Tom Oates: Draft unlikely to provide the help Packers need

April 9, 2017 GMT

Don’t let one splashy signing — tight end Martellus Bennett — fool you, the Green Bay Packers haven’t improved themselves since the NFL’s free agent feeding frenzy began a month ago.

For sure, the Packers did get some things done in free agency.

Despite losing Jared Cook, they got better at tight end by signing Bennett and Lance Kendricks. They also acquired some solid veteran depth by signing defensive lineman Ricky Jean Francois and cornerback Davon House.

Closer to home, they retained outside linebacker Nick Perry, though at $59 million for five years it wasn’t cheap. They also kept guard Don Barclay, halfback Christine Michael and outside linebacker Jayrone Elliott as insurance policies.

Every one of those moves was worth making. However, they weren’t enough to make Green Bay a winner in the first month of the offseason. In fact, the Packers are nowhere near as good right now as they were when the season ended. At this point in the process, the incoming talent hasn’t matched the outgoing talent.

The Packers did manage to offset the loss of Cook and did roughly the same with departed slot cornerback Micah Hyde when they brought back House after two years in Jacksonville. But they have done little to replace the other free agents they lost: guard T.J. Lang, center JC Tretter, halfback Eddie Lacy and outside linebackers Julius Peppers and Datone Jones. Nor have they replaced No. 1 cornerback Sam Shields and backup halfback James Starks, both of whom were released due to injury concerns.

With free agency slowing to a crawl and the attention turning to the upcoming draft, it’s time to take stock of what the Packers still need to acquire if they hope to improve a team that reached the NFC Championship Game before crumbling under the weight of a substandard defense.

As it stands now, the Packers have four gaping holes in an otherwise solid roster. They need a workhorse, between-the-tackles halfback to replace Lacy, a physical right guard to replace Lang, an explosive edge pass rusher to replace Peppers and a shutdown cornerback to replace Shields. They don’t need roster-fillers at those positions, either. They need difference-makers.

Currently, there is no one on the roster to adequately fill any of those needs. And what remains on the free agent market isn’t likely to help, even if general manager Ted Thompson is inclined to dabble even more in free agency.

That leaves the draft, where the Packers own their seven picks in addition to a fifth-round compensatory pick. As usual, they will select late in every round, which only adds to their degree of difficulty on draft day.

Here’s the problem: The chances of the Packers filling four major holes in one draft with immediate-impact players aren’t good. In fact, they’re just this side of impossible.

Even if the draft were to break just right at those positions, Thompson would still have to pick the right guys. His drafting record is good, but it’s not that good.

With mostly stop-gap candidates internally and the free agent market quickly drying up, it’s hard to see how the Packers are going to get better — or even stay the same — at more than one or two of those four positions this offseason.

Coach Mike McCarthy is talking like he considers converted wide receiver Ty Montgomery an every-down back, but Montgomery, though athletic and versatile, has never proved he can shoulder a heavy workload. Since the Packers don’t appear to be all that interested in free agent Adrian Peterson, who is a poor fit for a shotgun-heavy team like Green Bay anyway, they are likely to draft a halfback. They might be in luck, too, because the draft is so deep in halfbacks they might be able to get a starting-quality runner in the third or fourth round.

Finding a guard to replace Lang might be more problematic. Like most NFL teams, the Packers aren’t likely to use a first-round pick on a guard, especially when they have a pressing need for playmakers on defense. By the time Green Bay picks in the second round, any guard who could start immediately will probably be gone.

Given that McCarthy has stated his preference for moving outside linebacker Clay Matthews all around on defense this season, a dynamic edge rusher should be a high priority for the Packers. Fortunately for them, there should be plenty to choose from in the first two rounds as pass rusher is a strength of the draft.

Cornerback is another strength of the draft and it would be no surprise to see the Packers take one in the first or second round. The problem is, if the Packers use their first two picks on defense, they’ll still have major holes on offense. Some think they should trade for Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman, who is being shopped around, but he wouldn’t be a good fit for their culture or their scheme. Besides, Thompson doesn’t trade premium draft picks for veteran players. Period.

As deep as this draft is, it’s not deep enough to satisfy all of the Packers’ remaining needs. Unless something unexpected happens, it’s starting to look like Thompson will do no better than break even during an offseason when the Packers needed to improve themselves.