Is ILB greatest Packers need? Not so fast

Pete Dougherty
View Comments
Clay Matthews’ ability to fill in at inside linebacker could make the position less of a pressing need than cornerback.

For most of the offseason, the Green Bay Packers' greatest offseason need was obvious: inside linebacker.

But the more I've looked at it the past couple weeks, the less sure that seems. In fact, the argument for cornerback, and maybe even outside linebacker, is just as strong, maybe stronger.

The reason is Clay Matthews. This isn't like safety last year, when the Packers' options were limited. They had Micah Hyde moving from cornerback to safety as a fallback starter but couldn't be sure he was the guy. They had to draft a safety who could push him for a starting job right off the bat, whether that came in the first round, the second or maybe even the third.

As bad as things look at inside linebacker this year, Thompson at least has a more-than-viable alternative if he doesn't like the options in the first round. He can go this season like he finished the last. Matthews can play primarily inside, where he was a difference maker; defensive coordinator Dom Capers can rotate Julius Peppers, Nick Perry and Mike Neal at outside linebacker.

That's not ideal, because Matthews' greatest strength is as an outside rusher, and those guys win games. But Matthews' move inside halfway through last season helped transform the Packers from a bad defense to an OK one. He's a more-than-plausible alternative for 2015 as well.

In the meantime, there are good reasons for Thompson to put as high or even a higher priority on cornerback and maybe outside linebacker.

At cornerback, attrition has thinned what was the Packers' deepest position. Last year they had five cornerbacks capable of performing at or near a starter's level against any team at any time. With Tramon Williams and Davon House gone in free agency, they now have three (Sam Shields, Casey Hayward and Micah Hyde).

Three cornerbacks play together in nickel personnel, so it's the bare minimum for a functioning defense in today's NFL. The Packers play nickel on about two-thirds of their defensive snaps, so that's really their primary scheme.

But a fourth cornerback matters, because he plays in dime, even if that is only about 10 snaps a game. And if you have only three viable corners, you're one injury away (in an injury-plagued league) from disaster. Last year, Shields missed two games and House three. The year before, Hayward missed 13. With the NFL becoming more passing oriented every year, this position demands quality depth.

For now, the Packers' No. 4 corner is Demetri Goodson, a sixth-round pick last year. He might end up being a decent or even good player, perhaps even this year. But the Packers can't assume anything, because he's as raw as can be after leaving the basketball program at Gonzaga to return to football at Baylor in only 2011.

It's also worth remembering that Hayward is in the last year of his contract. If Hayward plays good football, there's every reason to think Thompson wouldn't let him get away next spring. But you never know what can happen to a player's cost in a year's time.

The Packers need cornerback help, now.

At outside linebacker, the Packers aren't in bad shape for 2015. But a good rush can cover up all sorts of weaknesses, and as Seattle has shown, a defense always can find a place for another rusher. If Matthews plays mostly inside, playing time will be there for the taking if a rookie outside rusher is good enough. More importantly, drafting an outside linebacker would be proactive for next year, because the Packers could be wiped out at that critical position.

For one, this very well could be 35-year-old Julius Peppers' last season in the NFL. If he gives the Packers one more year like 2014, he'll have done well. Then it's not hard at all to see him calling it a career, or the Packers deciding to move on.

Also, Perry and Neal are in the last year of their contracts. Perhaps Thompson will re-sign one, but that doesn't mean as a starter. This is the key position in Capers' defense, and if Peppers isn't back, the Packers will need a talented player who's ready to go regardless of whether Matthews moves back outside.

Defensive line looks similar at first blush, because nose tackles Letroy Guion and B.J. Raji are on one-year contracts. And don't be surprised if Thompson drafts a defensive lineman in the first round. But of the Packers' four positions of greatest need, it still ranks fourth on my list. Thompson could re-sign either or both next year.

Yes, there's hairsplitting here. Thompson at pick No. 30 overall can safely draft the best player available from any of four defensive positions and fill a glaring need. You have to assume that's what he'll do.

But at least at inside linebacker, Thompson has a fallback in Matthews that worked well last year. He can't say that at cornerback, where today's NFL demands quality depth.

— and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.

View Comments