C.J. Mosley is the top-ranked inside linebacker in this year's draft. / Getty Images
RISING STOCK: Jordan Tripp, Montana. Came into the offseason looking like a late-round pick but has moved up to at least a mid-round prospect with good physical testing (4.64-second 40, 37 ½-inch vertical) and teams taking a closer look at his game video.
FALLING STOCK: Max Bullough, Michigan State. Grandson of former Packers defensive coordinator Hank Bullough has lineage, instincts and toughness, but unlike Wisconsin’s Chris Borland doesn’t play much faster than his poor 40 time (4.78 seconds) and probably won’t be drafted until at least the fourth round.
SLEEPER: Kevin Pierre-Louis, Boston College. Pumped up, undersized linebacker (6-0, 232) has the speed (4.51-second 40) to be a good nickel and dime linebacker and special teams player even though he probably will be a late-round pick.
When the Green Bay Packers’ first-round draft pick comes up at No. 21 overall on May 8, there’s a chance at least one of the two likely first-round inside linebackers still will be on the board.
Both Alabama’s C.J. Mosley and Ohio State’s Ryan Shazier are potential top-20 picks but by no means sure to go that high. Either would fill a huge need for a Packers defense that for the past few seasons has lacked playmaking overall and at inside linebacker in particular.
Mosley is instinctive, athletic and tough, and produced consistently high results in college, though he has medical issues. Shazier is undersized but among the most explosive defensive players in this draft.
“They’re two different guys,” the personnel director for an NFC team said this week. “Mosley reminds me of (San Francisco’s Navarro) Bowman. I do think he might be that good. The kid from Ohio State, I like his athleticism, I like the fact that he’s going to be an all-down linebacker, he’s going to be hell on special teams. He can play 3-4 or 4-3. You’ll be able to blitz him from the middle, from the edge. I like everything about him. Everyone’s going to go Mosley (as the better prospect), and I’d probably say the same thing.”
General manager Ted Thompson and coach Mike McCarthy are looking to field a more dynamic defense after getting knocked out of the playoffs last January in the divisional round for the third straight season and finishing in the bottom quarter of the league’s defensive rankings for the second time in the past three years.
Also fresh on their minds is 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. In back-to-back seasons now, the Packers were unable to handle Kaepernick’s running and playmaking with postseason advancement on the line.
Because of that, one of the highest priorities is upgrading talent at inside linebacker. Last year’s primary starters, A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones, survived any offseason salary purge, so both appear likely to be back at $3.5 million and $3 million, respectively, in salary and bonuses.
Neither has been a playmaker and, as a pair, offer no distinguishing qualities. If the Packers drafted either Mosley or Shazier, the rookie would come as a presumptive starter, most likely alongside Hawk, who is the quarterback of the defense.
Thompson and his scouting staff no doubt have scrutinized Mosley and Shazier this offseason to determine how they project in the Packers’ 3-4 scheme. If the previously quoted scout is right, then Mosley will function well in a 3-4, because Bowman plays in the same system with the 49ers and has become one of premier inside linebackers in the game.
Mosley’s size (6-foot-2, 234 pounds) is relatively similar to Bowman (6-0½, 242), as is his speed. Mosley didn’t run at the NFL scouting combine but reportedly did the 40 in 4.62 seconds at his campus workout, which is an OK but hardly outstanding time for a good linebacker. Bowman ran only 4.70 seconds at the combine in 2010 and then a reported 4.62 seconds on his Pro Day, the same as Mosley.
Not all scouts see Mosley as good fit for a 3-4, but in that scheme at Alabama the past two years he put up a combined 215 tackles, 17 tackles for a loss and four sacks. He was the heart of a defense that probably was the best in college football the past two seasons.
“This guy is hunting and kicking the (crap) out of people,” another scout said. “Where he falls off a little bit is his take on and shed. He’s a slip-and-dodge guy. It’s a dying art because the offensive linemen are so big and powerful you have to get away from them, you can’t let them get their hands on you. Other than that, he can cover, he’s instinctive in space, he’s got nice hands, run-after-catch skills after interceptions. His lateral chase and pursuit is off the charts, he’ll chase and blow your (butt) up. Inside or at an angle. If there’s anything close to a perfect football player as a linebacker, he’s it in this draft.”
Some teams might downgrade Mosley as a medical risk, which is one reason he’s less of a sure thing to be a top 15 or 20 pick than he appeared to be entering the offseason. At Alabama, he’s had a dislocated elbow and hip, and injuries to both shoulders. He had surgery to repair his left labrum early last year.
“Really banged up,” a third scout said. “Some teams might not pass him on his physical, kind of a beat-up player.”
Shazier is small for a 3-4 inside linebacker — he’s 6-11⁄8 and reportedly played last season at a little less than 230 pounds, though for the combine he got up to 237. But whatever his limitations in size, he can run with just about anyone on the field.
Shazier skipped the 40 at the combine because of a hamstring injury, then reportedly ran it in 4.38 seconds at his campus Pro Day. Even if reports of that time are off and he ran in the low 4.4s, that’s still exceptional speed for a linebacker. He also had the best vertical jump (42 inches) of all players at the combine.
Shazier’s speed and explosiveness also has translated into playmaking at the college level. In the past two seasons combined, he had 39½ tackles for loss and 11 sacks. That compares to Mosley’s 17 and four over the past two seasons.
“There’s times you see (Shazier) come downhill, the running back barely has the ball and is starting to make the cut, and he’s right there,” one of the scouts said. “Or blitzing off the edge, or hitting a receiver out in space, or coming downhill on a tight end. He’s a downhill player, and it’s hard to teach that aggressiveness, that hard nose. I saw him live against Northwestern, this guy was all over the field. He was tackling, interceptions, blocked punt. He’s an amazing player.”
— Pdoughe@pressgazette media.com and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.