The Green Bay Packers started the 2009 NFL off-season with question marks about every phase of their team: offense, defense, and special teams.
The near-clean sweep of the defensive coaching staff and the addition of Dom Capers, who will be implementing the 3-4 defense, had only added to the list of defensive positions without a clear-cut starter or quality depth.
Specifically, the Pack had needs at right offensive tackle, left offensive tackle depth, nose tackle depth, right outside linebacker (rush ‘backer), defensive ends to play the five-technique in the 3-4, and punter.
Packers’ GM Ted Thompson surprisingly made a play for Chris Canty in the first week of free agency, competing against Giants’ GM Jerry Reese for the marquee free agent’s services.
Canty, formerly of the Dallas Cowboys, had extensive experience in Wade Phillips’ 3-4 defense, a valuable trait for a team like Green Bay that currently lacks players with any kind of extensive experience in the 3-4.
Thompson felt Canty brought more to the table than any of the players currently on the Packers’ roster who were being “projected” to play the defensive end position.
Unfortunately, the Giants signed him, leaving Thompson to look to the draft for help at defensive end, among other positions. Luckily, the Packers were able to land key players in the draft at positions of greatest need on the team.
With the No. 9 overall pick, and a little help from Kansas City, the New York Jets, and Oakland who decidedly shook up the early part of the draft, the Packers were able to land B.J. Raji.
A senior out of Boston College, Raji is the answer to Green Bay’s questionable depth at the all-important nose tackle position in the 3-4 scheme. He will also be the team’s long-term answer as the starter at that position.
Raji adds excellent size to the position and can hold his own against the double team, but he’s also incredibly athletic for his size, which allows him to line up at multiple positions across the defensive line.
The Green Bay coaching staff has already begun to play Raji at the defensive end spot, as well as his nose tackle position in rookie minicamps.
He can also provide an inside pass rush (evidenced by his eight sacks as an Eagle for Boston College last season) in an even front, which the Packers will most likely be switching back to on third downs and obvious passing situations.
Teaming up with Cullen Jenkins on the inside could make for a formidable tandem capable of collapsing the pocket and disrupting plays in the backfield.
After selecting Raji, Thompson watched Clay Matthews drop down to the later part of the first round. Then, at the number 26 pick overall, Thompson shocked everyone by trading back into the first round and drafting the former Trojan to be Green Bay’s right outside linebacker.
It was only Thompson’s second trade up ever in his five drafts as Packers’ GM. He gave up a lot in order to draft Matthews (while also acquiring New England’s sixth round pick), trading the Packers’ second and third round picks, as well as the third round selection they received from the Jets for Brett Favre last year.
Getting Matthews gives the Packers a future star at the right outside linebacker position where previously, they merely had role players, but no starter amongst them.
Matthews has a great deal of versatility and athleticism for his position, just as Raji has for his along the defensive line. Matthews can fulfill the duties of a rush outside linebacker by getting to the quarterback, as well as taking on blockers and covering the flats.
But as a former safety, Matthews has the fluid hips, length and speed to turn and run with tight ends and backs downfield. This skill set will allow him to stay on the field on third downs while playing pass coverage, or as a pass-rusher, a role he performed very well at USC.
At offensive tackle, the Packers may or may not have found a replacement for Mark Tauscher on the right side and the eventual successor to Chad Clifton in a year or two on the left side, but those issues were at least acknowledged in the draft.
T.J. Lang and Jamon Meredith were picked by the Packers in the fourth and fifth rounds, respectively. Though both are developmental prospects, they join a deep group of players who will be competing for starting and back-up spots at the book-ends of the offensive line.
Come training camp, that group will include Breno Giacomini, Tony Moll, Allen Barbre, possibly Daryn Colledge and Josh Sitton, and rookies Meredith and Lang. At the very least, the Packers have a lot of options at right tackle and at left tackle behind Clifton.
Similar to the offensive tackle spot, the two defensive end positions are heavy with depth, but consist of players merely projected to play the position, none of whom have any NFL game experience at the position.
Johnny Jolly and Jenkins are the presumed starters for now, with Justin Harrell, Mike Montgomery, and rookie Darius Wynn behind them, but that could change during the course of training camp where heated position/roster battles always create a competitive atmosphere.
By no means will anyone be given either defensive end position outright so until training camp comes to a close, the starters at both positions are TBA.
As for punter, the Packers have three options currently working out in Green Bay and participating in the offseason program: Jeremy Kapinos, Durant Brooks, and recently signed Adam Graessle.
None of these players can be any worse than Derrick Frost was last year for the Pack (line-drive punts with no hang-time and 12-yard shanks off the side of the foot don’t cut it in this league).
Kapinos finished out the season for Green Bay after Frost was let go and did okay while Brooks actually beat out Frost at Redskins camp last summer, only to be cut midseason. Graessle has been out of football for a few years but recently impressed Packers coaches at this year’s scouting combine, flashing a strong leg with solid hang-time on his punts.
As long as the Packers can find a guy out of these three who can two-step and punt with good hang-time, then that’ll be enough. Or simply put, anyone other than Frost will be enough.
So, like every year, Thompson has used the draft to try to fill the holes on the team. He’s found himself potential starters at some positions (Raji and Matthews) and possible options at others (Lang, Meredith, and Wynn).