Despite all the success the Green Bay Packers had this past season; they have failed to reach their ultimate goal in large part because of a failure to create a consistent pass rush. One of the weakest positions on the roster was the outside linebacker spot opposite Clay Matthews.
The top-five defense the Packers rolled out on Super Bowl Sunday just a year ago, seems so far gone after multiple performances throughout the season—which left opposing offensive coordinators and quarterbacks licking their chops.
With much of the same personal and coaching staff, the biggest difference between the Super Bowl caliber 2010 Packers' defense and this season's lackluster squad was the absence of Cullen Jenkins—who the Packers let walk in free agency last offseason.
With a young gun in Mike Neal apparently ready in the wings, the Packers felt that Jenkins was disposable and that Neal would step in and have a large impact. That dream fell apart in mid-August when Mike Neal went down in a heap after suffering a knee injury during non-contact drills in training camp.
Neal didn't see the field until Week 11 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but failed to make his presence known registering just three tackles on the season.
Without a pass-rushing presence upfront, the Packers were unable to disguise their shortcomings at the right outside linebacker position. This revealed the shortcomings of Erik Walden, Brad Jones, Frank Zombo and Vic So'oto—all who spent time throughout the season taking snaps and failing to get to the quarterback.
Without a solid pass-rush on the defensive line and limited personnel at outside linebacker, the Packers' defense as a whole went from being top-notch to completely pedestrian. Every unit on the defense suffered and without the ball-hawking ability of the squad, the Packers could have been in a world of hurt much earlier in the season.
Therefore, the Packers must address the lack of a pass rush in the first round of the NFL Draft. With Mike Neal still young and with a full offseason to heal, the Packers should bypass the need on the defensive line until later in the draft and go for a right outside linebacker.
Ted Thompson is fully deserving of trust because of the team he has built since taking over the GM role for the Packers. If he feels there is more value to be had at a different position in Round one, then by all means—he should go for it. But Thompson needs to think hard about doing whatever he can to grab a top OLB.
Three of the most common picks for linebackers in mock drafts for the Packers are Nick Perry out of USC, Melvin Ingram and Whitney Mercilus out of Illinois. If the Packers can manage to get one of these players, they would be in good hands going forward.
If the Packers choose to go with a defensive linemen in Round one, a position that Ted Thompson has not found much success drafting, some options are Andre Branch from Clemson and Jerel Worthy out of Michigan State.
These players may help out, but the Packers need the immediate help more at outside linebacker. There is less talent at outside linebacker in the later rounds of the 2012 NFL Draft and the Packers have more talent on the line.
At times, it felt like the Packers would have been well off playing with 10 players instead of putting Walden, Zombo, Jones or So'oto out there. Where the linebacker position was awful, the defensive line was just slightly up from there behind the play of Jarius Wynn, B.J. Raji, Ryan Pickett, Mike Neal and C.J. Wilson.
If the Packers are able to add some pieces on defense and improve their pass rush for next season, the Packers should be back as favorites to win the Super Bowl next season.