Packers pass on pass-rushing needs
Tom Oates The Wisconsin State Journal GREEN BAY -- One pick at a time, the Green Bay Packers checked off their needs during the three-day NFL draft. Two first-round caliber cornerbacks for their beaten-down defense. An inside linebacker who might...
The Wisconsin State Journal
GREEN BAY - One pick at a time, the Green Bay Packers checked off their needs during the three-day NFL draft. Two first-round caliber cornerbacks for their beaten-down defense. An inside linebacker who might actually be able to cover tight ends and running backs. Three big, fast wide receivers to stretch the field in Jordy Nelson’s absence. Another college tackle who will slide over to guard in the NFL. They even took a punter and, believe it or not, a long-snapper.
When the proceedings were over, general manager Brian Gutekunst’s first draft class was notable for how many bases it covered. And one very big one that it didn’t.
Indeed, there wasn’t a single edge rusher on the list who will provide immediate help for a defense that needs all the pass rush it can get.
Cornerbacks Jaire Alexander of Louisville and Josh Jackson of Iowa seem destined for major roles early and Oren Burks of Vanderbilt looks like a potential nickel linebacker as a rookie. But there were no major additions for a tepid pass rush that was a significant part of the problem for a pass defense that collapsed the past two seasons.
Gutekunst didn’t draft an edge rusher until the Packers’ 11th and final pick in the draft, late in the seventh round. By then, the best he could do was Southeast Missouri State outside linebacker Kendall Donnerson, an athletic freak from a small school who needs considerable development before he sees the field.
All in all, Gutekunst did a rock-solid job in his first draft. For one thing, the lead chair wasn’t too big for him as he traded up and down, stayed true to his draft board and even came up with an extra first-round pick in 2019. For another thing, he added to the competition at positions of critical need such as cornerback and wide receiver.
But a team can’t fill every hole on its roster in one draft and Gutekunst, to his credit, didn’t try. Still, after bypassing a thin group of edge rushers in the draft, he left the Packers with the same group of outside pass rushers they had last year.
“I wouldn’t use the term bypass,” Gutekunst said. “We tried to let the board come to us like we always do. If it’s not there, it’s not there. And the value of the players that we picked were just higher valued players than the pass rushers that were on the board.”
Gutekunst wasn’t just blowing draft-day smoke there. Only two edge pass rushers - North Carolina State’s Bradley Chubb at No. 5 and Texas-San Antonio’s Marcus Davenport at No. 14 - were taken in the top 40 picks. That’s a stunningly low number in a league in which a pass rush off the edge is as good as gold.
Though Chubb was out of reach, the Packers could have taken Davenport before trading out of the 14th pick. They didn’t, presumably because he’s a small-school project who isn’t the pass-rushing lock that Chubb is. They also could have used a middle-round pick to take one of many edge rushers with unrealized potential, but, again, the Packers had too many holes elsewhere to take major risks at outside linebacker.
Besides, the cornerback position needed help more than outside linebacker and by adding Alexander and Jackson to last year’s second-round pick, Kevin King, the Packers might have finally found the cover corners they need to give first-year defensive coordinator Mike Pettine much-needed options in designing quarterback pressures. Burks, a former safety with excellent speed, could help if he can cover receivers in the middle of the field, a shortcoming that has plagued Green Bay for years. Finally, the earlier addition of free agent Muhammad Wilkerson could help the Packers improve their inside pass rush.
At the very least, the Packers will have Clay Matthews and Nick Perry returning at outside linebacker. Though Matthews isn’t the dynamic outside pass rusher he once was and the injury-prone Perry misses too many games, they remain above-average players when healthy. The worst part is the failure to land an edge rusher may force the Packers to scuttle their plan to move Matthews around more, which would keep offenses guessing.
Meanwhile, third-year man Kyler Fackrell and second-year players Vince Biegel and Reggie Gilbert all have some degree of promise - especially Biegel - but they are unproven. That has left the Packers’ pass-rush corps dangerously thin as offseason workouts begin.
“I think it’s something you always try to address,” Gutekunst said. “Roster building is a 365-day-a-year job, so that’s something we’ll continue to focus on. We would have loved to have some guys fall to us in a different manner. I don’t think it was a particularly great edge-rusher draft. It just didn’t happen that way and we just didn’t think it was the best thing just to go ahead and reach for a position if we didn’t think the player was of that value.”
Coach Mike McCarthy didn’t appear worried. He pointed to his long-held philosophy that the biggest gains come from within, especially with young players such as Fackrell, Biegel and Gilbert.
“The reality is we drafted 11 players,” McCarthy said. “Player acquisition is still going on as we speak and it will continue all the way up to training camp. So I get it. Pass rush is something that we want to add more competition to and hopefully that will be answered as we move forward.”
When it comes to a pass rush, the Packers need to do more than hope.
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