Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier is a good bet to be the Packers' first-round draft pick at No. 21. / Getty Images
The Green Bay Packers’ greatest draft needs are hardly a secret: an upgrade at safety and inside linebacker.
The question is which, if any, of the four most viable first-round prospects at those positions will be available when general manager Ted Thompson’s turn comes up tonight at No. 21 overall.
Will Thompson be just out of reach and watch safeties Ha Ha Clinton-Dix of Alabama and Calvin Pryor of Louisville, and inside linebackers C.J. Mosley of Alabama and Ryan Shazier of Ohio State fly off the board before No. 21?
Or will the draft fall the Packers’ way and see at least one and perhaps more of them available when their turn comes up?
Thompson and his scouts have spent the past several days mocking and re-mocking the first round to get their best guess at that answer. A high-ranking executive with an NFL team also agreed to take a stab at it this week when asked to predict whether one of the four will make it to No. 21. He stayed silent for about 10 seconds before answering.
“It’ll be close,” he said.
RELATED: Complete 2014 Packers draft coverage
All signs suggest the four could go starting at or just before the No. 10 pick overall, and be off the board at the latest in the low to mid 20s.They might even be gone by the late teens or at 20, just before the Packers select.
“I think one (inside linebacker) is there, and it’s more likely to be Shazier,” said another high-ranking executive in the league. “And one of the safeties, and it’s more likely to be Pryor.”
The guess here is Shazier will make it through, and Thompson will pick him regardless of whether any of the other four make it to No. 21.
After watching San Francisco knock them out of the playoffs with Colin Kaepernick’s scrambling the last two seasons, Thompson and coach Mike McCarthy have to be looking for explosive defensive players who can keep up with the 49ers quarterback and the other fast quarterbacks in the league, including Russell Wilson of the Super Bowl-champion Seattle Seahawks. Shazier is the best equipped to do that, and though he’s undersized for his position, has the highest upside of the four.
“There’s certainly some value in Shazier in that way because he can blitz and run like a son of a gun,” one of the executives said. “When you play a team like (the 49ers or Seahawks), they force you to stop the quarterback on the edge, which he would be fabulous at.”
The Packers also have an opening at starting safety and presumably would be fine if any one of the four is available. As one of the executives described the group:
“I know one guy (i.e., Shazier) is really fast, one guy (i.e., Mosley) makes a lot of plays, one guys (Pryor) hits really hard and one guy (Clinton-Dix) takes great angles.”
But there’s reason to suspect Shazier would be Thompson’s preferred choice.
Shazier is attractive because he’s the most explosive athlete of the group. Though he’s a linebacker, he ran by far the fastest 40-yard dash of the four, reportedly 4.38 seconds at his campus workout (he didn’t run at the NFL scouting combine because of a sore hamstring).
The other three ran in the same 4.60-second range: Clinton-Dix was 4.59 seconds, Pryor 4.62 and Mosley a reported 4.62 at his campus workout.
Shazier also had the best vertical jump (42 inches) of all players at the combine. That compares with Mosley’s 35 inches, Clinton-Dix’s 33 inches and Pryor’s 34½ inches.
Timed speed and jumping tests aren’t the only measure of how fast a player plays — anticipation, short-area quickness and agility are huge factors — but scouts say Shazier’s measurables match the video of his play. The true junior draft entry showed playmaking ability as a starter at Ohio State the last two years with 39½ tackles for a loss and 11 sacks. That’s compared to Mosley’s 17 and four, respectively, over the same time.
However, Shazier also is undersized for an inside linebacker in a 3-4 defense. At the combine he measured 6-feet-11⁄8and 237 pounds, and he reportedly played last season at a little less than 230 pounds.
“Unbelievable speed for the position,” another scout said early this week. “He’s pretty well put together, low body fat. I think he’ll get a little stronger with natural weight gain, and if he retains his speed, he’ll be a pretty good player because he can do a lot of things, including play on special teams. But you’ll need some big defensive linemen in front of him so they can keep linemen off him so he can run.”
Mosley might rank higher on a majority of NFL draft boards because even though he’s barely taller than Shazier at 6-2 and about the same weight at 235, he plays the stronger of the two, and plays faster than his 4.62-second 40 suggests. One scout interviewed in the lead-up to the draft compared him favorably with the 49ers’ NaVorro Bowman, who is of similar size and speed and one of the premier linebackers in the game.
