Recent first-round draft picks have saved the Green Bay Packers : Packers Insider

Recent first-round draft picks have saved the Green Bay Packers

November 21, 2010 by  
Filed under News

GM Ted Thompson's track record with first-rounders is pretty good with Raji, Matthews and Bulaga added to Rodgers and linebacker A.J. Hawk

Nov 21, 2010 ~ by Lori Nickel, Journal-Sentinel

~Ted Thompson’s first-round decisions in the last two drafts have already paid off.

The Green Bay Packers general manager took defensive lineman B.J. Raji early in the first round of the 2009 draft.

He then traded up to get Clay Matthews in the same first round, taking the third-round pick he got for trading Brett Favre and using it to deal with New England.

A year later, Thompson drafted tackle Bryan Bulaga in the first round.

As the Packers have managed a 6-3 record, the question has been how, especially with season-ending injuries to 11 players, five of them starters.

Perhaps the question now: Where would the 6-3 Packers be without these most recent first-round draft picks?

“Phew,” said defensive end Ryan Pickett. “We probably wouldn’t be far. Big-time players. All three of them.”Since switching from defensive end to nose, Raji has been an every-down, run-stuffing, pocket-crushing, 337-pound pest on the defensive line. He might be playing Pro Bowl-caliber football.

Since overcoming hamstring issues, Matthews leads the NFL in sacks with 10.5, even though he missed a game. He has become a nightmare for tackles and quarterbacks and might be the NFL’s defensive player of the year.

Since impressing everyone in camp with his fundamentals and maturity, Bulaga has moved to the right side for the first time in his life, has played right tackle since Week 5 and generally keeps pass rushers away from quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

“Bulaga has been pretty good as of late,” said defensive end Cullen Jenkins. “Shut down some pretty big-time players. B.J. and Clay – they’ve been two of the top players on defense this year. B.J. has been there every game playing high reps, playing really stout. I mean, our defense is built around those two up front.”

All three have important roles to fill Sunday as the Packers take on the Minnesota Vikings at the Metrodome.

Green Bay’s run defense held the Cowboys to 39 rushing yards in Week 9. The week before that it neutralized the top-five rush offense of the New York Jets.

Having faced Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson three times now, Raji said the goal is to keep him in front.

“The key is keeping his 2-yard gains to 2-yard gains,” said Raji. “Instead of two turning into nine. He’s capable of breaking anything.”

After that, he has to push the pocket, whether he is going one-on-one with the Vikings center or absorbing a double-team. If John Sullivan can’t go because of a calf injury, he’ll face Jon Cooper.

“I look at it as, any one-on-one with a center, I like my chances,” said Raji. “It doesn’t matter who it is. But Sullivan is great player.”

Matthews missed some practice time with a shin injury. If he’s healthy, his pass rush could force the immobile Brett Favre to get that ball out in a hurry. In the last two years, Matthews has more sacks – 20.5 – than anyone else. He set a rookie record with 10 a year ago.

“We wanted to get Clay Matthews,” said Packers coach Mike McCarthy. “It has obviously been a huge benefit to our football team. Clay has made a big impact.”

Technically, Bulaga would be a senior in college right now. But when he was drafted seven months ago as the 23rd overall pick, he was to be the future left tackle. The hope was that Chad Clifton would hold up well enough for another year to give Bulaga time. Well, Clifton is having one of his best seasons.

First-round rookie BRyan Bulaga has settled in since his struggles in Washington and vs Miami helped cost the Packers those two ball games. The rookie is now playing like a solid veteran at right tackle.

Right tackle Mark Tauscher, on the other hand, has been out since hurting his shoulder in Week 4 and Bulaga took over.

Given that the Packers gave up more sacks than anyone else last year and had a struggling running game, Bulaga had no time to develop. He had to produce.

“At first when Bryan got out there, you worry,” said right guard Josh Sitton. “I came in young, too, and you’re kind of out there scrambling all day. So I would be out there trying to make his call for him.

“We saw how talented he was starting back in OTAs. You could see that. But he’s been a real professional, which is surprising for a real young guy like that. He studies the game. He’s in there watching extra film every day. He works hard every day, takes coaching, he really has been a true professional. It’s real nice to see that.”

Defenses have thrown their best pass rushers at Bulaga. And he’s responded.

“It was a great pick for the Packers because they got great value to get him in the 20s,” said Bulaga’s college coach, Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz. “I really think if Bryan had stayed another year with us he would have been a top-10 pick. He only played three years of college football. For running back or receiver that might not be a big deal. For a lineman, that’s really significant.

“His best football is clearly ahead of him. He played pretty well for us. He takes a lot of pride in how he plays and as a result he’ll do the work that he has to do to be good.”

Thompson’s track record with first-rounders is pretty good with Raji, Matthews and Bulaga added to Rodgers and linebacker A.J. Hawk, who is having a good season. Justin Harrell is the only one who hasn’t worked out at all due to chronic injuries.

If the Packers didn’t have Matthews, Raji and Bulaga, they might be struggling at right tackle, as they did a year ago when Tauscher was out and Allen Barbre gave up too many pressures.

They would not have Raji to make up for the loss of Pickett, who has had an ankle injury for more than a month.

And they might not have a pass rush coming from the linebackers, since Brad Jones is hurt, too.

“Well, where would we be without the other 50?” said Thompson. “We need ’em all. We have to have all our guys contributing and that’s what we tell them all the time. It’s not fantasy football. People are going to miss some time and you’re going to have to have young men step up and take their place. So you need them all.”

Thompson’s reputation is that he generally builds the Packers through the draft with a few select free agent signings and by doing so, he is in pretty good position looking down the road. Compare that to Minnesota.

The Vikings have had a win-now mentality, pushing their payroll to $150 million by trading for players like Jared Allen or signing big-name free agents like Favre, Steve Hutchinson and Randy Moss (since released).

That win-now strategy worked in 2009. The Vikings got to the NFC Championship Game but fell short of a Super Bowl, losing to New Orleans.

Now the aging Vikings are holding on and hoping for a great run to save their season. If they endure a disappointing season, it is possible they’ll have a major roster overhaul.

Thompson said he hasn’t defined exactly how soon he expects first-round players to make an impact.

“I think it’s more an investment in the future. You hope they have a long and healthy and happy career,” said Thompson. “They’re just getting started. Sometimes we want to anoint things before we finish them. I think they’re going to have long, good careers and that’s what we hope for. It isn’t necessarily focused on what happened yesterday. It’s looking down to the future with your guys, especially with your guys you picked pretty highly, to have long healthy careers.”

Still, it’s not a bad story. Bulaga changes positions and holds up. Raji moves from end to tackle and stars. Matthews is the toast of the NFL. Despite their youth and inexperience, they’re helping this team.

“Mike and his staff have always been unafraid of going with younger guys if the younger guys are the best option at the time,” said Thompson. “There are some staffs that are a little more hesitant. I think credit goes to the players first – they’re the ones out there doing it.”

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