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Green Bay Packers have good shot at acquiring needed defensive lineman in first round of draft

Apr. 20, 2011
 

Defensive line

• Overall: This is the draft’s deepest position in the first round. For 3-4 defenses, anywhere from seven to 11 could go in the first round, and that number goes up if a couple 3-4 outside-linebacker types are taken as ends by teams that play a 4-3 defense.
• Top prospect: Alabama’s Marcell Dareus probably will be one of the first three players drafted and is versatile enough to play nose tackle or defensive end in a 3-4, or defensive tackle in a 4-3.
• Packers outlook: This is one of their highest priorities because of the likely losses of ends Cullen Jenkins and Johnny Jolly.
• Rising star: Corey Liuget, Illinois. Started the offseason as a borderline first-rounder but has moved up to a likely top-15 pick as teams scrutinized the jump he made last season.
• Falling star: Marvin Austin, North Carolina. Has the disruptive talents of a first-rounder but has motivational issues and was a ringleader in the North Carolina scandal where at least a dozen players were suspended for various lengths of time for agent-related and academic violations of NCAA rules.
• Sleeper: Cedric Thornton, Southern Arkansas. A 3-4 defensive end and late-round prospect with great size (6-3 1/8, 309) who is raw after playing at a low level in college but had 8 ½ sacks in 2009.
• Wisconsin ties: UW’s J.J. Watt (Pewaukee), UW-Stout’s Justin Rindt (Whitefish Bay Dominican).

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For NFL teams that play a 3-4 defense, this is one of the most promising drafts in years to get a lineman in the first round.

Defensive end also happens to be one of the Green Bay Packers’ greatest needs, and with perhaps as many as 10 or 11 defensive linemen carrying a first-round grade for at least some teams, there’s a decent chance the draft board will have one worth considering when the Packers select with the last pick in the first round, No. 32 overall.

Most likely, a run on the linemen will wipe the top seven 3-4 linemen, including the University of Wisconsin’s J.J. Watt, off the board by pick No. 32.

Watt probably will go in the middle of the round or shortly thereafter, but one 3-4 defensive end who probably will be available at No. 32 is Ohio State’s Cameron Heyward, who at 6-foot-4 and 294 pounds has close to prototypical size for a low-profile but important position in Dom Capers’ defense.

On base downs, the defensive ends are asked to occupy blockers more than make plays, then on passing downs they move inside to provide some push or pressure from the middle of the pocket.

Heyward, the son of former NFL running back Craig “Ironhead” Heyward, is likely to go at the bottom of the first round or early in the second.

“I think he’ll be there,” said a high-ranking scout from one NFL team. “I could see (the Packers) liking him, I could see him being a guy (General Manager) Ted Thompson kind of likes. Ohio State, solid. I kind of like him, I think he has something to him, knows how to play the game. He’s not a dominant player, but he could be a nice solid player. When you’re picking down there you’re not necessarily going to get a dominant player.”

Defensive end is one of the Packers’ greatest needs because of two likely losses this offseason. Cullen Jenkins, their best inside pass rusher, almost surely will leave in free agency after the Packers didn’t attempt to sign him to a contract extension last season. Though Jenkins is one of the Packers’ better players, Thompson was scared off from making a major financial commitment because of Jenkins’ age (30) and injury history. Some team in greater need of playmaking, though, almost surely will make Jenkins a big offer on the open market.

Also, the Packers were ready to welcome back Johnny Jolly after his suspension last year for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy. But his recent arrest for possession of codeine means his suspension could continue indefinitely, and all but guarantees the Packers are finished with him anyway.

That means the Packers’ returning ends of note are starter Ryan Pickett plus Mike Neal, C.J. Wilson, Howard Green, Jarius Wynn and Justin Harrell. Neal, a second-round pick last year, showed some interesting pass-rushing traits in the two games he played before a torn rotator cuff ended his 2010 season. That’s a major injury, and there are some early durability concerns because Neal also had a strained abdominal muscle that sidelined him the first three games of the season. But he’s also a weight-room fanatic and is staying in Green Bay to work out during the owners lockout, so there’s plenty of reason to think Neal will be at full strength by the start of the season.

