Will Packers be in first-round rush?

Pete Dougherty
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Eastern Kentucky defensive lineman Noah Spence participates in a drill during the 2016 NFL scouting combine at Lucas Oil Stadium.

Pass rushers decide games in the NFL more than any position except quarterbacks.

So while the Green Bay Packers need an inside linebacker who can play right away, and a defensive lineman who can immediately work into their rotation after the retirement of B.J. Raji, don’t discount their need at outside linebacker in this year’s draft.

Yes, Clay Matthews is moving back outside, and Julius Peppers and Nick Perry are returning for another season.

But even leaving aside the big hole the Packers might have at outside linebacker in 2017, don’t let their No. 7 ranking in sacks last season fool you. They had a decent pass rush, but they weren’t near the same class as the Denver Broncos, whose foundation for their Super Bowl title last season was the NFL’s most dominant pass rush.

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Edge rushers could tempt Packers

With that in mind, Ted Thompson, the Packers’ general manager, potentially faces a big decision Thursday night when his first-round pick comes up at No. 27 overall. There’s a decent chance Noah Spence, maybe this draft’s best outside-rushing prospect, will be on the board, along with a couple of defensive linemen who warrant a look at that point, and maybe even inside linebacker Reggie Ragland, too.

So then Thompson will have to answer two questions. First, will he help his defense more by selecting a pass rusher who will play only part time in 2016, instead of a defensive lineman or, if available, an inside linebacker who starts immediately? And second, is Spence worth the off-field risk? This, after all, is a player who was booted out of the Big Ten Conference two years ago for multiple positive tests for Ecstasy. He played last season at Eastern Kentucky, where his play and numerous negative drug tests have him back in the discussion as a first-round pick.

I’m inclined, all things being equal, to favor the pass rusher, because you just can’t have enough of those in today’s NFL. But all things aren’t equal, and it’s harder to comment on the character risk, because NFL teams know so much more about Spence than any of us can as outsiders. It warrants pointing out that the Packers brought him to Green Bay for one of their 30 pre-draft visits, something they usually reserve for potential late-round picks and undrafted free agents.

To get the least-biased take on Spence that I could, I called a former high-ranking front-office executive for multiple NFL teams who’s still in the business as an independent scout. I thought I could trust him not to oversell or undersell Spence, because he doesn’t care where Spence goes. He has studied this draft thoroughly.

“I think it would be a great pick (for the Packers),” the scout said. “The guy’s a phenomenal football player. Everybody’s going to look at his (bad) 40 time, but if you look at him he’s a first-round talent, no question. If he’d have stayed clean at Ohio State we’d be talking about this guy in the top 10 picks. … I wouldn’t pass on this guy.”

Spence the player appears to be an excellent though not elite pass-rush prospect. He became a starter in his true sophomore season (2014) at Ohio State and had eight sacks and 14½ tackles for loss, but just before the Big Ten championship game the league banned him for life because of a second positive drug test.

Ohio State coach Urban Meyer helped set up Spence at Eastern Kentucky, where a childhood friend of Meyer’s is coach. Eastern Kentucky plays at the FCS level of college football, so Spence was eligible immediately last season. As a defensive end he had 11½ sacks and 22½ tackles for loss.

Spence is a little shorter (6-feet-2½) than the Packers prefer their outside linebackers, and his 40 time at the combine was a wholly unimpressive 4.80 seconds. But Spence, who weighs 251 pounds, had a good 10-yard split (1.61 seconds) and vertical jump (35 inches).

Video: Is Noah Spence worth the risk?

“I think he has elite initial quickness,” a scout with an AFC team said. “He is a good football player, and a lot of his stuff relies on his initial get-off and what he can do in the first five yards. He has to win early, and if he does he has a chance to apply pressure.”

Said a scout for an NFC team: “I think he’s the best pass rusher in this draft, I really do. Explosive first step. There are people at Ohio State that will tell you he was better than (likely top-five pick) Joey Bosa. The fact that he went to Eastern Kentucky to get his career back going the right way says a lot about him. I’d feel far better taking him as a pass rusher than I would taking Joey Bosa. No kidding.”

The risk in drafting Spence is that he’ll show well and become a big part of his NFL team’s plans but then relapse and end up suspended, perhaps multiple times. In order to prove to teams that he can stay drug-free, Spence reportedly was drug tested every week at Eastern Kentucky and has continued independent testing this offseason without a positive test.

It looks like Spence might get drafted as high as the middle of the first round, but if enough teams balk at the risk he could last until early in the second. It all depends on how clubs interpret their background checks on and interviews with him. Each franchise has its own tolerance for risk.

But at least for now, there appears to be a real chance Spence will be on the board at 27.

“If he doesn’t go somewhere in the mid to bottom of the first round, whoever’s picking in the top of the second is going to take this guy,” the former executive said. “You’ve heard me say, it doesn’t matter where he goes he still might have that same issue. So you either like this guy or you don’t like this guy.”

Said the NFC scout: “His transgressions are farther removed than other guys who have had drug issues. His drug was Ecstasy, it wasn’t marijuana. I don’t see a guy that’s going to relapse, I really don’t.”

Assuming that Georgia outside linebacker Leonard Floyd is selected before No. 27, another outside rusher who might interest the Packers is Kamalei Correa of Boise State. Correa (6-2⅝, 243) ran a good 40 (4.69 seconds) and had 19 sacks in his final two seasons at Boise State.

He’s among a large pool of players who could get drafted anywhere from late first round to the second round.

“I like him a lot,” the NFC scout said. “Somebody’s going to take him and say, ‘There’s a guy that can play in space.’ This guy attacks the edge, he’s got a lot of pass-rush moves. … He can make plays and cause problems in the pocket.”

Said the independent scout: “Everybody’s trying to put him in the first round. I just don’t see it. I like his hustle, I like his chase. I like the way he uses his hands when he comes off the edge. But he doesn’t have that juice like Noah Spence and Floyd.” and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.

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