Defensive line will be on Ted Thompson's mind

Pete Dougherty
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Defensive tackle A'Shawn Robinson was named first-team All-SEC this past season with 71/2 tackles for loss and 31/2 sacks.

Going into the 2012 NFL draft, a scout whose area of greatest expertise is the defensive line expressed misgivings to me about Michigan State’s Jerel Worthy.

He liked Worthy’s quickness, but he thought Worthy owed too much of his success to anticipating the snap count in college, and would struggle with that in the more sophisticated NFL.

“If you said, take away his get off (by guessing the count) and what is he?” the scout asked. “Honestly, he’s just an average player.”

We know how that turned out. Ted Thompson, the Green Bay Packers’ general manager, traded up for Worthy in the second round, and Worthy busted. The scout was right.

I tell this story because for all the drafts I’ve covered since 1993, he has been right as often on defensive-line prospects as any scout I’ve talked to about any position. Of course he doesn’t bat 1,000; nobody does, or even comes close. But he’s right more often than not, which says a lot.

Risky business for Packers with 27th pick

So I called him recently to ask about some of the potential first-round defensive linemen in this year's draft. It’s a position Thompson very well might select with the Packers’ No. 27 pick overall – I’m guessing he’ll take what he considers the best player from among the defensive linemen, inside linebackers, outside linebackers and tight ends.

There are at least two defensive lineman – that is, they’d play defensive line in the Packers’ 3-4 scheme – who it’s a given will be off the board well before No. 27: Oregon’s DeForest Buckner and Louisville’s Sheldon Rankins.

Then there’s a group of five who might be available for Thompson’s consideration. Here they are, with some biographical information and the scout’s take:

A’Shawn Robinson, Alabama (6-foot-3 5/8, 307 pounds): The odds don’t look good for him being there at No. 27, but you never know. He played in a 3-4 scheme at Alabama and has great position versatility lining up anywhere from over center to across from a tackle.

He and defensive-line mate Jarran Reed, who also will be a first-round pick, were dominating stopping the run.

"Of all my years watching college tape, them playing the run is the most impressive thing I’ve seen in the NFL,” the scout said. “It was unbelievable.”

Robinson has the long arms (34 ½ inches, tied for sixth longest among 64 defensive linemen at the NFL scouting combine) to keep blockers off his body, which is important for five-techniques in a 3-4 scheme. He had nine sacks in three seasons with Alabama but didn’t rush a lot. The scout liked him better than Reed because of rush potential.

“A’Shawn Robinson will be a good pass rusher,” the scout said. “I’d take him top five (overall) if I’m a 3-4 team. Robinson can play anything he wants. He’s a fit for 32 (teams).”

Jarran Reed, Alabama (6-2 7/8, 307): Doesn’t have Robinson’s length – besides being nearly one inch shorter in height, his arms are 1 1/8-inch shorter – and would be a nose tackle in the Packers’ scheme. He had only two sacks in two seasons as a starter at Alabama, though he almost never played on pass-rushing downs.

More likely than not he’ll be gone by No. 27, but if available the question might come down to pass rush in a game where that skill gets more important every year. I’d think Thompson would want more rush potential with his first-round pick, but maybe Reed is so dominant against the run that it doesn’t matter after losing B.J. Raji to retirement.

“Reed can play the run right now at a Pro Bowl level. Today. Now,” the scout said. “Something to be said for that. Only thing about Reed, I don’t know if he’ll ever be a pass rusher. I’m just not sure.”

Ranking Thompson's Packers drafts

Robert Nkemdiche, Mississippi (6-3½, 294): One of the most controversial players in the draft. He was an elite college recruit and has the size and measurables (4.87-second 40, 35-inch vertical) of a top-10 type NFL prospect. But his performance in three seasons as a starter (19 tackles for loss, seven sacks) doesn’t match.

He also raises major red flags off the field because of an incident in December in Atlanta when he broke through a hotel window and fell about 15 feet, then was arrested when police subsequently found seven marijuana cigarettes in his hotel room.

It’s looking like he has a decent or better shot at being available at No. 27.

“I don’t like him as a person or player,” the scout said. “I don’t think he had six or seven sacks in three years. He can’t find the football, he’s got awful instincts. He’s a pain in the (butt). Numbers, size, weight, speed. (But) he’s not a good football player. He’s a coach killer. … He could, I guess, (have a good career), but odds are against the guy. My years in the league, those guys very rarely pan out.”

Andrew Billings, Baylor (6-0 5/8, 311): In three seasons had 30½ tackles for loss and eight sacks. Would be a nose tackle in the Packers’ 3-4 scheme. Probably will be drafted late in the first round or early in the second.

“There’s all kinds of up and down (evaluations) on him,” the scout said. “I looked at him, he looked like a second-round draft choice or something. I watched him on film and he can knock you out with some of the things he did. Big, sort of a blocky guy, but he can really move.

“I don’t know (if he can rush). He’s a good solid prospect with some athletic ability. He could be a boom-or-bust kind of guy, depending on where he goes and who he’s surrounded with.”

Vernon Butler, Louisiana Tech (6-3 5/8, 323): In four years had 29½ tackles for loss and five sacks. Has the size and length (35-inch arms) of a true five-technique for the Packers’ 3-4 scheme.

Like Billings, he probably will go late in the first round or very early in the second. Butler might have more pass-rush potential of the two despite his inferior sack number.

“I saw a few things that tell me he has a chance to be really good,” the scout said. “He had almost a freak (position) workout (on campus). I’m not talking about the 40, I’m talking about body control, quickness, the ability to bend, lean, all those good things. Yeah, I could take him (late first round). He’s 320 and 6-4 or 6-5. God only made some many people that size. He’s one of them. I sort of like him.” and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.

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