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Draft preview: Rare first-round safety pick not out of the question for Packers

Apr. 19, 2013
 
Packers Draft Preview: Defensive backs
Packers Draft Preview: Defensive backs: April 19: Press-Gazette reporters Pete Dougherty and Wes Hodkiewicz take a look at the draft's defensive backs and if there's a safety in the group who could be the answer to replacing three-time Pro Bowler Nick Collins.
Eric Reid had 167 tackles, six interceptions and 17 passes defended in two seasons as a starter at LSU. / File/Getty Images
Florida's Matt Elam is more of a hard-striking strong safety who tackles well in the open field than a free safety. / File/Getty Images

Top prospect: Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner could be a top-10 pick.
Overall draft: Better than usual depth at safety in the second round, could be six or seven future starters at that position.
Packers outlook: They have an open spot at starting safety after cutting Charles Woodson in the offseason, so they’re a decent bet to use a high draft pick there.
Rising star: Houston’s D.J. Hayden nearly died because of a freakish internal injury last year but has climbed draft boards to a likely second-round pick, if not higher, after running a great 40 in March.
Falling star: Florida State’s Xavier Rhodes is an impressive height-weight-speed cornerback, but some scouts question how well he plays and think he might slip from the top 15 to a second-round selection.
Sleeper: Georgia’s Sanders Commings isn’t instinctive but could be worth a second-day pick because he has a safety’s size (6-0 1/8, 216) and a cornerback’s speed (4.41 seconds in the 40).

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The Green Bay Packers have selected only one safety in the first round of the NFL draft.

That came in 1993, when former general manager Ron Wolf traded up for a second first-round selection and took Alabama’s George Teague at No. 29 overall.

Six years later, Wolf with the No. 25 pick selected Antuan Edwards, who had played safety in his final year of college. But Wolf selected him as a cornerback, and the Packers didn’t move Edwards to safety until 2002.

So that’s one first-round safety since the NFL began drafting players in 1936. A question heading into the 2013 draft is whether general manager Ted Thompson will double that number to two with his first-round pick to fill the huge hole in the Packers’ defense left by Nick Collins’ retirement because of a neck injury sustained in Week 3 of 2011.

It’s all but a given Texas safety Kenny Vaccaro will be gone by the time the Packers select at No. 26 overall. That will leave probably three safeties who could go as high as the later first or early second round: LSU’s Eric Reid, Florida International’s Jonathan Cyprien and Florida’s Matt Elam.

Thompson could very well consider selecting any of them at No. 26 or a few spots later on a trade back. One high-ranking executive for an NFL team said he wouldn’t consider it a reach.

“I don’t think so,” he said. “Especially if they feel the need.”

The Packers definitely have the need, though safety has been one of the NFL’s lesser-valued positions in recent years. They consider fourth-year safety Morgan Burnett an ascending player, but they’ve badly missed Collins, who in their Super Bowl season of 2010 probably was their third-best defensive player, behind Clay Matthews and Charles Woodson. Their defense hasn’t been the same since his injury.

Thompson declared the Packers’ desire to get younger and more athletic at safety opposite Burnett when he cut the 36-year-old Woodson in the offseason rather than offer him a pay cut. At least two players will be in the fight to replace him, third-year pro M.D. Jennings (6-0, 195) and second-year pro Jerron McMillian (5-11, 203), who was a fourth-round pick last year.

Jennings was the starter from Week 8 through the end of the regular season after Woodson sustained a broken collarbone, but the Packers also drafted McMillian with the hope he’d be ready to push for the job, if not as a rookie then by his second season. Still, Thompson might try to upgrade the talent level of the position by using a high draft pick there this year, at minimum to provide a third option for the starting job, and possibly as the front-runner to be the starter, depending on where he’s picked.

Reid, who’s entering the draft after his true junior season, rates high for being a complete package physically. He’s tall and fairly big for a safety (6-foot-11/4, 213 pounds), tested extremely well at the NFL scouting combine and produced well in two years as a starter for a premier college program.

Reid ran the 40 in 4.53 seconds and demonstrated athletic explosiveness by tying for the best vertical (401/2 inches) and broad (11-2) jumps among the safeties at the NFL scouting combine. In two seasons as a starter at LSU, he put up good but not spectacular numbers: 167 tackles, six interceptions and 17 passes defended.

“He’s one of those guys that could be that matchup for you, he could take care of those (receiving-oriented) tight ends,” said a scout for an NFC team. “But he’s more of a projection. He’s got freaky athletic (ability), but he isn’t as good a football player as he is an athlete.”