Wilson, a seventh-round pick last year, improved as much as anybody on the roster last season and appears to have a solid future. Green proved to be an effective big body in the run game after the New York Jets cut him in midseason but has had weight issues, so his returning to the team in reasonably good shape after the lockout will be crucial. Harrell, the 2007 first-round pick, is a good bet to be released because of his never-ending injury history.

So if the Packers aren’t desperate for a defensive end, it is one of their greater needs.

Among the other defensive linemen possibly worth considering at No. 32, North Carolina’s Marvin Austin appears to have too many questions for football and off-field character to be the kind of player Thompson would select high in the draft. And Baylor’s 334-pound Phil Taylor might go late in the first round to a 3-4 defense that badly needs a nose tackle, but he’s likely too one-dimensional for the Packers to select at No. 32, considering they have one of the NFL’s ascending players at that position in B.J. Raji, plus Pickett and even Green as possible backups.

Heyward might go as early as a few picks before No. 32 or in the first few picks of the second round. He’s not a playmaker (3½ sacks last season), but he was a four-year starter at a football power and is the kind of safe player who might appeal to Thompson at the bottom of the first round.

“I like what he brought to the table,” another scout said “He’s athletic enough. You see him play on the edge, they’ll sink him inside to give some pass rush up the middle. He’s performed and contributed production-wise over the last couple years. Solid player.”

Rating the top defensive ends

1. Nick Fairley, Auburn, 6-3 7/8, 291, Round 1: Junior entry and academic non-qualifier who went to Copiah-Lincoln Community College in Mississippi and then played two seasons for Auburn. Broke out last year for the national champs and at times was dominating as a 4-3 defensive tackle with 24 tackles for a loss and 11½ sacks, phenomenal numbers for an inside player. “People are saying one year (wonder),” one scout said. “Forget that, the guy dominated the level of competition, and it’s the best conference in all of college football. I like him.” Not big and physical enough to play nose tackle in a 3-4 scheme, so he’d have to be an end in a 3-4 base and then move inside on passing downs. Better suited as a 4-3 three-technique. Most scouts interviewed preferred Alabama’s Marcell Dareus to Fairley as the best defensive lineman in this draft, but Fairly has a little more natural body snap and explosion as a pass rusher. His 4.84-second 40 is excellent for a big man. “He’s got ability,” another scout said. “He’s got like wolverine powers, he’s like a super guy, that kind of ability, but he’s just sorry. You go back and watch the Oregon (national championship) game on film, he didn’t even play hard. He made three big plays where he wasn’t blocked. He’s got worlds of ability.”

2. Corey Liuget, Illinois, 6-2 1/8, 298, Round 1: Entering the draft after his true junior season, looked much better last year after dropping about 30 pounds from ’09. “Sort of a one-year guy, but he’s an honest to goodness good player,” a scout said. “He is. No apologies for him. He’s just a good football player.” In the last two years combined had 20½ tackles for a loss and seven sacks. Not a great athlete testing (27½-inch vertical jump) but probably will go by the middle of the first round, "easy," another scout said. “He’s athletic and big and plays hard. He doesn’t know how to pass rush, but they have a slanting system there. If they just let him attack and play they’d be even better. I like him. Good kid too. Interviewed him at the combine.” Said a third scout: “With some NFL coaching, wow. On a good training table I think this guy is going to get up to about 310 max and he’ll be able to play like Cullen Jenkins did in that (Packers’) defense, he’s that kind of player. He has a chance to be special."

3. Cameron Jordan, California, 6-4 1/8, 287, Round 1: Son of former Minnesota Vikings tight end Steve Jordan played defensive end in Cal’s 3-4 defense the last three years. Last season had 12½ tackles for a loss and 5½ sacks, career totals were 34 and 16. “Big man, good player,” a scout said. “Cam Jordan had only six sacks (last year), that’s got to concern you a little bit. When he stands up to play linebacker, he looks like a linebacker at 6-5, 285. He’s tough too, plays hard. He’s an end.” Had a DUI arrest in 2008 but no scout interviewed here considered him a character risk. Could play left end in a 4-3 defense, isn’t quite athletic enough to be a 3-4 outside linebacker, but is ready made as a 3-4 end and nickel inside rusher. “He’ll play pretty good base end, a little more active than (Wisconsin’s J.J.) Watt, a little more athletic than Watt,” another scout said. “His calling will be when teams go to the nickel and he moves inside over a guard. If you play him at 3-4 he’ll never come off the field, you’ll move him inside and let him rush, that’s probably where he’ll be pretty good.”

