A brief overview of the top three outside linebackers on Bob McGinn's board heading into Thursday night's NFL draft. Aaron Nagler/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin
Ted Thompson needs, above all, a pass rusher and a cornerback.
Of course, the Green Bay Packers general manager has plenty of other wants for his roster. Running back and starting guard. Inside linebacker. Maybe defensive line. And what team can’t use more playmakers with the ball in their hands?
But rusher and cornerback are Nos. 1 and 2 in my book.
If Thompson sees it that way as well, this draft should provide him with decent first-round options for at least one if not both positions at No. 29 overall.
“I’d get the outside rusher first,” said a high-ranking executive with another NFL team this week, “and come back in the second (round) with the corner.”
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Agreed. Pass rushers are more valuable and harder to find. They’re the most important players after quarterbacks. Nothing will help a Packers defense that finished No. 26 in defensive passer rating (95.9) more than someone who can pressure the passer.
That’s not saying it’s a given Thompson takes one at No. 29. He very well might not. You never know what player he might like, or who might unexpectedly be there when he picks.
But outside rusher looks like the odds-on favorite to me. So for brevity and simplicity, we’ll go with the odds and look only at some first-round outside linebackers who figure to be on Thompson’s radar.
This week I spoke with four scouts for NFL teams to get a better sense of who will and won’t be available at No. 29. Trust me when I say, the more people you talk to, the more confusing this can get. Opinions vary. Sometimes a lot.
But from those conversations, below is a list of five outside rushers who are possibilities, along with a comment from the scouts.
But let’s start by eliminating a few names you might have heard: Temple’s Haason Reddick, Michigan’s Taco Charlton, Alabama’s Tim Williams and Tennessee’s Derek Barnett.
Some 3-4 teams see Reddick as an inside linebacker because he lacks length (6-1¼) for outside. Others see a quick-twitch outside rusher. Regardless, it sounds like he’s probably off the board by 29.
One scout rated Williams the second-best rusher in this draft, behind only likely top pick Myles Garrett. But Williams tested positive for marijuana multiple times at Alabama, and I just don’t see Thompson (or maybe any other team) messing with the risk of a future suspension with a first-round pick.
Another scout thought Charlton could play 3-4 outside linebacker, but I look at his size (6-5⅝, 277) and slow 40 (4.91 seconds) and see a 4-3 defensive end, not a 3-4 outside linebacker.
And Barnett’s stock took a hit because he tested poorly at the combine (4.88 40, 31-inch vertical). But he produced big at Tennessee — he broke Reggie White’s school sacks record — and odds still look good he’s gone before 29.
NFL DRAFT: Round-by-round Packers picks
Something to keep in mind as it gets late in the first round Thursday night is that the Dallas Cowboys are directly in front of the Packers at No. 28. Like the Packers, Dallas needs pass rushers and corners - they never adequately replaced DeMarcus Ware after losing him three years ago and lost cornerbacks Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr in free agency this offseason. Owner Jerry Jones is in the market for the same guys as Thompson.
With that, here are five outside rushers to keep an eye on at No. 29:
Charles Harris, Missouri: Plays better than he tests (4.82 40, improved vertical from 32 inches to 37½ from scouting combine to Pro Day). Lacks length for a 3-4 outside linebacker (6-2¾) so might fit better as a 4-3 end. But has pass-rush talent and mean streak. “If he’s there (the Packers) probably take him,” said the highest-ranking of the scouts. “Plays the game of football the way it’s supposed to be played.”
Takk McKinley, UCLA: His shoulder (labrum) surgery in early March muddies the waters but also might make him available at 29. He probably won’t be ready for the start of training camp, and some teams think he’ll still be on PUP (physically unable to perform) when the season starts, which means he’d miss the first six games. But he is expected to play this year, so that might not scare off Thompson in the first round.
“As a pure pass rusher I’d go McKinley over Harris,” another scout said. “Harris might be a little more of a (mean guy), which goes a long way, fighting through double teams, tight end-tackle double teams, chipping off by the back. … But McKinley’s not far off. He’s a good football player.”
T.J. Watt, Wisconsin: The highest-ranking scout insisted that Watt isn’t a first-rounder, even at the end of the round. Another expects Watt to go at the bottom of the round and sees a rusher who might blossom down the road.
To me, Watt has Ted Thompson written all over him. He more than meets the physical criteria with good length (6-4½) and physical testing (80th percentile or better among linebackers in the vertical, broad jump, three cone and short shuttle). He played 3-4 outside linebacker at Wisconsin, so there’s no projecting him to a new position. And he’s a safe pick as far as love of football and off-field issues.
But you never know. Maybe Thompson, like the high-ranking scout, simply doesn’t see first-round talent there.
“If McKinley and Harris are gone and Watt is sitting there, I think they’ll take Watt over a corner because they need linebackers,” one scout said. “I know they need corners too, but linebackers are at a premium for those guys. Julius Peppers is gone.”
Jordan Willis, Kansas State: High-character player who tested well (4.53 40, 39-inch vertical) and had 11½ sacks last season as a defensive end. One scout liked him as a rusher better than Watt and Tyus Bowser.
“I like his motor better,” the scout said.
Tyus Bowser, Houston: Missed five games last season because of a broken bone in his face but still had eight sacks. Kind of a dark horse, but some teams see an explosive rusher.
“Watt is going to play down after down, he’s going to be really steady, give you some pass rush,” a scout said. “But if you want a guy that brings you juice off the edge, Bowser brings the juice.”
My guess is Thompson would take McKinley or Harris if one is on the board. It’s maybe 50-50 that either is there. If not, it will come down to whether Thompson sees enough value in Watt, Willis or maybe even Bowser, assuming any or all are there.
If Thompson doesn’t see the value, we’ll know. He’ll take a cornerback, or another position. Or he’ll trade down.
“It’s a little risky to take (Watt, Willis or Bowser) right there,” one scout said. “You could, and you could end up looking like a genius because they pan out. But a first-round pick you want immediate impact, and you could trade back and take the best available corner that fits your team.”
2017 NFL DRAFT
Round 1: 7 p.m. Thursday
Rounds 2-3: 6 p.m. Friday
Rounds 4-7: 11 a.m. Saturday
TV: ESPN, NFL Network
PACKERS' DRAFT PICKS
Round 1, No. 29 overall
Round 2, No. 61
Round 3, No. 93
Round 4, No. 134
Round 5, No. 172
Round 5, No. 182 (compensatory)
Round 6, No. 212
Round 7, No. 247