It is Step-Up Time for Packers Defense

The draft-and-develop Green Bay Packers have surely produced as a team. Year-in and year-out they are Super Bowl contenders and this year will be no different. Only the Seattle Seahawks have better betting odds to win it all than the Packers.

Fortunately the Packers boast a potent offense largely responsible for such prolonged success. Looking at the Packers game-changers there are any number that jump out on the offense – Rodgers, Lacy, Nelson, Adams, and Cobb quickly come to mind.

Where would this Packers team be if only the so-so defense (18th in total yards, 19th in scoring), which until last seasons’ mid-year personnel changes was at times putrid, were to play as a top ten unit?

It is not as though General Manager Ted Thompson has ignored the defensive side of the ball. Not only has he invested in many early draft picks, but also signed big-name free agent Julius Peppers to add a key missing piece in order to get this defense over the hump.

Here are the Packers draft picks on defense rounds 1-3 since 2008:

2015 Damarious Randall (1), Quinten Rollins (2)

2014 Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (1), Khyri Thornton (3)

2013 Datone Jones (1)

2012 Nick Perry (1), Jerel Worthy (2), Casey Hayward (3)

2011 (none in first three rounds)

2010 Mike Neal (2), Morgan Burnett (3)

2009 B.J. Raji (1a), Clay Matthews (1b)

2008 Pat Lee (2)

Of the 13 picks, two are no longer with the club (Worthy and Lee), and two have yet to play as recent draftees (Randall and Rollins).

Only four of the remaining nine are starters; Clinton-Dix, Jones, Burnett and Matthews. The level of excellence is never-the-less a mixed bag. Burnett had a down year in 2014 after signing a multi-year contract extension.  Clay Matthews played out of position for much of the year causing his individual effectiveness to suffer. Clinton-Dix was a rookie and played well enough in a starting role and should take a major step forward in year two.

It is step-up time for these remaining players in 2015.

Datone Jones was the nominal starter in 2014 yet he had marginal impact. Given that he was a number one draft choice with little competition in his way to become the starter, it is safe to say that Jones has been a disappointment. Nagging injuries and inconsistent play mark his tenure in Green Bay. It may be too early to label him a bust, but if he doesn’t string together more impressive games that fitting label won’t be far behind.

Casey Hayward after a stellar rookie season has been just okay since. He will be penciled in as a starter in Tramon Williams’ outside cornerback position going into training camp. Much will be expected of him as an every-down outside cover corner even though he has been used primarily inside on nickel formations. Challenging Hayward will be second year holdover Demitri Goodson and rookies Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins. He is at a crossroads in his career. It will be up to Hayward to show that he is every bit the player of 2012 and more.

B.J. Raji had what was assumed to be a breakout year in 2010 on the way to the Packers winning the Super Bowl over the Pittsburgh Steelers. Playing out of position along with various injures have left fans feeling disappointment over the lack of accomplishments of the one time Boston College tackle. Raji will be given every opportunity to regain the luster at his preferred inside NT position to open camp. The pressure begins early-on for Raji to not only start but produce game-in and game-out on his one-year prove-it contract. This is clearly his last shot with the Packers.

Mike Neal has shown flashes of being the player that Packers were so high on in 2009. The problem has been that between nagging injuries and inconsistent play Neal has failed to impress for any length of time. Neal is in the last year of a two-year extension and if his play doesn’t dramatically improve, it would be hard to imagine him returning to the team next year.    If his pre-season performance disappoints – showing that he has reached his ceiling as a player – then it may be time for a young developing player to take his spot.

Nick Perry is an enigma. A physically gifted player there are just not enough notable plays being made by this former first-rounder. The fact that he cannot crack the starting lineup and, that the Packers thought so little of him that they went out and signed an aging Julius Peppers to take what should have been Perry’s starting position, speaks volumes about his importance to the team. He has proven to be a pure power player at a position requiring more finesse and athleticism. Unless he has a breakout year and regains significant playing time, it will be time to anoint him as a ‘bust’.