4. J.J. Watt, Wisconsin, 6-5 3/8, 290, Round 1: Attended Pewaukee High School, started college as a tight end at Central Michigan, then transferred to Wisconsin to play defensive end. After sitting out a season, in two years with the Badgers had 36½ tackles for a loss and 11½ sacks. “He’ll be one of those guys that buys in (to what you’re doing),” a scout said. “I like him. He’s big. I didn’t want to like him, but he’s quick, he gets off the ball. He abuses tight ends.” Is a good prospect for any defensive scheme but appears ready made for a 3-4 end and inside rusher on passing downs. Probably will go in the first 20 picks. Ran the 40 in 4.81 seconds, had an excellent 37-inch vertical jump and 34 bench-press reps. “He plays to the whistle on every play, his motor is relentless," another scout said. "I’m thinking this guy’s an overachiever, he’s not that good an athlete. To hell with that. He goes to the combine, a little of what you saw on tape he really showed it there: 290 pounds, his shuttle was a 6.88, which is better than a lot of defensive backs and running backs. This guy’s 6-5, 290. That’s just freaky. That tells you once he’s up and running he’s got burst, acceleration, change of direction and balance. That’s unbelievable.”

5. Muhammad Wilkerson, Temple, 6-4 1/8, 315, Round 1: Junior entry who was a basketball standout in high school. Academic non-qualifier attended a prep school, then in college started his final two seasons and dominated in the Mid-American Conference. In his final two seasons had 24½ tackles for a loss and 16½ sacks as an interior lineman. More raw than the other 3-4 defensive ends in a deep first round at that position, but is at least as talented and might be more so. “That’s a full grown man,” one scout said. “He’s a powerful dude, weighs about 315, he’s all man now. Smart kid, I like him. Movement skills aren’t spectacular but he’s a man.” One scout said he’s versatile enough to play as a 4-3 tackle, and both nose tackle and end in a 3-4. Could go in the middle of the first round based on potential, though he’ll need time to develop. “I think he’s a project,” another scout said. “He’s going to come to the (NFL) level and do fine. For his size, the combination of speed and everything is pretty good. I just think he’s still raw. In order to get him you have to take him earlier than you’ll want to."

6. Adrian Clayborn, Iowa, 6-2 5/8, 281, Round 1: Three-year starter who suffered an accident during the birthing process that caused a nerve injury in his neck and right shoulder called Erb’s Palsy. The condition causes intermittent weakness on his right side, and he did only 17 bench-press reps at 225 pounds, which is low for a player his size and only half as many as Watt’s 34. Some scouts have expressed concerns about him developing strength, though some of that could be a smokescreen to push him down the draft board. "After his Georgia Tech (Orange) Bowl game a year ago when he went crazy, played awesome, he didn’t do (crap) this year," a scout said. "Looked like he didn’t want to get hurt. An agent got a hold of him, somebody told him not to get hurt this year. He has that Herb’s Palsy in his shoulder. That might hurt him, in his right shoulder. But he’s a good damn football player, I know that." Looked like a potential outside pass rusher after getting 11½ sacks as a junior but then had only 3½ last year. Could play end in either a 3-4 or 4-3, probably will have to play on the right side because of his shoulder. "They sink him inside on passing situations and he does pretty good," another scout said, "but because of that right arm and the nerve damage in that neck, they never expose him. I just don’t know how weak that nerve is going to be. Is it going to keep him from gaining girth in the shoulder?"

