Packers need a pass rusher opposite Matthews

Today is the 10th day of two weeks of Green Bay Packers coverage leading up to the April 26 beginning of the NFL draft.

April 12: Five best first-rounders in the past 25 years
April 13: Five worst first-rounders in the past 25 years
April 14: Quarterbacks position preview
April 15: Running backs/fullbacks position preview
April 16: Offensive tackles position preview
April 17: Guards/centers position preview
April 18: Tight ends position preview
April 19: Wide receivers position preview
April 20: Defensive linemen position preview
Today: Linebackers position preview
April 22: Cornerbacks position preview
April 23: Safeties position preview
April 24: Ted Thompson’s draft strategy
April 25: Forecasting the first-round pick

TODAY’S POSITION: LINEBACKERS

Importance (1-to-10 scale): 8

On the roster

Any mention of the Packers’ linebackers has to begin with Clay Matthews. Matthews’ pass-rush skills during the 2010 season were a driving force behind Green Bay’s top-tier defense on its way to a Super Bowl victory. After nearly winning the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year award that season, Matthews took a step back — at least statistically in the sacks column — in 2011. Much of the drop-off was due to the additional attention he received from opposing offensive linemen. It didn’t help that Matthews — who works off the edge of the Packers’ 3-4 defense — had no other pass-rush help, which is what makes finding some such a critical need for the Packers in this year’s draft.

Inside linebacker Desmond Bishop really came on in 2011. After waiting behind Nick Barnett for several seasons, the former sixth-round pick was leading the entire NFL in tackles prior to suffering a late-season injury. At only 27 years old, Bishop should have several more productive seasons at inside linebacker.

The value of A.J. Hawk is always an interesting debate. The Packers’ first-round pick (fifth overall) in 2006 has clearly not lived up to the expectations of being drafted that high, but he can be affective at times. At this point in his career, Hawk probably is what he is. It would be unrealistic to think he’s suddenly going to become a Pro Bowl performer. But, next to Bishop on the inside, Hawk will need to pick up the pace to keep D.J. Smith from taking his starting spot.

Smith was one of the most surprising rookies last season. After getting an opportunity to play late in the year, Smith was very impressive. He definitely showed coach Mike McCarthy and defensive coordinator Dom Capers that Green Bay has depth at inside linebacker.

Rounding out the linebackers are Frank Zombo, Robert Francois, Brad Jones, Vic So’oto and Jamari Lattimore. Erik Walden, a free agent, likely will not return. Jones, after barely playing all season, was suddenly the starting outside linebacker late in the year and performed OK. But good defensive teams don’t put a seldom-used player in as a starter at the most pivotal moment of the season, which is a signal of how desperate the coaches were to find someone to step up.

In order to take pressure off Matthews and get the Packers’ defense back to where it was two seasons ago, general manager Ted Thompson will have to address the outside linebacker position high in the draft.

Last five linebackers drafted

2011–D.J. Smith, Appalachian State: sixth round (186th overall)–still with the Packers
2011–Ricky Elmore, Arizona: sixth round (197th overall)–still with the Packers
2009–Clay Matthews, USC: first round (26th overall)–still with the Packers
2009–Brad Jones, Colorado: seventh round (218th overall)–still with the Packers
2007–Desmond Bishop, California: sixth round (192nd overall)–still with the Packers

Philosophy at the position

In Thompson’s seven drafts as Packers GM, he has used two first-round picks on linebackers. The first was Hawk in 2006 — which has not worked out well, considering how high up the pick was — and three years later he took Matthews, who has been everything Thompson could have possibly hoped for when the Packers traded up to get him.

Other than that, Thompson has waited until the later rounds to find talent. Smith seems to be on the path to something special despite his lack of height.

But in order to cure what ailed the Packers’ defense last season, Thompson will have to replace the Zombo/Walden/Jones trio that struggled opposite Matthews. It’s the outside linebacker position that is clearly the team’s biggest need going into the draft.

Day 1 name to remember (Round 1)

Shea McClellin, senior, Boise State (6-3, 260). McClellin has been one of the hottest names in the draft in recent weeks. Then, when his draft stock couldn’t get any hotter, a report surfaced on NFL Network that McClellin suffered three concussions in college. Given all the safety protocol in the league nowadays, this can be a major red flag. However, if it doesn’t scare Green Bay off, McClellin is one of the three most important names for Packers fans to know in the first round of the draft. As noted in the defensive line preview, defensive end / outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw will almost certainly be the pick at No. 28 if he’s available, but if Upshaw is gone, look for McClellin here (assuming the concussions aren’t seen as too much of a lingering issue).

Day 2 name to remember (Rounds 2-3)

Ronnell Lewis, senior, Oklahoma 6-2, 253). Odds are that the Packers will select a player in the first round whom they hope will step in as their starting outside linebacker immediately opposite Matthews. However, if Day 1 of the draft passes and Green Bay was unable to land the outside linebacker it wanted, Lewis will be the name to look for with the Packers’ No. 58 pick. It is possible Lewis could already be gone by 58, but if he’s not, he would be a solid value choice. Lewis would be a relatively high-risk, high-reward type of selection. He has battled several injuries in college, including to both knees, his back and his neck. But, if Thompson wants to roll the dice, Lewis has a great combination of speed, size and tackling ability.

Day 3 name to remember (Rounds 4-7)

Jonathan Massaquoi, senior, Troy (6-2, 264). If Massaquoi is available when the Packers are up late in the fourth round, he’s a name to watch. He was a defensive end in college who projects as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense like Green Bay runs under Capers. The biggest downside to Massaquoi is that he’s 24 years old already, which is a factor that will keep him from being drafted as high as his talent suggests he should be. He’s a well-rounded player whose best attribute is his pass-rushing ability.

FOXSports.com draft expert Taylor Jones says:

“If Upshaw is gone, then Shea McClellin is Green Bay’s next-best option as an outside linebacker for the 3-4 defense.

“Otherwise, Andre Branch would likely be an outside linebacker in a 3-4. Branch played defensive end at Clemson, but he’s a pass rusher who’s a bit of a liability at the point of attack. He plays physical, but is more of a speed-rush type of guy than a spin move type of guy. Branch needs more explosiveness and doesn’t play with the best angles.”

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