The Green Bay Packers have to find an inside linebacker who can play immediately.
That’s the only way they can move Clay Matthews back outside, and coach Mike McCarthy made that priority clear at his postseason news conference several weeks ago.
The question is whether general manager Ted Thompson will stray from his philosophy and sign a starting inside linebacker in free agency, or whether he’ll stick with his usual methods and try to find one via the draft.
Thompson’s history says it will be the draft, and any skepticism that he’d spend for a good free agent is well founded. He has done it so rarely – the only expensive players he has signed from another team in 11 previous seasons as GM are Ryan Pickett, Charles Woodson and Julius Peppers – that it’s wise to question why he’d change now.
And maybe he won’t.
But I have to wonder if circumstance might convince him to deviate and go the free-agent route.
The Packers haven’t been back to the Super Bowl for five years now. Considering where they were after winning the title in the 2010 season, with Aaron Rodgers being only 27 and with a young roster overall, the smart money would have had them making at least one return trip since then, if not more.
At age 63, Thompson also could be down to his last handful of seasons as GM. Time is running out on him faster even than it’s running out on Rodgers.
Also, while the 2016 NFL draft has more first-round prospects at inside linebacker than most years, there’s a good chance none of the top three inside linebackers (Alabama’s Reggie Ragland, UCLA’s Myles Jack and Notre Dame’s Jaylon Smith) will be available when the Packers’ first pick comes up at No. 27 overall.
So Thompson also has to determine whether any of the inside linebackers thereafter will be good enough immediately to allow Matthews to move back outside. If Thompson’s confidence isn’t high, then free agency has to become more attractive.
So, the more I’ve thought about it this offseason, the more I think Thompson actually might take a rare dip in free-agent waters this offseason.
And of the inside linebackers available in free agency, the one that makes the most sense is Denver’s Danny Trevathan.
Trevathan has two big factors on his side: One, he’s young (turns 26 in March), so his next two seasons should be as good as any he’ll have as long as he stays healthy. The other highest-rated inside linebacker available, Indianapolis’ Jerrell Freeman, turns 30 in May. He’s into the downside of his career.
Two, Trevathan’s strength is in pass coverage, so he’s a three-down linebacker who can handle the coverage duties in nickel and dime personnel. The Packers’ next-best inside linebackers, Jake Ryan and Sam Barrington, aren’t that. Coordinator Dom Capers’ defense would be fine with one of them in the nickel, but not both. And neither is a good dime linebacker.
“(Trevathan) is a little undersized,” said a scout who works for a Broncos’ rival in the AFC West Division, “but he runs well and plays hard. He’s a natural fit at nickel or dime.”
According to Pro Football Focus, Trevathan had the sixth-best pass coverage grade among inside linebackers in the NFL, and ninth-best including outside linebackers from 4-3 schemes.
Last season he was Denver’s leading tackler (109), though that in itself means little, because his position should be first or second on the team in tackles. That number tells you nothing about whether he’s making the play after a two-yard gain or a six-yarder.
But for what it’s worth, Pro Football Focus had him with 53 stops, which is defined as a play that caused an offensive failure based on down and distance. That was second most on the Broncos, behind inside linebacker Brandon Marshall’s 56. The Packers’ leader was Matthews with 35.
As for what Trevathan might cost in free agency, be assured it won’t be cheap. Carolina’s Luke Kuechley is the premier player at that position, and Trevathan won’t be anywhere near his $12.4 million average, or Bobby Wagner’s $10.75 million, for that matter.
But there are several players below the top tier of inside linebackers who average in the $5 million to $7.5 million range: San Diego’s Donald Butler ($7.4 million), Philadelphia’s Mychal Kendricks ($7.25 million), the New York Jets’ David Harris ($7.16 million), Dallas’ Sean Lee ($7 million), Cleveland’s Karlos Dansby ($6 million), Oakland’s Curtis Lofton ($6 million), Indianapolis’ D’Qwell Jackson ($5.5 million), Kansas City’s Derrick Johnson ($5.53 million), Detroit’s Stephen Tulloch ($5.1 million), Jacksonville’s Paul Posluszny ($5 million) and Cincinnati’s Rey Maualuga ($5 million).
The best guess is that with the leverage of free agency, Trevathan will fall somewhere in that range.
There’s also some danger in signing players from Super Bowl champions, in this case from Denver’s dominating defense. The risk is that the great players on the Broncos’ defense make some of the other starters look better than they are.
When asked where he’d rate Trevathan among the Broncos’ starters, the scout said: “Middle to higher. He’s a good player, partly because they had bigger defensive linemen and he could use his speed as an undersized guy without really taking on (blockers). So he was a good fit.”
That presumably would make him a good fit with the Packers, because they also play a 3-4 scheme, even if their personnel on the defensive line isn’t quite as good as Denver’s.
In the end, this is Thompson’s call, and we all know his history. But if he decides he needs free agency to fill some of the holes in his starting lineup, Trevathan would be a place to start.