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Difference between Vikings and Packers defense is simple: hit rate on high draft picks

Blame poor coaching and scheme as well, but the talent gap has become painfully stark for Green Bay.

NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Green Bay Packers
Nick Perry flashed first-round talent last year, but has once again been unable to stay healthy in 2017.
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Every team hopes to fill key voids in their team with high draft picks. That’s the literal point of the draft, why it’s slotted the way it is — with the worst teams at the top — and how teams can prolong their runs.

But just throwing assets at the problem isn’t, in itself a solution. Just ask the Cleveland Browns.

Those picks have to be utilized properly and then receive the right nurturing and coaching to thrive. Ted Thompson’s record at finding quality players after the first two days of the draft is peerless, and his ability to draft pass catchers may be the best in league history. Yet, if there’s one failing of Thompson over the last few years, it has been an inability to draft impact defenders at the top of the draft.

And that’s the biggest difference right now between the Minnesota Vikings, a team absolutely loaded with defensive talent, and the Packers, a team struggling to develop an identity, much less have success.

For a draft and develop team, Green Bay hasn’t developed enough good players or drafted enough great ones.

Minnesota has. Just look at their starting defense:

DE Danielle Hunter 2015 Third-round pick
DT Linval Joseph: 2010 Second-round pick
DT Tom Johnson: 2006 UDFA
DE Everson Griffen: 2010 Fourth-round pick
LB Anthony Barr: 2014 First-round pick
LB Eric Kendricks: 2015 Second-round pick
CB Trae Waynes: 2015 first-round pick
S Andrew Sendejo: 2010 UDFA
S Harrison Smith: 2012 first-round pick
CB Xavier Rhodes: 2013 first-round pick
CB Terence Newman: 2003 first-round pick

Of their 11 regular contributors, eight are top-100 picks and five are former first-rounders. That includes a few players who weren’t drafted by the Vikings: Terence Newman, who is still a former first-round talent, and Linval Joseph, who was a second-round pick by the Giants. And arguably their best defensive player, Griffen, was pick #100 in 2010. Hit on your top picks and get lucky with a mid-round pick. That’s a pretty good recipe for success.

Just look at the 2015 draft for the Vikings: a premier pass rusher in the third round, a top-tier starting linebacker in the second, and a promising corner in the first. Of those picks, Waynes is the worst player.

Green Bay, in typical Ted Thompson style, drafted every single defensive starter and regular contributor, but there isn’t one player who can stand among the elite talents in Minnesota. The Packers have seven top-100 picks in their defensive starting group, and five first-round picks. It’s eight top-100 picks if we consider Josh Jones a starter.

That means Dom Capers’ unit actually boasts just as many high-pedigree players as the Vikings, yet this defense has been significantly worse. Part of that stems from scheme, and I’ve beaten that horse to death on this site, but the reality is Green Bay doesn’t have a defensive field-tilter, that player who can take over a game by himself or shut down a whole side of the field.

Minnesota has four or five. Griffen, Smith, Rhodes, and Hunter can all wreck an offense by themselves, Barr/Kendricks form one of the best linebacker duos in the league outside of Carolina or Seattle.

If we stacked the Vikings and Packers defensive rosters and drafted players, would a Green Bay defender go in the top six? The top eight? That’s more than half a defense.

The only place on defense the Vikings don’t have an unquestionable advantage is safety with Sendejo. Morgan Burnett is a better player, but he’s a third-round pick. He should be better than an undrafted player. I’d also take Kenny Clark and Mike Daniels over Joseph and Johnson, but neither DT nor SS are prime positions on this or any defense.

Since drafting B.J. Raji and Clay Matthews, Ted Thompson has struggled to find and hit on his early-round defenders.

Before moving on, a quick stipulation: the Packers have been much better than the Vikings since Aaron Rodgers took over as the starter, which means they’re consistently picking later in the draft. Barr and Waynes were each taken in the top-11, a place Green Bay hasn’t picked since 2009.

That said, Rhodes and Smith, for example, were 25th and 29th overall, which is where the Packers generally pick. Not having high selections can’t be an excuse for not finding better players.

Damarious Randall shook off a slow start to become this team’s No. 1 corner down the stretch, but he’s not yet in the conversation with a player like Rhodes. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix regressed this season and will likely never be the playmaker the Vikings have in Smith. Nick Perry posted a first-round pick-worthy season in 2016, but it’s his only in his career, once again struggling with injuries and inconsistency in 2017.

Kenny Clark looks like a stud on the inside, but the impact of a high-level nose tackle only goes so far. To wit, the Packers run defense has been stellar all season, but Clark doesn’t move the needle much in the passing game, where this group struggles the most. Clay Matthews bounced back this season to have one of his better years in a while, but he’s no longer a game changer.

We don’t know if Kevin King or Josh Jones can develop into Xavier Rhodes or Harrison Smith-level players. They’re certainly supremely talented and rookie defensive backs almost always struggle, so it’s difficult to determine what kind of players they will become. Each showed flashes as rookie of their estimable ability. Now comes the development part.

And unlike the Vikings, who have signed players like Newman and Joseph, Thompson mostly eschews free agent supplementation of his defense outside of two notable exceptions: Charles Woodson and Julius Peppers (both former first-round picks). In other words, Thompson hasn’t taken a swing on a high-pedigree defensive free agent since 2014. That doesn’t mean expensive swings are required; neither Joseph nor Newman broke the bank for the Vikings.

Yes, the Packers need to make a change in the way they scheme their defense, and likely the guy making the calls of that scheme. But Thompson has to be better at identifying the kinds of players, regardless of draft position, who can come in and become playmakers.

Minnesota has been so proficient at accomplishing that goal, they’re an NFC favorite despite playing with a journeyman quarterback. Green Bay has the best QB in this galaxy or any other, which makes this failure even more stark. That also means it should take even less defensive help to keep this team competitive.

If Thompson can hit on a player or two — and that player may very well already be on the roster — it wouldn’t significantly close the talent gap on the Vikings defense, but it could vault the Packers right back into the NFC’s elite.