With four or possibly five quarterbacks good bets to get drafted in the top 10 to 12 picks this year, the Green Bay Packers might get a shot at a defensive back who otherwise would have been out of reach at No. 14 overall.
The Packers, of course, need cover men almost as badly as they need pass rushers. Anyone who watched them last season can vouch for that.
The question is whether Florida State’s Derwin James or Alabama’s Minkah Fitzpatrick will still be on the board at No. 14, or more likely in James’ case at least close enough to 14 that general manager Brian Gutekunst could trade up for him at not too great a cost.
They’re two very different players, but each in his own way could be appealing for Gutekunst.
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James isn’t even a cornerback, the obvious weak spot in the Packers’ secondary, but a safety. But more than a specific position, the Packers need a difference maker on defense, and there are some scouts who think James will be one in the NFL.
“There are two players in this draft I’d trade up for,” said a scout for an NFC team. “I’d trade up for Derwin James, and I’d trade up for (Georgia linebacker) Roquan Smith. … I’m a big, big fan of Derwin James. This guy has rare ability. He can play down (by the line of scrimmage), he can play back. You can rush him, blitz him, he knocks down passes, tackles people.”
The Packers don’t necessarily need a safety because even though they let starter Morgan Burnett walk in free agency, they return Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Josh Jones. Clinton-Dix and Jones had rough seasons last year, but Clinton-Dix has been to a Pro Bowl, and the Packers spent a second-round pick on Jones.
Still, Gutekunst could find James hard to pass on if the safety made it to 14, though when I asked five NFL scouts recently of the chances that Jones would still be available, four said slim to none.
But what if James makes it to 10 or 11? Recent NFL trade history suggests the Packers probably could move up from 14 to get him by giving up a fourth-round selection, and they have two fourth-round picks to work with. The question is whether Gutekunst sees James as a game changer and thus worth the extra pick to move up. We won’t know until draft day.
If Gutekunst did make the move, new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine would have to figure out a way to get James, Jones and Clinton-Dix on the field together. The Packers didn’t spend a second-round pick on Jones last season to make him a backup, at least not until he proves he’s not a starter.
How might Pettine do that? One possibility would be moving Jones to nickel linebacker, though coach Mike McCarthy said at the NFL owners meeting that Jones was overloaded working two positions (safety and linebacker) last year, and that this year he’ll be a safety. Plans can always change.
There’s also the possibility that James (6-foot-1¾, 215 pounds) could play some slot cornerback, though there are questions about his cover skills for that position. While his 40 time is plenty good (4.47 seconds), his short shuttle (4.34 seconds) and three-cone drill (7.34 seconds) are below average for a safety, let alone someone covering receivers from the slot.
But James in college was at his best around the line of scrimmage as a disruptor and blitzer (15½ tackles for a loss and 5½ sacks in 28 games at Florida State). Maybe he could do all that as a nickel back without giving up too much in coverage, or maybe he can affect games as a safety as long as he lines up in the box a lot.
“On passing downs, he can play the slot,” a scout from another NFC team said. “I even had a team tell me they worked him out at corner. He’s got the length, the size. It’s going to be interesting to see where he goes and how they utilize him. He’s a phenomenal athlete.”
Said another scout: “I don’t know that I’d want him to do a lot of (nickel coverage). … Play him around the line of scrimmage, try to match him up on tight ends. Figure something out. The guy’s too good a football player not to be used.”
Fitzpatrick (6-0⅛, 204) has even more position versatility than James because he’s a better pure cover man— at Alabama he played nickel corner, outside corner and safety. The Packers presumably see him at least initially as a nickel cornerback, which is a big opening in their lineup.
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The question is whether Fitzpatrick can play any of those positions at a high level in the NFL. Three of the scouts said they think he can, but maybe he’s one of those guys who’s pretty decent at everything in the NFL but outstanding at nothing. His 4.46 40 is good but not great for a cornerback. He had nine interceptions and 4½ sacks in three seasons as a starter.
“Whatever you want to play him he’ll be fine,” a third scout said. “In a quarterback (first round) he’s going to get pushed down the board. … He’s always been a top-five player. Now he’s kind of become the forgotten guy.”
But said another scout: “Fitzpatrick is overrated. (The Packers) probably have to draft Fitzpatrick. He might still be there. Reputation-wise and perception is he’ll be gone, but the reality is he still might be there.”
One other cornerback is expected to go high in the first round, Ohio State’s Denzel Ward (5-10⅞, 183). There’s always the chance he makes it to 14, though his elite 4.32-second speed in the 40 makes it more likely a team in the top 10 will take him because of his upside.
Assuming Ward is gone by 10, this draft gets interesting for the Packers if James is still available at that point. If Gutekunst thinks the safety is a game changer, he’d have to think hard about going up to get him.
Or maybe Fitzpatrick will still be there at 14. Then Gutekunst might have choose between a pass rusher and a versatile cover man. The GM will be lucky if that’s the kind of hard decision he has to make.
Aaron Nagler speaks with Michael Cohen about the running back position heading into the 2018 NFL draft USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin