A year ago, there was almost universal surprise when Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson drafted Damarious Randall with the 30th overall pick in the NFL draft’s first round.
That’s how these things usually work. For all the projecting and rationalizing that goes into the pre-draft buildup, the Packers’ draft annually comes down to one man making a decision. That would be Thompson, who plays his cards famously close to the vest.
Alabama inside linebacker Reggie Ragland is a logical choice for the Packers should he be available when the Packers are on the clock with the 27th overall pick in Thursday night’s first round. Alabama defensive end A’Shawn Robinson also would make sense, in the unlikely event he slips to the late first round.
Related: Complete Packers draft coverage
Whether it’s Louisiana Tech defensive end Vernon Butler, Baylor defensive tackle Andrew Billings, Alabama defensive tackle Jarran Reed, Eastern Kentucky outside linebacker Noah Spence, Boise State outside linebacker Kamalei Correa, Oklahoma State outside linebacker Emmanuel Ogbah, Arkansas tight end Hunter Henry, Notre Dame receiver Will Fuller, Indiana offensive tackle Jason Spriggs – Thompson could pick several players and surprise nobody who has followed the draft over the past two months.
That just isn’t his style. From Justin Harrell (bad) to Randall (good), Thompson often throws a curveball in the first round instead of relying on the trusty fastball. Here are five names you might know – but probably don’t – who could be dark-horse candidates for the Packers’ first-round pick.
1. Deion Jones, LSU, LB
The Packers need to upgrade their inside linebacker position on first and second down, but their biggest hole is in third-down passing situations. That’s where Jones’ athleticism gives him a chance to excel. Jones is undersized at 6-foot 7/8, 222 pounds, but his athleticism allows him to play well in open space, especially pass coverage. Jones ran a 4.59-second, 40-yard dash at the NFL scouting combine, but scouts at his pro day clocked him at 4.4 seconds. He also has a 33-inch vertical jump, and a 9-feet, 11-inch broad jump. Jones was a late bloomer at LSU, only becoming a full-time starter as a senior last season, but he maximized his one year in that role. Jones led the Tigers with 100 tackles and 13.5 tackles for loss last season. People in scouting circles believe Jones’ ceiling is the second round, but it’s unlikely he would be available with the 57th overall pick. Jones might not have a home on first and second down early in his career, but his ability to play dime and nickel sub-package would allow him to play the majority of snaps as a rookie in Green Bay. He has first-round athleticism and would be a good fit in the Packers defense.
2. Keanu Neal, Florida, S
Wait. What is a safety doing on a list of the Packers potential first-round options??? At 6-foot 1/2, 211 pounds, Neal fits the mold of a modern NFL linebacker every bit as much as strong safety. Remember, Deone Bucannon weighed 211 pounds when the Arizona Cardinals drafted him with the 27th overall pick in 2014, and Bucannon has created a new model for the modern linebacker. Neal is the same kind of player. A physical run defender in the box, Neal was a staple to one of the nation’s best defenses last season. He had 84 tackles and two sacks while playing mostly in the box. Neal doesn’t have much speed for a safety, but his 4.62-second, 40-yard dash and 1.62-second, 10-yard split plenty fast enough for a linebacker. What Neal does is bring a safety’s coverage instincts to the linebacker position, while also possessing the physicality to handle early-down responsibilities.
3. Su’a Cravens, USC, S
Cravens is another prospect who’s a safety in name only. In reality, Cravens was a box linebacker at USC, lining up at outside linebacker for most of his past two seasons. He was a terrific college player, finishing with 86 tackles, 15 tackles for loss and five sacks last season. He also had nine interceptions and 16 defended passes in his three seasons with the Trojans. At 6-foot 3/4, 226 pounds, Cravens projects as an undersized box linebacker in the NFL. He doesn’t have the coverage ability to play on a defense’s back end, but Cravens is more than capable of locking down running backs and tight ends in man-to-man coverage.
4. Chris Jones, Mississippi State, DT/DE
Jones may be the toughest prospect in the entire draft to predict. In a loaded defensive tackle class, he easily gets lost in the shuffle. That’s because Jones never met the expectations he carried into Mississippi State as a five-star prospect out of high school. His motor runs hot and cold, and his technique remains underdeveloped. So why does Chris Jones have a chance to crack the first round? Because he’s perhaps the most physically gifted defensive tackle in this class. At 6-foot-5 3/4, 310 pounds, with 34.5-inch arms tied for longest among defensive tackles in this draft, Jones is a perfect candidate to play five-technique defensive end. He also has some quickness and pass-rush ability with a 5.03-second, 40-yard dash. “He’s got big-time potential,” Senior Bowl president Phil Savage said. “Very inconsistent. I remember two years ago, I was like, ‘Wow, this guy is going to be something else.’ This year was just so-so.” Jones could be Pro Bowl player in a few years. Or he could be a bust in the same timeframe. It’s worth noting the Packers formally interviewed him at the combine.
5. Jihad Ward, Illinois, DE
Another perfect candidate to play five-technique defensive end. Ward has gone mostly under the radar, but at 6-foot-5 and 297 pounds he’s ideally suited to line up across offensive tackles. He had adequate length with 33 7/8-inch arms and ran a 5.11-second, 40-yard dash. Ward, a junior college transfer, was a receiver and safety in high school. He is underdeveloped with limited experience on the defensive line, but his raw quickness and athleticism offer enticing upside. On potential alone, Ward could be worth a pick at the end of the first round.