This is the seventh in a series of stories previewing the Packers' draft.
GREEN BAY — Just because Brian Gutekunst allocated significant salary-cap funds to a pair of outside linebackers in free agency doesn’t mean the Green Bay Packers general manager will shy away from taking another edge rusher with one of his two first-round picks in Thursday’s NFL draft.
In fact, given the depth at outside linebacker/defensive end this year — and depending on how the first 11 picks fall Thursday night — Gutekunst may very well use the 12th overall pick on another pass rusher who could join free-agent signees Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith, who arrived last month on four-year deals worth a combined $118 million.
“It is a very deep class on the edge, which is exciting,” Gutekunst said. “You never really know how it’s going to fall, but I think there’ll be opportunities to continue to help our football team there.
“I don’t know if (adding the Smiths) takes the pressure off. I think it maybe gives us a little more freedom to move around. But we always (want to do that). This goes back a long time — our process has always been to take the best player available if we can. And that won’t really change. I do feel better about the strength of our team going into the draft, but I don't know if it really changes a whole lot how we’ll approach it.”
Even with the two Smiths and returning sack leader Kyler Fackrell, who had a surprising 10.5 sacks last season after managing just five during his first two NFL seasons, defensive coordinator Mike Pettine knows that his defense is most effective when he has disruptive players on the edge.
That doesn’t mean his scheme is reliant on having such players, as evidenced by the fact that the Packers finished the 2018 season tied for eighth in the NFL in sacks (44) despite getting a measly combined five sacks from their two highest-profile outside pass rushers: Clay Matthews (3.5) and Nick Perry (1.5). Matthews, a 2009 first-round pick, departed for the Los Angeles Rams as a free agent last month; Perry, a 2012 first-round pick, was cut with three years left on his $59 million contract after Gutekunst signed the two Smiths.
“We needed to get better on our edges,” Gutekunst acknowledged. “The defensive front is a really strong position in this year’s draft, which is a good thing. I think it’s exciting for us. Those guys don’t come around that much, and we’re excited to see how it goes and how it falls.”
It will be interesting to see how the first 11 picks do play out, given how many quality edge rushers there appear to be in this class. Eight or more could go in the first round, led by Ohio State’s Nick Bosa, Kentucky’s Josh Allen, Mississippi State’s Montez Sweat, Florida State’s Brian Burns, Michigan’s Rashan Gary and Clemson’s Clelin Ferrell.
Bosa and Allen figure to be long gone by the time Gutekunst goes on the clock, and Sweat and Burns might be gone, too.
The 6-foot-4, 277-pound Gary is an intriguing prospect, having been a first-team all-Big Ten pick each of the past two seasons despite registering just 9.5 combined sacks over the 22 games he played. While scouts see him as extremely athletic and explosive, his production was ho-hum: Eight pass rushers had more sacks last season than Gary had (10.5) in three years with the Wolverines.
Picking him would be based on potential, as he spent his entire Michigan career as a hand-on-the-ground defensive end and his pass-rushing skill set would need to develop significantly.
The 6-4, 264-pound Ferrell, meanwhile, had 27 sacks in three years at Clemson, including 11.5 last year, and has drawn comparisons to Preston Smith, who entered the league as a second-round pick with Washington in 2015 (No. 38 overall) out of Mississippi State.
Za’Darius Smith also has experience moving inside on passing downs, so adding more edge rushers would give Pettine more flexibility.
Whoever the Packers add will have one of Pettine’s most trusted assistants tutoring them, with the team having hired Mike Smith, who played for Pettine in Baltimore and coached under him with the New York Jets before coaching outside linebackers with the Kansas City Chiefs.
While Za’Darius Smith joked upon arrival that the OLB room will be overrun with Smiths, the coach in that group is someone who should get the best out of everyone in there.
“He’s passionate, loves football. He’s going to show them very detailed (ways) of how to do it. And then he’s going to hold them accountable to it,” Pettine said of Mike Smith. “He has a great way with the players, a great demeanor. He’s smart, he’s tough-minded. He’s not a guy that’s just going to say, ‘I’m yelling, therefore I’m coaching.’ So when he does get after a guy, it has some meaning.
“When you look at coaches, it’s never really one thing. I just call it like an ‘it’ factor, and Mike’s got it. That’s why I’m obviously thrilled to get him here.”
One reason the Packers need to get more pass rushers here is the way they’ve allowed the position to atrophy in recent drafts. Last year, they could have taken Texas-San Antonio pass rusher Marcus Davenport at No. 14, but instead traded back with the New Orleans Saints so the Saints could take Davenport there.
While that move got them an additional first-round pick this year, it marked the second straight year that the Packers had an appealing edge rusher on the board and traded back instead of taking him. Two years ago, of course, it was University of Wisconsin pass rusher T.J. Watt, who went to Pittsburgh when then-GM Ted Thompson traded back, and frustrated Packers fans now repeatedly point out the 20 sacks Watt has registered in his first two seasons — including 13 last year when he made his first Pro Bowl.
Asked how much of a difference more edge pressure would make on his side of the ball, defensive tackle Kenny Clark smiled broadly.
“It would help us out,” Clark replied. “It would help us out a lot.”