Packers’ rookies will need to win starting spots

GREEN BAY, Wis. — In order for the Green Bay Packers’ defense to put last year’s disappointing season in the past, strong performances will be needed from the team’s top six draft picks.

When the Packers gave up more passing yards than any team in NFL history, there were plenty of areas deserving of blame. There wasn’t a strong pass rush from the outside, there was very little push up front in the middle, the cornerbacks were getting beat and the safeties had communication breakdowns.

Well, general manager Ted Thompson attempted to fix all of those problems in this year’s draft. The Packers used their first six selections on defensive players, and, in a very un-Thompson-like way, the GM traded up three times to get the players he wanted.

These rookies will not have the luxury of being able to learn slowly and develop gradually. Many of them are going to be relied upon heavily to fix Green Bay’s defense.

It all starts with first-round pick Nick Perry. The Clay Matthews who became a sack machine during his second NFL season in 2010 had less than half as many opportunities to strike his celebratory post-sack pose in 2011. Matthews went from 13.5 sacks to six and looked like a much different player.

That is why Perry is so important. Much of Matthews’ ineffectiveness as a pash rusher last season was the result of having to do so much on his own. Erik Walden started at the outside linebacker spot opposite Matthews for the first 15 games, but, in a very uncommon move, coach Mike McCarthy benched Walden in Week 17. For a team that was 14-1 and had locked up the NFL’s best regular-season record, it was telling that McCarthy still felt it necessary to shake things up right before the playoffs.

Perry will need to beat out Walden in training camp for the starting job, and he’ll need to do so in a definitive manner. Frank Zombo and Brad Jones will also be in the conversation, but it needs to be Perry’s job. He has to be the starter in Week 1.

When Perry was selected by the Packers at No. 28, there was some surprise. With Green Bay playing a 3-4 defense under coordinator Dom Capers, Perry’s 6-foot-2, 271-pound frame is considered a bit too big for an outside linebacker in that scheme. Even Perry himself told reporters during the Combine that he preferred to play with his hand on the field as a 4-3 defensive end.

Perry has the athleticism to overcome a move to linebacker, as not many players his size can run a 4.58-second 40-yard dash and have a vertical leap of 38 ½ inches. And that was Capers’ explanation for why he believes Perry can work in his defense. For Matthews’ sake, and for the good of the entire Packers defense, Capers had better be right. Because if Perry is not No. 1 on the depth chart by the time the regular season begins, the defense could be in trouble.

But Perry isn’t alone. The defensive line got a major boost when the Packers traded up in the draft to select Michigan State’s Jerel Worthy at No. 51. Immediately after the pick was made, Capers said that Worthy will be a defensive end with Green Bay.

It was last offseason that the Packers let Cullen Jenkins walk in free agency without making him an offer. Jenkins was coming off a seven-sack season and was a major reason opposing offensive lines couldn’t direct all of their attention toward Matthews.

The idea in the Green Bay front office was that Jenkins was expendable because the team had Mike Neal waiting in the wings. Neal, a second-round pick in 2010, was injured throughout his rookie season but showed the ability in training camp to be a starter in the very near future. Thompson and his staff believed in that strongly, allowed Jenkins to sign with Philadelphia, and moved on.

Unfortunately for the Packers, Neal got hurt again and couldn’t play until late in the season. When he did step on the field, he wasn’t the same, and McCarthy pointed out repeatedly that the expectation of the coaches was that Neal was going to be in training camp mode. However, with Green Bay undefeated at the time and working toward a second consecutive Super Bowl, there wasn’t time to wait for Neal to get his game going.

With Neal suspended for the first four games of the regular season due to a violation of the NFL’s performance-enhancing drug policy, Worthy will need to join Perry as a starter right away.

Worthy weighs 30 pounds less than B.J. Raji and Ryan Pickett, the two defensive linemen he’ll be next to, but his quickness and athleticism should provide for a solid mix up front.

If Worthy is unable to at least be Cullen Jenkins lite, Green Bay’s 2012 defense may look a lot like the 2011 version.

The Packers’ secondary also received a couple upgrades in the draft. First, Thompson traded up — again — to select Vanderbilt cornerback Casey Hayward. In the fourth round, Green Bay added Maine safety Jerron McMillian.

With questions surrounding whether Charles Woodson will return to cornerback or switch to safety full-time, it’s difficult to predict how much Hayward will be expected to contribute immediately. If Woodson is moved to safety, it will likely be because the Packers feel comfortable with Hayward starting at cornerback along with Tramon Williams. Sam Shields struggled in 2011 after a promising rookie season and does not appear ready for anything more than the nickel role he’s previously held. That makes Hayward a very important piece to the defensive puzzle.

Woodson’s potential position swap also affects McMillian. But, with Nick Collins being released due to concerns about his injured neck and future health, McMillian will be given every opportunity win the starting safety spot next to Morgan Burnett. If McMillian can prove that he’s ready to start from Week 1, it will make the Woodson decision far less critical for Capers.

Adding further to their defensive line, the Packers used their other fourth-round compensatory pick on Iowa’s Mike Daniels. An all-out effort player and a team captain in college, Daniels is important to the defense because of how his addition affects Raji. Despite getting his first Pro Bowl nod last season, Raji was not as effective in 2011 as he was in 2010. And that was largely because Raji was on the field for too many plays. Even McCarthy admitted during the season that Raji’s drastically increased snap totals were too high, but, without any good options behind him, there wasn’t much choice.

Having Daniels will at least provide another option. At 291 pounds, he is nowhere near Raji’s size, but one area that usually translates smoothly from college to the pros is effort. Daniels has that. He will need to be good enough that Raji can go back to playing fewer snaps, thus increasing his effectiveness.

Finally, to address every layer of the defense, Thompson drafted inside linebacker Terrell Manning. Out of every defensive player drafted, Manning will be able to have the most gradual transition. Desmond Bishop and A.J. Hawk are the entrenched starters, and last year’s surprising rookie D.J. Smith looks ready for an increased role in his second season. Manning can enter 2012 as fourth on the depth chart at inside linebacker and the Packers’ defense won’t be any worse off for that.

The pressure will be on Perry, Worthy, Hayward, McMillian and Daniels, if not Manning. It was no accident that Green Bay drafted six players on defense. If these rookies struggle, so will the Packers on defense. If even two of them can be immediate difference makers, Aaron Rodgers and the offense won’t need to score 35 points a game to win games.

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