Sunday, April 19, 2009

OLB at #9 a Luxury Thompson Can't Afford

As the draft now comes down to days instead of weeks, I am growing more and more wary of the amount of prognosticators who continue to say that an OLB is going to be our first pick. Why, they say? Because we are switching to the 3-4 defense and this rather deep group of hybrid LB/DE's seems to fit the bill for what we "need".

Repeatedly, we hear the names of Everette Brown, Brian Orapko, Aaron Maybin, and Larry English (if we trade down) being taken by the Packers. Over at Sportsline, Mike Judge has us taking Brian Orapko. Why?

If he's here he's the best pass rusher available. The Packers need an edge pass rusher in their new 3-4, and he could be the guy. lists their updates as to the Packers' biggest needs, and according to them, OLB is it:
1. Outside Linebacker: We will see how Aaron Kampman handles the big transition from defensive end to outside linebacker but even if it works out they'll still have to add another pass rusher.

Many agree, apparently, that the transition to the 3-4 means that we have to bring in talent to fit it. It's not a bad theory, but one that doesn't appear to be shared by the Packers' GM, Ted Thompson. And, in a rare moment of concession, I happen to agree with him, at least as far as drafting a linebacker is concerned.

The transition to the 3-4 has come with a rabble of concern from Packer fans: how are we supposed to make this transition with the poor talent we had last year? Chants went out for guys like Chris Canty to be brought in through free agency. And many, like myself, compared the transistion change to that of the Zone Blocking Scheme, a switch that has had, at best, mixed results.

But Ted Thompson stated rather clearly at the NFL Owners Meetings and Fan Fest that he wasn't going to break open the coffers for free agents this year (and the entire population in Packer Nation said, in unison, "Really?!"). And when it comes to spending money to upgrade the talent, particularly on defense, he had this to say:

"I am confident in our team," Thompson said during a break at the NFL owners meetings. "I think we have a fair group of players that now can play the game and play it well. I don't think we played as well as we should have last year. Notwithstanding, I think we have a good group of players who make up our team....We're pretty solid in our starting lineup."

Now, how honest is he being? For the most part, I think he is truly believing that the team he has built is the one he wants, if for no other reason, he hasn't panicked yet. He still operates the same way, and as criticism has built up following a 6-10 season, he didn't make some power plays to make the fans and media settle down.

So, if we believe that Ted Thompson is honest, truly believes in his starting lineup, and thinks that the talent on the team should be able to play the game well, the idea of investing in one of the 3-4 OLB's in the first round of the draft doesn't seem to make much sense.

For one, all of the guys mentioned before played defensive end in college, and are being projected to play well in the 3-4 linebacking position. Read up on them: they should play well as 4-3 DEs but as OLB's in a 3-4. But regardless, they are still being projected at a position they didn't necessarily play before, just as Aaron Kampman is being asked to do this year.

The Packers have already taken two players on their roster and moved them back to linebacker from defensive end: veteran Kampman and second-year man Jeremy Thompson. They already have the players at the position who are already making a transition. Certainly, any of those players could be an upgrade over Thompson, but there's no guarantee.

Secondly, the Packers are loaded at linebacker...maybe not prototypical 3-4 linebackers, but they have a very healthy and full stable. Kampman, Thompson, Nick Barnett, AJ Hawk, Brandon Chillar, Brady Poppinga and Desmond Bishop headline what may be considered a very deep squad that doesn't have any true superstars.

So, if you take Thompson at his word and that he believes that he has faith in his starters regardless of the scheme change, it is in opposition to the continual assumptions by the draft experts who insist that OLB is the highest need for the Packers, who should thus take an OLB at #9 in this years draft.

And if that is the case, I agree with Ted. The idea of taking Maybin at #9 and adding him to an already crowded stable at linebacker seems unlikely, if not foolish.

Of course, this is also the same GM who spend his first pick overall last year on a wide receiver, adding him to a squad that already had four solid players. Trust me...I don't claim to understand Thompson's way of thinking.

But if Thompson does end up taking one of the OLB's at #9, it will have to shift a couple of things in my mind:

* He wasn't completely satisfied with the talent or the starters at linebacker.

* He believes so highly in taking the BPA that he overloaded a position group at the expense of others

* He has an irrational faith in Justin Harrell to finally contribute

It is conceivable that DT BJ Raji and CB Malcom Jenkins are gone by pick #9, and Thompson could be looking at all four of those OLBs as options. I'm sure Mel Kiper, Jr. will be boldly predicting one of them to go to the Packers.

If you're of the mind that the linebacking corps is lacking, then you will likely be agreeing with Kiper. I'm hoping that Thompson isn't thinking that way, and looks with a more critical eye at the defensive line or at tackle as a place that really needs the infusion of talent to make this transition easier on McCarthy and Dom Capers.

Taking an OLB at #9 is a luxury that we just can't afford to have this year. Here's hoping Thompson sees it that way, too.

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