Defensive line could be in Packers' wheelhouse

Pete Dougherty
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One plausible scenario for the first round of the NFL draft has an abundance of well-regarded interior defensive linemen available when the Green Bay Packers pick at No. 27 overall.

In fact, a front-office executive with a team that also picks in the 20s told me Tuesday that the Packers probably will have several interior linemen to pick from, along with inside linebacker Reggie Ragland, among others, in Thursday’s first round of the NFL draft.

The scout said he expects Louisville defensive lineman Sheldon Rankins will be gone, and that Louisiana Tech’s Vernon Butler probably will be off the board. But in a draft where defensive line ranks high on general manager Ted Thompson’s needs list, the scout predicted that the Alabama duo of A’Shawn Robinson and Jarron Reed, along with Mississippi’s Robert Nkemiche and Baylor’s Andrew Billings, will be on the board at No. 27.

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The scout also said that at inside linebacker, Ragland probably will be available, but that the chances of Ohio State’s Darron Lee being there are “slim and none.” He also predicts that a prospect of note at outside linebacker, Eastern Kentucky’s Noah Spence, will be there.

You could go broke betting on Thompson’s choice when he’s picking in the late 20s of the first round. His history says he won’t move up – he’s never traded up with his top selection (in 2009 he moved into the first round for Clay Matthews, but that was his second pick of that draft). He’s also moved back only once in 11 drafts with the Packers, in ’08, when he traded from No. 30 to No. 36 and picked Jordy Nelson.

So the smart money says Thompson will sit and pick at 27. Good luck on your guess.

Outside looking in, I’m betting Thompson’s pick probably will come from the aforementioned group of defensive front seven players. But that’s hardly a given. You can’t rule out other positions, such as receiver, where TCU’s Josh Doctson or Notre Dame’s Will Fuller could give Thompson pause if available. Or maybe Thompson likes the best tight end prospect in this draft, Hunter Henry, as first-rounder. And in a pinch you probably can’t rule out offensive line, even if it seems unlikely.

Thompson also might have another player, not mentioned, that he likes even though most teams don’t see the guy as a first-round player. But with the draft still more than a day away, my best guess is it will come from the above group.

So here’s a quick take on each, based on what I’ve gleaned from several scouts the last few days and from observing Thompson during his tenure with the Packers:

Vernon Butler (6-3⅝, 323), DL: Offers the most position flexibility because he appears able to play 3-4 end and nose tackle plus nickel tackle almost equally well. He might start at 3-4 end, back up Letroy Guion at nose tackle and rotate in regularly in the nickel alongside Mike Daniels. He appears to have more potential as an inside rusher than Reed and Billings. But the front-office executive said Tuesday he thinks Butler more likely than not will be gone before 27.

Robert Nkemdiche (6-3½, 294), DL:

Mississippi defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche has some off-field issues, but his talent on the field can't be ignored.

One of the tougher calls in this draft. Was the No. 1 recruit coming out of high school and had his share of impressive moments at Ole Miss, though never produced to his projected level (13 sacks in three seasons as a starter, including seven sacks last year).

Of the four scouts I talked to, three ranged anywhere from liking to loving him as a talent. The fourth saw some physical gifts but a proverbial “coach killer” because of his lack of awareness and production.

And that’s without the off-field issues. Nkemdiche either jumped or fell out a window in an Atlanta hotel last December, and was subsequently arrested after police found marijuana in the room (some reports said it was synthetic marijuana, which is undetectable in drug tests).

My guess is Thompson won’t take Nkemdiche in the first round because of the off-field risk, but that’s just a guess. The GM has had plenty of time to research his background and make his call. Maybe Thompson sees a player who’s immature but not a huge risk, and a talent he can’t pass up. We’ll see.

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A'Shawn Robinson (6-3⅝, 307), DL: Comparable to Butler and maybe a better prospect, depending on the scout you ask. Should be able to play both end and nose tackle, and like Butler appears to have more potential as an inside rusher than Reed and Billings. If he’s on the board, there’s no good reason to think Thompson won’t take him. He’d play immediately.

Jarron Reed (6-2⅞, 307): Much more a nose tackle than an end in a 3-4 scheme, so he probably won’t have the position versatility of Butler and Robinson, but he might be the best run defender in the draft. Scouts are having trouble determining what kind of inside rusher he’ll be because Alabama was so deep on the defensive line it rarely left him on the field on passing downs. A viable pick at 27, especially if Thompson thinks Reed can push the pocket better than he had the chance to show in college.

Andrew Billings (6-0⅝, 311): Also more of a nose tackle, and in college flashed an impressive ability to play in the offense’s backfield, especially before a midseason ankle injury last year. One scout didn’t see him lasting until 27, but the executive interviewed Tuesday did. If he’s there he’s another viable pick for Thompson.

Reggie Ragland (6-1¼, 247): Most media mock drafts I sampled had him gone by 27, but the executive I talked to Tuesday expects him to be available at 27. He’s the kind of safe pick that would be in Thompson’s wheelhouse, because there isn’t much bust risk and he’d also fill an immediate need for a starting inside linebacker.

But I still wonder whether questions about his ability to cover at a high level will land him below most or all the aforementioned defensive linemen on most teams’ boards, including Thompson’s. With the way the NFL is played today, it’s tough to draft an inside linebacker in the first round if you’re not convinced he’s an every-down player. I wouldn’t. If Ragland is on the board at 27, we’ll see what Thompson thinks.

Noah Spence (6-2½, 251): Might be the best outside-rush prospect in this draft , and the only reason he’d still be on the board is an addiction to Ecstasy that got him banned from the Big Ten in 2014. His 2015 season at Eastern Kentucky, where he was drug tested every week, has helped his draft status. My guess is Thompson won’t mess with him in the first round. and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.

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