Khyri Thornton is only a second year player and will given one more chance to show his wares. After a poor training camp in 2014 he was injured and put on season-ending injured reserve. Basically the Packers chose to give him a red-shirt year. There is hope that an off-season of weight training, proper diet and conditioning as well as additional coaching would prove that he is a better player than he has appeared to be.  On a cautionary note here is how respected Packers beat reporter Bob McGinn summed up Thornton at the end of last season: “Not only is Thornton on the short side (6-2½) for base end, he didn’t play hard, get off blocks or show pass rush using power or working an edge. If a year on scholarship can’t amp up his level of aggressiveness, he’ll be gone by late August. ”  Ouch!

The Packers made the investment in defense and now it is up to the coaching staff and the players themselves to step-up in 2015. There is little doubt that the Aaron Rodgers led offense will again be dynamic. With a solid if not spectacular defense this team will have the makings of a Super Bowl Champion.

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Jeff Albrecht grew up just north of Green Bay and was lucky enough to attend some of the Lombardi Era classic games, like the 1962 championship and the Ice Bowl. Jeff went on to play HS football in the Green Bay area and College ball at UW - Stevens Point. Jeff is retired but still does some writing for his local paper. Jeff is a writer with AllGreenBayPackers.com and you can follow him on twitter at @pointerjeff .

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  • Since ’61

    Jeff – your analysis is spot on. The only players on your list that have made an impact are CM3 and Clinton Dix. Randall and Rollins have yet to play a down in the NFL so it will take some time to see what we have with them. As for the rest, they have been inconsistent and disappointing which pretty much sums up the Packers defense since the 2010 SB win. I have repeatedly posted that I do not have much confidence in the defense in a big spot in a big game and this was proven to be fatally accurate during their collapse in Seattle. Your article title indicates that it is time for the defense to step up in 2015, this has been true since 2011. TT has been an excellent GM in managing the cap and building the best offensive unit in the league but his defensive selections, especially the front 7 have not worked out. As a result we have a legitimate shot at the Super Bowl every season, but when the defense comes up against strong offense units during the playoffs they fail to make stops during critical points in the games. Against SF in 2012 and 2013 and of course the afore mentioned Seattle collapse. Our defense needs to tackle better overall, needs to stop the run, needs a nastier take no prisoners attitude and an on field leader, ala Nitschke, R. White, Collins or Woodson. And that’s not including better ILBs and DLs. I realize it’s difficult to have it all with the salary cap but I also realize that we have been having this conversation for about 4 years. As usual my expectations will be that this is the year it will change for the defense. We’ll see. Go Pack Go! Thanks, Since ’61

    • Tundraboy

      Hope this is the year,many step up on D. Win or lose I want to see that attitude and effort and results. . For you, Me and all of us. Patience takes us only so far

      • Since ’61

        Tundraboy – I agree completely with your comments. The thing is that in today’s NFL there really is no dominating defense like the 60s Packers or the 70s Steelers or 80s Bears and with our offense we don’t need one, although it would be great to have one. We just need a defense that can play consistently and rank in the top third or so of the league. If we had a 9th or 10th ranked defense we would be fine and that level of defense would provide enough support to get us another SB victory or 2. I believe our defense is one dominating DL and one solid hitting ILB away from being very good and in that top third of the league, assuming they stay healthy. We’ll see. Thanks, Since ’61

        • Tundraboy

          All true and I am very optimistic. Aside from the NFC game they have more talent just from last year’s rookies etc. I just want to see more snarl Not much!? . I am particularly focused on Hubbard, Elliot, Malumba. I think they are going press Perry, Neal a lot especially when Matthew’s in the middle. See lots of havoc caused .So ILB has to be OK. Only need health and Bradford to show some speed and hitting. But most of all Hubbard stood out big time the only time I saw him, Forgot which Preseason game, but man I was impressed. Saw toughness, elite skill and an attitude, just what we needed and still need, of course gets injured minutes later. I heard he has an ego. So what. Plus I am very impressed looking back on it even more now. No Worthy here. It Not a peep about him or from him to the point I was getting worried. Instead without making it a big deal he does what few players do. Not only rehabbed but did exactly what he had to do, did it in Green Bay no less. Nice to see. Will definitely be an exciting camp Go PackGOOOOOO

  • Savage57

    Of all the players listed that have fallen short of expectations and production relative to draft position, I see Nick Perry and Raji as the ones closest to finding redemption. Perry’s shown some eye-opening playmaking ability and with the idea of keeping CMIII in a Monster role, Perry’s the natural fit, more so than Neal, to play swing and supplant him of his side of the field as he moves around. Raji going back to nose will allow him to play bigger in a smaller area and de-emphasize his feet in deference to his strength. I suspect Packer fans will see more Gilbert Brown and Grady Jackson-like play from him this year than the Albert Haynesworth-ish play of the last few season.

