Dougherty: Pass rush could cure Packers' cornerback problem

Pete Dougherty
Packers News
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North Carolina State defensive end Bradley Chubb (9) warms up before playing Pittsburgh on Oct. 13, 2017, at Heinz Field

The Philadelphia Eagles proved last month that a team doesn’t need really good cornerbacks to win a Super Bowl, even in today’s pass-crazy NFL.

In Ronald Darby, Jalen Mills and Patrick Robinson, the Eagles didn’t have anything close to a true No. 1 cover man. It was a pretty ordinary group.

But they had something to make up for it: a pass rush. The Eagles weren’t among the top sacking teams in the NFL — they tied for 15th in sacks with 38 — but their No. 9 ranking in defensive passer rating better reflects their ability to put heat on the quarterback.

The key was Fletcher Cox, who’s one of the NFL’s two best inside rushers (the Los Angeles Rams' Aaron Donald is the other). Cox is a dominant player. The Eagles also had a nice rotation of rushers to go with him: promising rookie Derek Barnett, as well as Brandon Graham, Vinny Curry and Chris Long on the outside, and Timmy Jernigan on the inside.

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Really, the Eagles weren’t much different than the Super Bowl-winning New York Giants in 2007 and ’11. Those Giants teams were ordinary at cornerback (Aaron Ross, Corey Webster and Sam Madison in ’07; Webster, Ross and nickel back Antrel Rolle in ’11) but had the best defensive lines in the league. They won because when they didn’t sack passers, they made them uncomfortable down after down.

Which is a roundabout way of getting to this: A long list of cornerbacks have come off the open market in the last week, and not only have the Packers not signed any, they also traded starter Damarious Randall to get him out of their locker room. General manager Brian Gutekunst took a flier by signing Kyle Fuller to an offer sheet, but the Chicago Bears, flush with salary-cap space, took all of a nanosecond to match that and retain the player they’d transition tagged.

So a week into the NFL’s official offseason, the Packers are worse off at cornerback than where they finished last season, and last season wasn’t good. Which makes you wonder if Gutekunst is avoiding rash moves in the secondary because he saw what the Eagles did and knows the best quarterbacks can pick apart even the best secondaries as long as they’re comfortable in the pocket.

Remember, at the NFL scouting combine Gutekunst told a group of reporters who cover the team this: “You have to have a dominant pass rush. You look at the teams that have been successful, that’s where it starts.”

In that regard, Gutekunst’s easy-come, easy-go approach to the Packers’ secondary early this offseason makes sense.

The Minnesota Vikings had one of the best defenses in the NFL last year, a lineup full of Pro Bowlers and near-Pro Bowlers. But they lacked a truly outstanding pass rusher, or player for that matter, and the Eagles’ destroyed that defense in the NFC Championship game.

The Super Bowl was the shootout of all shootouts — so much for “defense wins championships” — decided by the Eagles’ game-changing strip sack of Tom Brady late in the fourth quarter. That’s the only way to beat Brady or the other top passers: with the pass rush. Jacksonville had the best starting cornerbacks in the league (Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye), but couldn’t stop Brady when it had to in the AFC Championship game.

Of course, there’s a flip side to this. The Packers had a true No. 1 corner in Sam Shields, and look how their defense has suffered since losing him. So it’s not like cover guys don’t matter. They can matter a lot.

The rub is, the Packers have nothing close to the dominant pass rush Gutekunst referenced.

Their signing of Muhammad Wilkerson should help. Maybe new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine will even get some mileage from playing Wilkerson, Mike Daniels and Kenny Clark together on some passing downs, even though they’re all primarily inside rushers. That would be a power rush.

But the Packers need a bigger jump than that to field a pass rush in 2018 that can win games against top quarterbacks. The free-agent market this year offered next-to-nothing, and while picking No. 14 overall gives Gutekunst a better shot at finding a difference maker than picking in the later 20s, he’ll still need to have a great eye for talent and some luck to boot to find an instant game changer.

That said, the Indianapolis Colts’ trade out of the No. 3 spot over the weekend might open a possibility. With the New York Jets now at No. 3, it’s looking like the first five picks will be four quarterbacks and running back Saquon Barkley.

If Gutekunst thinks the consensus best rushing prospect in this draft, North Carolina State’s Bradley Chubb, is a game changer, the Packers’ chances of trading up to get him have improved. Their second-round pick (No. 45 overall) might be just enough to move from No. 14 to No. 6. The problem is, the Colts badly need help on defense too, and Chubb might be their target.

If the Packers had Cox, Donald or Von Miller, or one of the other handful of dominant pass rushers in the league, they’d have enough around him to possibly win a Super Bowl with average cornerbacks.

But they don’t have that guy, and only a home run in the draft will change that.

So without knowing how the draft will go, Gutekunst has to make a couple of moves at cornerback, doesn’t he?

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He still has enough cap room (about $20 million) to make a big move, and can create some more without working too hard if he needs it. But there are no obvious options for that money anymore.

At this point, the only way to find a good one is a trade, maybe for some team’s underappreciated No. 3, like the deal that brought Al Harris to the Packers for a second-round pick in 2003. Even just a year ago, that would have sounded like a long shot. But suddenly the NFL is trade crazy. Perhaps there’s a deal out there.

Otherwise, the free-agent class has been winnowed to stop-gap, one-year rentals. Davon House and Tramon Williams remain on that list.

There’s also the draft. But any high pick at corner is one not spent on a pass rusher.

We’re still six weeks from putting the 2018 draft in the books. Much can happen between now and then. But Gutekunst is going to have to get creative to put together a defense that will give the Packers a chance.

Whether it’s trading up for Chubb, dealing for a starting corner, or something a little off the radar, the Packers’ rookie GM has some serious work ahead.


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