Packers face big decision with defense

Pete Dougherty
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Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson and coach Mike McCarthy.

INDIANAPOLIS - With Aaron Rodgers at quarterback, the Green Bay Packers don’t need a premier defense to win the Super Bowl.

But coach Mike McCarthy appears to have taken note that the NFL’s top defense has been to five of the last six Super Bowls (Denver this year, Seattle in the 2013 and ’14 seasons, San Francisco in ’12 and Pittsburgh in ‘10). And in that 2010 season, McCarthy defeated the Steelers for the title with a defense of his own that was among the league’s best (No. 2 in points allowed and No. 5 in yards).

That probably explains why, unsolicited, he keeps bringing up defense this offseason.

“We need to be a championship defense,” McCarthy said last week at the NFL scouting combine, essentially repeating what he’d said in a press conference the week before. “So we took a step toward that last year, but we need to take another step.”

McCarthy said he’s in the second year of a three-year plan with the defense, though he shared no details on what that actually means. And really, for all that can be done with schemes and approach, the Packers’ chances of going from a decent defense (No. 12 in points allowed, No. 15 in yards last year) to a “championship defense” will depend more on personnel.

That means adding a difference maker or a few good players, whether via free agency or the draft.

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For anyone dismissing free agency because of general manager Ted Thompson’s historic disdain for it, well, I don’t blame you. But there was an undercurrent of chatter at the scouting combine that Thompson in fact is looking hard into free agency this offseason. And take heed of McCarthy’s seemingly throwaway line during his hour-long sit-down with several beat writers and columnists Thursday:

“We might shock you this year,” he said with a laugh.

Yes, the Packers have plenty of needs on offense: A tight end athletic enough to threaten defenses down the middle of the field; an offensive lineman who could back up at least one tackle position and perhaps convert to guard in 2017 if the Packers lose Josh Sitton or T.J. Lang in free agency; a receiver if he’s talented enough to jump to the head of the line of players vying for the No. 3 job; and a running back to play on third downs now and possibly replace Eddie Lacy if the Packers don’t re-sign him in 2017.

But to become the type of defense McCarthy is talking about, the Packers need help for their front seven. Free agency could change the draft equation, because signing, say, an inside linebacker to play in the nickel and dime would fill a glaring hole in the roster. But a defense can get more dynamic or dominating in a number of ways, and pass rushers at any position are as fair game as inside linebacker for the Packers in the early rounds of this draft.

Is Darron Lee key to moving Matthews outside?

We learned a little more about this year’s draft prospects at the combine in the last few days, including a few defensive players of potential interest to the Packers at No. 27 in the first round. Here’s a quick update:

Jaylon Smith, ILB, Notre Dame: He was a top-10 talent who might be available at 27 because of the ACL-MCL injuries sustained in the Fiesta Bowl. But even before the combine there were questions of whether he’d be back soon enough to be much help in 2016 after having knee-reconstruction surgery in January. Now several reports from his medical exam at the combine say he sustained nerve damage that could rule out his playing next season.

It’s hard to see Thompson using a first-round pick on a player who won’t help the Packers at all in ’16. Plus there’s now greater risk Smith won't be the same player on his return. He’s due for a medical re-check shortly before the draft, so an improved prognosis then could change things. And if the Packers sign an inside linebacker in free agency, maybe Thompson would be willing to redshirt his first-rounder if he deems the future payoff big enough.

Reggie Ragland, ILB, Alabama: He’s probably not making it to 27 anyway, but the question I have is whether he’d solve the Packers’ greatest need at inside linebacker if he is there. Ragland by all accounts is a good player, but his strength is defending the run. While he presumably would help any defense, the question is whether he covers well enough to make a difference in the Packers’ nickel and dime. His unofficial 40 time Sunday was 4.72 seconds, which is only OK for a cover linebacker.

Darron Lee, ILB, Ohio State: At 6-toot-1 and 232, Lee is small for the position, but that’s the way the league is going because of the coverage responsibilities. And he tested spectacularly at the combine: His 4.47-second 40 was fastest among all linebackers, and his 11-1 broad jump was best for his position as well. The question now is whether he even makes it to No. 27 after that performance.

Noah Spence, OLB, Eastern Kentucky: He looked like one of the best outside rushers in the draft and reportedly had a strong week at the Senior Bowl. But his 4.8-second 40 was sluggish for a 250-pound speed rusher who would have coverage responsibilities in the Packers’ 3-4 scheme, and at minimum raises a red flag. He could have trouble keeping up with running backs in the flat and on wheel routes. He’s also a risk because of substance-abuse issues – he was kicked out of Ohio State for failing two tests and admitted to regularly using Ecstasy before undergoing treatment.

Robert Nkemdiche, DL, Mississippi: Character concerns could make him available at No. 27, but he's an inside rusher who Sunday gave an upper-tier performance for a 294-pound player (4.87-second 40, 35-inch vertical jump). You might remember Nkemdiche as the guy who in December broke through a hotel window in Atlanta, fell 15 feet and was arrested for possession of marijuana. He told reporters at the combine that he was drunk but not high at the time.

What bothered me as much as anything at the combine is that Nkemdiche threw a former college teammate under the bus in a lame attempt to make himself look better (or at least less worse). When asked by reporters whether any teammates were with him that night, he immediately named Laremy Tunsil, a tackle who could be the top pick in the draft. That’s a bad sign. Nkemdiche, not Tunsil, was the one who broke through the window in a reported bout with synthetic-marijuana-induced paranoia. Why drag anyone else into it? and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.

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