Free agency to determine bulk of Packers' draft needs

Pete Dougherty
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Green Bay Packers tackle Bryan Bulaga during training camp in August 2014.

INDIANAPOLIS — There isn't much question what position ranks at the top of the Green Bay Packers' needs for this year's NFL draft.

Inside linebacker, surprisingly neglected by general manager Ted Thompson in last year's draft, has to be the priority.

The Packers' lack of playmaking at that position has been a problem for years. While Clay Matthews' move there halfway through last season helped the Packers' defense dramatically, they'll be better off if he can take the majority of his snaps as an outside pass rusher.

But if it's almost a given they'll draft an inside linebacker in the first two or three rounds, it's not a given it will be in the first round. There's no surefire first-rounder at that position this year, at least not yet in the draft-grading process. The two likely to go highest — UCLA's Eric Kendricks and Miami's Denzel Perryman — could just as easily go in the early second round as the late first.

So that leaves open a world of possibilities for the Packers' first-rounder, and their first three rounds for that matter.

First, there's their lack of playmaking at tight end, which was the only hole in their offense last season. As big an indictment against recently cut Brandon Bostick as his botched onside kick recovery in the NFC championship game was his inability to get on the field at a position where there was playing time for the taking.

Green Bay Packers' Richard Rodgers catches a pass for a first down in the first half.
The Green Bay Packers against the Seattle Seahawks during the NFC conference championship game Sunday, January 18, 2015, at CenturyLink Field in Seattle, WA.

While 2014 third-round draft pick Richard Rodgers is one of the players the Packers will be looking to make a big jump in performance next season, it would be no surprise if Thompson drafted a tight end in the first round or two. Coach Mike McCarthy's tight end-friendly offense can easily accommodate another player at that position even if Rodgers blossoms this year.

Free agency then will determine the rest of the Packers' draft priorities.

If Bryan Bulaga signs with another team, right tackle would shoot to the top need or two. If I were a betting man, I'd bet on the Packers re-signing Bulaga, but the confidence level in that prediction is much lower than for receiver Randall Cobb.

That's because Bulaga is the top right tackle in free agency, which gives him leverage in negotiations with the Packers before the market opens in March. My guess is Thompson will be willing to make Bulaga one of the top-paid right tackles in the game, which means in the range of $7 million a year. But if that's not enough to get Bulaga to sign, my guess is Thompson and team vice president Russ Ball wouldn't go much higher.

If another team did, then the Packers would need a new starting right tackle. There would be two in-house candidates in Don Barclay and J.C. Tretter. But Barclay is coming off ACL surgery and and is better suited as a utility backup than full-time player. I'm just not convinced Tretter is stout enough — his listed weight is 307 pounds, but his frame doesn't look that big — to be a starter at that position. So Thompson likely would be looking high in the draft to fill that spot.

Cornerback and defensive line also could be draft priorities, depending on what happens in March.

If both Tramon Williams and Davon House leave in free agency, which is a real possibility, the depth at cornerback disappears. Though Casey Hayward doesn't have the preferred long speed for starting outside cornerback, he's instinctive enough and would become the likely starter opposite Sam Shields. Micah Hyde would be the full-time nickel back — he split that role with Hayward last season.

Green Bay Packers cornerback Tramon Williams makes an interception against the Buffalo Bills receiver Sammy Watkins (14) in the second quarter during Sunday's game at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park, N.Y.

But after that, the Packers would be one injury away from potential disaster, with 30-year-old special-teamer Jarrett Bush and untested second-year pro Demetri Goodson the next best options on the roster.

In today's NFL, that's a way to lose games because if you're weak at nickel or even dime cornerback, good offenses will exploit it. Just look to the Packers' win over New England last season, when rookie receiver Davante Adams torched nickel backs Kyle Arrington and Logan Ryan in the Packers' win. Or the Super Bowl, where one of the biggest plays of the game was Seattle nickel cornerback Jeremy Lane's arm injury in the first quarter that knocked him from the game. The Patriots relentlessly attacked his replacement, Tharold Simon, on their way to victory.

If both Williams and House leave — Williams if the Packers are concerned that his age (32 next month) will catch up to him soon, House if he's too expensive — then cornerback quickly rises on the priority list and couldn't be ruled out for the Packers' first round.

Then there's Letroy Guion's uncertain future after his arrest for felony possession of marijuana and a gun, which puts a higher priority on a position, defensive line, that had been a moderate need. Even if Guion can satisfy the Packers that the $190,000 he had when arrested in Florida in early February was from their paychecks and that he isn't a pot dealer, it's uncertain whether Thompson will try to re-sign him. And even if Guion returns, it's a given he'll be suspended for part of the season, the best guess at least four games.

There's a good chance B.J. Raji is back on a one-year deal after missing all of last season because of a torn biceps, which would mitigate the loss if Guion doesn't return. But defensive line has become one of the Packers' bigger needs, even if it's not in the top three.

This also could be the year Thompson drafts a backup quarterback, though if I were him I wouldn't do it until the fifth round at the earliest. With all his other roster holes, Thompson doesn't have the luxury of taking a backup quarterback higher regardless of Aaron Rodgers' injury history. Especially with Thompson's disdain for free agency, he needs those higher picks for players who might help win a Super Bowl with Rodgers, not someone who may or may not perform OK if Rodgers can't play.

Receiver ranks low on the priority list as long as Cobb re-signs. Two players from the Packers' draft class last year, Jared Abbrederis and Jeff Janis, will get a shot at the No. 4 job. The Packers also might as well re-sign Jarrett Boykin to the fourth-year NFL minimum $660,000 just to see if he can offer something after regressing badly last year.

The first three rounds are the premium picks in the NFL draft, and it's hard to see Thompson not taking an inside linebacker in those rounds. He badly needs an explosive athlete at that position, which is becoming more important again as NFL defenses get more spread out and need fast players who can both tackle and cover.

Maybe he'll take a tight end in one of the first 96 picks overall also. The guess here is he will. But good luck guessing his pick in the first round, at least for now. Between his long list of needs and his draft board, he could just as easily end up with a tackle, cornerback or even defensive lineman in Round 1.

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