Packers Defense: More Versatility Hasn't Meant More Production

Joe Robbins

There's a difference between doing it all and doing it well.

Ted Thompson got in front of the press on Friday during the NFL scouting combine and basically revealed what most everyone thought he'd reveal - not a damn thing. Of course, this is who Ted Thompson is. You'd be more likely to catch him dancing shirtless at a rave bar than giving away even a slight hint of his coveted draft strategy. But more than any draft in recent memory, this one should give us a glimpse of what Thompson and McCarthy have planned for the future of the Packers, specifically on defense.

As you might recall, the Packers' defense has been one of the pain points for the team over the last few seasons. Whether it's injuries, unfulfilled expectations, coaching, communication breakdowns, leadership, or just a shortage of talent, the reasons for their lack of success have been difficult to pinpoint. There's also a more fundamental issue in play here, though. We've known for some time that versatility is something Thompson and McCarthy value. McCarthy during the combine even said that he's looking to add more versatility to the defense by "giving players more than one role."

Here's an idea: Maybe focus on having them play a single role they're actually good at.

That's essentially the problem at hand. Lots of the players the Packers have drafted don't have a natural role in the Packers' defense or they're being asked to play outside of it due to a lack of depth or talent in other positions. I'm all for creativity on defense, but there's a point of diminishing versatility and the Packers - instead of drafting players who do one thing extraordinarily well, seem to value players who can do multiple things kind of well. It's an ironic philosophy given that their best player on defense - Clay Matthews - is largely regarded as a one-trick pony whose sole talent is darting into the backfield.

Instead, the Packers drafted Datone Jones - a smallish defensive end who excelled in college due to his sheer athleticism, but who failed to make a substantial impact on the defensive line in his rookie season. While it's too early to declare Jones a waste of a pick, it's hard to see where he really fits. He hasn't cut it yet along the line - being outplayed by unheralded 5th-round pick Josh Boyd down the stretch in 2013 - and he's far too bulky to play outside linebacker.

Then there's Mike Neal - an even more athletic freak than Jones who actually did switch to outside linebacker (a switch that was made into a full-time move due to injuries) after shedding weight to get faster for the position. Again, when a guy has the athleticism of Neal, it affords you certain creative liberties, but McCarthy and company treated both these players like hobbies - toying around with them at linebacker and at defensive end. It's actually somewhat incredible the Packers continue to take this route given that up until recently, Mike McCarthy had so much versatility on the offensive line, he couldn't stop playing musical chairs with them. Injuries certainly contributed to the constant shuffling, yes, but it wasn't until T.J. Lang actually found a home at guard that he became a decent player.

Even B.J. Raji - a player many believed would be better suited to a penetrating role in a 4-3 defense from the very beginning - has been used questionably, being flipped from defensive end back to nose tackle on an almost annual basis.

But at least Nick Perry's entrenched at outside linebacker, right?

Nevermind.

Like the previously mentioned players, Perry is another guy whose versatility makes him a jack of all trades, but master of none. That's not to say versatility has no value, but it's a confusing attribute to place so much value in given the Packers scheme is notoriously difficult for younger players to grasp. So not only are players given the task of learning a complex defensive system for one position, they're actually having to learn several. Amazing the defense hasn't been more successful...

By comparison, you have players like Seattle's Kam Chancellor, a safety who dropped to the 5th round of the draft because it was deemed the only thing he did well was deliver big hits. Tryann Mathieu is a player with a somewhat checkered past but whose physical gifts and playmaking ability were undeniable in college. Neither of these players are going to play multiple positions and neither were asked to play anything other than what they played before. That's not the only factor that's contributed to their success, but it certainly hasn't hurt.

Judging by Mike McCarthy's comments last week, the Packers remain committed in their quest to acquire more players who can do more things. So far though, the Packers' smorgasbord approach has resulted in an average defensive ranking of 22nd in the league since winning the Super Bowl.

So maybe even in football, less is more.

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