The day was April 25, the Saturday of the 2009 NFL draft, and Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson had a franchise-altering decision staring him in the face.
As he sat in the Packers’ war room, having already acquired nose tackle B.J. Raji from Boston College with the ninth overall pick, there was a name he couldn’t shake and a need he knew he needed to fill.
The name was Clay Matthews, and the need was 3-4 outside linebacker.
Matthews, a wavy-haired overachiever with Hall of Fame bloodlines, remained available as the first round came to a close. A walk-on at USC who didn’t play full-time until his senior year, Matthews was an ideal pass rushing outside linebacker for his new defense. And Thompson knew that if there were two positions most important to making the Packers’ new 3-4 defense under defensive coordinator Dom Capers work, it was nose tackle and outside linebacker. Raji was the answer inside, Matthews could be the same on the edge.
In his hand was a weapon he rarely held, and uncharacteristically, Thompson pulled the trigger.
A man notorious for trading back in the draft to stockpile picks, Thompson sent a second and two third-round picks to the New England Patriots for the No. 26 pick in the first round and a later fifth rounder.
Shortly after, Roger Goodell announced Matthews as the Packers’ pick, and the rest, as they say, was history. Matthews turned into a superstar, registering back-to-back 10-sack seasons while helping lead the Packers to a Super Bowl win over the Pittsburgh Steelers just less than 22 months later. Along with sticking with Aaron Rodgers at quarterback, Thompson’s decision to move up and get Matthews remains a defining moment in his building of a championship puzzle.
Fastforward to this April, and you could argue Thompson is in a similar state of need that he found himself in 2009.
Just a year after reaching the NFL’s peak, Thompson’s defense shattered in 2011. Better yet, it collapsed after under the weight of Thompson’s failure to find a starting-quality outside linebacker opposite Clay Matthews and his decision not to re-sign highly productive but aging defensive end Cullen Jenkins, who bolted to the Philadelphia Eagles but was entirely open to returning to the Packers. Green Bay won 15 games during the regular season despite giving up more passing yards than any other team in NFL history, then threw away their opportunity to repeat as Super Bowl champions with an undisciplined effort on both sides of the football.
Throughout the season, one central deficiency on defense was painfully obvious. Armchair GMs put it at the top of the needs list almost immediately. Casual fans didn’t even need experts to help them identify the problem.
The Packers pass rush simply wasn’t good enough.
Matthews was consistently double- and triple-teamed without the threat of a pass rush on the right side. Pressure from outside linebackers Erik Walden, Brad Jones and Frank Zombo was few and far between. C.J. Wilson, Jarius Wynn and Mike Neal each did disastrous impressions of Jenkins at defensive end. In the end, it was too much for the Packers defense to endure.
Just a day after the Packers’ 37-20 loss to the Giants, linebacker Desmond Bishop painted a pretty clear picture about the lack of pass rush.
“It’s been evident pretty much all season. Pressure on the quarterback is probably the biggest stat that’s not written down, but is up there with turnovers on reasons for winning and losing. You can tell whenever you can rush four and get to the quarterback, and drop seven, you’re going to win the game for the most part.”
With such an obvious need to acquire an impact player or two on defense, denying that Thompson has to address it this offseason is no longer in question. There should be no more glossing over the problem with street free agents and guys that go over 260 picks in the draft without hearing their name called.
Looking for “hidden gems” is perfectly fine, especially considering how proficient Thompson has been in that regard as Packers GM. But it is now past due for the Packers to take a front seven player this April.
This reality begs the question: Could the 2012 NFL draft represent another opportunity for Thompson to move around or back into the first round?
While Thompson will likely be content picking the best player available at No. 28, he did show in 2009 that he is willing to make a big move up to get a player he desperately needs. And at this point, the Packers’ pass rush from both the aforementioned positions is bordering on desperation.
It’s mid-February, so we have almost zero idea of how the draft will shape up. Heck, there’s very little that’s certain deep into April. But if there’s a pass rusher that Thompson identifies during the next two months that he thinks his defense needs, and the draft board allows it, I wouldn’t put it past him to move up and get that player.
Also, don’t rule out Thompson doing what he did in 2009: Drafting where he currently sits in the first round but moving back into the first with his second pick. He could also move up in the second round from the 60th overall selection to get another pass rusher.
More than likely, Thompson and the Packers will have the necessary draft capital to make such a move.
Thompson should receive a number of decent compensatory picks for Jenkins, Daryn Colledge, Jason Spitz and Brandon Jackson, so trading a few middle picks (not including the comp picks, which can’t be traded) wouldn’t be as damaging to Thompson’s strategy of holding as many draft choices as possible. Back in 2009, the Packers held nine total picks heading into the draft. This April, Thompson should have a similar number.
It might take a move up from 28 to find a starting pass rusher, too. The NFL is a copy-cat league, and the Giants showed down the stretch that you can never have enough pass rushers. Now that New York has emphasized the “blueprint” for stopping the NFL’s pass-crazy offenses, you could see a run on the top pass rushers early in the first round before the Packers get a chance to pick at No. 28. Courtney Upshaw (Alabama), Melvin Ingram (South Carolina) and Nick Perry (USC), just to name a few, may require a trade up to acquire.
Of course, without having a clue what Thompson’s draft board looks like now, the possibility of such a move or moves happening are still remote. Thompson’s draft history suggests that trading up is and should be a long shot. His strategy of stockpiling picks gives the Packers the best shot at hitting on a core player.
But he has made exceptions in the past under similar circumstances, and if there were ever a time when he might be willing to make another, it could be this April. The Clay Matthews of the world don’t always fall into your lap. Sometimes, you have to force your way to the player or players you want. Thompson might just have his finger on that trigger again.
Will he pull it?
If he does, Thompson can only hope his aim is as true as it was back in April of ’09.——————
Zach Kruse is a 23-year-old sports journalist with a passion for the Green Bay Packers. He currently lives in Wisconsin and is working on his journalism degree, while also covering prep sports for The Dunn Co. News.
You can read more of Zach's Packers articles on AllGreenBayPackers.com.Follow @zachkruse2