The theme of Green Bay's 2012 draft was defense. Well, defense and drafting for need, which happen to be two in the same for the Packers.
At the end of the first round, Roger Goodell announced the pick for the Pack:
"With the 28th pick in the 2012 NFL draft, the Green Bay Packers select Nick Perry, linebacker, USC."
Green Bay goes defense.
In the second round, Ted Thompson did something he rarely does—trade away his treasured draft picks to move up. LeRoy Butler stepped to the podium to announce the team's second selection:
"With the 51st pick in the 2012 NFL draft, the Green Bay Packers select Jerel Worthy, Michigan State."
Two picks, two defenders. Green Bay, again, addressed it's front seven.
Now, despite being giddy with excitement after the Packers addressed perhaps their two biggest needs, it would now be a bit of a waiting game for Packers fans. Green Bay wasn't slated to pick until 90th overall in the third round.
Oh, wait. "Trader Ted" struck again.
Negotiating with fellow tight-lipped, and apparent draft-day buddy Bill Belichick, the Packers moved up to make a second pick in Round 2.
Roger Goodell echoed the common theme surrounding Green Bay's previous two selections—defense.
"With the 62nd pick in the 2012 NFL draft, the Green Bay Packers select Casey Hayward, defensive back, Vanderbilt."
And there you have it—the Packers had made three of the first 62 picks of the draft. At that point, exactly one-half of the picks made were on the defensive side of the ball, and Green Bay was the destination for three of those 31 players.
Last season, Green Bay's pass defense was the worst in the league in terms of yards per game.
While the offense flourished on the arm of MVP Aaron Rodgers, the defensive problems were constant. The defensive backs looked confused, the outside pass-rushers looked out of place, and the defensive line looked for, but never found, an adequate replacement for Cullen Jenkins.
As a result, the pass rush was non-existent.
Between first-round pick Nick Perry and second-round pick Jerel Worthy, the Packers hope they'll have an improved pass rush in the form of two rookie starters at outside linebacker and defensive end.
Perry will compete with Erik Walden, Frank Zombo and Brad Jones for the starting job across from fellow Southern California alum, Clay Matthews. Walden started 15 games for the Packers in 2011, but his playing time decreased dramatically towards the end of the season and into the playoffs.
Of the 28 outside linebackers that Pro Football Focus ranked, Erik Walden ranked dead last among 3-4 outside linebackers with a -20.6 rating. To put that into perspective, Cameron Wake had the best rating with a +43.5 and Clay Matthews, despite only recording six sacks, was fifth in the league at +29.4. Walden's rating was almost 10 points lower than the 27th-ranked player at the position, Joey Porter, who checked in at -10.7.
Formulas and statistics reflected what the naked eye suspected—Erik Walden was completely washed out in the run game in 2011, and the Packers needed to add a difference-maker to play the position.
Nick Perry will be given every opportunity to earn that starting job.
The same goes for the first of the Packers' two second-round picks—Jerel Worthy. With B.J. Raji and Ryan Pickett cemented in as two of Green Bay's three down linemen in its base 3-4 scheme, Worthy will compete with Jarius Wynn, C.J. Wilson, and Mike Neal, who's been suspended for the first four games of 2012.
Not only should Worthy see significant time in the Packers' base defense, he's a definite candidate to play alongside newly-acquired Anthony Hargrove in Green Bay's 2-4-5 nickel alignment, which has been utilized more and more in recent years to compensate for the emergence of spread offenses.
As the NFL has pushed towards being a pass-happy league, defenses not only have a glaring need for pass-rushers, but capable cover men on the perimeter are simply essential.
For much of the 2010 season in which the Packers' won Super Bowl XLV, Sam Shields was an unsung hero for the defense. His terrific play on outside speed receivers along with Tramon Williams allowed Charles Woodson to play a hybrid cornerback-safety-linebacker role near the line of scrimmage.
In 2011, Shields played nowhere close to the level that he did a year earlier.
Towards the end of the season, Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers often put Jarrett Bush on the field as the nickel back ahead of Shields. As good as Bush is on special teams, his track record against wide receivers is infinitely worse.
While Green Bay certainly hopes Sam Shields can return to his 2010 form, the Packers provided themselves with some insurance at the position by adding another capable, instinctive cornerback in Vanderbilt's Casey Hayward.
Hayward has a reputation of having a high football IQ, and after nabbing 15 interceptions over the past three seasons, it seems likely that he'll see the field early in his NFL career. The Packers will certainly hope he can perform as well against the NFC North's receivers as he did against the SEC's elite while playing at Vanderbilt.
It's unlikely that he'd be considered a "starter," considering highly-regarded starters Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams remain atop the depth chart, but Hayward will compete with Sam Shields and Jarrett Bush for the highly-important nickelback role in 2012.
It'd be hard to imagine a better three-man haul for Ted Thompson's 2012 draft class, but the defensive acquisitions didn't stop after Round 2.
The Packers added to their front seven in the middle rounds by selecting Iowa defensive lineman Mike Daniels and North Carolina State linebacker Terrell Manning, but with the 133rd pick in the fourth round, Green Bay added a third rookie who could compete for a starting job in 2012—Maine safety Jerron McMillian.
Opinions on McMillian varied from a fourth-round pick to an undrafted free agent, but ESPN's Mel Kiper had him ranked as the eighth-best safety in the draft class. At 5'11" and 203 pounds, McMillian has similar size to recently released Nick Collins, and he could compete with Charlie Peprah for the starting job alongside free safety Morgan Burnett.
If I had to make a prediction, I'd guess that Peprah will see the field more than McMillian in 2012 due to his experience over the past two seasons filling in for Burnett in 2010 and Collins last season. However, McMillian is an aggressive safety like Peprah, but with superior athletic ability.
Between the six additions Ted Thompson made to the Packers' struggling defense, every level of the defense appears to be in better shape today than it was prior to the beginning of last weekend's draft.
If these rookies want to make an impact and see the field early in their careers, they'd better be ready to shed the "rookie" label and play like veterans.