Cyprien has great size (6-01/4, 217) but didn’t run as well — he didn’t do the 40 at the combine, then reportedly ran 4.65 seconds at his campus workout. He played at the lower FCS level in the Sun Belt Conference, and is more of a hard-striking strong safety who tackles well in the open field than a free safety. Teams will love the tackling, which will cut off potential big plays, but some question how well he’ll hold up in coverage in a pass-oriented league.

“There’s some games, you’re like, ‘Wow, he’s killin’ ’em,’” another scout said. “But then the Duke game, the first game of the year, he’s closer to a bad safety than a good safety. The other part I have a problem with, if you’re that good shouldn’t you dominate that conference or the people you play against? He does every now and then but not all the time. But guys have different opinions. He’s a real enigma. Which guy is he? Is he the good player or is he the bad player?”

Elam also is high on many boards but has one major drawback that will ruin his grade for some teams — his height. He measured 5-97/8 at the scouting combine, which automatically removes him from the boards of teams that have height minimums above that. That probably includes the Packers, because from all indications Thompson has held to the same 5-101/2 minimum his mentor Wolf set in his 91/2 years as Packers GM.

Some teams still will look at Elam’s speed (4.54-second 40) and physical play and rate him as a late first-round or early second-round prospect. But other teams will significantly drop or even remove him from their boards because of his height.

“He’s going to go late in the first or early in the second depending on who needs a safety,” a scout said. “He’s probably the second (safety) off board. There’s some people that might make an argument for Reid, depending on what you like.”

Top prospects: Cornerback

1. Dee Milliner, Alabama, 5-117/8, 201, Round 1

True junior entry was three-year starter at a school that produces polished defensive backs. Became a possible top-10 pick when at the scouting combine he erased concerns about his long speed with a 4.37-second 40, which was second-fastest among cornerbacks and sixth fastest overall. “When he ran 4.3-whatever at the combine, the first thing I said was, ‘ching, ching,’” one scout said. “I thought he’d be more like a 4.5 guy like (Alabama’s Dre’) Kirkpatrick last year. But when he ran that, it was, ‘OK, that might get him in the top 10.’ He’s a really good player, and that was the one huge question mark, top-end speed. That answered that.” In his career had six interceptions and 41 passed defended. Had a solid 36-inch vertical jump. Had surgery in March for a torn labrum in his right shoulder, and didn’t do the bench test this offseason. “A good football player,” a second scout said. “I’d question his ball skills, didn’t catch the ball very well. I could see him leading your team in pass breakups but not interceptions. But good size for a corner, good cover skills, doesn’t panic, good mentality and approach and good athleticism.”

2. Desmond Trufant, Washington, 5-115/8, 190, Round 1

Brother of cornerback Marcus Trufant, the No. 11 pick overall in 2003 who played the last 10 seasons with the Seattle Seahawks. Another brother, Isaiah, is a cornerback with the New York Jets. “I think Trufant is probably better than Milliner,” a scout said. “Milliner ran real fast, he made himself a lot of money at the combine. But as far as just a cover guy, I think Trufant is better than Milliner. Depends what you’re looking for.” Four-year starter built more like a slot cornerback but also could play outside. “Deceptive size,” another scout said. “You look at him, he looks like he’s 5-9, but you measure him he’s a legitimate 5-11 and 190. As quick as anybody in the league right now, that’s his thing. Ran a good 40, shows he has speed, but his thing is going to be quickness and change of direction, which is elite.” Had six interceptions and 38 passes defended in his career. Ran a great 40 (4.38 seconds), had a 371/2-inch vertical and showed great short-area quickness with the fastest 20-yard shuttle (3.85 seconds) at the combine. Also did 16 bench reps. Not as physical as Marcus, but could end up with the better career. “Desmond is a better athlete,” a third scout said, “because he has the elite footwork and change of direction skills and nice burst to close on the ball. And he might have better ball skills than Marcus.”

