Green Bay Packers safety Morgan Burnett (42) gets beat by receiver Calvin Johnson (81) for a touchdown against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field on Thanksgiving. / Jim Matthews/Press-Gazette Media
There’s a baseball adage that some NFL scouts apply to their game: to play good defense, you have to be strong up the middle.
It doesn’t translate quite as well to the NFL because of the premium on outside pass rushers. But it’s worth keeping in mind when analyzing the best defenses in the NFL this season and also projecting general manager Ted Thompson’s draft priorities for the Green Bay Packers next spring.
The NFL’s top-five scoring defenses are, in order, Carolina, Seattle, San Francisco, Kansas City and Cincinnati. They’re premier defenses for several reasons, but it’s probably no coincidence that four of the five rate from strong to extremely strong up the middle, specifically at linebacker and safety.
Carolina and San Francisco play 3-4 defenses and have the best inside linebacker tandems of NFL teams using that scheme. The 49ers’ duo consists of two Pro Bowl-caliber players, NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis. Carolina isn’t far behind with Luke Kuechly, a second-year pro who is a fast-ascending star, and veteran Thomas Davis, a physical freak who despite being 30 years old and having endured three knee reconstructions is one of the fastest inside linebackers in the game.
The 49ers also have one of the league’s better safety tandems in Eric Reid, a promising first-round draft pick, and Donte Whitner, who was a Pro Bowler last year. Carolina isn’t as strong but is one of only a handful of NFL teams that have two legitimate starting-caliber safeties, Quintin Mikell and Mike Mitchell.
Seattle, which plays a 4-3 scheme, has one of the NFL’s best young middle linebackers in Bobby Wagner, a second-round pick last year, and the game’s best safety duo in Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor. Thomas might be the game’s best at his position.
The strength of Kansas City’s 3-4 defense is its outside linebackers, Tamba Hali and Justin Houston. But the Chiefs also are good up the middle. One of their other difference makers is safety Eric Berry. And Derrick Johnson at age 31, though not the player he was in his prime, still is one of the better inside linebackers in the league.
Cincinnati is the weakest of the five up the middle. Middle linebacker Rey Maualuga and safeties George Iloka and Reggie Nelson are average, though weak-side linebacker Vontaze Burfict is an explosive and ascending second-year player who in essence is an inside linebacker.
Compare those teams to the Green Bay Packers, who in the past six weeks have dropped 23 spots in the run defense rankings (from No. 3 to No. 26), 11 spots in scoring defense (No. 12 to No. 23) and nine spots in yards allowed (No. 15 to No. 24).
In defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ scheme, the linemen occupy blockers so the linebackers can make plays. Early in the year, it looked like inside linebacker A.J. Hawk was on his way to his best season, Brad Jones was playing fine and third-year pro Jamari Lattimore appeared to be a more than adequate replacement when Jones missed three games with an injury.
But as teams have pounded the ball at the Packers in the past five weeks, Hawk and Jones haven’t made plays. Those positions require players who, whether light or heavy, are explosive.
“I’ve learned one thing,” said a scout whose team plays a 3-4. “Your inside linebackers better be fast.”
At safety, the Packers have suffered an equal shortage of playmaking. Morgan Burnett hasn’t performed up to the five-year, $26 million contract he signed in July, and M.D. Jennings has been more liability than asset. Maybe the most condemning statement regarding the team’s safety play came this week when Thompson released 2012 fourth-round pick Jerron McMillian, who came into the season as a possible starter and played about half the defensive snaps for the first five games.
As the 2013 season winds down and there’s a large enough sample of games to analyze the weaknesses that Aaron Rodgers’ broken collarbone have exposed, it’s not hard to identify the Packers’ 2014 draft priorities. It starts up the middle, at inside linebacker and safety.
It should surprise no one if Thompson drafts at both spots within his first two or three picks.
Following is a position-by-position look at the Packers’ likely draft priorities, in order:
■ Inside linebacker: This rates slightly higher than safety because, much like with running back last year, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Thompson drafted two this spring, one early and perhaps another in the middle to later rounds. Hawk, who turns 30 in January, had a career day against Baltimore (three sacks and five tackles for a loss) in the fifth game, but he hasn’t played as fast or explosively since. Jones appears best suited as a niche cover linebacker in the dime.
■ Safety: Hard to see Thompson not taking one in the first couple of rounds. The NFL draft reflects the lower priority teams put on the position — in the past 10 years, only 16 safeties have been selected in the first round. The last time the Packers drafted one in the first round was George Teague at No. 29 overall in 1993 (they picked Antuan Edwards at No. 25 overall in 1999, but he played cornerback as a rookie, then moved to safety in his second season). Thompson will be looking for an immediate starter.
