Dougherty: Packers' emphasis on explosiveness

Pete Dougherty
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Green Bay Packers outside linebacker Nick Perry celebrates a sack of Dak Prescott last Sunday.

The first step toward dealing with a problem is acknowledging it, right?

So this offseason, Ted Thompson has acknowledged the shortage of explosive players on the Green Bay Packers’ defense.

Not in anything the team’s general manager has said. That isn’t how to judge NFL GMs, especially this one.

You judge them on what they do, and Thompson’s decisions in free agency this offseason speak loudly.

He allowed three defensive players to leave in unrestricted free agency: Micah Hyde, Datone Jones and Julius Peppers.

He re-signed one, Nick Perry.

And the difference between them tells you much of what you need to know about the state of a Packers defense that finished last season ranked No. 21 in points allowed, No. 22 in yards allowed, and was blown off the field in the NFC championship game in Atlanta.

For all there was to like about Hyde’s safety/slot corner versatility, and smart and instinctive play — remember that big interception at Dallas in the playoffs? — his speed was below average for a cornerback. His 4.56-second 40 was well off the 10-year combine average of 4.48 seconds, according to research by NFPost’s Tony Villiotti. There were key times when his skills couldn’t overcome that.

Same for Jones, the 2013 first-round draft pick who was miscast as a 3-4 outside linebacker. The average 40 for his position was 4.72 seconds; he ran 4.80.

And even Thompson’s and contract negotiator Russ Ball’s refusal to up the ante for Peppers against Carolina's bid was a concession to speed and explosiveness. As extraordinary a player and athlete as Peppers has been, he’s now 37 and coming off a season in which his age finally started to show.

Perry, on the other hand, while not what you’d call a speed player, is a little faster than average for an outside rusher (4.64 40; 4.72 is the average). He’s also a true power athlete — his 38½-inch vertical puts him in the top 10 percent at his position, and his long jump (124 inches) and three-cone drill (7.25 seconds) fall barely outside the top 10 percent.

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And so look what happened when it was time to talk contract.

Thompson and Ball knew Hyde would get good offers in free agency and didn’t even bother negotiating. He went to Buffalo for an average of $6.1 million a year.

Jones signed with Minnesota to play in a 4-3 defense, where he belongs, for $3.75 million.

Peppers, faced with similar offers from the Packers and Panthers, returned home to Carolina for $3.5 million. Maybe he’ll make plays for another season, but there’s also a decent chance he’ll hit the wall to end a Hall of Fame career.

And Perry? Thompson re-signed the 26-year-old to a five-year deal that averages $11.8 million.

So that tells you what Thompson thinks is ailing his defense. In essence, he is forcing himself to get better — faster and more explosive — on that side of the ball. The question is whether he’ll succeed in doing it this offseason.

So far, he hasn’t done much.

Free-agent acquisition Davon House (4.50 40) is a little faster than Hyde but is not what you’d call a fast or explosive cornerback. Size (6-0, 195) and physical play are his greater assets.

The Packers also figure to get faster with their plan to play safety Morgan Burnett more at nickel linebacker. That will make them more athletic at linebacker, and could improve their explosiveness at safety as well.

The player who figures to replace Burnett at safety, Kentrell Brice, is an exceptional straight-line athlete even though he came into the league undrafted last year. His 40 time (4.44 seconds), vertical (42 inches) and broad jump (132 inches) were all in the top 10 percent for safeties. Speed isn’t everything — Brice was undrafted for a reason and made a lot of mistakes in his 258 defensive snaps last year — but he is the definition of an explosive athlete, as we saw on a couple of his big hits.

“Moving (Burnett), it affects two other positions when you do that,” coach Mike McCarthy said at the combine. “Those are the kinds of things where we can get better.”

Any other upgrades in athleticism are going to have to come from the draft, barring another Thompson signing in the next few weeks.

Can one draft make a difference? Sure, as far as speed and athleticism go. Whether the defense gets much better from one draft is another matter.

Atlanta got a lot faster last season by drafting two explosive inside linebackers who were immediate starters, second-rounder Deion Jones (4.59 40) and fourth-rounder DeVondre Campbell (4.58 40). So it can be done.

Thompson figures to draft a cornerback and outside rusher high in this year’s draft. He needs to get more explosive at both spots or risk having a defense that's a liability again in 2017.

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