3. D.J. Hayden, Houston, 5-113/8, 189, Rounds 1-2

Medical marvel came back from a life-threatening injury last season to be one of the best cornerback prospects in this draft. After a collision in practice last November he reportedly was within minutes of dying when he had emergency surgery to repair the torn vena cava vein on the back of his heart. Recovered incredibly quickly and according to various reports from his Pro Day on March 18 ran the 40 in anywhere from 4.33 seconds to 4.40 seconds. Most teams appear to have cleared him medically, though those previously burned by medical risks might downgrade him. “Pretty amazing story,” a scout said. “If it hadn’t been for (the team trainer and Hayden’s surgeon), he’d be dead. But it’s not like there’s a health risk there, it’s kind of a freak deal. Of all of the (cornerbacks) I watched, he has the most explosive feet. When you talk about polish and technique, he’s not all that. But wow, when he changes direction it’s special.” A junior-college transfer who in two seasons at Houston returned three of his six interceptions for touchdowns, knocked down 25 passes and forced six fumbles. “There’s this upside,” another scout said. “It’s not like he’s an incredible player on film, it’s not like you go ‘wow’ as far as what he’s getting done – tackles, interceptions, making plays. It’s just the possibilities there are pretty good. You’re projecting, and it’s impressive.”

4. Xavier Rhodes, Florida State, 6-11/2, 210, Rounds 1-2

Redshirt junior started for three seasons. Some scouts love his combination of great size and athletic ability, others think he’s a better specimen than player. “There’s a lot of (defensive backs) this year that are highly thought of that aren’t going to turn out, a lot of boom or bust guys,” one scout said. “The biggest one is Rhodes.” Fits best with teams that play extensive press coverage, though he’s also a good athlete with explosiveness – ran the 40 in a 4.43 seconds, had a 401/2-inch vertical and an 11-0 broad jump. “An outstanding corner, a big physical guy,” a second scout said. “He can cover, he’ll hit you, he can run.” Took a medical redshirt as a freshman after breaking his wrist early in the season, then had eight interceptions and 31 passes defended in his three years. “I’m not a fan,” a third scout said. “He’s deliberate. I don’t see a polished, smooth athlete. (Teams) are going to get caught up in the hype, get caught up in the test numbers. At the end of the day he’s just a guy.”

5. Darius Slay, Mississippi State, 5-117/8, 192, Rounds 1-2

Junior-college transfer was a backup as a junior, then last season as a starter had five interceptions and 11 passes defended. Didn’t get the media exposure of teammate Jonathan Banks but probably is the better prospect. “Slay is a 4.3 corner that has an incredible upside,” one scout said. “If you put Banks ahead of Slay you’re a moron.” Ran the fastest 40 of the cornerbacks at the combine (4.36 seconds) and had a solid 35 1/2-inch vertical. “Bottom line, I’m taking Slay (over Banks),” another scout said. “The one thing you can’t coach in the NFL is speed. Banks, the thing he has going for him, he’s a long guy and does a great job getting his hands on people, even downfield. You can’t really do that in the NFL. When you play corner in the NFL, at some point you have to be able to run. If you can’t you will get exposed. If I’m coaching in college, I’m taking Banks. But Slay will be a better corner in the NFL.”

6. Blidi Wreh-Wilson, Connecticut, 6-03/4, 195, Round 2

Was a developmental prospect at UConn who redshirted as a freshman after not playing football until his senior year of high school. Still became a three-year starter in college. “Really like him,” a scout said. “This guy’s a real sharp guy. He’s a long guy, his wingspan is 781/2 or 79 (inches). His problem – he ran well at his pro day, but he doesn’t play that fast. I like him, but he’s not in the same group as those other guys.” His combine 40 (4.53 seconds) was mediocre for his position, though on campus he ran a reported 4.40 seconds. Has good size and explosiveness for the position. Also had a solid 36-inch vertical. In his career had eight interceptions and 35 passes defended. Missed five games as a junior because of a sprained knee. “He’s not a press corner, he’s an off corner,” another scout said. “He’s got enough size and athleticism, you can do a lot with him.”

7. Jonathan Banks, Mississippi State, 6-2, 185, Round 2

Was a part-time starter at safety as a freshman, then full time at cornerback his final three years. Big-play man with exceptional height and unusually long arms (333/4 inches) for a cornerback, though some teams worry about his speed (4.61-second 40 at the combine, a reported 4.58 seconds on campus). “Banks is a 4.55 corner all day,” a scout said. “He’s tall, he’s skinny, he’s got no explosion, he can’t drive out of his transition. He’s a long guy but he’s not – (scouts) will say if he fails at corner he’ll be a safety. No he won’t. No way he can play safety.” Had 16 interceptions, including three for touchdowns (of 100, 20 and 27 yards), and knocked down 41 passes in his career. Averaged 9.6 yards on 30 punt returns. “Everybody had Banks really high (going into the offseason),” another scout said. “If you just watched the film, Banks is a better player (than teammate Slay). He’s a four-year starter. As far as zones, what he’s seeing, he kind of gets it. Whereas Slay isn’t as – his technique is a little sloppy, this and that. But the bottom line, I’m taking Slay.”

