Packers must ace draft to keep Super Bowl window open


Since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, there have been six seasons in which a quarterback threw for over 4,000 yards and 35 touchdowns while completing over 65 percent of his passes and having less than 1.5 percent of them intercepted. Four of the six belong to Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

The Packers’ gunslinger has put together a run which can rival anyone in history, with last season being no exception. Rodgers and the Packers took a 4-6 record into Thanksgiving. Everyone counted them out, but Rodgers said they’d run the table en route to the playoffs.

He wasn’t wrong, leading the Pack to a 10-6 finish, stealing the NFC North out from under the Minnesota Vikings and Detroit Lions and propelling Green Bay to the NFC title game.

Over those final six regular season games, Rodgers was immaculate, completing 71 percent of his passes with 9.84 adjusted yards per attempt, 15 touchdowns and zero interceptions. In the playoffs, Rodgers singlehandedly destroyed the league’s second-ranked defense in efficiency in the Wild Card Round, then staved off a Cowboys comeback with a legendary game-winning drive in the Divisional Round.

Did we mention that Rodgers is 33 years old?

Aaron Rodgers

His age is a pressing matter for Green Bay, not because of a decline in performance, but because when it comes to the Packers’ title window, Rodgers is the clock. When he retires, be it in one year or eight, the Packers will be relegated to the tier of mediocrity … or worse.

It’s weird to think that the Packers, who play in Titletown itself, could be anything but perennial contenders. But from 1968-1992, they won just one playoff game. And there is no prodigy waiting on the bench to replace Rodgers as Rodgers waited to replace Brett Favre.

With that in mind, this is one of the most important drafts in Green Bay’s franchise history.

Offensively, the team is more or less set.

The only things worth changing are right guard and head coach. At the former position, Don Barclay leaves a lot to be desired. At the latter, Mike McCarthy has lapped up credit for the work of Favre and Rodgers all while setting the team back with an outdated system and poor game management. McCarthy won’t be fired — as long as head coaches are judged by their overall record instead of how a team performed relative to how a team should have performed, he’ll be fine — making it all the more imperative Green Bay fixes problems in other places.

Defense, is a problem.

The Packers were 20th in defensive efficiency last season. And when injuries hit their secondary, a lack of depth at the cornerback position played a large part in their NFC title game loss. General manager Ted Thompson has already started to address this by signing Davon House to a bargain-bin deal in free agency. House was a solid player in his first go-round with the Packers but struggled last season in Jacksonville, posting a 43.6 PFF grade. At one year for $2.8 million, however, there’s a good case that House can contribute in a familiar scheme.

Even if House rebounds completely, Green Bay’s secondary still isn’t particularly deep. The Packers didn’t just struggle against No. 1 wideouts last season, either. They were 29th in efficiency against No. 2 wideouts and 26th against third and fourth wideouts. Between Quinten Rollins, Demetri Goodson, Ladarius Gunter and Damarious Randall, not one person had a PFF grade above 60 last season. Safety Micah Hyde did an admirable job filling in at slot corner when there were no other options, but he’s no longer with the club, having signed a free-agency deal in Buffalo.

Luckily for the Packers, this draft is full of cornerback talent. With the 29th pick, Thompson may still be able to select Washington’s Kevin King, USC’s Adoree’ Jackson or Ohio State’s Gareon Conley (though Conley has moved up draft boards in recent weeks). If he decides to target the position in later rounds, there’s enough depth to this class that it could still help. However, he needs to find someone who can contribute immediately.

Green Bay’s window is open now, but it will be closed in a heartbeat if Rodgers takes a bad hit or simply chooses to retire any time soon. The Packers don’t have time to wait around for someone to develop.

Safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is a good model for the level of production the Packers should want from whomever they draft. Picked in 2014, Clinton-Dix had a solid 74.2 PFF grade in his first season and has only gotten better.

Thompson could also do well to pick up an inside linebacker at some point. The Packers could probably wait on this position, as they likely plan on starting Jake Ryan and 2016 first rounder Blake Martinez, but a lack of depth there hurt them last season. When Martinez injured his knee, Green Bay had little choice but to shift Clay Matthews back inside, taking him away from the edge, where he can wreak havoc. The goal should be for Matthews and Nick Perry to play all 16 games at outside linebacker and the best way to do it is to add depth at inside linebacker.

The Packers are capable of winning the Super Bowl this year. They have the best quarterback in football and gave him more help this offseason, making a rare foray into free agency to add tight end Martellus Bennett. Their receiving corps is healthy and made strides last season, with Davante Adams going from one of the worst wideouts in football to a respectable piece on a playoff team.

A championship shouldn’t just be the goal, it should be the only thing that can make the season a success. Anything else should be unacceptable. Drafting well is Green Bay’s next step to taking the Lombardi home.

On the other side of the coin, a poor draft will mean another wasted opportunity to give Rodgers a fighting chance to earn his second title.