    Dat One hasn’t shown anything and I fear he never will. Just a swing and a miss by Ted. They all have ’em.

    Hayward’s task is to prove his identity. Game-changing, ball-hawking instinctive player with a natural nose for the ball, or a role player who had outlying performance as a rookie and is just as prone to getting injured or burnt as he is to make a play? In either case, prove it.

    • dobber

      I would argue that a part of the reason why the run D improved when CMIII moved inside was not just that there was a better, higher-motor athlete/player in the middle, but that Perry–who is more disciplined (read: slower) and better at setting the edge–saw more snaps.

      I think you hit it on the head: if there are two players on this list that must stay healthy and be productive in 2015 for this defense to move forward, I would pick Raji and Hayward.

      I think Datone (besides being prone to getting nicked up) is mis-cast as a 3-4 DE, just as Perry is as a 3-4 OLB. Both may go on to have better luck playing end (or even DT for Jones) on an even front somewhere else.

      • Pretty much agree. Shields is the only proven outside CB. Someone has to step up there, and it sure would be nice to have a 3rd outside CB. Hayward would be fine, but the best scenario is if Goodson/Rollins/Randall/Hyde can play outside and Hayward can play zone, and slot where he has proven to excel. Need an NT to step up, Raji or Pennel, so most likely Raji, who is loaded with talent. Otherwise, CM3, Daniels, arguably Peppers, also need to be healthy, at least for the playoff run. I have suggested that Perry might not be all that unhappy about having his option declined – so he can move to a 4-3 DE spot with another team.

  • Big T

    So is it safe to say that TT can’t find his azz with both hands when it comes to drafting defensive players? Even the TT cornhole lovers would have to admit this…

  • Taryn Miller

    When I read articles about the play,ills or expectations of the Packer defense,I feel as though it’s the opening statement of a TV crime show,”The names and places being changed to protect the innocent and any similarities to real events are coincidental.”

    Thus,we get the weekly what if’s,if only’s,wait and see,he looks good for it,maybe we’re looking in the wrong direction,can you connect him to the crime,why did you do that,why didn’t you do this and then comes the lawyer(s) who demand all the evidence against the accused is mere speculation.

    Hopefully,this seasons series will offer better twists in the weekly outcome to erase any sense of watching reruns of past even if they aren’t. 🙂

    • dobber

      A post where Taryn makes no mention of Nick Perry?

      • Taryn Miller

        His ‘End is Near’ in Green Bay and I will refrain so others can enjoy what little he will offer for false boast. 🙂

        • Tundraboy

          Hubbard, Elliot. Goodbye Nick?

  • I’d like to a “meh” label to rate draft picks. For example: Home run, good, Meh (or so-so/not terrible) and bust. Neal, Perry, Datone aren’t terrible, just limited in what they can do. Jerel Worthy is the only real bust. I’m a Raji hater. CM3 is the only home run. Ha-Ha looks good. Burnett and Hayward are ? Meh + or Good minus, IMO. 1 HR; 2 Good 1 Bust, rest meh.
    4/5th Rd: ’14: Bradford/None, ’13: None/Hyde, Boyd, ’12: Daniels, McMillian/ Manning; ’11: House/None; ’10: none/none; ’09: none/none; ’08: Jeremy Thompson/none. The 4th + 5th rounds add a home run in Daniels. Hyde looks like he might prove he belongs in the good column. Boyd is okay, meh. House was a tease so meh. McMillian, Manning, Thompson IIRC were busts. 8 players: 1 HR, 1 good; 2 mehs; 3 busts, 1 TBD.

    The 6th and 7th rounds added Barrington (good so far), C.J. Wilson and Jarius Wynn (meh – they played); and Brad Jones (meh+ in my book – he started as a 7th rd. pick), Nate Palmer and Goodson (TBD). Busts include D.J. Smith, Elmore, Guy, and Underwood. Too many UDFAs and waiver pick ups, but one has to note Shields and Tramon.

