blow through the season without much of a running game but miss it badly in a specific match-up. See, for instance, the Packers in the 2011 playoffs, or in several games this year.
Some teams won’t draft a back in the first round unless they feel strongly he’s a special player. Thompson never has shown the inclination to take one that high, but his track record using a premium pick at the position has been shaky (Brandon Jackson in the second round in 2007, Alex Green in the third round last year). Even if the Packers re-sign injured Cedric Benson, he’ll be 30 in December. A back who can make something out of nothing could do more for the Packers’ offensive line than anything else they could do this offseason. But there’s still more than the usual risk to take one in the first round.
Early this offseason, the Packers will know whether Greg Jennings will be back. The best guess is the Packers won’t be in the bidding because they’re saving money for expensive contract extensions for Aaron Rodgers, Clay Matthews and B.J. Raji. The caveat is if Jennings’ market is soft because of his age (29) and recent injury history — a knee late last season, and the abdominal tear that required surgery earlier this month. But chances are a receiver-shy team or two will pay a premium for a player who ranks No. 6 in the NFL in touchdown receptions (35) since 2008.
That would make receiver a priority position and a possibility for a pick in the first three rounds. The Packers have an ascending receiver in Randall Cobb, who at only 22 is a playmaker, and a good No. 2 in Jordy Nelson. But James Jones, who’s having a strong season, will be in the final year of his contract in 2013. Ron Wolf has said one of his greatest regrets as general manager was not providing Brett Favre with better weapons than he did. To avoid the same mistake, Thompson will have to use premium assets (i.e., high draft picks) on offensive playmakers.
At first blush, this doesn’t appear to be a priority. They drafted Nick Perry in the first round this year. With Perry out for the rest of the season because of wrist surgery, Erik Walden is playing his best football and won’t cost a lot as a free agent in the offseason. And undrafted rookie Dezman Moses has some pass-rush potential.
But two things to keep in mind: Perry’s long-term future and the premium on the position in coordinator Dom Capers’ defense.
Perry improved significantly in coverage from the first day of training camp until he went on injured reserve, but it’s still not clear he has the lateral quickness for the long term. His best position would be as a strong-side 4-3 end. But he has the thick build to carry more than his 265 pounds — he weighed 271 pounds at the NFL scouting combine last spring. It isn’t difficult to see him gaining into the 280-pound range and moving to a 3-4 defensive lineman, where he could be an inside rusher in the nickel and dime. The Packers haven’t done or said anything to suggest they’re considering moving him, but the possibility can’t be dismissed.
Then there’s the impact that an explosive outside linebacker could have in tandem with Matthews. In 2007, the Pittsburgh Steelers, who play the same 3-4 scheme, drafted Lawrence Timmons in the first round and LaMarr Woodley in the second. They also returned James Harrison, who that year went from a backup outside linebacker to a starter who made his first Pro Bowl. Woodley won the other outside linebacker job and quickly became a difference-maker. Timmons eventually moved to inside linebacker, where he’s become a very good player. The Steelers have been one of the league’s best defenses in that time in part because of the resources they spent to field two premier outside pass rushers.
The need here could be high, based on two developments: What happens with Jermichael Finley, and whether Thompson drafts a receiver or running back in the early rounds.
Finley’s talent is immense, but if the rest of his season goes like the first nine games, the Packers will have to seriously consider releasing him rather than paying the $8.3 million he’s due next season in roster and bonuses. That would free a lot of money but reduce the talent of the corps of pass catchers. So a new-age tight end with a high draft grade could look attractive later in the first round, where the Packers are likely to pick, or in the second round if they haven’t taken a potential offensive playmaker in the first.
A fairly deep position at the beginning of the season has become thin.
While there’s no reason to think Desmond Bishop, their best inside linebacker, won’t be back next season from a season-ending torn hamstring in training camp, the issue is whether he’ll have lost any explosiveness to run with tight ends and running backs in coverage in the nickel and dime defenses.
Also, Bishop’s replacement, D.J. Smith, will be about nine months removed from knee-reconstruction surgery when training camp opens next season. Few players come back from that injury like Adrian Peterson has.
And it’s hard to see the Packers bringing back A.J. Hawk at $5.45 million in salary and bonuses next season to be a two-down player. So unless the sides work out a pay cut, it’s a good bet he’s gone.
Inside linebacker isn’t a premium position — only eight have been selected in the first rounds of the last five drafts. But it’s becoming more important because of the pass-coverage responsibilities in the nickel and dime as coordinators such as Capers try to match the superior athletes offenses are putting on the field in the passing game.
Brad Jones has filled in competently in the dime role since Smith’s injury, and though his contract runs out after this season, he could have a future with the team. Behind him are fifth-round draft pick Terrell Manning, Jamari Lattimore and Robert Francois. But Thompson is a good bet to draft here even if it’s in the later rounds.
Not a high-priority after Thompson selected two (Jerel Worthy and Mike Daniels) among his first four picks this year, though Thompson’s strong belief in the big-man theory (that the world produces a limited number of athletic big men, so you have to draft them when you can) means you never know.
A low priority. Second-round pick Casey Hayward looks like a playmaker, and second-year pro Davon House and third-year pro Sam Shields look like viable players, along with the team’s best cover man, 29-year-old Tramon Williams. Charles Woodson, who’s 36, is due $10 million in salary and bonus next season, so his return isn’t a given.
The lowest-priority position regardless of Woodson, who plays safety in the base 3-4. Morgan Burnett is ascending, Jerrod McMillian has the talent to make plays against the run and pass as he gets a better understanding of the defense and M.D. Jennings is playing better after starting the season poorly. Undrafted rookie Sean Richardson (6-2, 216) is a specimen.
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.