GREEN BAY — Defensive line might be the NFL draft’s most mistake-laden and most disappointment-filled position. And the Green Bay Packers have hardly been immune.
It’s where Mike Sherman’s coach/general manager tenure unraveled because of a combination of bad draft picks (most notably 2001 first-rounder Jamal Reynolds), a costly free-agent mistake (Joe Johnson) and overpaying to keep one lazy player (Cletidus Hunt) and another with a limited skill set (speed rusher Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila).
His successor as GM, Ted Thompson, fired him as coach after Bob Harlan had taken away the GM title, as the Thompson-Sherman collaboration lasted only the 4-12 season in 2005.
But Thompson’s defensive line drafting history has been uneven as well. Although he’s had a few hits (B.J. Raji in the first round in 2009; Mike Daniels in the fourth round in 2012), they’ve been more than outweighed by his misses — from ultra-bust Justin Harrell (first round, 2007) to early-round disappointments like Jerel Worthy (second round, 2012) and Khyri Thornton (third round, 2014).
Others, like 2013 first-round pick Datone Jones, weren’t out-and-out disappointments but certainly didn’t become impact players.
All that said, last year’s first-round pick, UCLA defensive tackle Kenny Clark, came on during the second half of his rookie season, and with a ton of football ahead of him — Clark was just 20 years old when the Packers took him with the 27th overall pick — he could turn out to be one of Thompson’s hits.
“I thought Kenny by the second half of the season was probably playing as well as anybody — I thought him and Mike Daniels were a notch above,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said at the NFL meetings last month. “Kenny, you could see he’s comfortable, he was playing faster. I thought his in-game conditioning definitely needed to improve from the beginning of the year, and he just needed to play.
“Like a lot of young players, you had anxiety and a little bit of stress when you first get in there, and I thought he really cut it loose the last six to eight games.”
The Packers also gave late-season snaps to rookie fifth-round selection Dean Lowry at defensive end, but the jury is still out on him.
“I’m confident that Kenny and Dean will both take a big step this offseason program and will be playing a lot more,” McCarthy said.
The defensive line is the position on defense where Thompson has augmented his draft picks with veteran additions — defensive tackles Letroy Guion, added in 2014, and Ricky Jean Francois, added last month — which is out of the norm for the Packers’ draft-and-develop operation.
With Jean Francois only signing a one-year deal and Guion’s future uncertain with a looming four-game NFL suspension for a positive test for performance-enhancing drugs, it’s a very safe bet the Packers will add a defensive lineman or two among their eight picks, even with other needs on the roster.
Thompson frequently uses the phrase “The good Lord only made so many big guys” nearly every year at this time, and as a team, the Packers have drafted plenty of them on the defensive line — even after shifting to a 3-4 scheme in 2009.
Since 1992, when Ron Wolf presided over his first draft, the Packers have taken a whopping 35 defensive linemen, including first-rounders Vonnie Holliday (No. 19 overall, 1998), Reynolds (No. 10 overall, 2001), Harrell (No. 16 overall, 2007), Raji (No. 9 overall, 2009), Jones (No. 26 overall, 2013) and Clark.
Thus, Thompson taking another on Thursday night at No. 29 would not be a surprise.“We do spend a lot of time on it. We try to do a lot of work. It’s important,” Thompson said of the draft as a whole. “The league is set up in such a way that it’s important for every team — not just the Packers — but for every team to try to have good young players coming into the team and shoring it up.”