Dougherty: Thompson neglects Packers' pass rush at his peril
The list of the 30 highest-paid players tells what you need to know about the NFL.
Twenty-three of the 30 (based on average salary per year) are quarterbacks. Of the other seven, five are pass rushers.
Teams speak with their wallets, and they’re saying the most important players on the field are the guys who throw the ball and the guys who sack them.
Which brings to mind a Green Bay Packers pass defense that last season was a disaster. The Packers finished No. 26 in the NFL in opponent’s passer rating and No. 31 in passing yards allowed. The only team worse in both categories was New Orleans (Nos. 29 and 32).
With that in mind, going into the draft I ranked pass rusher 1A on the Packers’ needs list and cover man 1B.
Ted Thompson saw it differently. The general manager ranked cover man 1A and 1B. His first two picks were Kevin King, a cornerback, and Josh Jones, a safety in name but a nickel inside linebacker in form. Thompson didn’t draft a pass rusher until Wisconsin’s Vince Biegel in the fourth round.
I get what Thompson was thinking. After Sam Shields’ season ended in Week 1, the Packers’ pass coverage cratered. That boxed in defensive coordinator Dom Capers. When he blitzed on key downs, his cover men couldn’t handle the exposure. But when he didn’t blitz he too often had trouble getting home.
So Thompson’s thinking is clear: With better coverage, Capers can manufacture more rush with his zone-blitz scheme.
And to be fair, the Packers have to be encouraged by the early signs at OTAs. Tuesday was the first of three OTA practices that will be open to reporters over the next three weeks, and while King can’t participate because of NFL rules for rookies from schools on the quarter system, Jones took part Tuesday and flashed some of the skills that Thompson coveted.
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During team drills, Jones stood out by knocking down three passes, including one from Aaron Rodgers to Randall Cobb. It was a non-contact practice in the offseason, so take it for what it’s worth. But if nothing else, Jones showed closing speed.
In fact, both he and King are a departure from Thompson’s recent drafting past. In 2015, when the GM chose cornerbacks Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins with his first two picks, the team’s scouts talked about their great skill playing the ball. With King and Jones, it was all about size and athleticism.
In case you don’t remember from the draft, King is a giant at 6-foot-3, yet he tested like a much smaller man. According to MockDraftable’s scouting-combine data going back to 1999 he ranked in the 72nd percentile for cornerbacks in the 40, the 96th percentile in the three cone and short shuttle, and 88th percentile in the vertical jump. Jones, likewise, is a huge safety at 220 pounds, and his 4.41-second 40 is in the 86th percentile of defensive backs (that’s safeties and cornerbacks).
But while the secondary is bigger and more athletic, what about the pass rush? That’s still the best way to slow the league’s top quarterbacks, and if you’re going to win a Super Bowl, that’s who you’ll eventually have to beat. Of course coverage matters, but a good rush does more for coverage than coverage can do for the rush.
Last year the Packers ranked No. 7 in the NFL in sacks percentage, which looks pretty good. But the playoffs tend to reveal truth, and in the NFC championship blowout at Atlanta the Packers’ rush failed.
On paper Thompson might feel good about outside rushers Clay Matthews (five sacks last season) and Nick Perry (11 sacks). But based on their injury histories, do you really want to bet on both being healthy enough for top form in January? That would be a first.
Matthews still might be a game-changing rusher – remember, this is an explosive athlete whose 1.49-second 10-yard split in the 40 in 2009 would have ranked third among all players regardless of position at this year’s combine. But by the end of last season he again was a shell of himself (shoulder injury), and he turned 31 earlier this month. Father Time is lurking.
Regardless, Capers might find help elsewhere. If this draft really was uncommonly deep, maybe Biegel will be a fourth-rounder who helps right away. But his start isn’t promising; recent foot surgery (Jones fracture) means he’ll miss all offseason work.
Or maybe 2016 third-round pick Kyler Fackrell will blossom after a quiet rookie year. He should benefit as much as anyone from a first go through the entire offseason workout program. But he’s also a little over-aged (25), so that’s working against his ceiling.
Really, it’s a wonder Thompson hasn’t put more draft resources into Capers’ linchpin position. The GM has used only three picks in the first three rounds on outside linebackers since Capers came aboard in ’09 (Matthews and Perry as first-rounders, Fackrell in the third).
In that same time, Pittsburgh Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert, whose team runs the same scheme, has stocked up: Five outside linebackers in the first three rounds, including three first-rounders.
Thompson had to go pass defense in the draft, and he went all-in to cover. It leaves you wondering if he’ll have enough rush to take this team home.