Packers exploring bid for Browns free-agent inside linebacker Joe Schobert

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INDIANAPOLIS - The fate of the Green Bay Packers inside linebacker position is still being decided and Blake Martinez isn’t the only name in play.

According to multiple agents who have been tracking the free-agent market, the Packers are exploring what it would take to sign former Wisconsin inside linebacker Joe Schobert of the Cleveland Browns.

It doesn’t mean the Packers aren’t interested in re-signing Martinez, the team’s leading tackler each of the three past seasons, but they are apparently covering all their bases before free agency begins March 18.

The 6-1, 245-pound Schobert is considered one of the top inside linebackers in a thin class of free agents that includes Martinez and the Los Angeles Rams’ Cory Littleton. Schobert and Littleton haven’t accumulated the tackles Martinez has, but they are both considered better in coverage.

Schobert, a Waukesha native, made more big plays in 2019 than any of the three, totaling two sacks, four interceptions, 13 passes broken up and two forced fumbles. In 2017, Schobert tied with Martinez and Buffalo’s Preston Brown for the league lead in tackles with 144.

Dec 22, 2019; Cleveland, Ohio, USA; Cleveland Browns middle linebacker Joe Schobert (53) tackles Baltimore Ravens running back Justice Hill (43) during the second half at FirstEnergy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Present at the NFL scouting combine this week, Packers executive vice president/football operations Russ Ball has been gauging the inside linebacker market. Free agency might not start for another 2½ weeks, but clubs and agents met all week to discuss free-agent possibilities.

The Packers can’t sign other teams' free agents until March 18, but they can sign their own at any time.

According to the agents, Martinez is seeking a deal of at least $10 million per year, which would put him just inside the top 10 of inside linebacker salaries. The Packers want to pay less, potentially in the $8 million per year range, depending on the structure of the deal.

Because of the emphasis on pass defense in the NFL and his skill in coverage, Schobert will be seeking at least $10 million per year and may get more depending on how many teams get involved.

For whatever weaknesses Martinez showed, he was invaluable to defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, playing 98.7% of the defensive snaps the last two seasons. Martinez relays Pettine’s call from the sideline to the rest of the defense and oversees communication with the front seven.

Last year, Martinez did not have the benefit of regularly playing with another inside linebacker. Run-stuffer B.J. Goodson played just 24.4% of the snaps and Pettine used a safety the rest of the time.

Schobert would be a good fit not only because he can cover but he has natural pass-rush ability. His senior season with the Badgers, he was a second-team All-America at outside linebacker, finishing with 9.5 sacks, 19.5 tackles for loss and five forced fumbles.

Pettine blitzed Martinez quite a bit last year and would be able to make use of Schobert’s versatility to rush from both inside and outside.

According to Sports Info Solutions, Schobert allowed 64.9% of passes thrown in his vicinity to be completed, which is a much better percentage than Martinez’s 82.5. However, Schobert missed 11.7% of his tackle attempts, which is worse than Martinez’s 9.9.

Both players were fourth-round picks in the 2016 draft. Schobert was taken No. 99 overall and Martinez No. 131.

If the Packers don’t want to meet the price of Martinez or Schobert, they could go for cheaper options such as Chicago’s Nick Kwiatkoski and Danny Trevathan, Baltimore’s Josh Byne and Washington’s Jon Bostic.

Up to three inside linebackers are expected to be picked early in the NFL draft in April — Clemson’s Isaiah Simmons, LSU’s Patrick Queen and Oklahoma’s Kenneth Murray. Simmons will be gone long before the Packers select at No. 30 and there’s a pretty good chance Queen and Murray will be off the board as well.

Mixed showing for Cephus

Surrounded by Wisconsin media at a small table in the Indianapolis Convention Center on Tuesday, Quintez Cephus smiled and told everyone he would silence doubters about his speed when he worked out Thursday.

