NFL Draft 2014: 5 Reasons Why the Green Bay Packers Should Target Calvin Pryor
Ted Thompson uncharacteristically (but necessarily) opened his coffer for Julius Peppers this offseason, signing the star defensive end to a three-year deal worth $27 million. It’s the highest profile signing of the Thompson era since Charles Woodson signed a seven-year deal worth $52.7 million in 2006.
Alas, the defense needs more help. It ranked 24th last season in points allowed, surrendering more than the offense scored for the first time since 2006. Most traced Green Bay’s issues to the lack of a consistent pass rush; indeed, Clay Matthews and Nick Perry both missed five games. But Green Bay forced 44 sacks, tying the Seahawks for eighth in the NFL. So what else was happening?
Basically, poor tackling and troubling coverage. The Packers bled yards both on the ground and through the air. When quarterbacks weren’t getting sacked, they were completing passes. Per Pro-Football-Reference, Green Bay’s adjusted net yards per pass attempt (ANY/A) was 7.0, tied for third-worst in the NFL. Seattle led the league, allowing a minuscule 3.2 ANY/A.
Green Bay couldn’t force turnovers, either. Its pass defense picked off only 11 passes, tied for 26th. The percentage of opponents’ passes that found their way to the end zone was a staggering 5.6 percent, tied for 27th.
If Thompson aims to fix these issues, Julius Peppers is a fine start. But right now, he’s a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound. Green Bay needs deeper fixes that Ted Thompson loves to find through the draft, and the following five reasons suggest he take a long look at Louisville free safety Calvin Pryor.
Green Bay Has Limited Talent at Safety
Green Bay has three safeties on its roster: Chris Banjo, Sean Richardson and Morgan Burnett.
Burnett earns big money (he got a four-year, $24.75 million contract extension in 2013) and plays decent strong safety; but he’s not yet proved himself capable of anchoring the defensive backfield, even as he’s taken on a more significant role as other safeties have come and gone.
That’s what led a personnel manager interviewed by the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel’s Bob McGinn to describe him as “a middle-of-the-road, average NFL starting safety” with “no dominant traits.”
That assessment can’t easily be proven wrong; last season he had five passes defended and zero forced turnovers. However, one can clearly see the potential Burnett displayed in 2011 when he posted the best numbers of his career: Three interceptions, 13 passes defended and two forced fumbles.
The Packers Defense Is Significantly Better with a Solid Defensive Backfield
Green Bay’s defense took a step back when it lost Nick Collins; then it indirectly took another when Charles Woodson moved to safety. The best Packers defense of the Thompson era took the field in 2010, allowing just 240 points—nearly half of what it allowed last season (428).
In 2011, Collins was injured two games into the season; the defense allowed 119 points more than the season before, while the offense scored 172 more. Green Bay’s regular season record improved to 15-1. The difference between those two seasons is a Super Bowl; offenses win regular season games consistently but defenses win when it counts. Ask Peyton Manning if you want the most contemporary example.
But when Charles Woodson moved to safety in 2012, the defense allowed fewer points than the season before. So how did Green Bay indirectly take a step back?
Thompson Has Been Ignoring the Situation Too Long
When Charles Woodson moved to safety, Thompson bought some time to find a more permanent replacement. Prior to Woodson's move, Thompson drafted cornerback Davon House in the fourth round in 2011. Then, in 2012, Thompson spent a second-round pick on cornerback Casey Hayward and drafted forgettable fourth-round safety Jerron McMillian.
And in 2013, when Green Bay had a clear problem at safety with no clear solution, the Packers drafted Micah Hyde in the fifth round. Hyde quickly converted to cornerback.
The point is not that Thompson has been avoiding defensive backs like the plague (though he has been shortsighted in some of his decision-making); it’s that he hasn’t drafted a pure safety outside of McMillian since Morgan Burnett in 2010. Some of this can be forgiven—he didn’t know Nick Collins would have his career cut short, and there was some slim hope that Collins would return in 2012.
But now Thompson has put himself in a corner. Green Bay must draft a safety this year; and they should draft him in the first round.
Calvin Pryor Is a Hitter Who Will Help Recondition the Packers Defense
Watching the Packers play defense against an elite running back like Adrian Peterson is an exercise in patience-testing futility. Green Bay plainly lacks consistent tackling, to say nothing of its near complete absence of big hitters.
Pryor is both. He doesn’t play with a sense of self-preservation. He drops his shoulder consistently and demolishes runners. Green Bay should target him in the first round because he can be a force for change in the defense’s mentality.
“He had three games in a row where he hit somebody and they did not finish the game,” former Louisville defensive coordinator Vance Bedford said. “He doesn’t want to injure anybody, but he brings a certain physicality that if you’re going to throw the ball down the middle of the field, you’re going to pay a price.
“That’s how the game used to be played. He did things the right way and that’s what people like about him so much. And he’s a coach on the field—high football IQ. He controls everything. Gets guys lined up. Makes the checks. He does it all. He’s a guy Louisville is going to miss next year and I wish I had him here with me at Texas right now.”
You can bet Mike McCarthy wishes he had someone who matches those qualifications in Green Bay right now, too.
Pryor Diagnoses Offenses and Puts Himself in Good Position
Football Outsiders breaks down Pryor better than I have space to do in this story, and I highly encourage that you read it. But here’s the gist: Pryor plays fluidly; he knows where the quarterback is going with the football and has the presence of mind to react quickly and decisively. He’s aggressive and knows where the big-play can be had; and, as mentioned in an earlier slide, he can punish a receiver who crosses into his territory.
In a division that faces big, physical wide receivers like Calvin Johnson, Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, that counter-physicality can be enough to disrupt the passing game. And after a season ranked 24th in passing yards allowed, 27th in passing touchdowns allowed and 26th in interceptions, disrupting the passing game is precisely what Green Bay’s defense needs going forward.