|Daniels' athleticism could make him a tough assignment for interior linemen forced to attempt to block him. (Getty Images)|
Green Bay Packers' general manager Ted Thompson is well known throughout the NFL for his committment to the scouting process. Few front office executives spend more time on the road like a first-year scout than Thompson. He's also known to be a proponent of the the Best-Player-Available strategy, as was evidenced by his selection of a certain quarterback named Aaron Rodgers back in 2005 when the Cal star surprisingly fell to No. 24 overall despite the fact that Thompson and the Packers happened to have another fairly successful quarterback already on the roster in Brett Favre. We all know how that decision has turned out for Green Bay.
And thus, the fact that the Packers focused so much of their 2012 draft on fixing their greatest area of concern -- a wildly inconsistent pass rush -- was, frankly, a bit of a surprise. It was even more of a surprise considering that the normally frugal Thompson traded up three times in 2012 (all for defenders, by the way), equaling the number of times he'd traded up in the past seven years combined as the Packers' head talent evaluator.
Perhaps one shouldn't be surprised that the Packers chose to focus on the defensive side of the ball. With Rodgers and arguably the most gifted receiving corps in the NFL in place, the Packers' offense was largely in good hands, after all. Having spent consecutive first round picks on offensive linemen Bryan Bulaga (2009) and Derek Sherrod (2010), as well as adding veteran center Jeff Saturday via free agency and the Packers would seem to have the bulk and athleticism up front to keep their offense moving smoothly in 2012. To put the Packers' impressive offense in a statistical perspective, consider that the club finished 6th in the NFL in the 2010 regular season by averaging 5.7 yards per play. Their ability to strike quickly helped Green Bay win the fourth Super Bowl in team history. Last season the Packers were even more lethal on the offensive side of the ball, averaging a gaudy 6.6 yards per play -- second in the NFL only to the New Orleans Saints.
Defensively, however, the 2010 and 2011 seasons were a night and day difference for the Packers. In 2010, the Packers finished just one sack behind the team they beat in Super Bowl XLV, the Pittsburgh Steelers, to finish second in the NFL in quarterback takedowns, finishing with 47 overall. With opponents focusing on stopping Clay Matthews, Jr. a year later, however, the Packers sunk all the way down to a tie for 30th in the league with just 29 sacks. Considering that this mark tied the Packers with three teams that weren't even close to playoff contention (the Buffalo Bills, Kansas City Chiefs and Indianapolis Colts), the fact that Green Bay finished the regular season at 15-1 is a testament to just how good Rodgers and Co. were on the offensive side of the ball. It also clearly demonstrated where the Packers needed to improve to return to glory in the playoffs.
Thompson, head coach Mike McCarthy and defensive coordinator Dom Capers are hopeful that the team's first round pick, USC pass rusher Nick Perry, can take over as the complementary piece to Matthews, who, of course, also starred with the Trojans. The 6-3, 271 pound Perry doesn't boast Matthews' speed or determination but is surprisingly powerful and could offer help not only as a stand-up rush linebacker in the team's typical 3-4 alignment but also offer some assistance setting the edge against the run. Perry led the Pac-12 with 9.5 sacks a year ago and may just be scratching the surface of his potential.
Rather than assume that Perry can return the Packers' back to their 2010 form, however, the club continued to add talent to their front seven with two of their next three picks. And with these two picks, rather than add more help at the outside linebacker position normally associated with pass rushers in Capers' preferred 3-4 alignment, the Packers focused on the big guys up front.
Allowing versatile defensive lineman Cullen Jenkins to leave as an unrestricted free agent following the 2010 season hurt the Packers more than many anticipated. He'd finished second to Matthews in 2010 with seven sacks. No Packer, including Matthews, reached the seven sack plateau in 2011. Jenkins didn't reach this mark in his first season with the Philadelphia Eagles either (5.5 sacks in 2011) but his ability to split gaps inside at defensive tackle helped Jason Babin explode for a career-high 18 sacks -- third most in the NFL -- and he was clearly missed in Green Bay.
In the Packers' 3-4 alignment, Jenkins played as a five-technique defensive end. It is in this capacity that the Packers hope their second pick, Michigan State junior Jerel Worthy can make an impact.
Widely regarded as a first round prospect by the media, one could argue that Worthy offered more value at No. 51 overall than any of the other players selected this year by Green Bay. Worthy has an explosive burst off the snap which he used often with the Spartans to make plays behind the line of scrimmage. This, however, was inside at defensive tackle where his relatively short, stout frame (6-2, 308 pounds) is a benefit. Worthy's lack of ideal height and arm length, however, could make him a relative square peg asked to fit into a round hole as a defensive end. Worthy was drafted in part because a similarly built former Big Ten standout defensive tackle -- Mike Neal -- has failed thus far to effectively make the transition outside for the Packers since Thompson selected him out of Purdue in the second round of the 2010 draft.
Perry and Worthy are extremely talented and deserved to be drafted where they were. Each could make a significant impact with the Packers. They'll be given plenty of opportunities to do so and with an established pass rusher already in place in Matthews, they'll be able to so in a much easier complementary role.
Neither, however, plays with the intensity of another former Big Ten standout defensive tackle, Iowa's Mike Daniels, who I believe could offer some immediate impact as an interior pass rusher.
While Capers is known for his allegiance to the 3-4 scheme, the Packers (like most teams) were hardly static with their alignments. In fact, the club often reverted to a unique 2-4-5 alignment with two defensive tackles, four linebackers and five defensive backs during passing situations a year ago.
Green Bay offers plenty of girth with B.J. Raji, Ryan Pickett and Worthy. None, however, are as quick on their feet or relentless as Daniels, who registered 67 tackles and led all Big Ten defensive tackles a year ago with nine sacks. While significantly smaller than scouts would prefer at 6-1, 291 pounds, Daniels' athleticism could make him a tough assignment for interior linemen forced to attempt to block him while keeping one eye peeled on the linebackers who may be following the former Hawkeye's lead up the middle.
For an obvious Super Bowl contender like the Packers, expecting too much from a rookie class is often going to just lead to disappointment. Perry and Worthy are talented but each left school early with questions about their snap to snap effort. Expecting a significant contribution from either is even riskier considering that both are being asked to switch positions from where they starred in college.
As the 132nd player drafted, few are expecting Daniels to make much of an impact for the Packers. Unlike Perry and Worthy, Daniels' greatest asset is his relentless play. Furthermore, he's going to be allowed to play at the same position, roughly, as he did in college. Assuming Daniels heals completely from the surgery to repair a torn labrum that kept him out of the team's initial OTAs this spring, don't be surprised when he winds up making a significant (and "unexpected") impact as a rookie this fall.
The rest of the Packers' picks:
1st Round - No. 28 overall - Nick Perry, DE/OLB, Southern Cal
2nd Round - No. 51 overall - Jerel Worthy, DT, Michigan State
2nd Round - No. 62 overall - Casey Hayward, CB, Vanderbilt
4th Round - No. 132 overall - Mike Daniels, DT, Iowa
4th Round - No. 133 overall - Jerron McMillian, S, Maine
5th Round - No. 163 overall - Terrell Manning, OLB, North Carolina State
7th Round - No. 241 overall - Andrew Datko, OT, Florida State
7th Round - No. 243 overall - B.J. Coleman, QB, Tennessee-Chattanooga
Read more about all of the Packers' draft picks here.