Michael Cohen speaks with Aaron Nagler about the return of Aaron Rodgers to Lambeau and all the latest on the injury front. USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin
You might already have seen this stat during the Green Bay Packers’ bye week: Julius Peppers has more sacks (7 ½) with Carolina this season than all the Packers’ outside linebackers combined (7).
That’s a stunner.
The point here isn’t to rip general manager Ted Thompson for letting Peppers walk. That call, right or wrong, made sense at the time. Peppers had just turned 37. As impressive an athlete as he is, he was showing decline.
The old adage that it’s better to part with a player a year early than a year late is too true. That Peppers is tied for seventh in the NFL in sacks is mind blowing. But Thompson made the percentage play. Peppers is destroying the odds. That’s the way it goes.
But I also assumed that in moving on, Thompson would at minimum use one of his first two draft picks on an outside rusher. I realize Peppers lined up more on the inside than outside his final season in Dom Capers’ defense, but that isn’t what matters. Let Peppers walk and replace him with the best pass rusher you can draft. On third downs, positions don’t matter anyway. Just get your four best rushers on the field and turn ’em loose.
But Thompson didn’t draft a rusher with either of his first two picks. He waited until the fourth round, when he took Vince Biegel out of Wsconsin. Biegel, fresh off the physically unable to perform list, might make his NFL debut Monday night against Detroit, and in the next couple months maybe he’ll show something as a rusher.
Regardless, after seven games, we’ve seen enough to look ahead to next offseason and the Packers’ needs list. And it’s clear that one of their acute needs from last year is even more acute now.
This team needs pass rushers. Good ones are like good quarterbacks in that they cover up other weaknesses. They win games.
The Packers’ lack of a rush has been glaring, starting with their stats. They rank 28th in the NFL in sacks per game (1.7).
Father Time is making his move on their best rusher since 2009, 31-year-old Clay Matthews. Matthews has 2 ½ sacks through seven games even though he has played 81.6 percent of the defensive snaps. Given he's due to earn $11.4 million in 2018, there’s no guarantee he’ll even be back next season.
Age isn’t an issue with Nick Perry (27), but health is. When he’s at full strength he’s a good rusher, but he’s often playing through injuries – like the cast on his hand for most of this season – that diminish him.
Ahmad Brooks was a good after-cuts pickup, but he’s 33. And the swing-and-miss on Kyler Fackrell in the third round of the 2015 draft is proving to be a killer.
I could see Thompson drafting outside linebackers next spring like he did running backs this year. Take three shots and hope to hit on at least one. It worked this year. Now the Packers have Aaron Jones.
Thompson will have plenty of draft ammo – it’s looking like the Packers will get four compensatory picks, including probably a third-rounder. I’ve been surprised he hasn’t used a high pick for an outside rusher the last two or three years. It really will be stunning if he doesn’t in 2018.
Even then, multiple picks to fill this crucial need make sense. You never know who’s going to pan out. Remember 2012 with Mike Daniels (fourth round) and Jerel Worthy (second)?
In order, here’s how I’d rank the Packers’ other draft priorities for April 2018:
» Receiver/tight end: Jones has added a dynamic quality their running game lacked. Now they need to threaten defenses in the passing game. It can be a receiver or a tight end, but the Packers need speed now and a starter down the road.
Assuming they re-sign Davante Adams, then either Randall Cobb ($9.5 million in salary and bonuses) or Jordy Nelson ($10.25 million) will have to go. My guess is Nelson stays. But at 32 he’s a short-termer too.
Either way, this group – and that’s including Geronimo Allison and Ty Montgomery – has more skill than speed. It needs someone to change that equation.
It could be a tight end, too. Martellus Bennett is big and athletic, but he’s not fast, won’t be getting any faster and says he’s probably retiring anyway. College football is producing more of these guys than ever. Anyone who stretches the field will help Aaron Rodgers and this offense.
» Cornerback: Cover men become more important by the year. There’s no such thing as having too many, and right now the Packers don’t have enough.
Rookie Kevin King is off to a promising start, but this is a prime position. Davon House, Damarious Randall and Josh Hawkins have half a season to make their bids for next year. But unless something changes between now and the end of the season, the Packers need more.
» Offensive line: Tackle, guard-center, take your pick. Both are priorities for what was a thin position even going into this season.
Stopgap guard Jahri Evans was a good free-agent signing, but whether he’s got another starting season in him (he turns 35 in August) is a big question. Jason Spriggs, the 2016 second-round pick who's on IR, might be a bust as a backup swing tackle, let alone be a future starter on either side. Injuries are wearing down right tackle Bryan Bulaga (age 28, $6.75 million in ’18 pay). And the Packers don’t have a true backup for center Corey Linsley.
The line’s top backup, Kyle Murphy (injured reserve, broken foot), can play right tackle and guard. But depth is a big issue even if everyone is back.
Thompson’s draft history keeps the line lower on the priority list. David Bakhtiari, Josh Sitton, T.J. Lang and JC Tretter all were fourth-rounders. Linsley was a fifth. The GM has found good linemen without using high picks.
That doesn’t hold at other positions, especially pass rushers. Those guys don’t last in drafts, and difference makers are hard to find.
But Thompson will have plenty of picks in 2018, so he’ll get more than his fair of shots to work on all his team's needs.