8. David Amerson, N.C. State, 6-1, 205, Rounds 2-3

Three-year starter entering the draft after his true junior season. Excellent size-speed prospect who was great as a sophomore but then bombed last season. “He has everything you look for,” a scout said. “This kid’s an enigma. Last year at this time this guy was a first-round pick, probably a top 10 pick. This kid right now, I wouldn’t take him in the first two rounds. Maybe in the second round depending on your needs. But I can’t jump up on a table and tell an owner and general manager that this kid is going to be a great player, because there’s too much (crap).” As a junior he led the FBS in interceptions with 13, but then last year that dropped to five, and far worse he had partial or full responsibility in allowing a remarkable 12 touchdown passes. “He’s not an accountable kid,” a second scout said. “He’s a follower, not a leader. But this kid could play in the Pro Bowl, this kid could be an all-NFL corner. There aren’t many kids like this, but you roll the dice because I don’t know what you’re going to get. Is he a bad kid? No, he’s a follower.” Admitted to scouts that he played selfishly last season by freelancing. Ran the 40 in 4.44 seconds, which is excellent for a cornerback with his size. Tested positive for marijuana as a senior. “He fell off the charts (this year), but in 2011 he was a bad man,” a third scout said. “He’s got incredible talent. He’s immature.”

9. Jamar Taylor, Boise State, 5-105/8, 192, Rounds 2-3

Three-year starter has average at best height for the position but is fast and quick. “I like Taylor,” a scout said. “He’s got great feet, he’s got good speed, he has transitional explosion. It’s hard to read (where he’ll get drafted), but he may be a guy you go, ‘He got drafted a little higher than he should have.’” Ran the 40 in 4.39 seconds and tied for the fourth-best short shuttle (4.06 seconds) among cornerbacks at the combine, and had a 35-inch vertical. Had seven interceptions and 24 passes defended in his career. Also had four sacks, including 21/2 last season. Redshirted his second season because of a meniscus injury in his right knee. “Really like him,” a second scout said. “When he ran 4.3-something he made himself a large amount of money. He’s a quality kid too, you’re not going to worry about off the field stuff. Smart enough, and he ran really well. A lot of people don’t feel that strongly about him, but I think he’s on the rise.”

10. Tyrann Mathieu, LSU, 5-8 ¾, 186, Rounds 3-4

A niche player with an exceptional nose for the ball and playmaking ability as a return man, but also huge character red flags because of marijuana habit. “As pure a football player as there is in the draft,” one scout said. “Not great size, but any team would love to have him as a nickel corner. He plays well on the slot, he’s physically tough taking on blocks or blitzing, has a knack for making turnovers. Pretty good football player.” Only played two seasons at LSU, as a true freshman and sophomore, and was an impact player as a cover man and tackler. He had four interceptions, 16 passes defended, 16 tackles for a loss, a remarkable 7 ½ sacks, an even more remarkable 11 fumbles forced, and six fumbles recovered, two of which he returned for touchdowns. Also averaged 15.6 yards on 27 punt returns, including two touchdowns. Was kicked out of school for multiple positive drug tests and admitted to teams he tested positive for marijuana at least 10 times. Says he has quit using the drug. “A good athlete and a really good football player,” another scout said. “He can make people miss (as a return man). I don’t think he has the breakaway speed where he’s going to run away from people all the time. In college he did that, don’t think he will in the NFL. But he has really good quickness and plays fast. Third or fourth round. You’d like to take him as late as possible (because of the marijuana), but people want him and somebody will take a shot at him.”

Top prospects: Safety

1. Kenny Vaccaro, Texas, 6-0, 214, Round 1

The best cover man of the top safety prospects in this draft. Texas’ coaching staff has told scouts Vaccaro is better than Earl Thomas, the former Texas safety who was the No. 14 pick overall by Seattle in 2010. Got scouts’ attention with his play against little West Virginia receiver Tavon Austin, who was maybe the best open-field playmaker in college football last year. “Austin, he wears everybody out, a gidget-gadget, just go all over the place, just wearing people out,” one scout said. “When Texas played them, they put Vaccaro on him and didn’t double him, they just said, ‘Hey, Vaccaro, you got him.’ He had more luck against him than anybody else did. It was pretty impressive.” Didn’t run well for a top safety (4.63 seconds at the combine, and wasn’t able to run at his pro day because of a hip-flexor injury), though his vertical jump (38 inches) was good. Was a full-time starter his final two seasons, had 186 tackles, four interceptions and 13 passes defended as a junior and senior combined. Probably will be selected in the top 20 picks. “He is a really good football player,” another scout said. “He hurt himself at the combine. Usually when you take a safety in the first round they’ve got special (qualities).”

