Ted Thompson’s first four draft picks this year were on defense, as sure a sign as any that the Green Bay Packers’ defense needs help ASAP.
But with the regular-season opener barely more than a month away, only two of the four are on course to help defensive coordinator Dom Capers this season, at least early on.
With lineman Montravius Adams (third round) and outside linebacker Vince Biegel (fourth round) sidelined indefinitely with foot injuries, it looks like it’s up to second-rounders Kevin King and Josh Jones to help a defense that last season finished 26th in defensive passer rating.
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As advertised, King and Jones look like they’ll bring badly needed speed and athleticism to Capers’ defense. The question is whether either will end up playing starter-like snaps as rookies. In King’s case, it will have to rank as a disappointment if he isn’t in that kind of role by season’s end.
King briefly worked with the No. 1 nickel last week but lost that spot after a rough night of practice Thursday. The starting nickel since has been Davon House and Quinten Rollins on the outside, and Damarious Randall in the slot.
King’s demotion speaks in part to the play of Rollins and Randall. Both are coming off bad seasons — each had a core injury that required surgery and probably affected their performance in 2016 — and have looked much improved a week into camp.
King still has four preseason games to work back into that group for the start of the regular season. It’s already evident he’s the Packers’ most talented cover man, and they very much need his rare combination of size (measured 6-3 at the NFL scouting combine) and athleticism on the field. But he’s not starting now for a reason.
On the hoof, King is impressive. He backpedals and flips his hips with ease, and has the smooth athleticism you look for in a cornerback. This is how you draw them up, especially to match up with tall receivers in today’s NFL.
But he needs to show more tenacity battling receivers at the line of scrimmage. He sometimes is too willing to let the receiver get off the line and go where he wants without much fight.
King probably didn’t pay for that in college because he was more talented than the receivers he faced. He could bait guys, let them get off the line free, then catch up with quickness, speed and length. But in the NFL, he’ll have to become more of a technician to be a good player.
If Rollins and Randall keep playing well, Capers will have some leeway getting King into the lineup. Capers doesn’t like starting rookies as it is, and he doesn’t want to throw King in there immediately and have the rookie’s confidence crushed if he struggles in real games. But the Packers eventually need this guy playing a lot in 2017.
Jones has been playing mostly at inside linebacker in the “nitro” package with the No. 2 defense — Morgan Burnett is there with the starters. It’s clear Capers is going to use that defense a lot this season, probably more than any other personnel group. That’s the league now. You need at least one linebacker with a defensive back’s cover ability to match up in the passing game.
Burnett will be hard to displace from that starting spot this year. He has so much experience (in his eighth NFL season) and still is a good athlete at age 28. But from what Jones has shown in his short time with the team, it’s a given he’ll play, either to rest Burnett or to match up with specific personnel or down-and-distances.
Based on practice, it sure looks like Jones wants to hit. Though there’s no tackling to the ground, he squares up and fills hard in the run game. That and his 220-pound frame — 11 pounds heavier than Burnett — make him a good fit for the nitro package, because at linebacker he’s in the thick of the run defense.
Jones also plays fast. His 4.41-second 40 is good timed speed, but to the naked eye, he looks like he has game speed, too. He closes fast. Regardless of whether he surpasses Burnett in the nitro role this year, he should help this defense.
Dean Lowry has been the Packers’ second-best defensive lineman in camp so far, behind Mike Daniels and ahead of 2016 draft classmate Kenny Clark.
One area where Lowry has stood out is taking on double teams in the run game. He can handle the down block from a tackle or tight end and not give up ground. He’s 6-6 but has short legs compared to the length of his torso, and that’s an advantage there. It helps keep his feet underneath him against the down block.
Holding ground against the double team is a crucial part of run defense, because if an interior defensive lineman is driven off the ball, then the running back has a two-way go against the linebacker filling the hole. But if the lineman holds his ground, he squeezes the hole and the back has only one cut.
Lowry also looks smoother as a pass rusher. He has developed a nice swim move and has been rushing better than Clark. When the Packers ran a two-minute drill Saturday night, Capers had Lowry, not Clark, as the inside rusher alongside Daniels with the No. 1 defense.
» Ricky Jean Francois looks like a good offseason signing for the defensive line rotation. The 30-year-old, like Lowry, is a three- and five-technique, but he’s a different kind of player. Where Lowry is better holding ground against double teams, Jean Francois is better shooting gaps. He has good foot quickness and can turn his hips to get through the line. The Packers are going to need him, especially with Adams’ status uncertain.
» When the Packers signed 37-year-old Jeff Saturday to start at center in 2012, there were signs early in camp he’d hit the wall. By season’s end, he no longer was the starter. No such red flags so far with six-time Pro Bowler Jahri Evans, who turns 34 later this month and is replacing T.J. Lang at right guard. Evans has been a crafty run blocker and fine in pass protection, though he had two false start penalties Saturday night.
» Undrafted rookies Donatello Brown and Geoff Gray look like they have a chance to make the roster. Brown, a cornerback from Valdosta State, has decent size (6-0, 190) and speed (4.50 40), and he competes every down. Gray (6-5, 315), a guard from the University of Manitoba, is a mauler as a run blocker. He has a ways to go in pass protection, though, because he’s too aggressive and compromises his balance by reaching for his guy.
— Former football coach and player Eric Baranczyk offers his analysis of Green Bay Packers games each week during the season. Follow him on Twitter @EricBaranczyk1
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