The former University of Wisconsin wide receiver knew there were questions about his speed, but he was confident he would put such concerns to rest.

“That’s the exciting part about it,” he said. “They know I can play football and they’re excited to see me run. And I’m going to get an opportunity to show them how fast I can run on Thursday.”

Cephus did run Thursday, and turned in a position-worst 4.73-second 40-yard dash.

On the positive side, Cephus put up a position-best 23 reps on the 225-pound bench press. He also had a 38.5-inch vertical jump (8th), a 124-inch broad jump (17th) and the 7.2-second three-cone drill (16th), which were all more than respectable.

“A lot of teams are interested to see me run and I want to go out there and put up some good numbers, show 'em how explosive I am, how high I jump, how strong I am and that I can run and catch the ball and do all the things that it takes to be a great NFL receiver,” Cephus said.

It is likely Cephus will run the 40 again at the Badgers pro day in Madison on March 11.

Receiver prospects turn heads

Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst said at the beginning of the week that he felt the 2020 rookie class of receivers was as deep as many believed, and Thursday night’s late workouts did nothing to dispel that notion — especially with receivers that fit his desired body type for the position.

“You’d love to have a 6-4, 225-pound guy that can do it all,” Gutekunst said before heading to Indianapolis. “I do like tall, long athletes and we certainly have some of those guys, and I’m excited what they can do moving forward.

“I think you’ve seen across the league what a group of guys who can really run — with how the game is called today and the rules of the game and stuff — I think that’s something we’ll certainly put an emphasis on this year.”

Alabama’s Henry Ruggs III did not break John Ross’ 40-yard dash combine record of 4.24 seconds but came close with a 4.27-second effort to lead the class in that category. Southern Mississippi’s Quez Watkins (4.35), Baylor’s Denzel Mims (4.38), Tulane’s Darnell Mooney (4.38), Texas’ Devin Duvernay (4.39) and Memphis’ Antonio Gibson (4.39) all turned in sub-4.4. times as well.

Notre Dame wide receiver Chase Claypool, who some believe could play tight end in the NFL because he is listed at 6 feet, 4 inches and 238 pounds, ran a 4.42.

Thirteen other receivers ran a 4.48-second time or faster.

Of that elite group of 20 speedsters running under 4.5 seconds, 14 stand at least 6-feet tall and 10 are at least 6-1.

The shortest Packers receiver in 2019 was undrafted rookie Darrius Shepherd (5-11), followed by free waiver pickup Ryan Grant (6-feet). Canadian Football League star Reggie Begelton is 6-feet also and signed a reserve/futures deal for 2020.

Davante Adams is 6-1 and every other receiver is at least 6-2.

Washington State’s Dezmon Patmon fit Gutekunst’s theoretical projection perfectly at 6-4, 225 while running a 4.48-second 40-yard dash.

“I think we’re all trying to find the guys that can separate, make plays," Gutekunst said. "To me, it’s more or less how you use guys. You’ve got to find out what they do well, and then how do you implement them within your system.

Prospects to have surgery

The workouts at the NFL combine may have been moved to prime time but the most important part of the week involves the medical evaluations for players, and that was once again reinforced when LSU tight end Thaddeus Moss was told he had a Jones fracture — a break between the base and middle part of the fifth metatarsal — in his right foot. The NFL Network reported that Moss, son of Hall of Fame wide receiver Randy Moss, will undergo surgery with the expectation he will be cleared to participate in activities in about eight weeks.

Moss missed his 2018 season at LSU with a left foot injury. He caught 47 passes for 570 yards and four touchdowns last season for the Tigers. He is a considered a top tight end prospect.

Florida wide receiver Van Jefferson was also told he had a Jones fracture in his right foot during the medical evaluations, and ESPN reported he will head to Green Bay to have Dr. Robert Anderson perform surgery on it. Jefferson caught 49 balls for 657 yards and six touchdowns for the Gators.

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