Alabama's Courtney Upshaw played 3-4 outside linebacker for Alabama but at 272 pounds at the combine already had shown marginal ability to play in coverage in the NFL. / File/Getty Images
One of the strengths of the later first round of this year’s NFL draft matches the Green Bay Packers’ need for an outside linebacker or defensive lineman who can improve their pass rush.
Besides Boise State’s Shea McClellin, who is favored by many draft experts to be taken by the Packers in the first round at No. 28 overall, there are several other potential candidates that could interest General Manager Ted Thompson.
Among the other 3-4 outside linebackers candidates are South Carolina’s Melvin Ingram, Illinois’ Whitney Mercilus, USC’s Nick Perry, Alabama’s Courtney Upshaw and Don’t’a Hightower, Clemson’s Andre Branch, Syracuse’s Chandler Jones and maybe Marshall’s Vinny Curry.
Three scouts interviewed late this week said Ingram and Mercilus will be gone by 28, and Perry likely too. Two scouts said they expected Jones to be gone also, and both said he’s a 4-3 defensive end who would have significant shortcomings in coverage as a 3-4 outside linebacker.
Hightower appears more likely than not to go in the top 25, though scouts this spring were split on his best position in a 3-4. Some think it’s inside linebacker, while others saw promise as an outside linebacker because of the occasional end rushing he did for Alabama, though he had only three sacks last season.
A big question is what Thompson will do if Upshaw is still on the board at No. 28. The outside linebacker was the best player on the nation’s best defense, but his stock seems to be falling as the draft draws near because he’s a position ‘tweener. He played 3-4 outside linebacker for Alabama but at 272 pounds at the combine already had shown marginal ability to play in coverage in the NFL. Then at his campus workout he weighed nearly 280 pounds and ran the 40 in 4.81 seconds, which is slow for a 3-4 outside linebacker.
All three scouts late this week said that if they were a 3-4 team, they’d take McClellin ahead of Upshaw.
“In this day and age, what coaches really like is a guy that can play several different positions on defense,” one scout said. “In this draft, I think there’s two players that are perfect fits for teams: (McClellin) is a perfect fit for Green Bay, and Dont’a Hightower is a perfect fit for Pittsburgh at 24.”
But the same scout insisted Upshaw won’t make it to 28 anyway because he’s a powerful, tough and effective player for any defensive scheme.
“I don’t know how he gets there,” the scout said. “Upshaw, he’s a fall football player, not a spring football player. He’s going to give teams what he has when he plays. He’s not going to run very good (in testing) and all that. He’s physical and nasty at the point of attack.”
Though Curry drew raves for his on- and off-field character and pass-rush skills, all three scouts said he didn’t have the talent of a late first-round pick, and that he’s likely to go in the second.
Branch, on the other hand, appears to have first-round ability as an outside rusher, and the question is whether he plays hard enough for Thompson to invest a first-round selection. Thompson’s history in the first round is that unless it’s a huge interior defensive lineman (Justin Harrell and B.J. Raji), he errs on the side of players who haven’t had effort issues.
Two of the scouts late this week questioned Branch’s effort, but one saw more than enough for teams looking for an outside rusher late in the first round.
“The film I watched, the guy played his (butt) off,” the scout said. “He was trying to get the corner. Clemson was in some games that were always close and tight, and he was having to make some plays, and he was making some plays. I saw a guy who was maybe the best pure pass rusher in the draft when it came to that defensive end. I didn’t see a dog there.”
There are two or three 3-4 defensive ends who could be possibilities at No. 28 also: Penn State’s Devon Still, Michigan State’s Jerel Worthy and perhaps Connecticut’s Kendall Reyes. The Packers’ greatest need is pass rush, so they’d be looking for a 3-4 end who can provide quality inside rush in their nickel defense.
Still (4 ½ sacks last year) might be the most attractive of the three as a rusher, though scouts questioned his effort game in and game out. Worthy (3½ sacks last year) didn’t show quite as much rush but was occasionally dominant despite a spotty motor. Reyes was the least dynamic of the three and looks more like a mid-second round talent.
“I thought there was some inconsistency in (Still’s) play and his effort from game to game, but I think he has the ability to be an elite inside pass rusher,” another scout said. “He showed it against good competition. He can do it and he’s shown he can do it against good schools. You wonder what happened in some of those other games.”
With the release of safety Nick Collins on Wednesday because of his neck injury, the Packers also are a good bet to select a safety in the first three rounds. However, it appears unlikely they’d take one in the first round. Only one safety, Alabama’s Mark Barron, appears to warrant a first-round grade, and he’s likely to be gone by pick No. 20.