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How much does Mike Pettine’s scheme change affect the Packers’ draft plans?

The Packers front office has clear preferences, but will they change along with the new scheme?

Minnesota Vikings v Green Bay Packers
Pettine’s new defense could put Matthews in the ideal position to succeed as his pass rush ability wains.
Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Death, taxes, and Ted Thompson thresholds.

There are few absolutes in this world and while draft preferences for the Packers aren’t quite chiseled in stone, they have clear delineations at certain positions where they prioritize certain types of athletes with specific traits.

Justis Mosqueda has written on this extensively. If you haven’t read his work on the topic, find it here.

But for nearly all of Thompson’s tenure in Green Bay, he was drafting defensive players for Dom Capers. As the league evolved, Capers moved (somewhat slowly) with it, and tried to move toward speed and versatility, but still with the idea of his 3-4 fire zone scheme.

Capers’ replacement Mike Pettine will tell you the differences between 4-3 and 3-4 defenses have melted away with as much as teams play nickel and certainly there’s truth there. Furthermore, both Pettine and head coach Mike McCarthy each used the anecdote that if you asked Pettine if this will be a 3-4 or a 4-3 defense he’d respond with “yes.”

But that doesn’t mean they’re the same. In fact, Pettine even went out of his way to explain the difference between the SAM linebacker and the rush linebacker.

I broke down some of those differences last fall here.

Think about it this way: a team like the Seahawks may not draft the same types of front seven players as the Packers because of the responsibilities. Michael Bennett, for example, would be nearly as effective as a 3-4 stand-up linebacker as he is a 4-3 defensive end who can rush inside in the nickel.

And he’s not the kind of freak athlete the Packers had in Julius Peppers.

We can see examples in this draft. Tremaine Edmunds, a 6’5 250-pound linebacker from Virginia Tech, may have been a wonky fit in Capers’ defense. He’s not refined enough as a pass rusher to be an effective edge player and he’s not good enough in space to be anything more than an underneath coverage defender and downhill run stopper.

But in Mike Pettine’s defense, where he can play the SAM and be on the line of scrimmage, attack tight ends and blow up the run game, blitz off the edge, or drop in coverage, he simply fits what they’d ask him to do much better.

He’s more Bruce Irvin than Michael Bennett, and those designations matter.

Green Bay hasn’t had to worry about drafting these types of players, though it just so happens Clay Matthews also profiles as an ideal SAM ‘backer in this defense and Nick Perry an ideal rush ‘backer who can play with his hand in the dirt more like Cliff Avril.

If they’re going to look like a 4-3, here is how that could look.

This fits Green Bay’s personnel to a tee. Perry as the Leo, Matthews at SAM, Mike Daniels at 3-technique, Kenny Clark as the 1-tech, and Dean Lowry at the 5.

Unlike the 3-4 with Capers, the 5T in Pettine’s scheme could have much more room to be a pure pass rusher, rather than just someone controlling bodies and freeing up linebackers. How does that change Green Bay’s approach to the draft?

Frankly, it opens up more avenues for defensive players. They could take a smaller, quicker edge player and put him at 5-tech, specifically because that SAM ‘backer is already there to help in the run game where he could get rooted out against bigger linemen.

This is why the Seahawks consistently have elite run defenses despite not having huge bodies up front.

Here’s a visual look at how that can help in nickel situations to add pass rush players to the field.

Here, there are two stand-up linebackers in a more traditional 3-4 nickel look. With Capers in nickel, he often played what was essentially a 2-4-5 with just two down linemen (an alignment that became the bane of Packers Twitter).

(Courtesy NFL Game Pass)

This gives the defense the possibility of putting two true edge threats to one side and daring the offense to figure out how to block them. Even if the guard comes to help, it’s still your linebacker (likely Clay Matthews in the case of the Packers) against a tight end.

We know who should win that matchup. If they do any kind of game up front on a loop or twist, now you have might have an unblocked rusher.

The Packers will now be free to draft more three techniques like Mike Daniels who can penetrate on the interior, and not have to worry about how they handle playing outside. And they could be more flexible in drafting bigger, less athletic pass rushers in that 270-280 range to play end (a spot prime Datone Jones would have been much better suited to play).

Preferences at corner are unlikely to change much in terms of the physical profile and Green Bay has been somewhat inconsistent there, though they clearly prefer taller players and aren’t shy from taking raw prospects with backgrounds in other sports. Pettine’s history of safety usage and the number of times his teams have drafted versatile safeties suggest a continuity of approach there with someone like Josh Jones fitting the archetype of what Pettine wants out of a safety.

The ability to be adaptive and flexible simply opens the doors for more options for Green Bay and new GM Brian Gutekunst who has said he wants to stick with the standards the team has set.

My best guess is they’ll continue to use baseline athletic traits, but can now be open to different types of players they may not have even looked at in the past, giving the Packers a wider net of talent to cast. Theoretically, that should lead to a higher hit rate.

Pettine’s new defense may end up paying dividends before he even has a chance to put it on the field.