After this week offseason talk is going to kick into high gear for 31 teams in the league, with the one hold out savoring a championship year for most of the long offseason. For us Packer fans, we know that this mainly revolves around the draft and what areas of the Packers need to address in this upcoming draft. As a way to warm up for this conversation a few of us on staff have decided to put together a series of articles breaking down the big needs for the Packers and make an argument that the need we are each covering is the most pressing need for the team.
At the end of the season when I form my opinion of the biggest need for the Packers I typically start with the last few games of the season and look at how the year unraveled. If the team gets to the playoffs then that last playoff game is typically telling. What went wrong? How was the team that eliminated us built differently than the Packers? How do the Packers compare with the teams playing in the Super Bowl? This year’s game with the San Francisco 49ers was especially telling in the way that they are built and how the team was able to beat us. It showed us that there are clear areas that the Packers need to grow in order to continue to compete for the ultimate prize…..especially considering that the ways in which the Packers struggled in that game were unique to that game alone. These were areas in which the Packers struggled most of the year. The Packers were dominated up front in the game against the 49ers and that game showed that the Packers are going to need to get bigger and stronger up front if they are going to take that next step. Specifically, the Packers are going to need to continue to upgrade along their defensive line and continue to upgrade their run defense.
There are three basic reasons why I highlight the defensive line as the most pressing need for the Packers right now: the clear need for a long term answer at nose tackle, the lack of talented run stuffers along the defensive line, and the high cost of finding quality defensive linemen in general. The first reason, the need for another nose tackle, may be the most pressing short term and long term deficiency on the team right now. Currently, the Packers have three players on the active roster listed as a defensive tackle: Ryan Pickett, B.J. Raji, and Jordan Miller. Pickett had a very good year this year but is entering a contract year and is getting up there in age. He is not a long term answer. Raji had a good year at NT in 2010, but a forgettable NT in 2011. He was also having a rather forgettable year in 2012 until moving to DE in November. After the move his play picked up considerably. It’s reasonable to conclude that NT is not his best position and he probably should not the long term plan for center of the defense. Jordan Miller is a player the Packers picked up off the Chicago Bears’ practice squad. He played one game with the Packers in 2012 and did not register a single statistic with the team. It’s doubtful that he is going to be the long term solution for a starting nose tackle either. This need is pressing in the short term as well since it means the Packers don’t have an adequate backup to Pickett. The nose tackle is a critical position for the 3-4 defenses. If the Packers don’t have a capable NT anchoring the line they are going to be susceptible to the run, especially up the middle. The nose tackle sets the tone for the defense and frees up the linebackers to make plays.
Beyond just the inadequate plan currently in place for nose tackle, the Packers need big bodies along the defensive line capable of stopping the run in general. I blame this need on the Packers being too effective at addressing last year’s pressing need for the defense….fixing the pass rush. Last year the Packers were hell bent on finding more pass rush and getting players who could penetrate the pocket. On the defensive line this meant finding and keeping players who could push the pocket and provide that much coveted inside pass rush. The team was pretty successful at this in acquiring Jerel Worthy and Mike Daniels in the draft (both providing a decent interior push at times in 2012) as well as holding on to Mike Neal after his suspension was finished. This also meant trying out guys like Phillip Merling and Anthony Hargrove through training camp. All of this came at the expense of talented run stuffers. There was no Grady Jackson or Howard Green type guy along the defensive line in 2012. The best answers the Packers had for stuffing the running game upfront were Pickett, Raji, and C.J. Wilson. Pickett was good, but only one man. Raji was talented, but inconsistent. Wilson was decent enough, but not very talented. Considering this, is it any wonder why the running game struggled at times this year? Another young, wide-bodied defensive lineman is just want the Packers need in order to shut down running lanes and counter the growing high powered running attacks in the NFL. This need becomes even more pressing when you consider that the knee injury to Jerel Worthy is worse than originally expected and may limit his 2013 season.
The last point, the high cost of quality defensive linemen, starts with a bit of realism. God only makes so many men who are 6-2 and 300 LBS. Guys who have this body type and possess the athleticism the Packers need are snatched up quickly in the draft. This leads to over drafting and reaching for the potential a player may bring rather than what the tape often shows, case in point Dontari Poe. I’m not saying the Packers need to reach to find their guy, but in order to get a player like the one they need to be prepared to invest another first or second round pick in order to find him. To make this investment wisely the Packers are going to need a plan for acquiring a defensive lineman, and make that plan part of the core of this year’s offseason ….just like upgrading the pass rush was a core of the offseason last year.
The Packers have a few key needs this year and will be pressed to make a few key upgrades in their personnel. To separate out the single biggest need we need to look at the talent the Packers currently have against the types of opponents they will be seeing in the future. The NFL is a copy cat league, and with the Vikings making it to the playoffs on a running game alone and the 49ers making the Super Bowl on a high powered multi-pronged running attack, the team is going to face more ground first offenses in the future. Combine this with a defensive line already hurting with the potential loss of Jerel Worthy and needing more quality run stuffers as it is paints a desperate need along the defensive line. This need has to be addressed and should be the Packers biggest priority going into the 2013 offseason.