If Denver’s win in Super Bowl 50 reminded us of anything, it’s the value of a great pass rush.
The Broncos neutralized the NFL’s most-valuable player, Carolina quarterback Cam Newton, with an overwhelming rush. Outside linebackers Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware were the key players, but inside rushers Derek Wolfe and Malik Jackson and backup outside rusher Shane Ray played big roles as well.
They hit Newton 13 times — one of their sacks was on receiver Ted Ginn — including six sacks. Carolina led the NFL in scoring in 2015 and averaged 40 points in its two previous playoff wins but scored only 10 points against the Broncos.
Just two weeks earlier, in the AFC championship game, the Broncos hit Tom Brady 20 times in a 20-18 win over the New England Patriots.
In other words, the Broncos throttled maybe the NFL’s best quarterback ever (Brady) and best playmaker of 2015 (Newton) in the two biggest games of the year.
Now, it wasn’t just Denver’s pass rush that won the day. The Broncos’ excellent secondary played a big role, because it allowed defensive coordinator Wade Phillips to devote more resources to stopping the run. But it all started with the rush.
Which brings us to the Green Bay Packers and the 2016 draft. Their biggest roster holes are at tight end and inside linebacker. But watching Denver this postseason — and Seattle the previous couple — there’s a strong argument for general manager Ted Thompson to draft a pass rusher in the first round or two if there’s a player there he likes.
Yeah, the Packers need an inside linebacker with the explosiveness and speed to play in coverage so they can move Clay Matthews back full time to outside linebacker. Somewhere in free agency or the draft, Thompson needs to find that guy.
But drafting an outside rusher of note would not be a luxury. Even assuming Matthews moves back outside, his complement, Julius Peppers, is 36. Last season he played 700 snaps (66.6 percent of the Packers’ defensive totals), and this year the Packers probably will want to cut that back even further so that he’s fresher at the end of games and the end of the season. With Peppers, less is more.
That means defensive coordinator Dom Capers will need outside rushers to rotate in. With Mike Neal and Nick Perry free agents, there’s a chance neither will be back with the team, and at most probably only one will re-sign. Jayrone Elliott offers some potential there, too.
But to really juice up their rush, the Packers need more explosive talent than they can bring back from last year.
Besides rotational play, there also will be plenty of pass-rushing snaps available on the most important passing downs, in Capers’ dime personnel package. On those downs, Peppers moves inside with either Datone Jones or Mike Daniels, so there’s a spot open outside opposite Matthews.
Adding a rusher of note there could be a game changer.
Now, just drafting an outside rusher early — or any other position — doesn’t mean anything in itself. More draft picks bust than don’t, so it all depends on whether you hit on the pick.
But Newton’s only 26 and isn’t going anywhere. Brady, Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson, Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger, Carson Palmer — you’ll have to go through at least a couple of them to win a Super Bowl. The only way to slow them is keep them under siege.
So if there’s a rusher there in the first round that Thompson rates highly, then he should take him and let his seemingly more pressing needs wait. Because a good rusher could do more for his team in big games than any other position.
As for pass rushers who might be available when the Packers select at No. 27 overall, we’re still 2½ months from the draft. Players will move up and down draft boards with the NFL scouting combine, campus workouts and word of mouth.
But there are several candidates to keep an eye on during draft season, including Eastern Kentucky’s Noah Spence, Clemson’s Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd, Georgia’s Leonard Floyd and Michigan State’s Shilique Calhoun
Of the group, Spence is the most intriguing because of his unusual circumstances and potentially high ceiling, but also high risk.
Spence was a highly rated college recruit who started his career at Ohio State and in his first season as a starter, as a sophomore in 2013, led the team in sacks and tackles for a loss.
But he also developed a drug habit that led to his banishment from the Big Ten after two failed drug tests. He later admitted publicly that he was addicted to Ecstasy and had routinely used the drug on weekends.
With the banishment he sat out 2014 while taking classes at Ohio State, then transferred to FCS-level Eastern Kentucky, where last season he had 11½ sacks and 22½ tackles for loss in 11 games.
Now he’s entering the draft after his junior season. One scouting service ranks him a top-15 talent but predicts he won’t get drafted until late in the first round.
This is not an endorsement for the Packers to draft him if he’s available at No.27. I don’t know how great a risk he’ll be to relapse and get suspended by the NFL. According to a story by ESPN.com, he went through intensive therapy for the Ecstasy addition, then last year was arrested in Kentucky for public intoxication, and he says he now has quit drinking alcohol. Take it all for what you think it’s worth.
The smartest approach regarding prospects like this is for teams to take them case by case, put a very high burden of proof on the player, and as a policy not take chances often. But there probably should be room for exceptions if there’s good reason.
I don’t pretend to know whether Spence would be a tolerable risk. He reportedly has a strong support system, including parents whose commitment to helping wayward youths has included adopting five children — Noah Spence is their biological son. But when it comes to substance abuse, you can’t be close to certain. The Packers no doubt can consult experts to help make calls like this.
Drafting Spence certainly would be un-Thompson-like. In his 11 drafts as Packers GM he has gone for much cleaner prospects, especially in the early rounds. He also was burned by high-risk first rounders when he was running Seattle’s personnel department, with Koren Robinson (No. 9 in 2001) and Jerramy Stevens (No. 28 in ’02) derailing their careers because of substance abuse.
But as Denver reminded us, pass rushers are gold in the NFL. And you never know what the Packers’ research on Spence will lead Thompson to conclude.