Dougherty: Green Bay Packers' defense depending on top rookies to make immediate impact
Now that training camp is finished, one thing has become abundantly clear: The Green Bay Packers need their top three draft picks to be players, like now.
Not just typical rookies, like recent Packers top draft picks Kenny Clark, Damarious Randall, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Kevin King, who to varying degrees showed potential as rookies but didn’t actually make much of an impact. The Packers need Jaire Alexander, Josh Jackson and Oren Burks to be good enough right off the bat to make the team’s defense better than it has been the last few years.
For years, the Packers have emphasized looking for improvement from within, meaning looking for players from recent drafts to take a big step in Year 2 or 3. That was a big part of the plan for 2018, too.
But, as we’ve reached the end of training camp, no cavalry is on the way. Khalil Mack is on the Chicago Bears.
If you’re looking for internal growth from last year’s rookie class, one player, cornerback King, figures to play a much bigger role in the Packers’ fortunes. He played only 382 snaps last season because of a shoulder injury that eventually ended his season in December. He has uncommon ability for a tall cornerback.
But there weren’t signs in camp that anyone else from the 2017 draft class will help new coordinator Mike Pettine turn around the defense in Year 1.
Second-round pick Josh Jones, who looked so promising in the offseason of his rookie year, had a conspicuously quiet camp following his similarly quiet rookie season. Kentrell Brice has beaten him out for a starting job at safety, and it’s not at all clear whether Jones is the preferred choice over Jermaine Whitehead for the nickel defense when Pettine wants to go small at inside linebacker.
That’s not to say Jones is a lost cause. But if he were going to make a big leap and be a playmaker this season, you have to think we’d have seen signs of it in training camp and preseason games. His play just never jumped off the field.
Montravius Adams, a third-round pick last year, had his rookie season essentially washed out because of a foot injury. The Packers drafted him for his inside pass rush potential, but after a full offseason in their training program he also had a pedestrian camp, especially rushing the passer. He opens the season fifth out of five in the defensive line rotation.
And fourth-round pick Vince Biegel, drafted in the fourth round last year as an outside rusher, was cut Saturday and now is on the New Orleans Saints’ practice squad.
Going back to the 2016 draft, Clark is a player on the rise. He was one of the Packers’ best defensive players by the end of last season and could move up that ladder this year. He’s a really good run defender and figures to be a five- or six-sack guy.
Blake Martinez (fourth round in ’16) will quarterback the defense at inside linebacker, and Dean Lowry (also fourth round in ’16) will be in the defensive line rotation. But both are role players.
As far as talent goes, then, the Packers’ top three picks this year are among the best this team has on that side of the ball. If the Packers are to accomplish big things in 2018, the three will have to do more than just show promise for a year or two down the road. Their internal improvement needs to be now.
Burks could end up being as important as any of them. Before he injured his shoulder a week and a half ago, he showed signs of offering something the Packers haven’t had at inside linebacker in, well, maybe forever, and that’s a must for today’s game: the length, speed and athleticism to cover running backs and tight ends in the middle of the field.
Burks’ shoulder injury in warm-ups in Oakland in Week 3 of the preseason was a big blow because he missed valuable practice and game snaps the final week of camp. NFL.com reported that he’s expected to miss the first game or two, so he apparently won’t be out long.
Coach Mike McCarthy and Pettine have to hope that’s the case. For several years running, teams have killed the Packers throwing over the middle, and Burks is Pettine’s best hope of slowing down that freeway even as a rookie who's bound to get fooled at times.
At cornerback, the Packers need Alexander and Jackson to carry over the playmaking they flashed against backup quarterbacks in preseason games to the real games against starters.
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Alexander is short (5-10) but not small (196 pounds). He has catch-up explosiveness (4.38-second 40) and competes. All signs suggest he’s going to open the season as the slot cornerback in Pettine’s nickel, which basically makes him a starter. Teams are going to attack him, so we’ll find out early just how good he is at this point in his career.
Jackson could end up being the better of the two. He’s not fast (4.56-second 40) but has good size (6-feet-3/8), and early signs are that his instincts playing the ball are as good as advertised. He had two interceptions in the preseason and a third wiped out by a teammate’s penalty.
The Packers need him to at least be their No. 4 cornerback, ahead of Davon House, and if he’s good enough to supplant Alexander, so much the better. As at minimum the No. 4, Jackson would play in some dime packages and be the first guy off the bench when inevitable injuries strike or 35-year-old Tramon Williams needs a few snaps off.
Though it’s rare, New Orleans’ Marcus Lattimore last season proved as the No. 11 pick of the draft what a good rookie cornerback can do for a defense. Asking Alexander or Jackson to be anything close to that is asking a lot, but this is where general manager Brian Gutekunst put his resources in the offseason.
Simply put, if the Packers are going to be better on defense in 2018, it’s going to have to be in large part because Gutekunst’s top three draft picks aren’t normal rookies. The Packers need these guys not just to play, but to be players.