After years of seeing Ted Thompson more inclined to trade down in the draft, we finally saw some upward mobility from our favorite general manager. After snagging Boston College defensive tackle B.J. Raji with the ninth overall pick, Thompson traded picks 41, 73, and 83 to Bill Belichick and the the New England Patriots for the 26th overall pick (which previously belonged to the Baltimore Ravens) and the 162nd pick. The Packers then used that 26th overall pick to draft USC linebacker Clay Matthews, giving the Packers two key cogs of a 3-4 defense.
The Raji pick was not a surprise for me. I had had Raji at No. 2 on my draft board, behind Brian Orakpo, who ultimately went No. 13 to the Washington Redskins. However, looking at it again, Raji is the right pick. It’s hard to find mine 6-foot, 337 pound nose tackles that can move in the NFL Draft. Outside linebackers are a dime-a-dozen throughout the draft. There was no one else in the draft comparable to Raji. So Thompson made the pick.
Sitting at No. 9 made me a little nervous. There were three high quality players available at that juncture, in Raji, Orakpo, and Texas Tech wide receiver Michael Crabtree. Right before the pick, I predicted that Thompson would end Crabtree’s unexplainable slide. I could see Thompson taking Crabtree — the Jordy Nelson pick last year shows he’s not scared to take a wideout. Crabtree to Green Bay could have caused an unbelievable amount of backlash among Packers fans, but imagine Crabtree, Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, James Jones, and Nelson at Aaron Rodgers‘ disposal. Imagine that offense against the Lions defense.
But besides choosing Crabtree, I was looking for Thompson to trade down. Thompson traded out of the first round last year when the Packers “needed” a corner and there were corners on the board. At No. 9 yesterday, there was a scramble under them for teams trying to trade up for Crabtree. However, Thompson stuck to his guns and picked Raji.
This signals a change in Green Bay. Thompson had always been a “best player available” guy. But I don’t see how he could have had Raji over Crabtree on his draft board, in any way really. Thompson drafted for need here (and later with Matthews, but I’m getting to that). Thompson knows this is an important year for the Packers. They have multiple free agents coming up after the 2009 season and he needs to give them a reason to stick around. The problem with the team in 2008 was the defense. The offense will put points up on the board, but it cannot win without the defense. Thompson knows his offense is fine, but his defense needs help.
This need on defense led to the Packers actually trading up back into the first round. The Patriots had already traded back to No. 26 from No. 23 as the Ravens traded up to get Michael Oher. The Packers then packaged the trade to get No. 26 and select Matthews, the son of former NFL player Clay Matthews, Jr. and the nephew of former offensive lineman Bruce Matthews. Both had long careers in the NFL, setting up an impressive lineage for the younger Matthews. Clay III comes from a USC program that had amazing linebacking talent, as he played along side Houston Texans‘ draft pick Brian Cushing and new Cincinnati Bengal Rey Maualuga, who inexplicably slid into the second round. Matthews walked-on to USC and redshirted his freshman year, setting up a great storyline for the player. He plays with intensity to match that of his fellow USC linebackers.
The Matthews pick shows why the Raji pick at No. 9 was a great pick. By picking Raji, the Packers get a nose tackle who can take up three gaps on the offensive line and tie up multiple blockers, freeing up Matthews and the rest of the linebacking corps. If the Packers pick Orakpo at No. 9, the Packers have Ryan Pickett at nose tackle, who lacks Raji’s size and athleticism. With Pickett at the nose, the Packers linebackers would be assaulted every play by large offensive lineman, pushing the defense back. Raji allows the defense to make plays. He won’t be getting glory and sacking the quarterback every play, but he will do the dirty work in the trenches.
Matthews will stop the run, allowing Kampman to focus on rushing the passer, while if the Packers had picked Orakpo, they would have had a surplus of pass rushers, allowing the defense to get shredded by the run. Pairing Matthews and Raji together gives the Packers one of the most successful Day 1’s of any team in the league. They drafted two cornerstones of their defense that is going through a transition. The two of them will make the transition into Dom Capers‘ 3-4 scheme that much easier. Both will have a lot to learn, but both will contribute for years to come.
The 41st pick the Packers traded to New England was used to select Darius Butler from Connecticut, while New England traded the 73rd to the Jacksonville Jaguars who selected Derek Cox out of William & Mary. The 83rd pick has been used by New England to select Brandon Tate, a wide receiver from North Carlina, who’s coming off a major knee injury.