2. Eric Reid, LSU, 6-11/4, 213, Rounds 1-2

In two season as a starter, true junior entry had 167 tackles, four interceptions and 10 passes defended. “(Florida’s Matt) Elam I think is a better player, Reid has a lot more upside, he’s so long,” one scout said. “He’s a quality guy, he’s smart enough. He just misses a few more tackles than you’d like, and his length shows up sometimes in (slowing) his transition (in pass coverage). But he’ll come downhill now. He’s not afraid of anything. He’s a little out of control at times.” His father, Eric, was an all-American hurdler at LSU in the ‘80s. An excellent size-speed prospect who was one of the best testers among safeties at the combine (4.53 seconds in the 40, 401/2-inch vertical). “I don’t like Reid as much,” another scout said. “There are people that really like him. His (2011) year was better than (2012). People like him because he’s a hitter, they think he can cover. I talked to some scouts that thought it was the best safety workout they’d ever seen. I know a team that has him in the second round, but I’m hearing buzz he’s probably going to go in the first round, maybe end of the first round, early second round.”

3. Jonathan Cyprien, Florida International, 6-01/8, 217, Rounds 1-2

Four-year starter at the FCS level. Scouts appear split on whether he or Reid should be the No. 2 safety. “Reid tested so well,” one scout said, “but the key between the two is who’s the better tackler in the open field. Probably Cyprien. Cyprien’s pretty good.” For his career had 365 tackles, 22 passes defended and seven interceptions (93, five and four last season). Didn’t run well (4.65 seconds at his campus Pro Day) but had a 381/2-inch vertical. More of a strong safety than free safety because of coverage limitations and striking ability. “I really like Cyprien,” another scout said. “People say he’s a little stiff, but I see a guy that will hit you, a guy who can play with some range, and he can cover a little bit. He’s very interesting.” Said a third scout: “I’m not a huge fan, but apparently a lot of people have him going early in the second. He ran 4.6, and it wasn’t anything exciting. That’s kind of what he is.”

4. Matt Elam, Florida 5-97/8, 208, Round 2

True junior entry was a two-year starter. Had two arrests for underage alcohol possession. “A little shorter (than Vaccarro), so he might not be your match-up guy for those elite tight ends,” one scout said. “His height, that’s the big knock against him, but he actually runs real well. He can run with them and he plays hard. But there’s also some baggage with him. Whereas Vaccaro is a football player, Elam has a little more diva in him. He’s very hot and cold as far as the day to day practice .” In two years as a starter had 156 tackles, 12 passes defended and six interceptions. Last year also had 41/2 tackles for loss and 21/2 sacks. Ran the 40 in 4.54 seconds, had a 351/2-inch vertical and did 17 bench reps. Brother of safety Abraham Elam, who has played for the Cowboys, Jets, Browns and Chiefs. “He’ll wrap you up and hit you, but he doesn’t do it all the time,” another scout said. “I don’t know how well he covers. Underneath stuff he’s fine, but when it goes back behind him I’m not so sure. Tries to hit you but needs to wrap up better when tackling.”

5. T.J. McDonald, USC, 6-21/4, 219, Rounds 2-3

Son of Tim McDonald, who had a 13-year career as a safety in the NFL. Three-year starter played much better as a sophomore and junior than as a senior. “The guy, he’s a coach killer now, but he can do it all,” a scout said. “I don’t know why he turned it off this last year for some reason. If you watch his junior tape, I mean, he’s bringing it, I mean bringing it. Making plays, he’s off the charts, you’re like, ‘Wow, amazing.’ (Against) Arizona, Arizona State, it’s impressive. Then you watch some games this year, it’s like he turned it off, all of a sudden he didn’t want to tackle anymore, like he didn’t want to get hurt.” Had eight interceptions and 13 passes knocked down in his three years as a starter. Last year had 112 tackles, three passes knocked down and two interceptions. Tested well enough – ran the 40 in 4.59 seconds, had a 40-inch vertical and did 19 bench reps. A high risk-reward pick with great size and speed. “We did some homework on him and talked to him,” another scout said. “The one thing about him, he’s kind of, I wouldn’t say privileged, but he’s not real hungry. He’s a smart kid, he gets it, you put him on the board it’s easy for him. It’s just like his want-to wasn’t there at times.”

— pdougher@greenbaypress gazette.com and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.

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