Ninth in a 10-part NFL draft position-preview series looking at prospects who might be of interest to the Packers. Today: Secondary.
Pass rusher and cornerback are the two biggest needs for new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, whose job is to make significant strides with a unit that finished 31st in the league in opposing quarterback passer rating — only the winless Cleveland Browns were worse in that category. The rebuilding efforts center on the cornerback position, especially after general manager Brian Gutekunst shipped former first-round pick Damarious Randall to Cleveland. By re-signing Davon House and welcoming back veteran corner Tramon Williams, the Packers have a pair of short-term options to supplement Kevin King, who should ascend to the top of the depth chart by the start of training camp. If Quinten Rollins can recover well from a torn Achilles, the Packers would have four decent options to trot out each week. Any improvement from former undrafted free agents Josh Hawkins, Lenzy Pipkins and Donatello Brown would be an added bonus. It was only a year ago that former general manager Ted Thompson drafted three running backs when the cupboard was bare. Perhaps Gutekunst will take just as many bites of the cornerback apple with 12 picks at his disposal.
The safety position is more complicated, with the Packers having plenty of bodies but only one established veteran in Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, and even he played poorly last season. Logic dictates Clinton-Dix and Josh Jones are the future of the position, but the top of this year’s draft has a couple potential studs who would be difficult for Gutekunst to overlook. Either way, the Packers need someone who can play the slot. Priority level: High.
RELATED: NFL draft 2018 cornerback rankings
DERWIN JAMES, FLORIDA STATE SAFETY/SLOT CORNER
6-1¾, 215 pounds
The good: Terrific athlete who ran the 40-yard dash in 4.47 seconds, posted a vertical leap of 40 inches and pumped out 21 reps on the bench press to establish himself as one of the more impressive specimens at this year’s NFL scouting combine. Plenty of experience and success as a blitzer off the edge, finishing with 5½ career sacks in 27 games. Starting experience at both free safety and strong safety with additional experience at cornerback.
The bad: It’s possible James is a better athlete than he is a football player, and teams around the league have varying opinions about where he fits best at the NFL level. Only two full seasons of college football after missing all but two games in 2016 with a meniscus tear in his left knee. Straight-line speed was more impressive than his short shuttle and 3-cone drill times at the combine.
Projected round: 1.
DENZEL WARD, OHIO STATE, CORNERBACK
5-10⅞, 183 pounds
The good: Labeled the fastest player in the Urban Meyer era at Ohio State, Ward ran the 40-yard dash in 4.32 seconds at the NFL scouting combine. Led the Buckeyes with 17 passes defended last season. Terrific hips and feet to change direction fluidly without losing speed. Tough player who isn’t afraid to make a tackle in run support. Glove-like cover skills that help offset his lack of size.
The bad: Ward is shorter and thinner than the prototypical corner, which makes it difficult for him to cover more physical receivers. Gets lost in the wash at times during run support and struggles to break free from blockers. Logged only two interceptions in three years at Ohio State, both of which came in 2017.
Projected round: 1.
MIKE HUGHES, CENTRAL FLORIDA, CORNERBACK
5-10⅛, 189 pounds
The good: The Packers dedicated one of their 30 pre-draft visits to Hughes, who had a winding college career that included stops at North Carolina (one season), Garden City Community College (one season) and Central Florida (one season). Got his hands on the ball frequently at Central Florida by deflecting 15 passes and grabbing four interceptions. Dynamic with the ball in his hands and scored four touchdowns last season: 1 INT, 1 PR, 2 KR. Won’t turn 22 until after his rookie season. Very tenacious player.
The bad: Hughes was charged with misdemeanor assault at North Carolina in 2015 after a fight at a fraternity house but it was dropped after he completed community service. One-year collegiate starter with all 12 starts coming at Central Florida. Undersized for the position and falls short of former general manager Ron Wolf’s standard height of 5-10½ for corners. Technique is raw and needs refinement.
Projected round: 1-2.
DONTE JACKSON, LSU, CORNERBACK
5-10½, 178 pounds
The good: Another player the Packers decided to bring in for a pre-draft visit. Jackson is an absolute blazer and, like Ward, ran the 40-yard dash in 4.32 seconds. Two-year starter at LSU with experience at cornerback, free safety and nickelback. Defended 10 or more passes in each of the last two seasons. Lightning-quick burst off the edge as a blitzer. Also ran track at LSU.
The bad: Jackson lacks ideal height and girth for the position. His 7 reps on the bench press are reflected by diminutive strength on the field, with bigger receivers capable of out-muscling him at the top of their routes. Must improve as a run defender. Slight frame lends itself to injury concerns.
Projected round: 2-3.
QUENTON MEEKS, STANFORD, CORNERBACK
6-1, 209 pounds
The good: Meeks has ideal height, weight and length for the cornerback position. A three-year starter at Stanford with experience at both cornerback (25 starts) and nickelback (8 starts). Ran fairly well for his size with a time of 4.49 seconds at his pro day with a solid 10-yard split of 1.54 seconds. Impressive athlete with a 39-inch vertical leap. Steady production at Stanford with at least 7 PBUs and 2 INTs in all three seasons. Doesn’t shy away from contact.
The bad: A bit stiff as an athlete and lacks top-end speed on deep routes. Must improve as a tackler in the open field. Can be slow to open his hips at times, and that allows receivers to create separation. Better as a run defender than he is against the pass.
Projected round: 4.
Best and bust
In 2005, when Gutekunst was the Southeast area scout for the Packers, Thompson used a second-round pick on Nick Collins, a safety from Bethune-Cookman. While the ’05 draft is best remembered for the selection of quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who went 24th overall, Collins developed into a terrific player in his own right. He was a three-time Pro Bowler from 2008-10 and was named second-team All-Pro in each of those three seasons, capturing a Super Bowl ring in the process. A neck injury cut his career short after seven seasons.
One of the Packers’ worst picks was cornerback Ahmad Carroll, a first-round choice from Arkansas in 2004. Caroll, the 25th overall pick, appeared in just 34 games for the Packers over three seasons from 2004-06 and managed only three interceptions during that span. The Packers cut Carroll mid-season in ’06, and he went on to play 23 combined games for the Jacksonville Jaguars and New York Jets. But he never intercepted another pass.