Dougherty: Packers' defense needs quick fix

Pete Dougherty
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Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews (52), defensive end Mike Daniels (76) and linebacker Joe Thomas (48) pursue Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson (3) during the first quarter on Dec. 11, 2016, at Lambeau Field.

INDIANAPOLIS - The question for the 2017 Green Bay Packers is, can they go from a pretty bad defense to a pretty good one in one offseason?

They’ve done it before under coach Mike McCarthy. In 2008, they ranked Nos. 22 and 20 in points and yards allowed. In ’09, they jumped to Nos. 2 and 7. That turnaround helped set up a Super Bowl win the next season.

Last year was a lot like ’08 (Nos. 22 and 21 in points and yards). And if the Packers can make that kind of jump again, it probably would put them over the top now that they have a seasoned Aaron Rodgers at quarterback, not the second-year starter he was in ‘09.

However, it’s a long road from here to there, and sitting here at the NFL scouting combine, about a week before the start of free agency and eight weeks before the draft, I’m not sure how they’re going to do it. They just don’t have the pieces they had in ’09.

Most importantly, the Packers had two stud defenders already on hand going into ’09: Charles Woodson and Nick Collins. Then general manager Ted Thompson landed a third, Clay Matthews, with a late first-round pick in the ’09 draft.

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Looking at the Packers’ roster now, is there similar talent in wait? Not that I can see. Their best defensive player is Mike Daniels. He’s very good, but he doesn’t change games like those guys did. Matthews still is around, but injuries keep preventing him from playing at that level again.

So how do the Packers become a top-10 defense by next fall? They badly need a No. 1 cornerback and a pass rusher. Join the club. Everyone in the league is looking for those guys. McCarthy always has considered rusher and corner the two primary positions on defense — quarterback and left tackle on offense — and that’s a consensus view around the league.

“Everybody’s chasing those two positions,” McCarthy said at the combine Wednesday. “Maybe they’re already there. ... We know what we need to improve on, we know how we’re going to do it. Anybody we can add to it that’s going to make us better, that’s what this time of year is for."

By "already there," he meant maybe they’re on the Packers’ roster. And yes, if Matthews stays healthy after turning 31 in the offseason, maybe he again can be that rusher. But that’s a big if. And even McCarthy isn’t sure what Matthews’ split will be between inside and outside linebacker. The Packers have to play him wherever he helps the defense most. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers and McCarthy probably will have to determine that on the fly, depending on Matthews’ health and how the season goes.

“I don’t know how the numbers are going to work out next year,” McCarthy said, “but (Matthews) needs to play outside, inside, rover. He needs to play all those."

Possibilities after that? I don’t see them. Nick Perry is a good, complete outside linebacker the Packers need to re-sign, but he’s not a big-time rusher. I guess there’s always the chance that 2016 third-round pick Kyler Fackrell makes a huge leap after an offseason in the Packers’ workout program. But I don’t think anybody’s predicting that. Incremental improvement is more likely with him.

At cornerback, Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins showed talent as rookies but are coming off injury-diminished and confidence-sapping second seasons in the NFL. Maybe Randall becomes a No. 1, but first he’s got to show he belongs in the top three of a rotation. At this point, that’s a real question.

“I think those guys will come in here guns blazing,” McCarthy said. “I know they both went to San Diego to train. They’re good kids. They’ve definitely got the ability. The injury thing is hard.”

So that leaves it to the draft and free agency.

Let’s face it, it’s hard to find difference makers no matter where you pick in the draft. Matthews was No. 26 overall, and he was good right away, so it can be done even at the bottom of the round. But finding two guys like that in one draft? Now that’s asking a lot.

As for free agency, the New York Giants did the unheard of last year: They went from No. 30 in points allowed in ’15 to No. 2 in ’16 by taking a huge swing in free agency. But Olivier Vernon, Janoris Jenkins and Damon Harrison cost them $88 million in full guarantees. Maybe the safest statement in the world today is that ain’t happening with Thompson at the Packers’ helm.

Will Thompson take a shot at even one big-money guy? History says no, and the list of franchise-tagged rushers (Melvin Ingram, Jason Pierre-Paul, and Chandler Jones) and cornerbacks (Trumaine Johnson) only decreases the pool of players.

I’m sure when Thompson saw last week that the Buccaneers cut cornerback Alterraun Verner and New Orleans plans to cut safety Jairus Byrd when free agency starts, it only reinforced his anti-free-agent convictions. They were supposed to be among the plums of the ’14 free agent class but basically went bust.

It all makes me wonder if the Packers aren’t better off drafting a skill player on offense with one of their high picks and trying to blow teams off the field. That’s how the Saints won their Super Bowl in the 2009 season.

But that’s not the way to go. Thompson needs to try to find a pass rusher and cornerback, not just for this season but the next few.

It’s just asking a lot to hit that big in one draft.

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