It was clear after the Green Bay Packers‘ gut-wrenching loss to the San Francisco 49ers in the first round of the playoffs last season that for the third year in a row the Packers defense still had a ways too go to compete with the top teams in the NFC.
Coach McCarthy made a bold proclamation to the media after the draft that “the defense will improve” this season.
After all, just by getting some of their starters back and healthy this offseason should go a long way in bringing McCarthy’s statement to fruition.
In fact, the Packers outside linebacker position was so decimated by injury in the 2013 playoff loss, that at one point in the game Mike Neal was the only healthy outside backer left on the field. With Clay Matthews, Nick Perry, and Andy Mulumba all sidelined, the Packers had to turn to defensive end Datone Jones to fill in at the position for a few plays.
Now, a lot has been said this offseason about the Packers’ apparent “need” and lack of depth at inside linebacker, but going into the draft, it was evident Green Bay was set on adding depth to outside linebacker.
Considering the injury history of both Matthews and Perry, the age of recently-acquired Julius Peppers, and the fact that Neal is still a DE/OLB hybrid, taking an OLB in the draft seemed to make sense.
You can never have enough pass rushers, and in a 3-4 scheme, the outside linebackers are the stars of the show–or at least should be.
Outside of securing the safety position (which the Packers did in the first round with Ha Ha Clinton-Dix), adding another player or two that can get after the quarterback seemed to be the next step in improving their defense going forward.
Matthews is still one of the better pass rushers in the NFL, but his injury history is extensive and you have to figure he’ll miss at least a handful of games next season.
Without Matthews for six games last season, the Packers struggled to generate consistent quarterback pressure and can’t afford to let their star playmaker’s absence handicap their defense again, especially when it comes to playoff time.
Peppers brings some juice off the edge as a DE/OLB hybrid, but at age 34, his reps will be limited and his lasting impact beyond the next two seasons seems uncertain.
Perhaps, fully healthy and with another year under their belt at the position, Perry and Neal will take a step forward and develop into reliable edge rushers.
However, the Packers couldn’t take the chance on another disappointing season from the OLB position outside of Matthews. They need more guys to get after the quarterback. To come off the edge and bring some heat. To play with a high-motor and get after it like the “Claymaker” each and every down.
The Packers defense may not be lacking in talent, but lacking in punch and fire. Lacking in high-energy guys that can make impact plays, especially when it comes to their front seven.
This is why the Packers seem to love their fourth-round pick, Carl Bradford. He’s a relentless, high-motor pass rusher that leaves it all on the field.
“We liked his ability to get off the ball. Create edge pressure,” Brian Gutekunst, the Packers Director of College Scouting, told the media shortly after drafting the Arizona State defensive end. “He was relentless. He has a variety of moves. He’s not just a skim the corner guy. He can counter. He’s got the explosive power.”
Some speculated that the Packers drafted Bradford with the intent on playing him at inside backer–a seed planted by NFL.com’s Mike Mayock.
However, Bradford’s best attribute is generating pressure, and his explosiveness off the line would be wasted on the inside.
The Packers have made it clear since the draft that Bradford will be an outside linebacker in their scheme. Initially, he should factor in as a rotational pass rusher and eventually develop into an impact player at the position.
20 sacks, 39 tackles for loss, and six forced fumbles in his final two years at Arizona State demonstrate how explosive and effective Bradford can be coming off the edge. He’s got a quick first step, strength to hold the edge, and the speed and athleticism to get around bigger tackles and chase from behind.
However, his most endearing attribute continues to be the passion he plays with every time he steps on the field. A passion that has only intensified since losing his father only a year ago.
Now, the rookie from Norco, CA, will need to bring that same passion and fire he played with in college to the Packers defense.
The Packers may just need it when it comes to playing NFC heavyweights, like the Seattle Seahawks on opening day.