However, Mosley also has an injury history that might lower his grade and scare some GMs, including Thompson. He’s a hard hitter and as a starter or regular rotation player all four years at Alabama suffered through a dislocated elbow and hip, and injuries to both shoulders. He had surgery to repair his left labrum early last year.
The guess here is that if Shazier and Mosley were available at No. 21, Thompson would go for the player with the higher ceiling, Shazier. But one of the executives interviewed Wednesday said he didn’t downgrade Mosley for his medical report and ranks him ahead of Shazier. The scout predicted the league won’t get the chance to see if Thompson agrees.
“I think (Mosley) will be fine and be a good player for somebody for a lot of years,” the executive said. “I don’t think (he makes it to 21).”
Either of the two safeties likely would interest Thompson at No. 21 as well, especially if Shazier and Mosley are off the board.
The safety position has quickly grown in value in the NFL the past couple of seasons because of the multi-talents it requires in pass coverage against spread offenses, plus an integral role in run defense. Several teams picking ahead of the Packers can rank safety among their draft priorities, most notably St. Louis, Minnesota, Detroit, Chicago, Dallas, Baltimore and Arizona.
Clinton-Dix appears likely to be picked ahead of Pryor, but that isn’t a given.
“They’re a little bit different,” a scout said this week. “Clinton-Dix has a little better range, and he can probably play up around the line as well as play deep. Pryor is more of a line of scrimmage player. Clinton-Dix gives you a little more versatility. He’s more experienced and has played in a lot of big games.
“I wouldn’t necessarily say Pryor’s a guy you’d try to match up on a slot receiver. He’s not that gifted a cover guy. (No. 21 overall) is a good spot for him. If you need (a safety), those two are the guys you’d go for. (Pryor) certainly could be there, and I think you’d be OK with that. I wouldn’t think he’ll be a big-time player, but he’ll be a good pro and bring some juice to your defense.”
But what if the board doesn’t mesh with the Packers’ needs, and Shazier, Mosley, Clinton-Dix and Pryor all are gone at No. 21? What then for Thompson?
First, it should be noted that in his nine drafts with the Packers, Thompson never has traded up from his first pick, and while it never can be ruled out, there’s not much reason to think he would change that this year. Several scouts said this is the deepest early round draft in years and that a GM who covets all his picks as much as Thompson would have little reason to trade one or two later picks to move up in the first round.
If Shazier, Mosley, Clinton-Dix and Pryor are off the board at No. 21, there’s no telling where Thompson might turn.
That scenario might mean a player at another position has fallen, and if Virginia Tech cornerback Kyle Fuller is available, he could be a possibility. One of the Packers’ starting cornerbacks, Tramon Williams, is 31 years old and might need replacing in the starting lineup in a year or two. At least as importantly, some scouts think Fuller might make a successful move to safety because he’s a tough tackler and instinctive player with good speed (4.43-second 40).
Maybe UCLA outside linebacker Anthony Barr will unexpectedly make it to No. 21. He has the preferred length (6-47⁄8) that the Packers look for in an outside pass rusher.
Or perhaps Thompson has a high grade — or would trade back and select — Northern Illinois safety Jimmie Ward or Washington State safety Deone Bucannon.
At 5-105⁄8 and 193, Ward doesn’t have the size of Clinton-Dix and Pryor, but he played cornerback earlier in his career and ran the 40 in 4.47 seconds at his campus workout. Bucannon is big (6-1, 211), runs fairly well (4.52-second 40) and had 15 career interceptions, though some scouts consider him a straight-line player who misses too many tackles to take this high in the draft.
“(Ward) probably is the best athlete of the (top safeties),” one scout said. “Not as big, but he’s as talented. He’s probably a better athlete, he just doesn’t have their size and doesn’t come from a big-time program.”
Thompson also places a premium on big, athletic players for the defensive line. Three who likely will be available have the builds of prototypical 3-4 defensive linemen but also have had significant weight and/or effort issues: Notre Dame end Stephon Tuitt (6-5½, 304) and Notre Dame nose tackle Louis Nix III (6-23⁄8, 331), and Minnesota end Ra’Shede Hageman (6-57⁄8, 310).
— email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.