When the Packers transitioned to the 3-4 defense during the 2009 off-season, it instantly increased the importance of the outside linebacker position tenfold. Within the scheme, the OLB is arguably the most important play-maker on the defensive side of the ball, and must be capable of excelling in pass coverage, against the run, and, perhaps most importantly, in the pass rush department.
The Packers hit gold in the 2009 NFL Draft, trading up and stealing ex-USC linebacker Clay Matthews III. However, just as it appeared they had a formidable duo on the outside, they lost a key piece of the puzzle. The departure of Aaron Kampman, though he wasn't necessarily ideally suited for the position, was a significant blow. Brad Jones filled in fine as a rookie, but there are concerns that he lacks the play-making ability needed at the position.
The need for a play-making, pass-rushing OLB became apparent in the latter part of the last season. Though the Packers' defense finished first in the league for yards allowed, it was obvious that they had some significant deficiencies with their pass defense. Ben Roethlisberger and Kurt Warner left the defense exposed and coordinator Dom Capers searching for answers. It was clear that something needed to change.
While some may argue that drafting defensive backs is a good way to shore up the pass defense, and this is certainly true to an extent, the best corners in the world can't defend wide-outs forever if no one is getting to the quarterback. There is little surprise that after a franchise quarterback, pass-rushing phenoms are some of the most prized possessions around the league.
So with all this in mind, let's turn to the 2010 NFL Draft to see what prospects the Packers could be targeting.
Note: This list is not exhaustive of all the draft's potential 3-4 OLB prospects. Nonetheless, it presents a brief summary of several players the Packers could be targeting come April. Click on the player's name for a link to a YouTube highlight compilation, if available
Jason Paul-Pierre, South Florida
Every draft seems to have an athletic freak-of-nature and this year's appears to be Jason Paul-Pierre (although Taylor Mays and Bruce Campbell probably deserve a share of the title). Though Paul-Pierre only had one year as a starter in his three year collegiate career, he is largely considered to be the best pass rusher available in this year's draft. His 6'6, 265 pound frame, coupled with his quickness and overall athletic ability have turned heads the league round despite the brevity of his college playing experience. Paul-Pierre confirmed beliefs that he is a special talent with a 4.64 40 time at the combine.
So why am I even including him in this list? Even though most mock-drafts have him in the top-15, there is a chance that teams aren't convinced that Paul-Pierre is a sure thing. If that happens, who knows? Maybe he could fall to the Packers at pick 23. Or maybe Packers GM Ted Thompson will continue the trend he set last year and trade up for an elite pass-rushing talent.
Brandon Graham, Michigan
At 6'1, 268, some question whether Graham has the ideal build for a 3-4 OLB. And with his stellar performance as a hand-on-the-ground defensive end in the Senior Bowl, most believe his value is higher in that position. But Graham is a proven pass-rusher with top rate athletic ability, including a sub 4.7 40 time and 31 reps of 225 pounds at the NFL Combine. He is explosive and physical, and would be a stout defender against the run.
The main knock on Graham is his lack of fluidity and lateral quickness. While there's no doubt he's capable of moving up-field with exceptional burst and quickness, his workout at the combine did not indicate that he is ideally suited to drop back in coverage, a less-significant, yet still important duty of an OLB. If the Packers are going to draft him, which they may be able to do with the 23rd pick, they'll need to convince themselves that he can cover.
Jerry Hughes, TCU
Jerry Hughes was absolutely prolific at TCU as a pass-rushing DE, amassing 16.5 TFL and 11.5 sacks in his senior year alone. Hughes added onto his already impressive resume by measuring in at 6'2, 259 at the combine, and then ran a 4.59 40 and put up 26 reps. Hughes is a rare athlete, with an exceptionally quick first step and excellent up-field explosiveness, but also the agility and ball skills to be effective in coverage.
Some scouts caution Hughes may be a little undersized, and lacks the bulk to take on massive linemen in the running game at the next level. Nonetheless, he is a passionate player with an incredible motor, and, along with his pass-rushing proficiency, he is certainly worthy of being picked 23rd overall. He may have a late first/early second round grade at the moment, meaning the Packers could trade-down and still hope to nab him, but it may be a risk they are unwilling to take.
