Mississippi State tackle Derek Sherrod was the Green Bay Packers' top pick in the 2011 NFL draft on Thursday night. / Keith Warren/Jackson Clarion-Ledger
General Manager Ted Thompson looked at the Green Bay Packers’ draft board and saw two players at positions of need he couldn’t have been sure would be there at No. 32 overall: Da’Quan Bowers, an outside linebacker with a bad knee from Clemson, and Derek Sherrod, a tackle from Mississippi State.
Bowers was the longer shot to still be on the board because of his pure physical talent. He had 15½ sacks last season and might have been a top-five prospect if not for the left-knee injury he played through last season that required arthroscopic surgery in January. He also represented a high risk-reward because of concerns about the long-term health of his knee.
Sherrod generally was regarded as the fifth-best tackle prospect in this draft and still was on the board in large part because Wisconsin tackle Gabe Carimi was there for the Chicago Bears to take three picks earlier, at No. 29 overall, for their undermanned offensive line. If Carimi had been gone, the smart money says the Bears would have taken Sherrod.
Looking at Bowers and Sherrod, Thompson opted for the offensive lineman to help protect his franchise quarterback.
Considering Bowers’ playmaking talent, Thompson must have shared the medical concerns about taking him in the first round and presumably thought the knee was too great a risk for microfracture surgery, which is a hit-or-miss procedure that can shorten or diminish careers.
Sherrod, on the other hand, had a clean bill of health, a clean background and is a big man who might be able to play either tackle. Along with last year’s first-round pick, Bryan Bulaga, he offers a bookend to protect quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
“We think it’s really good value to get a big man that late in the first round that we feel like can come in and help us,” Thompson said Thursday night. “Where he’s going to play I don’t know. But I know this: You can never have too many big men.”
Going into Thursday night, it looked like the Packers might be just a few spots off landing an offensive linemen with a first-round grade.
But along with four quarterbacks going in the first round, there were two relative surprise picks ahead of them with Seattle taking Alabama tackle James Carpenter at No. 25 overall and Kansas City selecting Pittsburgh receiver Jonathan Baldwin at No. 26. That almost assured the Packers would be looking at least one and possibly more offensive or defensive linemen that they would have projected more likely than not would have been gone.
Chicago took Carimi at No. 29, and then at Nos. 30 and 31 the New York Jets and Pittsburgh Steelers selected defensive ends for their 3-4 schemes who probably would have interested the Packers: Muhammad Wilkerson, who many scouts thought was a top-20 prospect, to the Jets, and Ohio State’s Cameron Heyward to the Steelers.
Bowers’ fall out of the first round was one of the bigger surprises of this draft. Though his stock fell this offseason because of concerns about his knee, which his mediocre workout for NFL scouts earlier this month failed to alleviate, many scouts still thought he was too talented a player to last much past the 20th pick.
For teams that play 3-4 defenses, Bowers probably would be an outside linebacker even though he’s 280 pounds, which is 10 to 15 pounds heavier that the biggest players who usually play there, and 20 to 30 pounds heavier than the average OLB. He also would have offered the flexibility in the nickel defense of playing as a standup outside rusher or an inside rusher.
Bowers' fall from the first round means a high number of teams thought the medical risk too great for the money invested in a first-round pick.
With Bowers off the Packers’ first-round list, Sherrod by all appearances was an easy selection for them. There were other players on the board they might have felt fine about taking at 32, such as Arizona outside linebacker Brooks Reed, UCLA outside linebacker Akeem Ayers and maybe Texas cornerback Aaron Williams. But they also might have been able to trade back a few spots and still get one of them.
“Once it got to us we were ready to go,” Thompson said. “We felt real comfortable there.”
Sherrod has many of the characteristics besides football talent that Thompson favors in the first round, most notably a clean background that includes already having graduated from school. He also has the physical traits teams look for in tackles to go with his height and weight, including long arms (35 3/8 inches) and huge hands (11 inches).
Thompson wouldn’t commit to where the Packers will play Sherrod, but they could try him as a backup at either right or left tackle, or have him compete for the starting job at left guard. If he’s ready to start immediately at right tackle and the Packers consider that his best position, they also could move Bulaga to starting left guard, where he then would have an easier transition whenever he becomes the starting left tackle.
The pick again shows the value Thompson places on getting bigger players early in drafts.
“Historically speaking, (former GM) Ron (Wolf) and I used to talk about this all the time,” Thompson said. “as you go through a lot of drafts, different years there’s a different kind of player (available in the first round), but if you can get quality big men, you always kind of lean that way.”
The Packers no doubt were interested as Alabama running back Mark Ingram remained on the board as the first round moved into the mid-20s. He probably would have been impossible to pass up because of the dimension he might have added to their offense, but New Orleans traded back into the first round at No. 28 overall and selected him.
Thompson gave little indication about whether he tried to move up to get Ingram. New Orleans gave up its second-round pick in this draft (No. 56 overall) plus a first-rounder next year to get Ingram at No. 28.
“We talked to some people early on,” Thompson said of the possibility of moving up. “Most of these talks were sort of fishing just to see, just to make sure.”