Thompson not worried about inside linebacker

After two days and three rounds of the 2015 NFL Draft, the Green Bay Packers have not addressed the position that – at least in the view of people not named Ted Thompson – was their biggest need: Inside linebacker.

By adding Miami (Ohio) cornerback Quinten Rollins in the second round (No. 62 overall) and Stanford wide receiver/kick returner Ty Montgomery in the third round (No. 94 overall) Friday night, the Packers veteran general manager did what he said he’d set out to do during the first two days of the draft.

“It’s a simple plan, but we wanted to make sure we got football players,” Thompson said. “And we think we got a couple more tonight.”

That neither of them – nor first-round pick Damarious Randall, the Arizona State defensive back they picked at No. 30 on Thursday night – play inside linebacker is, at least for some of the team’s loyal, passionate and opinionated fans, a sure sign of the apocalypse.

For Thompson, though, it is business as usual.

“We’re going to address [inside linebacker] just like we address all other positions and try to make it as strong as we can,” he said when asked how he might reassure fans who are concerned about the position.

Asked to assess the team’s depth at inside linebacker, Thompson replied, “I think it’s fine.”

After jettisoning veteran starters A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones and letting part-time starter Jamari Lattimore leave as an unrestricted free agent, the Packers’ inside linebacker depth chart currently contains starter Sam Barrington, followed by three players who’ve never played a regular-season snap at inside linebacker: 2014 fourth-round pick Carl Bradford, converted outside linebacker Nate Palmer and practices-squadder Joe Thomas. Bradford didn’t play at all as a rookie, Palmer saw limited snaps two years ago before missing last season with a knee injury and Thomas flashed in camp before receiving an injury settlement.

Regardless of any improvement those three make this offseason, one thing seems self-evident: If that’s Thompson’s honest opinion about the position, then he, coach Mike McCarthy and defensive coordinator Dom Capers must be planning on playing outside linebacker Clay Matthews on the inside again in 2015, just as he did for the second half of last season – when the defense improved dramatically.

Because even if the Packers add an inside linebacker sometime on Day 3 – among Thompson’s late inside linebacker picks over the last eight drafts have been Desmond Bishop (sixth round, 2007), D.J. Smith (sixth round, 2011), Terrell Manning (fifth round, 2012) and current starter Sam Barrington (seventh round, 2013) – the fact that they didn’t make the position a priority points to Matthews working inside on, at the bare minimum, a part-time basis.

At midseason last year, Capers shifted Matthews inside – by season’s end he was playing inside in the nickel defense and at his usual outside spot in the base and dime defenses – and he finished with 69 tackles, 11 sacks, one interception, two forced fumbles and six pass breakups while playing in all 16 games. 

While Matthews was reluctant about the switch – and was thought to be less than thrilled about the possibility of playing there again this season – the fact of the matter is that he’s pretty good inside.

While those snaps do prevent one of the NFL’s top edge rushers from doing his thing, moving Matthews around also has its benefits. Presumably, the Packers would like to be able to be more selective with when they put Matthews in the middle.

At the same time, it’s also clear that Thompson and his staff weren’t smitten with any of the highly rated inside linebackers who came off the board before or after they went on the clock.

Only one inside linebacker – Clemson’s Stephone Anthony, who went to the New Orleans Saints with the 31st pick, one selection after the Packers passed on him to take Randall – went during Thursday night’s first round.

During the second round Friday, three of the top inside linebackers went in a six-pick span: Mississippi State’s Benardrick McKinney went 43rd overall to the Houston Texans; UCLA’s Eric Kendricks went 45th to the Minnesota Vikings; and Miami (Fla.)’s Denzel Perryman went 48th to the San Diego Chargers – all before the Packers went on the clock at No. 62. 

In the third round, Texas’ Jordan Hicks went 84th to Philadelphia, and Texas Christian’s Paul Dawson went 99th to the Cincinnati Bengals. Perryman’s height was an issue for some teams; Dawson’s speed was an issue for others.

While the Packers passed on Dawson, who ran a troublingly slow 4.93-second 40-yard dash, the others were gone by the time the Packers picked. Thompson certainly could have swung a trade to move up and take one of them, but considering he made three trades to move up to take defensive players during the 2012 draft – and that draft ranks among his worst in his 11-year tenure – perhaps moving up would have been a mistake. It’s also possible that in the draft room, no one liked those inside linebackers as much as outsiders thought they should have.

Let’s not be glib here, though. Thompson hasn’t been infallible as a general manager, and his own head coach did liken the inside linebacker position this offseason to where the team stood at safety a year earlier. The Packers were bad at safety in 2012 but did nothing that offseason to address the position and ended up being a train-wreck there in 2013. Not until last year, when Micah Hyde shifted over from cornerback and Thompson took Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix in the first round did the safety position improve.  

Could Thompson and the Packers rue their decision not to address inside linebacker via veteran free agency or the first three rounds of the draft? Sure, they could. But if the close-to-the-vest Thompson is worried about the position, he showed no signs of it Friday night.

“Because I’m a football guy,” he replied when asked why he wasn’t worried. “I have confidence in the fellas that we have. … We have concerns [about depth] at a number of places. It’s just part of the spring and draft and going through the process of the summer time. You work all that through.

“This thing is a long way from being put to bed.”

PACKERS’ REMAINING 2015 NFL DRAFT SELECTIONS

Fourth round: No. 129
Fifth round: No. 166
Sixth round: No. 206, No. 210*, No. 213*
Seventh round: No. 247

* — Compensatory pick, cannot be traded

Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today,” and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.

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