7. Cameron Heyward, Ohio State, 6-4 5/8, 294, Rounds 1/2: Son of former NFL running back Craig "Ironhead" Heyward is a ready-made 3-4 defensive end. "He’s just not dynamic enough," said one scout for a team that plays a 4-3 defense. "He’s solid, they said at his workout he busted his (butt). I saw him on junior film and he was awful. He’s OK, good football player." Started for 3½ years and was productive though not dominant – had 15 ½ sacks in his career, including 6½ in ’09 and 3½ last year. Had Tommy John surgery on his elbow after last season, hasn’t been able to bench press test for scouts, and in his campus workout late last month ran the 40 in about 4.95 seconds, which is OK, and had a solid 35-inch vertical jump. Played well last season against Wisconsin left tackle Gabe Carimi, who probably will be selected somewhere between No. 15 and No. 25 overall. "He gave Carimi fits," another scout said. "He’s one of those guys that played on your side of the line of scrimmage, always attacking you, always going up the field. Does a nice job with his hands, good point-of-attack player. He gave Carimi lots of problems. That was probably Carimi’s worst game, Ohio State. (Heyward) was taking his hands, he was stalemating him at the line and then shedding him off. He controlled his hands, then shed the block and go."

8. Marvin Austin, North Carolina, 6-1 5/8, 309, Rounds 1/2: Talented three-year starter who was kicked off the team just before his senior season because of his dealings with an agent. “He’s going to get taken by somebody,” one scout said. “He’s probably going to take a pay cut to go into the NFL. I wouldn’t want him on my team.” Didn’t put up big stats – six tackles for a loss and four sacks in ’09 – but has eye-catching ability, as he showed in testing at the combine (4.84-second 40, 38 bench-press reps). Might lack instincts, though. Best suited for a 4-3 tackle but could be a 3-4 end. One scout wondered if he’s a slightly less talented Kris Jenkins, who didn’t always play hard coming out of Maryland but then, like Austin, stood out at the Senior Bowl. Jenkins was picked in the second round by Carolina in 2001 draft and played in four Pro Bowls. "You turn the tape on, and when the guy wants to play he’s a (butt) kicker," the scout said. "When he doesn’t want to play and be dominant he’s just a guy. I’ve got him in the top of the second round. He might creep up in there (to the first round), if there’s a run on defensive tackles he’ll creep up there quickly."

9. Stephen Paea, Oregon State, 6-1¼, 303, Rounds 1/2: Born in the Tonga Islands and moved to the United States at age 16. Began playing football his last year in high school in Utah, went to a junior college for two years, and then started at defensive tackle for two seasons at Oregon State. Had 18½ tackles and nine sacks his two seasons in the Pac-10. Set an NFL scouting combine record with 49 reps on the bench press and has a mean streak. Looks more like an early-to-mid second rounder than late first-rounder. "He’s real physical and tough as hell but he just doesn’t make many plays," a scout said. "He’s close to making a lot of plays, but he’s, I don’t know, it isn’t like he doesn’t try, he’s a violent (guy), I just don’t see him as a first-rounder. I don’t see it."

10. Christian Ballard, Iowa, 6-3 ¾, 283, Round 2: Left defensive end in a 4-3 scheme who in his final three seasons as a starter had 15½ tackles for a loss and 10 sacks. Runs extremely well for a player his size (4.75 seconds in the 40) and is a much better fit as a 4-3 end than a 3-4 end because he lacks bulk and strength – his 16 bench-press reps at his campus workout would have been second-lowest among all defensive linemen at the scouting combine. But he has some suddenness that intrigues, and might have the ability to become an impact inside rusher. "Solid player," a scout said. "A lot of people are saying second round, I don’t see it quite that high. Probably a three-four. But he brings some versatility to the table."

