Aaron Nagler speaks with Ryan Wood about the Packers' need to find an edge rusher to boost their pass defense. (April 23, 2018) USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin
Eighth in a 10-part NFL draft position-preview series looking at prospects who might be of interest to the Packers. Today: Edge rushers.
GREEN BAY – A year ago, as opponents around the NFL were stocking up on edge rushers, the Green Bay Packers stayed patient.
Despite a glaring need, they didn’t draft an edge rusher until the first pick on the third day. Vince Biegel, the 108th overall pick and fourth selection by the Packers, missed half his rookie season recovering from foot surgery. He didn’t record a single sack, far from the edge-rushing production the Packers needed from the draft.
Meanwhile, much of the league was not so patient. Seven edge rushers were drafted in the first round, including two of the top three picks. It was the start of what became a trend.
“I think the edge-rushing class is down this year,” NFL draft analyst Mike Mayock said. “I thought it was up last year. I think there were 17 edge rushers taken a year ago. There’s an average of 11. I think people saw this coming a little bit and went heavy on the edge rushers last year.”
Everyone, perhaps, except the Packers.
Their decision to not aggressively target the position in last year’s draft presumably leaves them no choice this spring. Behind injury-prone Clay Matthews and Nick Perry, the Packers' outside linebacker depth chart reads Biegel (fourth round, 2017), Kyler Fackrell (third round, 2015), Chris Odom (undrafted, 2017) and Reggie Gilbert (undrafted, 2016).
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A brief overview of where the Packers stand at outside linebacker prior to the 2018 NFL draft USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin
It would seem unwise to enter a season with so few resources at perhaps the second-most important position behind quarterback, but it could be tricky for the Packers to find a pass rusher who can help this fall. A problem the Packers have in this draft is arguably their greatest roster need aligning with one of the weakest positions in the class.
The Packers will face difficult edge-rusher evaluations throughout the draft, starting with their first pick at No. 14 overall. Given the lack of depth in this year’s class, perhaps there’s even more urgency to take a first-round edge rusher, regardless of how the rest of their board looks. Another option, should they like a prospect at another position more, might be packaging some of their 11 draft picks on Days 2 and 3 to move back into the late first round.
On the surface, picking at No. 14 in a historically quarterback-heavy draft should be a blessing for the Packers. There’s a good chance they’ll have their choice of edge rushers behind Bradley Chubb, the one can’t-miss prospect in the class and a lock to be drafted in the top 10. Behind Chubb, their decision at that position comes down to University of Texas-San Antonio’s Marcus Davenport and Boston College’s Harold Landry.
“What you hit on,” NFL draft analyst and former college scout Daniel Jeremiah said, “is the debate that's taking place: Is it Marcus Davenport, or are you going to go with Harold Landry? What do you prefer there? To me, Davenport is not as polished as Landry as a rusher, but he's bigger, he's longer, he's more explosive.”
Both Davenport and Landry are polarizing prospects. At the combine, Davenport tested at the top of his class, running a 4.58 40 with a 33½-inch vertical leap and 124-inch broad jump. Landry had good athletic numbers (4.64 40, 36-inch vertical and 119-inch broad), but isn’t as dynamic as Davenport.
Because Davenport is a better athlete, he projects the higher ceiling. But Landry, a more finished product, is considered more likely to help immediately as a rookie.
“I think the upside with (Davenport) is greater,” Jeremiah said. “And when he's been in a two-point stance, you saw it at the Senior Bowl, he was very comfortable there standing up. He can destroy tight ends in the run game, and then he's got tremendous upside. But as a pure pass rusher, just if you were going to talk about third down get after the quarterback, I would say Harold Landry has more tricks in his bag right now.”
There’s risk in picking Davenport.
Phil Savage, the former Cleveland Browns general manager and current Senior Bowl executive director, said the 6-5¾, 264-pound Davenport projects more as a 4-3 defensive end. Savage said Davenport has “all the measurables you could want” in an edge rusher, and he’s the type of project teams like to acquire because his best football should be ahead of him. But Savage said it’s questionable Davenport can translate all his athleticism to the next level.
“The part that I would be concerned about a bit,” Savage said, “is I thought he had a little bit of lower-body tightness, which sometimes can keep a defensive end from being able to escape with some kind of spin more or counter move, because that stiffness shows up. But I do think he’s a first rounder, and I do think he’s an eventual starter for someone.”
The question is, when? And if that answer isn’t this season, can the Packers afford to wait? Of course, the counter is this: What if Davenport is a project, and that project turns into another Ziggy Ansah? Can a Packers defense devoid of promising, young pass rushers really afford to pass on someone with that potential?
If Landry is better in 2018, might Davenport be better every season after?
These are the questions general manager Brian Gutekunst must answer before the Packers are on the clock Thursday night. That the Packers traditionally ask their outside linebackers to be multi-faceted — capable of not just rushing the quarterback, but also dropping into coverage — is another factor to consider with Davenport’s learning curve.
“I'm a Marcus Davenport guy,” Mayock said. “I really like him. I think the underlying understanding here has to be that he's very raw, and is going to take a little bit of time. So even in a simple system where you line him up wide and teach him how to rush the quarterback, he's got a lot to learn.
“The further you get away from that – and by the way, he's a very smart kid. I'm not taking any shots at him at all. I'm just saying he's as raw as can be. The further you get away from a simple system, where you're asking him to do multiple jobs – whether it's rush and then the next snap you're dropping and you've got speed gap – the more you're asking him to do, the longer it's going to take him to develop.”