Last week, I analyzed the 2014 NFL Draft needs for the Packers on offense. I recommend that you read it, of course, but to briefly sum up – Center, Tight End and Wide Receiver are positions which Ted Thompson will likely target this year.
Unlike the offense, which ranked in the top ten in multiple categories, the Packers defense was brutal at times. It ranked 24th in points and pass yards allowed, and 25th in total and rushing yards allowed. While this was partially a byproduct of injuries, the lack of skill and depth quickly came to light once Aaron Rodgers went down and the defense was forced into the front seat, as points came at a premium.
Defensive Tackles Ryan Pickett and BJ Raji become free agents this year, with Raji already rejecting an $8 million per year deal. If neither returns (or is slapped with the franchise tag), this leaves the Packers empty at the position. Having big bodies up front to absorb linemen is a key to the 3-4 defense, so Thompson will have to address this situation in free agency or with a high draft pick.
The Defensive End group is young and deep, returning at least four players – Jerel Worthy, Mike Daniels, Datone Jones and Josh Boyd. Johnny Jolly and CJ Wilson will be unrestricted free agents. Jolly, a fan favorite after turning his life around, is expected to return as the demand for a 30-year-old who ended his season on IR won’t be very high. There isn’t much need for the Packers to take a DE in the 2014 NFL Draft.
The consistent play of AJ Hawk and Brad Jones leaves this position in a solid state. While neither can cover opposing tight ends very well, both are solid tacklers and are constantly found swarming the ball. Backup Jamari Lattimore becomes a restricted free agent who Thompson will likely target as a low-cost backup that knows the system.
Due to injuries to Clay Matthews and Nick Perry, the outside linebacker position was incompetent to say the least. Matthews, Perry and converted-defensive-end Mike Neal combined for 16.5 of the group’s 17.5 total sacks. This means that in the 10 games that Matthews and Perry collectively missed, only one other sack (by OLB Andy Mulumba) was recorded.
While dependable backups would be great to have, it is unlikely Thompson will use anything but a late-round pick on a LB, as the starting 4 LBs are set. I could see a mid-round pick, however, depending on Mike Neal’s return. He is also scheduled to become an UFA this off-season.
Tramon Williams had a solid season, finishing second on the team in tackles (83) and interceptions (3). Sam Shields had the best season of his short career at the perfect time – he becomes an UFA in March. The Packers are keeping in contact with Shields, and have Davon House, Micah Hyde, Jarrett Bush and Casey Hayward returning. Hayward was in contention for defensive rookie of the year in 2012, while Hyde performed admirably and tackled well in the nickel role.
The only question mark in this group is if Williams will sign an extension and restructure his contract to reduce his $9.5M cap hit in 2014. With all that young talent in the hopper, I doubt Thompson will spend a 2014 NFL Draft pick on a CB unless he plans to convert the player to safety.
I saved the worst for last. The Packers’ safeties continuously got burned this season, giving up 61 passes over 20 yards while accounting for zero interceptions. Yes, the safety isn’t always the one getting burned on those plays, but more often than not secondary miscues led to an area of the field left open for a streaking receiver.
Morgan Burnett is a veteran leader, and under contract until 2018. Sean Richardson is also under contract, but won’t be handed a starting job. MD Jennings likely won’t return, while Chris Banjo may receive an offer to remain a backup. The Packers have lacked a safety capable of making plays in the secondary since Nick Collins retired.
Burnett and Richardson both performed better as run-stuffers than pass-defenders. Allowing one of them to stuff the box against the likes of Matt Forte, Reggie Bush and Adrian Peterson would be an immediate and immense benefit to drafting a safety that won’t be late (or completely miss) his passing assignments. A play-making safety is the most important need for the Packers in the 2014 NFL Draft, and I expect Thompson to use a first- or second-round pick on this position.