Rating the top nose tackles

1. Marcell Dareus, Alabama, 6-3 1/8, 319, Round 1: Junior entry who’s probably the best defensive line prospect in this draft, and many scouts rank him among the top two or three players in the draft. "Marcell Dareus is clearly better than Nick Fairley," one scout said. Played defensive end the last two seasons but moved inside on passing downs and in those two years had 20 tackles for a loss and 11 sacks. Probably fits best as a tackle in a 4-3 but more than strong enough to play nose tackle in a 3-4, and versatile enough to play end in a 3-4 also. Ran the 40 in 4.93 seconds, which is excellent for a 319-pounder, and plays stronger than his 24 bench-press reps might suggest. "He has some pass rush, he’s got every tool in the book, both (he and Fairley) do," another scout said. "They’re two good players. They’re not like Ndamukong Suh (the No. 2 pick overall last year), but I’d take them, they’re better and much more talented than (Gerald) McCoy (the No. 3 pick overall last year)."

2. Phil Taylor, Baylor, 6-3 ¼, 332, Rounds 1/2: The best pure 3-4 nose-tackle prospect in the draft, but an underachiever who gave uneven effort in college. Transferred to Baylor after getting suspended for a game in ’07 because of an on-campus fight and then suspended in the ’08 offseason for the same incident. "I think he’s the laziest (guy) I’ve ever seen," a scout said. "He scares me. Shaun Rogers, (Albert) Haynesworth, Kris Jenkins, all showed flashes of want to. This guy shows almost nothing. In the Senior Bowl he did better, but anybody can do better at the Senior Bowl. There’s no question he’s (late first-round) kind of talent, he’s one of the freak shows that don’t come along every night. I thought he was a (jerk) in the interview." Had 6½ tackles for loss and three sacks as a sophomore at Penn State, then in two seasons at Baylor had 9½ and 2½. Ran the 40 in 5.09 seconds and had a 29½-inch vertical, both good for that big a man, and did 31 bench-press reps. "The thing about this guy which bothers me is he disappears in games," a second scout said. "In order to see his production you have to watch four, five, six games. What I saw is enough to say if there’s going to be a run on defensive tackles and nose tackles, if you want a big nose tackle – Baylor asked him to do some things he wasn’t capable of doing –that’s going to hunker in there with a big (butt), this is the guy."

3. Kenrick Ellis, Hampton, 6-4 7/8, 346, Rounds 2/3: Transferred to Hampton in 2008 after getting kicked off the team at South Carolina for reportedly testing positive for marijuana multiple times, thus carries a big red flag for character. Had 27½ tackles for a loss and seven sacks in three seasons at Hampton. Was arrested a year ago for beating up a student who had swung a bat at him. "I like him," a scout said. "He can bend, and in a world where all these so-called first-rounders aren’t playing hard, he plays his (butt) off. Ninety-some tackles in 10 games (last year). Then he went down to (the) Texas (vs.) The Nation (Bowl) and did a nice job." Has fantastic size for a nose tackle. Ran the 40 in 5.19 seconds and did 26 bench-press reps. "He’s not the answer, but he’s a good football player," another scout said. "He’ll never make it to the third round. I think he’ll go late second. He plays hard and he’s a big kid. I think he’s got a real chance, not to be a great one, but he can be a starter."

4. Jurrell Casey, USC, 6-0 5/8, 300 Rounds 3/4: Entering the draft as a true junior, started his final two years and had 20 tackles for a loss and nine sacks in both seasons combined. Doesn’t have the bulk 3-4 teams usually look for in a nose tackle and has an unimpressive pear-shaped physique, but he’s strong enough to hold up blockers and is a better pass rusher than most nose tackles. Did 26 bench-press reps at the combine. "He’s a good football player," one scout said. "Bad body, doesn’t look pretty, but just makes football plays. He did better a year ago than he did this past year, but he’s an active player that makes plays in the run and has a little bit of pass rush ability."

5. Ian Williams, Notre Dame, 6-1 ¼, 319, Rounds 4/5: A one-dimensional run-stopper who started most of his final three seasons for the Irish. Had 11½ tackles for a loss and 1½ sacks over that time. Did 31 bench-press reps at the combine and had a 28½-inch vertical. Figures to sit in the middle of the line on running downs and absorb blockers, then come off the field on nickel downs. "Ian does make plays in the run game," another scout said. "He’s just not going to rush the passer."

Reach Pete Dougherty at pdougher@greenbaypressgazette.com or at www.twitter.com/PeteDougherty.

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