It seems safe to predict the Green Bay Packers will draft a defensive tackle with the 27th overall pick Thursday night, but that forecast is too easy.
Defensive tackle is the strength of the 2016 draft. It’s the deepest, most talented class in recent memory. The Packers need to improve their defensive line in the wake of B.J. Raji’s retirement and Mike Pennel’s four-game suspension. They’ll have a wealth of prospects at their disposal.
If one of the top players in the class falls to the end of the first round, maybe they will draft a defensive tackle. Barring any surprises, the best prospects will be drafted before the Packers are on the clock. General manager Ted Thompson might face a situation where the defensive tackle he’d get in the first round would be no better than those available on the draft’s second day.
In that scenario, Thompson could be more likely to rely on the depth of this defensive tackle class, targeting another front-seven position in the first round. The best guess is that approach would result in Thompson drafting Alabama inside linebacker Reggie Ragland.
“Reggie Ragland could slide to No. 27,” NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said. “I think he’d be an intriguing pick because you’d get a heck of a player inside, and obviously get Clay Matthews back outside.”
Related: Complete Packers draft coverage
There isn’t a more important offseason priority for the Packers than returning Matthews to his natural edge-rusher position. It’s something they failed to do a year ago, waiting until the fourth round to draft an inside linebacker.
Ragland wouldn’t be a perfect pick. He is limited in coverage, though he’s a better athlete and more instinctual linebacker than Jake Ryan. Ragland might never be a dime linebacker, solely responsible for covering tight ends and running backs in the open field.
One limitation should not overshadow how Ragland would upgrade the Packers' defense. This is a unit that finished 21st against the run last season. The Packers were one of seven teams to allow 4.5 yards per carry. Ragland provides the type of enforcer at inside linebacker Thompson never has been able to find in the draft.
Ragland also would play well enough in coverage for Mathews to once again play outside linebacker.
In reality, the Packers are a base nickel defense. They have two stack linebackers and an extra defensive back on the field roughly 70 percent of their snaps. So the key for returning Matthews to the edge isn’t whether Ragland can play dime linebacker, but how he would hold up in nickel.
Senior Bowl president Phil Savage, who knows Ragland’s skill set as well as anyone, believes the Alabama linebacker is “more than adequate” to stay on the field in third-down nickel situations. “He builds speed,” was how Savage described Ragland’s ability to play in space.
Ragland ran a 4.72-second, 40-yard dash at the NFL scouting combine in February, with a 1.65-second, 10-yard split. He also dropped his weight to 247 pounds, down from 259 at the Senior Bowl in January.
“Ragland ran as well as you could have expected at the combine,” ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. said. “Had his weight down. He’s a heck of a player, and he’s got versatility. I love the way he goes about his business. He’ll be great in the locker room. He’ll be a leader.”
Ragland might not be the Packers’ first choice. It’s easy to see where Thompson may be inclined to go in a different direction, especially if a top interior defensive lineman slips.
Alabama junior A’Shawn Robinson would be a perfect fit as a five-tech defensive end. With 34.5-inch arms and an 83.5-inch wingspan, Robinson’s length allows him to shed opposing offensive tackles. He didn’t show much pass rush at Alabama, but that was mostly because of the Crimson Tide’s depth and two-gap system. Robinson is young and moldable (just turned 21 last month) and should develop into a good pass rusher.
Robinson could be the Packers’ pick, but it’s unlikely he’ll be available that late into the first round. Even if he is, Thompson might still benefit taking a position other than defensive line.
“If you think you want a defensive tackle, defensive end type, a five technique,” Mayock said, “you can wait till the second or even third round. Because if you decide you're going to take (Alabama defensive linemen) A'Shawn Robinson or Jarran Reed at 27, you could probably move down to the second round at 57 and take a Chris Jones or Jihad Ward.”
Ragland might not be available when the Packers get their turn to pick. The Oakland Raiders need a middle linebacker who defends the run, though with the 14th pick they’re more likely to target a position that offers more value. Washington is in a position to take the best run defender at No. 21, whether it’s a linebacker or defensive tackle.
The Miami Dolphins (No. 13), Atlanta Falcons (17), Indianapolis Colts (18), Buffalo Bills (19) and New York Jets (20) could all draft a linebacker in the first round, but each either has a more pressing need or wouldn’t be an ideal fit with Ragland.
If Ragland is off the board, Louisiana Tech tackle Vernon Butler and Baylor tackle Andrew Billings could be options at the end of the first round. So could Eastern Kentucky edge rusher Noah Spence, Boise State edge rusher Kamalei Correa and Oklahoma State edge rusher Emmanuel Ogbah. Arkansas tight end Hunter Henry can’t be ruled out.
Thompson also could make a surprise pick, similar to last year. LSU linebacker Deion Jones, USC hybrid safety Su’A Cravens and Florida hybrid safety Keanu Neal would all be interesting choices.
Ragland is the safe pick, despite imperfections. His skill set has been broken down during the pre-draft process, which often happens with upper-tier prospects. Thompson would know what he’s getting: the best inside linebacker prospect in this draft. Someone with the type of personality Thompson wants in his locker room.
Perhaps a deciding factor is Ragland’s football intellect. A defensive captain, he was responsible for on-field calls and checks in Alabama coach Nick Saban’s base 3-4 defense. His transition to the NFL should be smooth. With the Packers, Ragland would have an excellent chance to become an immediate starter.
“He didn’t test well athletically,” ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. said, “but he’s a CEO of a defense. He’s a great kid. He’s a leader. There’s a lot of value.”
PACKERS DRAFT PICKS
First round: Pick No. 27
Second round: Pick No. 57
Third round: Pick No. 88
Fourth round: Pick No. 125
Fourth round: Pick No. 131*
Fourth round: Pick No. 137*
Fifth round: Pick No. 163
Sixth round: Pick No. 200
Seventh round: Pick No. 248
*Compensatory pick; cannot be traded.
NFL DRAFT SCHEDULE
DAY 1 (ROUND 1): 7 P.M. THURSDAY, ESPN, NFL NETWORK
DAY 2 (ROUNDS 2-3): 6 P.M. FRIDAY, ESPN*, NFL NETWORK
*Coverage moves to ESPN2 at 7 p.m.
DAY 3 (ROUNDS 4-7): 11 A.M. SATURDAY, ESPN, NFL NETWORK