Dougherty: Packers' pass-rush upgrade far from finished

Pete Dougherty
Packers News
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New York Jets defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson (96) reacts against the Atlanta Falcons during the third quarter at MetLife Stadium.

ORLANDO, Fla. – So just what might Muhammad Wilkerson do for the Green Bay Packers’ pass rush?

The Packers seem to think quite a lot. He’s the only rusher they’ve added to a defense that badly needs pass rushing.

And there’s reason to think Wilkerson could make a difference. This is a 28-year-old who had 10½ sacks in 2013 and 12½ in 2015. Those are the numbers of a first-class inside rusher.

But he also bombed out after signing a five-year deal in 2016 that averaged $17 million a season. Two years and $37 million later, the Jets cut him after only 8½ sacks in 28 games and a benching for the final three weeks last season after being late to multiple meetings.

You’ll get no argument here on whether Wilkerson was a good signing. He carries minimal risk because of his bargain price — the Packers signed him for $4.7 million plus another $2.75 million in incentives — and the possibility of a big reward.

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The Packers also clearly think that getting Wilkerson out of the New Jersey/eastern Pennsylvania area, and away from friends he has known since high school, is just what he needs to revive his career.

“Obviously you look at his background, growing up there in Jersey he never really left, high school to Temple to the New York Jets,” coach Mike McCarthy said Tuesday during the coaches’ breakfast at the NFL owners meeting. “So I think this is a very good situation for him.”

But if signing Wilkerson helps the Packers’ already good inside rush by joining Mike Daniels and an ascending Kenny Clark, it’s more about depth and keeping all three fresh and productive later in games and the season. It does nothing to make the Packers more explosive at outside rusher, where Clay Matthews is slowing down and Nick Perry can’t stay healthy.

Wilkerson (315 pounds), Daniels (310) and Clark (314) are all interior players. I’ve wondered whether the Packers had some outside-the-box idea for a special nickel package that includes all three in the ultimate power rush, sort of the opposite of the four-outside-linebacker NASCAR that Dom Capers used to deploy.

But the Packers don’t have any such plans.

“I think that’s obvious, right?” McCarthy said. “The most important thing about D-line is it’s a rotation. I think when you’re playing your guys 650, 700 reps a year inside, that’s a tall task. And Mike Daniels (630 defensive snaps last season at age 28) is a great example of that. We could do a better job of rotating our D-line. That’s something that we need to improve on.”

So where else can the Packers look to get closer to the dominant rush they keep saying they aspire to?

There’s always the possibility, however long a shot, of a trade. The New York Giants this week unexpectedly shipped Jason Pierre-Paul to Tampa Bay for a third-round draft pick and a flip-flop of fourth rounders. It’s a little surprising the Packers didn’t get in on that, though Pierre-Paul will cost $12.5 million this year and $14.5 million in 2019.

There’s also the draft, which is the most likely option. I’m still guessing Gutekunst uses multiple picks on outside rushers, including either a first- or second-rounder. The most coveted rusher in this draft is North Carolina State’s Bradley Chubb, who might be a top-five pick and probably won’t make it out of the top six or seven. He’d require a trade up from the Packers’ spot at No. 14.

There’s also Texas-Antonio’s raw Marcus Davenport, a likely mid-first-round pick. Or maybe the Packers see Boston College’s Harold Landry as a top-15 player — he led the nation in sacks (16½) two years ago — though his lack of length (6-foot-2⅜) concerns some scouts.

“We will always be a draft-and-develop team as long as we’re here because that’s the lifeblood of how we build our team,” Gutekunst said from the owners meeting Tuesday. “You saw instances last year, New Orleans was one, where (rookies) came in and had an immediate impact for their club. We’ll look to do the same this year. We have a significant amount of picks (six) in the first 138, so we’re going to try to make those count.”

There’s also the possibility of improvement from within, though are we really to believe that Gutekunst and McCarthy are counting on Kyler Fackrell, Reggie Gilbert or Chris Odom to make much of a difference this year?

The final possibility is new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine.

“A lot of it is scheme driven as well,” Gutekunst said. “With Mike Pettine coming in, we’re all kind of excited to see how that changes.”

When McCarthy hired Capers in 2009 and switched the Packers to his 3-4 zone-blitz scheme, they went from 27 sacks the year before to 37 in Capers’ first season and 47 in 2010. Of course, they also drafted Matthews in ’09. He made more of a difference than Capers.

Pettine has been a defensive coordinator or head coach in six NFL seasons. In four years with the Jets, his defense finished 18th, 8th, 18th, and 25th in sacks. In his one season in Buffalo it finished second in sacks, though the Bills led the league the next year without him. In Pettine’s two seasons as head coach in Cleveland (2014 and ’15), the Browns finished 27th and 28th in sacks.

In other words, players matter most. And that goes double in the money games against the top quarterbacks.

The Packers also are probably right that getting Wilkerson out of New Jersey and on a one-year, incentive-heavy deal is his best shot at reviving his career. You don’t want to undersell what difference he might make, because nothing bothers a quarterback more than inside pressure, and Wilkerson could end up being the best of a very good trio of inside rushers.

But the Packers are going to need more than Mo Wilkerson. Just like at cornerback, Gutekunst probably needs to draft a couple of outside rushers and hope for the best.


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