They were just 60 minutes away from winning the NFC for the first time in six years. Just 60 minutes from playing for the 14th championship in franchise history.
But for a team so close to greatness, the Green Bay Packers have several problem spots.
Cornerback. Offensive guard. Outside linebacker. Running back.
The Packers would love to address each position during the NFL draft, which will be held from April 27-29. But Green Bay has just eight selections, including the 29th pick in the first round.
As the draft nears, here are the Packers’ five biggest issues:
1. CORNER THE MARKET
There weren’t many cornerback groups worse than Green Bay’s in 2016. The Packers ranked 31st in passing defense (269.2) and 26th in opposing quarterback rating (95.9).
Packers general manager Ted Thompson shied away from the elite corners that hit unrestricted free agency. Instead, he signed former Packers and Jaguars player Davon House, who was released in Jacksonville. Thompson also watched as Micah Hyde — his most consistent corner in 2016 — left for Buffalo via free agency.
Fortunately for Thompson, this is a deep and gifted class of cornerbacks. And he should be able to find an immediate contributor — or two — in this draft.
“The corners, I keep saying, are so deep and it’s going to be kind of pick your flavor based on what’s important in your scheme,” NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said. “You can go three or four rounds deep and find potential starters.”
Ohio State’s Marshon Lattimore figures to go in the top-five picks. And Alabama’s Marlon Humphrey will likely go somewhere in the top 20.
But as many as six corners are projected to go in the first round, and Thompson should be able to find an immediate contributor at pick No. 29.
“It’s a lot of talent here from top to bottom,” Lattimore said. “A team is going to get a great player from the first round to the fourth round. It’s a deep draft.”
2. REPLACEMENT PARTS
Green Bay lost outside linebackers Datone Jones and Julius Peppers in free agency. Packers head coach Mike McCarthy has also been non-committal where Clay Matthews — who has spent most of his career at OLB — will spend most of his time in 2017.
So the Packers need reinforcements.
Currently, 43.8% of NFL teams employ a 3-4 scheme. That percentage is far smaller in college, though.
So NFL teams face the tricky prospect of projecting which college defensive ends can stand up and play outside linebacker at the next level.
“The outside linebacker in our defense is probably the most difficult (to find), because 80-90 percent of them don’t play on their feet in college,” said Pittsburgh Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert, whose franchise has run a 3-4 base scheme since 1982. “And we have to try to project whether a guy can stand up and do the extra things beyond pass rushing that he’s going to be required to do in our defense.
“So the potential for error at the outside linebacker position is really greater than any other position, because most of the time it is a projection. So you’re looking for someone who can rush the passer, can play on a tight end or a tackle and can drop into coverage on occasion.”
It’s not an easy challenge. But it’s one the Packers must succeed at.
3. ON GUARD
The Packers have a gaping hole at right guard after Pro Bowler T.J. Lang went to Detroit in free agency. Fortunately for Green Bay, Thompson should be able to find a starting guard somewhere in the first three rounds of the draft.
Western Kentucky’s Forrest Lamp is the highest-rated guard by most scouts. But at least five more guards could go in the first three rounds, led by Indiana’s Dan Feeney and Temple’s Dion Dawkins.
McCarthy said he’d prefer not to move right tackle Bryan Bulaga inside.
“Bryan and (left tackle) David (Bakhtiari) gave us an outstanding combination of right and left tackle play,” McCarthy said at the recent NFL owner’s meetings. “And with that, you’ve got that consistency and let’s be honest, that position affects game planning as much as any other on the offensive side of the ball.”
So that puts the onus on Thompson to find McCarthy a guard.
4. ADD REINFORCEMENTS
The Packers want wideout-turned-running back Ty Montgomery to be one half of their backfield this season. But Green Bay has ignored the running back position in free agency, meaning Thompson will likely need to find some reinforcements in the draft.
This is widely considered one of the top running back drafts in years. So Thompson should be able to find Montgomery a partner in the middle to later rounds.
“What’s a little different is the depth of the running back position, which hasn’t been real deep in recent years,” Pittsburgh’s Colbert said. “But it looks like this is shaping up to be a real strong running back draft class.”
The highest draft pick Thompson ever spent on a running back was No. 61 on Eddie Lacy in 2013. Thompson will likely have the luxury of waiting at least that long to find a quality player to pair with Montgomery.
“There’s a significant amount of talent at that position,” Minnesota general manager Rick Spielman said. “And to be honest with you, I can’t remember a year where the draft class at running back is this deep.”
5. MIXED BAG
Since taking over in 2005, Thompson has made 12 first-round draft picks.
Aaron Rodgers and Matthews have been the top two picks of Thompson’s tenure. Bulaga, Nick Perry, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and B.J. Raji were solid first-round choices.
Thompson’s first-round mistakes include Justin Harrell, Derek Sherrod, A.J. Hawk and Jones. Damarious Randall looks like he’ll be a bust, while the verdict remains out on Kenny Clark.
The Packers have too many holes and question marks for Thompson to strike out at the top of this year’s draft. The pressure’s on.
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