Dougherty: Ranking Packers' top draft needs

Pete Dougherty
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Wisconsin linebacker T.J. Watt runs a drill at the NFL scouting combine  March 5, 2017, in Indianapolis.

Here’s a prediction five weeks out on the Green Bay Packers’ 2017 draft:

Their first four picks, in no particular order, will be cornerback, outside pass rusher, running back and guard.

Now, you never know with the draft. A player of unexpected quality at another position could be available when general manager Ted Thompson makes one of his early picks, and if so, Thompson will take him. Special players win games, so you never pass on a guy you think will be special, regardless of position.

But the Packers’ immediate needs are so distinct that their first four picks easily could fall that way. That’s assuming no significant signings between now and then. It also helps that three of those four positions — cornerback, pass rusher and running back — are regarded as uncommonly deep with good prospects this year.

Of course, Thompson could use help elsewhere — inside linebacker for one. But his needs at these four spots are greater, starting with cornerback. Sam Shields’ concussion last year exposed the problems a defense suffers when it doesn’t have a legit No. 1 cover man.

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The guess here is that when the Packers line up in their most-used defense (i.e., nickel) in the 2017 opener, free-agent signee Davon House and 2015 first-round pick Damarious Randall will be two of their three cornerbacks, and a draft pick will be the other. Thompson needs to add a good, talented player there who helps right away.

Thompson also needs a pass rusher something fierce. His best, Clay Matthews, turns 31 in May and has a recent history of injuries that either sideline him or diminish his play. The Packers’ defense can’t be held hostage to that. And you never know, they also might need Matthews a lot at inside linebacker. Even if not, there’s always room for a good rusher to join Matthews and Nick Perry on passing downs.

Thompson needs a running back to split the workload with Ty Montgomery, who’s a matchup problem because of his wide receiver skills. Just think of the run-pass conundrum defensive coordinators will face when he’s on the field with tight ends Martellus Bennett and Lance Kendricks, who are good blockers as well as bona fide receiving threats.

But Montgomery still is new enough to running back that you don’t want him to be full time. And with the inevitable injuries at that position, coach Mike McCarthy needs at least one more quality runner to share the work and take over full time if Montgomery gets hurt. Fullback Aaron Ripkowski isn’t a bad change-of-pace for a couple carries a game, and Christine Michael might be an adequate fallback when injuries hit. But finding a starting-caliber back has to be a priority.

As for guard, the best bet as of today is that T.J. Lang’s replacement will be a draft pick.

You can’t rule out someone already on the roster winning the job from among four-position backup Don Barclay, practice-squad holdover Lucas Patrick and maybe even second-year tackle Kyle Murphy. But unless Thompson signs a free agent in the next few weeks, the Packers have to be looking to draft someone better. In 2013, David Bakhtiari held down left tackle as a fourth-round rookie, and the following season Corey Linsley did the same at center as a fifth-round pick. So Thompson has done this before.

As for handicapping how those four positions come off the board, I’d bet strongly against guard and running back in the first round.

I don’t know what Thompson thinks, but to me, a first-round guard wouldn’t make much sense even if the draft’s top guard, Western Kentucky’s Forrest Lamp, is available when the Packers pick at No. 29 overall — it’s looking like he’ll go sometime in the second half of the round. If Thompson would do that, why not just pay Lang the $8.5 million or $9 million it would have taken to keep him?

I realize a rookie contract is much, much cheaper, but cap room wasn’t the issue, value was. A first-round draft pick is one of an NFL team’s most valuable assets, especially for Thompson, who is the most draft-reliant GM in the league. If a good guard isn’t worth $9 million, then is one really worth a first-round pick for a team with excellent tackles and acute needs at premium (cornerback and pass rusher) and offensive skill (running back) positions? I doubt it, even if Thompson thinks Lamp will be an All-Pro.

Running back seems a relative first-round long-shot, too. Thompson hasn’t taken one with his first pick in any of his 12 drafts with the Packers, so the smart money says he won’t start now unless he thinks a great one has fallen into his lap.

Also, this draft appears to be unusually deep with ball carriers. One NFL scout told me there will be good starting running back prospects available through the fourth round.

So I’m betting Thompson’s first pick is either a cornerback or pass rusher. As for which? Who knows?

The top of the cornerback group has thinned a little the last couple of weeks. One surefire first-rounder, Washington’s Sidney Jones, probably has dropped to at least the second round because of an Achilles tendon tear earlier this month. He could miss much or all of this season, and I don’t see Thompson drafting a guy even with a late first-rounder who can’t contribute in 2017.

Another possible first-rounder, UCLA’s Fabian Moreau, sustained a torn pectoral muscle this week. That’s not as serious as the Achilles but might knock him from first-round contention also.

The one cornerback who won’t be on the board at No. 29 is Ohio State’s Marshon Lattimore. Alabama’s Marlon Humphrey probably will be gone, too. But the list of others who might be there includes LSU’s Tre’Davious White, Ohio State’s Gareon Conley and Washington’s Kevin King.

At outside linebacker UCLA’s Takkarist McKinley would have to be tempting if his recent shoulder surgery keeps him available until the end of the round. And Wisconsin’s T.J. Watt is a real possibility if he’s still on the board.

Regardless of which way he goes, make no mistake. Thompson needs help from this draft, and he needs it now, to get his team to the Super Bowl.

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