MILWAUKEE — After taking offensive players with five of his first six picks in last year’s draft, it certainly looks like the time for Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson to target some defensive help.
As always, Thompson insists he won’t deviate from his emphasis on drafting the best player available — a philosophy that helped him turn the talent-deprived mishmash of a roster he inherited in 2005 into a Super Bowl winner.
Given the way last season unfolded, it would be a happy coincidence for the Packers if the most-valued player on Thompson’s board when the No. 28 pick comes up Thursday night was a guy who could put pressure on an opposing quarterback.
“We don’t feel we have to target a particular position in the draft,” Thompson said. “That’s not what we do, and we won’t do it this year.”
The Packers have to do something, though.
Green Bay gave up an NFL-worst 411.6 yards per game last season and allowed 80 plays of 20-plus yards, third-worst in the league. The Packers had 29 sacks; only two teams had fewer.
For much of last season, the defense came up with enough turnovers to cover up the mistakes and let a high-octane offense take care of the rest. It worked — so much so that Green Bay made a serious run at an undefeated season before losing at Kansas City in December.
Then came the divisional playoff game at Lambeau Field, when the New York Giants exposed the defense and ended the Packers’ season.
Even with so many indications that the defense is desperate for help, Thompson said one of the main lessons he learned from Ron Wolf is that a GM must concentrate on the player instead of the position he plays.
“You can worry yourself sick about what’s going to happen, who’s going to be there when it’s our pick and that sort of thing,” Thompson said. “The more you’re in this, the more you get back to the base that Ron taught us is to evaluating players individually, don’t get too whacked out one way or the other in terms of position, just make sure you have the players ranked correctly in terms of what you think they can do in the NFL. And that’s easier said than done. I’m guilty of it just like everyone else. You get anxious, you want to help the team, you want to add some stuff to your team and to your locker room.”
The biggest temptation might be at outside linebacker, where Green Bay hasn’t had a consistent pass-rush threat to pair with Clay Matthews.
There’s also a need at defensive end, where the Packers never found a suitable replacement for departed free agent defensive end Cullen Jenkins last year. Thompson signed free agent Anthony Hargrove, but the Packers will be without oft-injured Mike Neal for the first four games of the 2012 regular season for a violation of the NFL’s drug policy.
In the defensive backfield, Charles Woodson will turn 36 in October — and that’s not even the Packers’ most pressing concern. Going into the draft, it’s still not clear whether safety Nick Collins will be able to return from a career-threatening neck injury.
“I’m sure he’s anxious and all of our people are anxious,” Thompson said. “I think it’s more important being right than being fast. We’ll see.”
Thompson certainly will be on the lookout for defensive help — he just won’t reach for it.
“We won’t do it intentionally,” Thompson said. “Maybe subconsciously. We don’t draft that way. You draft for the long-term investment for your team. We don’t draft for the immediate need or perceived immediate need.”
The good news for the Packers is that they don’t have a lot of those immediate needs on offense, a testament to Thompson’s ability to project long-term needs and try to fill them in recent drafts.
Thompson has taken offensive tackles with his last two first-round picks. Bryan Bulaga, his 2010 first-rounder, went on to replace Mark Tauscher at right tackle. Now his 2011 first-rounder, Derek Sherrod, could be in the mix to replace recently released veteran left tackle Chad Clifton — although Sherrod is coming off a broken leg and Marshall Newhouse, who filled in well when Clifton was injured last year, might get first crack at the job in training camp.
Beyond that, Thompson has 2011 second-round pick Randall Cobb in line to take on a larger role as veteran wide receiver Donald Driver nears the end of his career.
And while the Packers are set with Aaron Rodgers, backup quarterback Matt Flynn left as a free agent. No. 3 quarterback Graham Harrell appears poised to take over as the team’s primary backup, but the Packers are likely to target a quarterback project to develop behind Harrell.
They’ll certainly have plenty of opportunities to do so Saturday with an eye-popping nine picks in rounds 4-7, including compensatory picks.
“Like Ron said, the more swings you have at the plate, the better off you usually do,” Thompson said. “We’re hopeful that we’re prepared come next Thursday, Friday and Saturday that we can help the team with all those picks. We’ve had some success in the later rounds with the more picks.”