How Packers can fill 5 biggest draft needs
All the attention is on Thursday night’s first round, but a general manager views the entire scope of the draft when considering how to build a team’s roster.
There are seven rounds over the next three days. Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson enters the draft with nine picks, including the 27th overall.
Whether 2016 becomes a successful draft class depends on the talent Thompson gathers in all seven rounds, not just the first.
Related: Complete Packers draft coverage
With that in mind, here’s a blueprint for how the Packers can address their five biggest needs through the entire draft.
1. Inside linebacker
If Reggie Ragland is on the board when the Packers are on the clock Thursday, it’s an easy decision. Ragland instantly improves the Packers’ below-average run defense. While Ohio State’s Darron Lee would be a better fit, Ragland’s ability to play nickel coverage would allow Clay Matthews to become a full-time edge rusher.
Though unlikely, USC safety Su’a Cravens or Florida safety Keanu Neal could be first-round options as hybrid players to play nickel linebacker. The Packers don’t need to draft an inside linebacker in the first round, but it’s hard to see how they’ll be able to move Matthews to outside linebacker if they don’t address this position in the draft’s first two days.
The inside linebacker position needs both talent and depth. If not Ragland or Lee, LSU’s Deion Jones or Ohio State’s Joshua Perry could be second-round options. The Packers also could use their 57th or 88th overall pick on a hybrid safety like Duke’s Jeremy Cash or Southern Utah’s Miles Killebrew.
It will also be interesting to see whether Jaylon Smith can tempt the Packers. If the Notre Dame linebacker falls all the way to the fourth round, does Thompson spend one of his compensatory picks on Smith? At that point, the value could outweigh the risk.
2. Defensive line
The Packers probably need to draft two defensive linemen, not just one. It would be surprising if Thompson didn’t draft at least one interior defensive lineman in the first three rounds, if not the first two. Thompson could spend his first-round pick on a defensive lineman, but there’s little difference between a first- and second-round defensive-line prospect in this draft.
Short of UCLA’s Myles Jack or Lee, Alabama defensive end A’Shawn Robinson might have the most value for the Packers. If they’re available, Alabama DT Jarran Reed, versatile Louisiana Tech DL Vernon Butler and Baylor’s Andrew Billings could be first-round options.
But why spend your first-round pick on a defensive tackle when Penn State’s Austin Johnson, Texas’ Hassan Ridgeway, South Carolina State’s Javon Hargrave and/or Ohio State’s Adolphus Washington could be available 30 picks later? For that reason, the Packers could be disinclined to draft a defensive tackle with the 27th overall pick.
3. Outside linebacker
If the Packers don’t have an inside linebacker fall to them, the next-best option for their first-round selection might be outside linebacker. Coach Mike McCarthy wants Matthews to return to outside linebacker, but the Packers could also aggressively target the position.
Eastern Kentucky edge rusher Noah Spence can’t be ruled out of the Packers’ consideration in the first round. Spence is different than Ole Miss defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche, another off-field character risk. Nkemdiche’s issues are as recent as a few months ago. Spence reportedly has passed 20 drug tests — five through the NCAA, 15 independently — since being banned from the Big Ten for life after two failed drug tests for Ecstasy while he was at Ohio State.
There is a significant amount of evidence to suggest Spence has gotten his life in order. Boise State’s Kamalei Correa and Oklahoma State’s Emmanuel Ogbah also are first-round possibilities. If not the first round, the Packers probably should target this position early.
Thompson is good at digging up late-round gems, but this edge-rushing class lacks depth. Perhaps Utah State’s Kyler Fackrell or Georgia’s Jordan Jenkins could be Day 2 candidates.
4. Tight end
After signing Jared Cook last month, Thompson bought himself a year before the tight end position becomes a pressing need. That probably means the Packers will pass on Arkansas’ Hunter Henry in the first round, though Thompson could target the best tight end in this class.
More likely, the Packers will draft a tight end they can further develop. That could mean South Carolina’s Jerell Adams or Stanford’s Austin Hooper in the second round, or perhaps Ohio State’s Nick Vannett in the third. The best option might be Western Kentucky’s Tyler Higbee in the fourth round.
The Packers could get good value with Higbee on the draft’s third day, though they would have to determine whether he’s a character risk. Higbee was arrested less than three weeks ago and charged with second-degree assault, public intoxication and second-degree fleeing or evading police.
Three weeks before the draft is a really bad time to get arrested, obviously. Still, now is the time to draft a developmental tight end, especially with Cook and Richard Rodgers able to play the majority of next season’s snaps. The middle rounds are a good place to get it done, with the plan to more aggressively pursue tight end next year if necessary.
5. Offensive line
The Packers do not need to draft an offensive lineman in the first round, and probably shouldn’t no matter how the board looks. That’s not to say they won’t, but it’s unnecessary.
The Packers have their entire starting five returning this fall, and the only significant problems the unit had last season came when left tackle David Bakhtiari missed three games because of an ankle injury. Bakhtiari’s absence exposed a lack of depth on the Packers' offensive line, especially at tackle.
Thompson would be wise to address that issues this week, but he’s proven time and time again reliable offensive linemen can be drafted in the middle round. In the unlikely situation they draft a first-round offensive tackle, Indiana’s Jason Spriggs would make a good developmental candidate. He’s an explosive big man, running a 4.94-second, 40-yard dash at 301 pounds.
Yes, Spriggs can develop into a starter for next season if Bakhtiari can’t be retained through free agency, but the Packers should be able to find depth and insurance later in the draft as well.