    31 defensive draft picks. 2 home runs (+ Shields and Tramon), 2-3 good picks, 7 busts and a bunch of mehs. I counted 32 offensive players drafted. I suggest that TT has 8 home runs: 2 WRs, 3 OL, 1 TE, 1 QB, 1 RB were home runs. Probably 4 or 5 more were good. 4 are TBD. 3 could not crack GB’s lineup but became decent or good later (see Charles Johnson, Giacomini, Quin Johnson). A couple looked decent/good but had injuries.

    For whatever reason, TT does well drafting offense, especially WR, OL, RB and good at TE, (despite Rodgers, QB is a mixed bag). On defense, TT looks good really only at CB, so-so at Safety. Lots of def. linemen and LBs, very mixed results.

    TT had 8 home runs in 32 offensive picks. If TT had picked 5 or 6 home runs on defensive, GB would have a great defense.

    [These comments are just IMO and IIRC. There’s lots of room to quibble about my evaluations of individual players, without a doubt. The point is just the last two sentences above, though.]

    • dobber

      While the buck stops at TTs door in terms of drafting players (and I’m not trying to really deflect from him on this front), the question needing to be asked is: what scouts have his ear when it comes to assessing defensive players?

      • And I have wondered about the coaching too, mostly at LB, DL and safety, but that’s all I can do, wonder. Seems like some talent has flowed in at LB and DL, and to a lesser extent, at S, with little to show for it.

    • Tundraboy

      Too many mehs

      • “And there are simply too many notes, that’s all. Just cut a few and it will be perfect.” Emperor Joseph II to Mozart.

        Actually not sure if you think TT drafted too many mehs or if I mis-classified too many players as mehs. I can do nothing about the former. If the latter, just mentally re-classify each player and see if it affects the basic premise.

        • Tundraboy

          No I agree with view. Just too many mehs not enough, hmm, nice picks!

  • Rossonero

    The fatal error TT made with Thornton is the question marks around Thornton’s level of effort. Although he has short arms (32.5″) and small hands (9.5″), he has the strength and power to be successful. Nevertheless, TT usually goes for guys with terrific work ethics. I don’t know if Thornton has stepped it up this season work ethic-wise, but I would not be surprised if he gets cut. He was projected as a 5-6th rounder. I hope for the defense’s sake he steps up this year and stays healthy.

    • Mike Sherman

      I though TT saw something in Thorton that no one else did when he took him in the 3rd. Was hoping that he would flash more so we at lease know he has potential. Complete unknown and I think he might even be a bit of a long-shot to make the roster this year. There will be tough cuts, and that was before we drafted Ringo

  • Rossonero

    I wonder if losing front office talent has hurt the Packers ability to draft on defense? John Schneider left in 2010, Reggie Mckenzie left in Jan. 2012 and John Dorsey left in Jan. 2013. I still have confidence in our front office, but the truth is, we’ve lost a lot of talented executives.

    My hope is Schneider would be GM once TT retires.

    • I agree with the 1st paragraph completely. I can’t tell where Schneider ends and Carroll starts in Seattle. Still, I’d consider Schneider for GB’s GM position when the time comes.

    • Since ’61

      Rossonero – good points. The loss of front office talent is definitely a contributing factor. Look at the defensive players Schneider has drafted for Seattle. Now of course we do have to factor in that Seattle has usually had earlier round picks than the Packers at least up to 2-3 seasons ago. Thanks, Since ’61

  • TedTomsin

    Kind of shocked to see all the TT bashing about his defense especially considering GB technically was the best team in the NFL last year. Shocked and disappointed with a lot of you. I feel like the Indian in that 70’s commercial with the tear in his eye as he over looks all the pollution.

