First-round picks must deliver for Green Bay Packer defense
Only four teams in the National Football League have used a first-round pick in each of the last three drafts on a defensive player.
Only one of those teams has gotten almost nothing out of it.
If you guessed that team was the Green Bay Packers, you’re right.
General manager Ted Thompson has really only struck gold twice in the first round during his 10 drafts with the Packers (Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews). And if ever he needed his fortunes to change, it’s on the heels of the 2013 defensive meltdown.
Nick Perry, Datone Jones, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix—if those three were to play like the first-round picks they are, the Packers’ defensive shortcomings could be eradicated.
“It’s not just about me, it’s about the entire defense,” Jones, the 26th pick in the ’13 draft, said about high expectations for him. “I have to hold up my end of the bargain on defense so we can go out there and play fast. All I can do is control is my effort.
“But at the same time I have to do the right things so I’m not hurting the defense.”
Of the three other teams that have used first-round picks on defensive players in each of the past three drafts, each has at least one player who has produced like a top pick.
Minnesota safety Harrison Smith (’12) had a terrific rookie year, and after missing last season with a toe injury, he will be the focal point of the secondary this year. New York Jets defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson (’13) was defensive rookie of the year. And St. Louis has gotten huge starting contributions from linebacker Alec Ogletree (’13) and defensive lineman Michael Brockers (’12).
Just the Packers are waiting on one of their picks to do something.
Jones’ first season was like Perry’s—an injury, not much production, nothing to write home about. Jones flashed a lot of ability in his first training camp, but in the exhibition opener he suffered a sprained left ankle, which cost him a week of practice. Then he hurt the ankle again just before the third exhibition game.
He lost a lot of ground, and the injury affected him the first half of the year. He experimented with his weight and got too heavy in an attempt to be more than a nickel rusher. He had 3½ sacks, but at the end of the year, he only played nine snaps against Atlanta, 17 against Dallas, four against Pittsburgh and five against Chicago.
“I knew everything wasn’t going to come my first year,” Jones said. “I knew I wasn’t going to be that player that I’ll be in a few years in one year. It takes time. You’re going against veterans. I played a lot, got my feet wet.
“Now I have had a chance to reflect, look back at what I was doing right and wasn’t doing right and now that it’s over, I made a lot of great gains. As years go by, I’ll keep progressing.”
If the season started tomorrow, Jones would be one of the starting ends in the base defense and one of the starting tackles in the nickel. The coaches are counting on him to be an every-down player, and they need production from him both playing the run and rushing the passer.
The same could be said about Perry, also.
The 28th pick in the ’12 draft, Perry was given a starting job at outside linebacker from the day he stepped onto Ray Nitschke Field. An end at USC, Perry was clueless on how to drop into coverage and cover tight ends down the field.
He learned on the run and was starting to come around when he succumbed to a season-ending wrist injury six games into his rookie season.
Much was expected of him in ’13. He was looked at as the guy who could take pressure off Clay Matthews on the other side of the field.
But he had a quiet camp and played so ineffectively that after three games he was benched in favor of another converted end, Mike Neal. When Matthews broke his thumb against Detroit, Perry was thrown back in and he responded with three sacks.
Unfortunately for him, his foot was landed on after he took down quarterback Joe Flacco in the Baltimore game and he suffered a fracture that kept him out of five games and bothered him most of the season.
“When I was out there, I was able to give everything that I had at the best of my ability without hurting anything or without having any setbacks,” said Perry, who was cleared for his first practice Thursday. “It happens. We’ve all got to deal with something throughout our careers.”
Perry frustrated the coaches by missing all of the offseason field work with residual effects of the foot and a knee injury. Linebackers coach Winston Moss had a one-word answer when asked what Perry was missing during the offseason: “everything.”
If the Packers thought Perry was taking too long to recover or wasn’t putting in proper time to rehab, they’re not saying. Perry said he has discussed his situation with Thompson and coach Mike McCarthy.
“I’ve talked to them, but I’m a pro as well, so I have to manage things,” said Perry, who is now off the physically unable to perform list. “I have to take things upon myself. They can’t make me do anything that I don’t want. The main thing is me progressing and me making sure I feel good, and I feel comfortable, and that’s where we’re at now.”
The Packers signed Julius Peppers to start opposite Matthews, which means Perry will start the season on the bench. But he was drafted in the first round because of tremendous athletic ability, and the Packers will find a way to put him on the field if he starts to perform.
“I can do a whole lot,” Perry said. “There’s flashes from the previous years. I can bring a lot to the table as well.”
The selection of Clinton-Dix with the 21st pick has a chance to pay off right away, but in order for him to be on the field every down he would have to leapfrog either Morgan Burnett or Micah Hyde on the depth chart.
That might not be possible, but since the pads have come on, Clinton-Dix has been physical, and he showed how much in practice with the ability to jam receivers at the line and fill open gaps in the run game.
His development will be watched closely, and if he can add some big-play ability to a previously weak safety position, it could mean a lot for this defense. However, he said he’s not trying to be a savior and isn’t feeling the squeeze of being a first-round pick.
“Like coach Mike said a long time ago, it doesn’t matter if you’re the first-round pick or the sixth-round pick, the only difference is a little pocket change,” Clinton-Dix said. “You’re just the same person as the sixth-round pick. No pressure.”
Maybe there’s not. But there’s a reason the Packers used three straight first-round picks on defensive players. They need help now.