Dougherty: Getting defensive over Packers' draft

Pete Dougherty
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Three things stand out about Ted Thompson’s 2017 draft.

One is the Green Bay Packers general manager’s emphasis on defense. His first four picks were on that side of the ball and said it all.

Second is Thompson’s decision to go with cornerback Kevin King over pass rusher T.J. Watt with his first pick. Thompson needed both and could have had either. He traded back and ended up with the tall and athletic cornerback rather than the tall and athletic rusher.

And third, Thompson wasn’t going to leave coach Mike McCarthy light at running back again. The GM drafted three of them in the late rounds Saturday. Not much more to say about that.

But in the big picture, there’s a good chance when we look back in three years the prisms through which we’ll be measuring this Packers draft is whether it helped turn around their defense, and whether selecting King over Watt was the right move.

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This isn’t the first time Thompson has gone heavy on defense in his 13 drafts in Green Bay. It has been his team’s weaker half since 2011, and his five most recent drafts haven’t changed that. In ’12, he even spent his first six picks on that side of the ball, and while he came out with two hits (Mike Daniels and, when healthy, Nick Perry) it ultimately didn’t make things better.

But ’12 was regarded as an uncommonly weak draft, whereas this year’s is considered unusually strong. Thompson is banking on that. He badly needs help, and now, for a defense that ranked No. 26 in opponent passer rating and No. 21 in points allowed last season.

“We do feel like we got better (on defense),” Thompson said after the seven rounds were completed, “and we have a chance to grow and kind of spread our wings a little bit. I think sometimes you get a little stale in the roster, and that would be my fault if it happened.”

Coordinator Dom Capers will be looking for King and Thompson’s other second-round pick, North Carolina State safety Josh Jones (No. 61 overall), to play early.

King, a tall corner (6-feet-3) with the speed and physical testing of a much smaller player (4.43-second 40), will almost have to be among his top three cornerbacks if this defense is to improve.

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Considering the coverage struggles last year, Jones, too, should have a good shot at working into the rotation at safety, or maybe nickel cornerback, and perhaps even inside linebacker. At 220 pounds, he has the size to play nearer the line of scrimmage, but his 4.41 40 makes him their fastest player on defense, too.

As McCarthy said in his post-draft news conference, this is a sub-package (i.e., nickel and dime) league. The Packers’ first two picks were specifically for that.

“We need to play not only more with our secondary players, but we need guys to play more than one position,” McCarthy said.

Capers could use some help from Wisconsin’s Vince Biegel as a pass rusher, but that might be asking for too much, too soon from a fourth-round pick (No. 108 overall). For all Thompson did for his secondary, pass rush was at least as great a priority in my mind. Thompson probably addressed it too late for much help from this year’s draft class, even if Biegel ends up being a good player in the long run.

Which brings us to Watt.

He was the rusher who would have made the most sense when Thompson’s pick came up at No. 29. It’s the most important position in Capers’ defense, outside linebacker. If you can put a lot of heat on the quarterback, you’ll get key stops in the NFL and that’s how you win games. The Packers couldn’t last season, and that helped get them blown off the field in the NFC championship game in Atlanta.

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Forget that Watt played in college at Wisconsin. He was drafted at No. 30 by a Pittsburgh Steelers team that plays the same 3-4 defense as Capers and has a pretty good track record of drafting outside linebackers. So Watt was more than a viable option when Thompson traded out of No. 29. All signs suggest he was on their radar.

So was King, the player Thompson ended up taking at No. 33. I’m not weighing in on whether Thompson was right or wrong. He and his scouts studied both guys and set their board. He made his choice based on what he knew about them and the rest of the draft. He projected both to the NFL. We won’t know for three years whether he made the right call. But the Steelers had a shot at both also, and went with Watt, so that tells you something, too.

“It was really a remarkable one-year production,” Steelers GM Kevin Colbert said of Watt’s 11½ sacks last year. “We don’t think he’s a complete product at this point but we’re excited. … This kid is a solid football player and really only scratching the surface as a defensive player.”

If Watt becomes one of the league’s better outside rushers, well, those guys are worth their weight in gold. Same for King if he becomes a true No. 1 cornerback. And it’s telling that Biegel is the guy Thompson selected with the fourth-round pick he got for moving back.

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The next three or four years will tell us whether Thompson made a good call. The more immediate issue is whether the Packers helped their Super Bowl chances in the here and now. King, Jones and maybe Biegel will have a lot to say about that, too.

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