    • Since ’61

      Ted – It’s not TT bashing but just a statement of the obvious, which is that the caliber of our defensive players and the quality of our defensive play is not as good as our offense. In fairness to TT drafting in the later rounds has not helped but it’s pretty clear that he has done a better job of building the offense than the defense. And I’m fine with that since the rules favor the offense in this era of the NFL. So strategically, TT is doing fine. However, he has not received a satisfactory return for his investment from most of his defensive draft picks. As I mentioned in my earlier post if one or two of his DL picks worked out and/or one or two of his ILB picks worked out our defense would be a lot more solid up the middle against the run. Our defense needs to reach the point where they make stops to protect a lead, especially late in the game. In this offense friendly era of the NFL it’s when the defense makes stops that matters. Thanks, Since ’61

    • Really, Ted. If TT ever sheds some tears, they would be crocodile tears after the legend that crocodiles weep while they eat their victims. I kinda like that, actually. Some of us think TT is only really good, not god-like. Here’s a quote that might appeal to you: “Liberals claim to want to give a hearing to other views, but then are shocked and offended to discover that there ARE other views.” William F. Buckley.

      • TedTomsin

        Liberals? Liberals? You are barking up the wrong tree Reynoldo. I am the direct opposite. I listen to Rush daily. What do you think about that?
        Ted

        • Not surprised at all. I’ve read all your posts. In fact, that is why I used a quote from William F. Buckley about folks who are shocked, “Shocked, I say,” that there even are other views. I didn’t want to inject politics into the thread: I meant to be strike a blow below the belt using an unimpeachable conservative icon against you. And you should know my leanings, as evidenced by my ability to remember Buckley’s quote. (I did google it to ensure accuracy.)

          BTW, regarding draft pick on offense, I think 8 home runs out of 32 picks is stellar, especially given that TT used a 1st round pick are only one of his home runs.

        • You edited your post, and I responded above prior to the edit. Samson is not Stroh. I’ve been around long enough to know Stroh, too. Stroh actually has considerable football acumen, he just is incredibly opinionated and argumentative. I might not agree with Stroh sometimes, but I always read his posts and closely considered the substance of them. I don’t do that for Samson.

          Fact is, I believe I got you with the Buckley quote. [Strangely, I remembered the quote but thought it was George Will. It took some time to track it down.] So, don’t be Stroh and deny it against all reason, just acknowledge the hit and move on!

  • Archie

    This is blasphemy! TedTomsin told me any pick that the real TedThompson makes is great because well, TedTomsin says it’s so. Who are we to question the great TedTomsin or is it the great TedThompson. Now I’m confused. All I know is what TT tells me i.e., all Packer draft picks, UDFA and FA acquisitions are great!

    • TedTomsin

      The great TedTomsin? I’m starting to like you Archie.
      Ted

      • I’m waiting. Just acknowledge that I got you with the Buckley quote!

        • TedTomsin

          You didn’t get me with anything Reynoldo. Move on.
          Sincerely,
          Stroh

    • NemoOutis

      Yea, and wasn’t it just great, Ted Tomsin, that TT didn’t pick Malcom Brown in the 1st round and Paul Dawson in the 3rd and Michael Bennett in the 5th. And who will take the fall when the Seahawks run through us like a knife through hot butter again? Time to fall on your sword, Dom Capers.

  • Peter Maiz

    I don’t see much hope for Thornton also, but I just have no clue why TT should have chosen him in the 3rd round? To me it’s an enigma.

  • Dan Stodola

    “Clay Matthews played out of position for much of the year causing his individual effectiveness to suffer.”
    You can not be serious? Matthews effectiveness as well as the Defense as a whole went thru the roof when Matthews started playing snaps at ILB. He had 2.5 sacks prior to the mid season break when it was initiated. Afterwards he had 8.5 sacks in the remaining 8 games. Before the switch Matthews had 19 combined tackles according to NFL and 42 combined tackles after.
    I don’t know how you judge his individual effectiveness but by any means that is an astonishing difference. It has been reported that he only really played 28% of downs after the switch at ILB the other 72% of snaps I presume having been at OLB.
    I don’t see any reason to change that amount of timeshare for Matthews since it was exceedingly effective, not just for Matthews but the Defense as a whole.
    The Packers have a fairly young defense except for a couple players (Matthews, Raji, Peppers, Burnett) w/ more than a few that the Packers need to step up. It’ll be good to see Raji back at NT, hopefully regaining his former form at that position. Datone needs to step up and own the LDE job, Perry and/or Neal have to prove themselves more than capable OLB. Clinton-Dix needs to continue to develop.
    No doubt the Packers need an ILB to become a starter opposite Barrington, but even so it still makes a lot of sense to continue to use Matthews at ILB similar to last year. The change in the Defense was too dramatic not to.