■ Tight end: Jermichael Finley’s future with the Packers is in doubt after he had surgery last month to fuse his neck between the C-3 and C-4 vertebrae, so this is another high-priority position. The Packers wouldn’t clear former safety Nick Collins after his C-3, C-4 fusion because of the stress on higher disks. If the same fate befalls Finley, who for all his shortcomings in consistency was a threat to defenses all over the field, then Thompson will be looking for another playmaker in the passing game. First-year pro Brandon Bostick, a converted small-college receiver, has potential as a receiving-oriented tight end, but it’s far from a given that he’ll blossom. College football in recent years has been producing more and more tight ends who can run and catch.
■ Receiver: James Jones, 29, is in the last year of his contract, and Jordy Nelson, 28, will have one year left after this season. No one’s pushing either out the door, but they’ll soon be in their 30s and there’s no guarantee they’ll be back when those deals run out. Even with Jarrett Boykin showing promise in his role as the No. 4 receiver, an offense needs playmakers, and even highly drafted receivers often need a year in the league before they start producing. So the need, if not immediate, is soon enough to warrant drafting one now. Plus, the need for a kickoff and punt returner is urgent, and that usually means drafting a receiver for a dual role early in his career.
■ Defensive line: The line play has faltered as the Packers’ run defense has collapsed, and there’s a need here for a nose tackle-type player. B.J. Raji will be a free agent in the offseason, and there’s no guarantee he’ll be back, though the Packers will know by the draft. Ryan Pickett has been their bulwark against the run for eight years, but he’s 34, will be a free agent in the offseason and has been having trouble with a balky knee the past few weeks. Johnny Jolly started fast but at age 30 and after a three-year layoff might be wearing down. Mike Daniels and Datone Jones are more pass rushers than run defenders. Fifth-round pick Josh Boyd could help next season, but that’s not a given.
■ Cornerback: This is hardly at the top of the Packers’ priority list, but even assuming they re-sign Sam Shields, this position almost always needs replenishing. Third-year pro Davon House has looked a little cavalier on a play or two, but he has cover skills that aren’t easy to find. Beyond that, Casey Hayward’s outlook has to be a concern. His season was wrecked by a recurring hamstring injury, and the Packers have to wonder if that will be a chronic and career-diminishing problem. It’s hard to see the Packers bringing back 30-year-old Tramon Williams at the $7.2 million in salary and bonus he’s scheduled to make in 2014, though the sides might work out a pay cut. Drafting here also might make it easier to move Micah Hyde to safety if the Packers determine that could be his best position.
■ Outside linebacker: The Packers still could use a more dynamic rusher opposite Clay Matthews. Mike Neal surpassed Nick Perry as the starter but isn’t a true space player or edge rusher. Perry has flashed outside rush ability from the right side, but that’s Matthews’ best position, and Perry has been hurt more often than not in his first two seasons. This position is so important to a 3-4 scheme it probably warrants a draft pick most years.
■ Quarterback: Thompson is catching heat for not having an adequate backup for Rodgers, and he probably should have drafted there in later rounds more than he did (2008 and 2012). But the GM needs to improve the rest of his roster more than he needs to spend substantial money or valuable draft picks for Rodgers’ backup. Still, it’s a good bet he’ll take a developmental candidate in the later rounds this year.
■ Offensive line: When Rodgers and Eddie Lacy were playing together, this group was fine. Also, Bryan Bulaga will return from knee reconstruction, and if all goes well probably will be back at right tackle now that David Bakhtiari has proven he’s plenty good enough for the left side. Former first-round pick Derek Sherrod will get his first offseason in the Packers’ training program, as will JC Tretter, who has just returned from a broken ankle and is converting from a college tackle to a center. Either could emerge by next fall. Teams always need to draft an offensive lineman — the last time the Packers didn’t was in 1998, and even then they took Mike Wahle in the supplemental draft that summer. But the need here isn’t great.
■ Running back: This was among the highest priorities last year, but Eddie Lacy has changed that. Plus, fourth-round pick Johnathan Franklin has shown promise; James Starks might be had at a palatable price after he hits the free-agent market; and DuJuan Harris could be a viable NFL back if he recovers well from the patellar-tendon surgery that ended his season in training camp. If the Packers draft here it will be because they really like a guy, not because they need one.
— email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.