Sergio Kindle, Texas
At 6'4, 255, Sergio Kindle possesses the ideal build for a 3-4 OLB. Along with his lengthy frame, he has the athletic ability to go . He's a fast (though he ran a disappointing 4.64) , fluid, rangy athlete who actually played outside linebacker before switching to DE his senior year at Texas. There is little doubt that he has the coverage skills to complement his pass-rushing ability.
However, some are concerned that Kindle may be more finesse than explosion. He has had trouble defending the run and lacks the physicality and tenacity to take on imposing linemen. These concerns are reflected in the wide range of spots mock drafts have Kindle, with some placing him in the mid-first round, while others believe he'll fall an entire round later. He's probably too talented to fall to the Packers in the second round, but there is a chance he could be within striking distance if they decide to trade-up.
Ricky Sapp, Clemson
Like Kindle, Sapp has an ideal frame at 6'4, 252. He is a quick, fluid athlete who posted a 4.61 40 time at the draft. Adding to his value is the fact that he played standing up on occasion at Clemson: you don't have to worry that his burst won't translate from a three-point stance. He's a capable pass-rusher with considerable upside.
However, Sapp lacks the strength to be an effective defender against the run at this point. There are instances where he is completely taken out of plays by stronger linemen. Additionally, there may be concerns about his health. He suffered a torn ACL in November of 2008. He appeared to be unhindered during his senior year, but teams will have to determine if he has fully recovered. He should be available to the Packers with the 24th pick of the 2nd round, and could slip into the middle of the third.
Eric Norwood, South Carolina
Norwood tore it up on Saturdays as a defensive end for the Gamecocks, posting 24 sacks over his career as a starter. He is tenacious pass-rusher who just keeps on coming. He is a well-rounded athlete, with great fluidity, quickness, and overall speed, posting a 4.67 at the combine.
The biggest knock on Norwood is his diminutive size. At only 6'1, 245 there are certainly concerns that he won't be able to hold up the edge in the NFL. This concern alone will probably overshadow his prolific college career, and push him out of the first two rounds. If the Packers still need a proven pass-rusher in the mid-rounds, they should give Norwood a look.
George Selvie, South Florida
Prior to Jason Paul-Pierre's emergence as a heralded pass-rusher, all the talk coming out of South Flordia concerned George Selvie. However, Selvie returned for his senior year and underperformed drastically, only coming up with 3 sacks. Even so, there is a reason why Selvie was considered a top 3-4 OLB talent just a year ago. At 6'3, 252 he has good size for the position and is a solid overall athlete. And the cause for Paul-Pierre's success could certainly have been the fact that teams were primarily concerned with Selvie.
However, Selvie certainly didn't help his cause by turning in a disastrous 4.89 40 time at the combine. While 40 times aren't everything, the dismal time plus his poor senior year have pushed him out of the first half of the draft. He'll probably realistically go in the fourth or fifth round, and if the Packers haven't found a 3-4 OLB by then, they may very well give scoop up Selvie.
O'Brien Schofield, Wisconsin
If this list had been composed prior to the Senior Bowl, Schofield would probably be listed under the "Mid-Rounders" heading. However, he suffered a devastating ACL knee injury and was forced to have surgery. Immediately prior to this development, Schofield had just come off an impressive performance at the East-West Shrine Game, of which he was named game MVP. This was especially impressive considering it was Schofield's first time playing as a 3-4 OLB; he had been predominantly a 4-3 DE with the Badgers.
Schofield was a second-team All-American selection, in large part due to his 12 sacks as a senior, though undersized at 6'3, 242, Schofield accommodated with exceptional burst and physicality at the point of contact. Despite his fantastic senior year and Shrine Game performance, he will probably be available at a discount price, probably in the 6th or 7th rounds and maybe even as an un-drafted free-agent. There is some uncertainty about how much he'll be able to contribute his rookie season, but if the Packers are looking for a high-character, proven guy from the state, Schofield is their guy.