Packers' 1st-round focus on defense fails to pay off
First in a four-part NFL draft data series.
GREEN BAY - The Green Bay Packers’ plan this spring to rebuild a bewildered defense certainly isn’t new.
It started five years ago this month. General manager Ted Thompson set a mandate after watching his defense surrender the most yards in the NFL, preventing a team that finished 15-1 in the regular season from advancing to the 2011 NFC championship game.
The Packers had to change.
Since, Thompson has pumped his most precious assets — first-round draft picks — into building a defense that could win a championship. For five straight years, the Packers have used their first-round pick on a defensive player.
“Did we?” asked Thompson, professing ignorance at last month’s NFL meetings.
Thompson knew the answer to his question. In the NFL, the Packers’ draft investment on defense is almost unmatched. Only the New York Jets (seven straight years) selected a defensive player in the first round as often.
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Chances are the Packers will select a sixth straight defensive player in the first round later this month after their NFC championship game meltdown in Atlanta. Once again, an overwhelmed defense kept their red-hot offense out of the Super Bowl, allowing touchdowns on six of the Falcons’ nine possessions.
Take your pick at No. 29 overall in the draft: edge rusher or cornerback. Both are big needs. The question is whether the Packers can use the draft to build a top defense.
So far, it hasn’t happened.
“I’m not sure I would characterize that exactly the same way,” Thompson said. “We feel like we’ve gotten pretty good return on our investment. But having said that, I wasn’t aware that we drafted that many defensive players. So obviously it doesn’t mean very much to us, and I don’t think we’ve done it intentionally.”
A “pretty good return on our investment” can be subjective. It depends on perspective.
So here are some facts.
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In the past five years, the Packers never have ranked among the NFL’s top 10 defenses in points or yards allowed.
It is a fair expectation for a team so intensively drafting impact defenders. Among the eight NFL teams that made the biggest draft investment on defense in the past five years, the Packers are the only team that hasn’t cracked the top 10 in points or yards allowed at least once.
Three teams used first-round picks on defensive players in four of the past five years: the Carolina Panthers, San Francisco 49ers, and Pittsburgh Steelers.
The New England Patriots used their first draft pick on a defensive player in each of the past five years, but in 2013 and ’16, their first pick came in the second round. The Denver Broncos and Kansas City Chiefs used their first pick on a defensive player in four of the past five years.
Targeting defenders consistently in the first two rounds is the clearest way to lift a slumping defense. Between the 2005 and 2015 drafts, roughly 75 percent of Pro Bowl players were selected in the first two rounds, with 20 percent in the second round, according to a USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin study conducted last spring. In the third round, the sample of Pro Bowlers dips to less than 8 percent.
Each of the eight teams most intensively drafting for defense — representing a quarter of the league — added a Pro Bowl defender in the past five years. The Packers were last to join that list, with 2014 first-round safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix earning his first Pro Bowl nod in 2016.
It hasn’t helped the Packers become a top-10 defense. Their best finish in points and yards allowed was 11th, both coming in the 2012 season. Since then, the Packers finished no better than 12th in scoring defense (2015), and no better than 15th in total defense (2014 and 2015).
Since 2012, the Packers’ average annual rank in scoring defense was 16.2, and their average rank in total defense was 17.6. Among the eight teams most focused on drafting for defense, their average scoring rank was seventh and their average yards rank was last.
They seem to be bucking a trend of teams that take defenders early in the draft building some of the league’s top defenses. The Patriots (7.6), Chiefs (8.5) and Broncos (10) averaged top-10 finishes in scoring defense since 2012, while the Broncos (5.8), Jets (8) and Panthers (9.8) averaged top-10 finishes in total defense.
It is no surprise the Patriots, Broncos and Panthers reached the Super Bowl in the past five years. With a better quarterback, the Chiefs and Jets might have done the same.
The 49ers (13 in scoring, 14.8 in yards) and Steelers (11.8 in scoring, 13 in yards) are the only teams among the eight other than the Packers not to average in the top 10 of either category.
The 49ers had top-10 scoring and total defenses in 2012, ‘13 and ‘14 before coach Jim Harbaugh left and their defense became arguably the NFL’s worst. The Steelers managed to finish in the top 10 in scoring and yards in 2012 and didn’t finish outside the top 20 in scoring defense, something the Packers did twice.
Defense hasn’t been the sole factor in preventing the Packers from reaching the Super Bowl each of the past five seasons. It could be argued their defense was good enough to win the NFC in 2015, when the Packers’ offense couldn’t shake its funk after losing receiver Jordy Nelson in the preseason. Same for 2014, when a series of unlikely plays led to an inexplicable NFC championship game collapse in Seattle.
But five years into their defense-first mandate, league rankings suggest the Packers never became anything more than an average defense.
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It’s hard to say whether a lack of improvement on defense is because of poor drafting or poor player development. One area falls under Thompson’s jurisdiction. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers is largely responsible for the other.
Both could deserve blame. Or neither. Sometimes, things happen outside a team’s control.
Thompson’s first pick in 2012 was outside linebacker Nick Perry. Injuries prevented him from producing through most of his rookie contract. It wasn’t until last season Perry stayed mostly healthy, and he became the impact defender the Packers expected, leading the team with 11 sacks.
Coach Mike McCarthy coordinated extensive self-scouting after the season, a process he said takes “forever” to complete. It presented McCarthy a “clear-cut decision” to continue with Capers as defensive coordinator, he said.
“It’s not just him,” McCarthy said. “It’s the staff. That’s a talented defensive staff that wants to do more and has more to give. It’s my responsibility, and it’s my focus, to make sure they have the resources to be the best they can be.
“We have a very talented coaching staff, especially on defense. We’ve got some damn good coaches.”
It’s apparent the Packers have not drafted the difference-making talent of their defense-oriented peers.
With four first-round picks since 2012, the Chiefs drafted four quality defensive starters: tackle Dontari Poe, end Dee Ford, cornerback Marcus Peters and tackle Chris Jones. The Broncos also appear to have hit on all four: end Derek Wolfe (a second-round pick), cornerback Bradley Roby, nose tackle Sylvester Williams and outside linebacker Shane Ray.
With the Panthers, the verdict is still out on 2016 rookie Vernon Butler after he missed five games because of a high-ankle sprain. Their other three picks are impactful: linebacker Luke Kuechly, tackle Star Lotulelei and linebacker Shaq Thompson.
In Green Bay, top 2013 pick Datone Jones washed out and the edge rusher will get a fresh start with the Minnesota Vikings. Cornerback Damarious Randall had a sophomore slump in 2016. And while Kenny Clark showed positive signs late in his rookie season, it’s too early after 333 snaps to know what kind of player the 21-year-old defensive tackle will be in the future.
Thompson doesn’t have it easy. Since 2012, the Packers’ first pick on average was 26.4 overall in the draft, ranking sixth among the eight aforementioned teams. Thompson may have drafted Peters in 2015, but the Chiefs took him 12 slots before the Packers drafted Randall. Peters was an All-Pro last season.
But the Broncos’ (29.5) and Patriots’ (38.8) average first picks when targeting defense were later than the Packers. In 2013, the Patriots drafted Pro Bowl outside linebacker Jamie Collins. The Packers drafted Jones in the first round, 26 slots before Collins.
In the draft, you often create your own luck.
The Packers haven’t created much in their push to rebuild their defense. Their effort will continue this spring, likely starting with the 29th overall pick in the first round. To benefit from a sixth straight first-round pick being used on defense, something will have to change.