As Ron Wolf might say, Ted Thompson has never had an inside linebacker as “the girl with the curl”. Personally, I would have liked to see the Packers select Eric Kendricks with their first round pick a couple weeks ago. Outside of that, I wouldn’t have minded seeing them pick Denzel Perryman or Stephone Anthony. Of course, my BPU must have been very different from general manager Ted Thompson’s BPA board because by the end of the draft, all of the inside linebacker prospects minus Jake Ryan were part of other teams.
While I do believe Thompson does follow the best player available philosophy when it comes to drafting, the fact that the Packers had 4 inside linebackers last year and lost 3 of them during free agency almost seemed to supersede best player available. Sure “you don’t know what you’ll need in the future” but you definitely do know what you’ll need in the future by only having one true inside linebacker when there are two spots on the field is if anything a purely mathematical problem. So why so little love for the inside linebacker position?
- Inside linebacker is the “guard” on defense: Thompson has been famously known to favor drafting offensive tackles (preferably left tackles) and converting them to guard in the pros if needed, with the idea that college teams typically put their most athletic and most proficient linemen on the left and by drafting them Thompson in a sense could double dip and move them to guard if they couldn’t handle tackle. In fact, outside of Corey Linsley, Thompson hasn’t drafted a true interior lineman in the last couple years. Thompson has started following this pattern at inside linebacker as well, with the Packers trying to double dip with Carl Bradford and Nate Palmer transitioning from the inside to the outside. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Nick Perry or Jayrone Elliot take some stabs at inside linebacker as the preseason rolls on as the team tries to find more value at the position. Even Clay Matthews, who happens to be one of the best outside linebackers in the NFL will likely spend a lot of time on the inside because he happens to play inside linebacker quite well. Simply put, Thompson likely feels like drafting inside linebackers is a low priority since he can just convert an outside linebacker to inside linebacker; keep in mind of the 4 players who played significant snaps at inside linebacker, two were college defensive ends (Matthews and Jones) one was a 4-3 outside linebacker (Hawk) and only one (Barrington) actually had experienced playing inside linebacker in college.
- Inside linebacker is just not that important of a position: We all know there is a pecking order when it comes to NFL positions. You have the quarterback at the top, a large gap, the rest of the team, another large gap and then the kicker and punter. For Ted Thompson, when it comes to acquiring talent, you might as well add guard and inside linebacker with the kickers and punters. From a schematic point I do see where he’s coming from; in the modern era of passing the football and the shift towards the spread offense, more and more defenses are playing a large proportion of the time in sub packages like the nickel and dime defenses. Naturally, when you add more defensive backs you have to subtract from somewhere else and usually the first to go with the Packers is nose tackle (another position Thompson seems to not value all that much) and inside linebacker. Just like nickel corner is essentially a starter in the league now, inside linebacker is essentially a part-time role for the Packers as a result; famously AJ Hawk didn’t see a snap in the opening game of 2010 against the Philadelphia because the Packers played the entire game in the nickel. It’s almost as if the inside linebacker and flip flopped with the nickel cornerback in terms of importance; as the game move more to the pass, nickel cornerbacks gained in importance directly inverse to the importance of inside linebackers.
- Ted Thompson just doesn’t draft inside linebackers high: Ted Thompson has never really put much focus on drafting inside linebackers. For instance, of the true inside linebackers that Thompson has drafted, Sam Barrington was a 7th rounder, Terrell Manning was a 5th rounder, DJ Smith was a 6th rounder and Desmond Bishop was a 6th. If anything, taking Jake Ryan in the 4th signals perhaps a shift from the norm, maybe indicating that Thompson put a little bit more value into the position for this draft than normal. Even in undrafted free agency, Ted Thompson doesn’t appear to put much emphasis on getting linebackers; the Packers just announced signing 17 undrafted rookie free agents after the draft and surprisingly the Packers have signed 5 wide receivers for an already loaded position without the addition of 3rd pick Ty Montgomery, but only 3 linebackers, which is a position that could definitely see the most influx of new talent.
In the end, I think we’re all just going to have to accept that Thompson just doesn’t view inside linebacker as all that important and I have to admit the more I think about it, I have to agree with him. Inside linebacker just isn’t all that important in a 3-4 defense and with more and more spread concepts taking hold in the league, more and more 3-4 inside linebackers will be sitting on the benches in favor of an extra defensive back. Add to that the fact that the inside linebackers best skill appears to be making sure everyone is on the same page and in the right place (see AJ Hawk) and it doesn’t take a spectacular physical marvel to man the position. I find the situation a little bit akin to center; for years after Scott Well’s departure, Packers fans were clamoring for Thompson to draft a center but the Packers made do with Evan Dietrich-Smith and Jeff Saturday until Thompson was able to find value by drafting Corey Linsley in the 5th round and hopefully Thompson can pull it off one more time with Jake Ryan.——————
Thomas Hobbes is a staff writer for Jersey Al’s AllGreenBayPackers.com.