Dougherty: Thompson needs 'A' game on defense

Pete Dougherty
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The chances of the Green Bay Packers coming out of this offseason with what coach Mike McCarthy calls a “championship defense” are remote.

Based on the moves Ted Thompson has and mostly hasn’t made since March, the Packers' general manager would need a spectacular draft to make that happen. It’s just not realistic. Those come maybe once a generation.

So how about the chances of fielding a defense that can get enough stops to beat a good team deep in the playoffs? For a Packers team that can win with offense, that’s less of a long shot. But it still will require some uncommonly good work in the NFL draft next week.

The simplest path is for Thompson to hit big with a defensive pick. By big, I mean Clay Matthews big. A guy who comes in and makes everybody better right away.

Remember, Matthews went to the Pro Bowl as a rookie in 2009, and the Packers jumped from No. 22 in points allowed the year before his arrival to No. 7 his rookie season. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t all Matthews. New coordinator Dom Capers’ defensive scheme exploited Charles Woodson’s many talents as a nickel cornerback, and Nick Collins became a Pro Bowler that year. But Matthews made a big difference, too.

Still, Thompson has landed only one defensive player like that in 12 drafts in Green Bay. So they’re hard to find, especially where Thompson is picking this year (No. 29 overall). Matthews was the No. 26 pick, so it’s not impossible. But it takes a dose of luck, too.

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The other way is for Thompson to find two picks who upgrade the defense immediately, even if they’re not what you’d call difference makers of Pro Bowl or All-Pro caliber. And they’d have to come at outside linebacker and cornerback.

That’s hard to do, too, as Thompson's track record shows. Because we’re not talking about guys who eventually became good or even excellent players (Collins in ’05 and Mike Daniels in ‘12). And we’re not talking about guys who admirably held the fort as rookie injury replacements (Bryan Bulaga in ’10, David Bakhtiari in ’13 and Corey Linsley in ’14).

We’re talking about guys who played eye-catching, good football in Season 1.

By my count, in Thompson’s 12 seasons with the team, he has found three of those on defense: Casey Hayward (second-round pick, 2012), Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (first-round pick, 2014) and Sam Shields (undrafted, 2010). All three had strong rookie seasons, especially Hayward and Shields.

If you include offense, add Eddie Lacy (second round, 2013) and Greg Jennings (sixth round, 2010).

Throw in the return game, and you probably can put Randall Cobb (second round  in ‘11) in there, too.

That’s six guys, or one in every other draft.

So the big question is, can Thompson somehow find two in one draft weekend? It’s clearly asking a lot. It also can be done.

Atlanta Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff did last year, and he actually found three: first-rounder Keanu Neal, second-rounder Deion Jones and fourth-rounder De’Vondre Campbell. It took a while to come together, but by the end of the season, the Falcons had a decent defense even after losing their best cornerback (Desmond Trufant) to a season-ending injury. Those three were a big part of it.

Thompson relies so heavily on draft and develop that he has put himself in position to need a draft like that.

As draft day gets closer, the more it looks to me like he can put the highest priorities on pass rusher and cornerback. That doesn’t mean those positions have to be picks one and two — the draft board still has the final word, and you can’t pass on a player you think can be special just because he plays a different position. But those are by far the greatest needs in my mind.

Two others on the list, running back and starting guard, aren’t as urgent.

Thompson clearly has to draft a running back, but he doesn’t need a top back to help what’s already one of the league’s best offenses. He just needs a solid runner who can function in the passing game to split time with Ty Montgomery. Brandon Jackson (second round ‘07) wouldn’t do, but James Starks (sixth round, ’10) would.

If this draft is as deep at running back as the experts think, Thompson should be able to find that guy in the third or fourth round.

At guard, good enough will be good enough to replace T.J. Lang. It’s not even a given a rookie will have to be that guy, though I’d think one from the first four rounds would have a pretty good chance. We found out this week the Packers definitely have moved Kyle Murphy from tackle to guard, so maybe he’ll win that job.

Either way, I’m not seeing as great a need at that position as I did just a few weeks ago. Maybe Thompson will take one in the first three rounds, but I’m betting against it.

We know Thompson and McCarthy count on improvement from within, and they’ll get some from somewhere. Maybe it will be Damarious Randall, Quinten Rollins or LeDarius Gunter at cornerback; Kenny Clark could be due for a nice gain on the defensive line; and maybe Kyler Fackrell or Jayrone Elliott will surprise at outside linebacker.

But to think that they’ll get enough of a bump from a few of them is a pipe dream. This team simply needs talent and help, right now, for rushing the passer and covering receivers. Thompson has to summon one of his best drafts ever to get it.

Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson addresses the media during his pre-draft news conference Wednesday, April 19, 2017 in the media auditorium at Lambeau Field.
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