NFC North review – Part 4: Pack’s draft should stack picks to get more hits

Michael Klein, News Editor

Green Bay Packer fans were treated to another division title in 2012. As last September’s game against Seattle demonstrated, however, it’s all about the finish. The Pack followed a successful regular season with a divisional round loss to the eventual NFC Champion 49ers.

A new challenge awaits Packers’ management this offseason as their, currently healthy, salary cap will take a sizeable hit. Last week, Green Bay came to terms with its top pass-rusher Clay Mathews. Reportedly, the extension is worth $66 million over five years.

The team is still negotiating extensions with hula dancing B.J. Raji and star quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Based on comparable contracts, Raji is likely to get $7-8 million annually and Rodgers is poised to be the highest paid football player in league history. GM Ted Thompson is going to need to be creative with free agents and the draft.

Despite the loss of reliable receiver Greg Jennings, an unimposing ground game and shaky offensive line, the Packers early round focus should not be only offense. Instead, Thompson would be better served to stack picks and draft, regardless of position, the best available players. A quantity over quality approach is likely the best strategy in this year’s deep class.

There’s no denying, the offensive line needs work, but there are very few sure things in the NFL Draft and it boils down to a game of chances. The Packers will be remembered forever for their infamous draft blunder when they picked Tony Mandarich over future Hall of Famers Barry Sanders, Derrick Thomas and Deion Sanders. There is much less pressure this year, as they are slotted at 26th overall in the first round.

There is a chance to move down further because of the uncertainty surrounding this year’s QB class, and if either Geno Smith or Matt Barkley falls to the Packer’s position, there will likely be trade interest from teams looking to find a signal caller. The Packers are lucky to have less glaring needs than most other franchises and go into the draft with eight picks to work with.

The secondary lost a leader and playmaker when they cut ties with eight-time Pro-bowler Charles Woodson. Green Bay has a talented crop of corners but will need to find a safety to pair with Morgan Burnett. Adding a reliable player here will allow a safety-net for a defense that loves to use exotic blitz packages. LSU’s Eric Reid would be an ideal fit.

Speaking of blitzes, there are talented mid-round prospects that can help put pressure on opposing QBs. Clay Mathews provided the only consistent pass rush on the defense, as his 13 sacks were more than the team’s next three sack leaders combined (Mathews-13 others- 11.5).

Green Bay must strengthen both sides of the line to be able to win the battle in the trenches. Michigan State’s William Gholston and South Carolina’s Devin Taylor are physically imposing mid-round prospects with tremendous upside. Both players would add depth to the defensive line and be value picks after the fourth round.

Addressing the porous offensive line will take at least two-three picks, if the Packers hope to find a starter. Scouts typically agree that the o-line is one of the hardest positions to draft because the competition at a collegiate-level greatly contrasts with the monsters lining up on Sundays. A few names to watch for that have high ceilings and low risk are Terron Armstead of Arkansas Pine-Bluff, Virginia Tech’s Vinston Painter and Ricky Wagner from Wisconsin.

The last area that the green and gold must address is at the skill positions. Randall Cobb was a steal in 2011 and his versatility and speed has made him one of Rodgers favorite targets. Given his size, however, his touches must go down in 2013 if the Packers want him to last. For that reason, Green Bay needs to add a back and receiver at some point this weekend.

Skill players to watch: (WR) Robert Woods, Ace Sanders, Kenny Stills and Rodney Smith. (RB) Knile Davis, Latavius Murray and Montee Ball. (TE) Chris Gragg and Levine Toilolo. Others: QB Jordan Rodgers and K Dustin Hopkins.