GREEN BAY — If the Green Bay Packers needed a reminder that they must become a bigger, tougher, more physical football team, they got it when the NFL schedule came out last week.
First up for the Packers in the fall? The San Francisco 49ers.
That would be the same 49ers team that opened and closed the Packers’ 2012 season by physically pounding them into submission twice.
If San Francisco was simply a bad matchup for Green Bay, there wouldn’t be overwhelming cause for alarm on Lombardi Avenue. These were not isolated cases, however.
In four of the Packers’ six losses last season — to the New York Giants, Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco twice — they were mauled by bigger, more physical teams. Coupled with their dreadful playoff performance against the Giants that put a shocking end to their 2011 season, the evidence simply became too great to ignore.
The elite teams in the NFC have become extremely physical while the Packers have gone in the opposite direction. Coach Mike McCarthy bristles at the suggestion his team isn’t physical, but it has become clear that if the Packers want to regain control of the NFC, they can’t keep playing finesse football.
The Packers have to run and they have to stop the run. They have to keep pass rushers off Aaron Rodgers, who was sacked more often than any quarterback in the NFL last season. They have to start regularly winning the line of scrimmage again.
Fortunately for the Packers, the NFL draft that began Thursday night played right into their hands. It was a meat-and-potatoes draft, short on star power but loaded with big linemen on both sides of the ball. Since the Packers need beef along both lines, they figured to find a lineman who could help them stand up to their fellow NFC powers.
That’s exactly what happened. Despite having needs elsewhere, general manager Ted Thompson seemed determined to improve one of his lines with the 26th pick in the first round. An early run on offensive linemen probably forced Thompson’s hand. He was left with a quality selection of defensive linemen and quickly chose Datone Jones, a 6-foot-3 7/8, 285-pound defensive end from UCLA.
After using his first six picks on defense last year, Thompson went back to that side of the ball with his first-rounder this year. As usual, he rejected any suggestion he picked for need.
“We didn’t go into it like that today, not at all,” he said. “Especially later in the draft, you’re concentrating on quality as much as you can.”
It remains to be seen if Jones will provide the quality Thompson wants. He does, however, fill in many holes for the Packers.
First, he’s a versatile, disruptive player who can play multiple positions on the line. Indeed, the Packers may have finally replaced Cullen Jenkins, who was allowed to leave in free agency following the Super Bowl-winning 2010 season.
Second, he is the first end the Packers have had with the height they desire. When coordinator Dom Capers was hired in 2009 and installed the Pittsburgh-style 3-4 defense, he talked about having tall ends with the length and bulk to hold the edge but also the speed and athleticism to rush the passer.
Third, they added much-needed size in the defensive line. Remember, the Packers took two defensive linemen in last year’s draft, but second-rounder Jerel Worthy and fourth-rounder Mike Daniels were short, quick, pass-rusher types. Jones is big enough to play on any down; he’s not a situational player.
Finally, Jones should make an immediate impact with the Packers because he played in a similar defensive scheme at UCLA.
“He’s a very versatile player,” Thompson said. “He was all up and down the line of scrimmage at UCLA. He should be able to fit in and help our group out.”
To do that, Jones must buck the trend of Thompson’s defensive-line draft picks, perhaps the only hole in the general manager’s stellar drafting resume with the Packers.
Though inconsistent, nose tackle B.J. Raji has largely lived up to his billing as a top-10 pick. However, 2007 first-round tackle Justin Harrell was an injury-plagued bust, 2010 second-round pick Mike Neal is heading in the same direction and Worthy was a disappointment last year prior to a season-ending knee injury.
If Jones eventually becomes a taller version of Jenkins, the Packers did indeed take a good first step toward becoming a more physical team Thursday.