A brief overview of where the Packers stand at inside linebacker heading into next week's draft.
You have to think the Green Bay Packers would love to come out of the first round of the NFL draft with any of the top three prospects at either pass rusher or defensive back.
But what if not only pass rushers Bradley Chubb and Tremaine Edmunds are off the board by No. 14, but Marcus Davenport is too?
And what if defensive backs Denzel Ward, Derwin James and Minkah Fitzpatrick are gone as well?
Then who might general manager Brian Gutekunst end up taking at No. 14 overall?
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Gutekunst can avoid that by trading up from 14. But if he doesn’t and all those players are gone, then his pick of course depends on who would make it through to 14. This could be a worst-case scenario for the Packers’ new GM, or it could mean a talented player at another position unexpectedly slipped through.
Here’s a look at some of the possibilities:
How’s this for an example of the varying ways that different experts see the same players and predict the way the top of the first round will go? I asked five NFL scouts about the chances that Nelson, the Notre Dame guard, would make it to 14. Three said unlikely, one said no way, and another assured me he’ll still be on the board.
If by chance Nelson is available at 14, he’d have to give Gutekunst pause. Guard is not a primary position in the NFL, but the Packers have an open starting spot at right guard, and some scouts think Nelson is an uncommonly good prospect for his position.
“I think he’s the best player in the draft,” one longtime scout said. “You plug him in, he’s going to play 12 to 15 years and be great every one of them. He’s got Zack Martin — he might be a little bit better player than Zack Martin, and Zack Martin is a Pro Bowl guy every single year.”
Said another scout: “I would draft him immediately at 14 (if he’s available).”
Said a third scout: “I wouldn’t take a guard that high. But if that’s your guy, and you have him targeted and you feel comfortable with that, then you either sit and pick or go get him. But that’s a little rich for a guard.”
Another relative long shot to make it to 14 and a player who appears to be as close to universally admired by scouts as there is on defense in this draft.
I wonder, though about position value because of the nature of today’s NFL. Even the best and most talented inside linebackers get picked on by the top quarterbacks, so with defense being all about matching up in the passing game, is it really worth drafting a pure inside linebacker in the top half of the first round?
One scout answered emphatically yes.
“He’s Derrick Brooks,” the scout said, comparing Smith to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Pro Football Hall of Famer. “(Smith) never comes off the field. You can put him in coverage, he’s going to attack the pocket, run to the ball, take people on. He’s a hard player to deal with because he’s always around the ball. He’s a finisher, he creates turnovers. I have absolutely no problem with him (getting drafted in the top 10).”
Countered another scout: “There’s always one or two players in the draft that I don’t see the hype like everybody else. (Smith) is good, don’t get me wrong. I just don’t see top 10 or top 15. Maybe 25 to 34, something like that. But not top 10, not for me.”
This is a player former Packers GM Ted Thompson must love, because Vea fits Thompson’s theory that there are a very limited number of talented big men, so when you have a chance to get one, take it.
Vea is as big as they come (6-4, 347 pounds), and his 5.1-second 40 is outstanding for a man that size.
“You have to look at his high school footage (in Silicon Valley) to appreciate who this guy is,” one scout said. “He was a tailback. You’ve got to see him run the football at 290 pounds. It looks like he weighs 260. It’s unbelievable. It was ugly. He’s lifting his (knee) and (tacklers) are flying all over the place.
“… (As a defensive lineman) he’s an effective pass rusher, but to me he’s more of a run stuffer than a pass rusher. But you’re talking about a complete football player. Now, he can rush the passer, don’t get me wrong. One on one they’re going to have some hard times trying to block him. If you don’t double team him, shame on you.”
Unlike Nelson and Smith, there’s a decent chance Vea is on the board at 14, and I’ve seen several mock drafts sending him to the Packers. But count me a skeptic.
Defensive tackle is the Packers’ deepest position for quality talent with Mike Daniels, Kenny Clark and free-agent signee Muhammad Wilkerson. The NFL is a passing league, and there’s only room for two interior rushers to play on most downs as it is. Add Vea, and that would mean two of the Packers’ best defensive players would be off the field on most defensive snaps.
Unless Gutekunst sees in Vea another Ndamukong Suh, Aaron Donald or Fletcher Cox — that is, a dominant inside rusher — it’s hard to see how drafting Vea in the first round makes sense for the Packers. Vea had 9½ sacks in 40 games in college, which isn’t bad but not the numbers you’d project to a great inside rusher.
“He’s a penetrator, an up-the-field player, he even plays outside the (tackle) box,” another scout said. “He might not be the best pass rusher, but he’s an ideal nose tackle. He’ll be a hard guy to take when you play him head up because he plays with power.”
Said a third scout: “He’s not special. He’s big. He’s a brute.”
The Boston College defensive end led the nation in sacks (16½) in 2016 but had only five last season when he was slowed by an ankle injury.
He doesn’t have the ideal height (6-2 3/8) and length (32 7/8-inch arms) NFL teams prefer in an outside rusher — Davenport, for instance, is 6-5¾ and has 33 5/8-inch arms. But Landry had the big junior season and almost surely will be available at No. 14.
“That first-step explosiveness is really, really good for him,” one scout said. “I think the ankle was an issue (last year). If you watch the ’16 tape you’ll see a guy that’s very similar to Chubb, lot of sacks.”
Said another scout: “At 14, he’s in the conversation. I have him going 18 to 20.”
The Iowa cornerback was another popular pick for the Packers in mock drafts. Last season was his first as a starter, and it was a big one (eight interceptions). He has decent size (6-0 3/8) but ran only OK for a pure corner (4.48 seconds) and has one big red flag: tackling.
“He’s got ball skills,” a scout said. “But the kid last year the Chargers took (Jackson’s former Iowa teammate Desmond King), he was a much better player when it comes to the physicality of the game. This kid (Jackson) right here can cover, but he wants nothing to do with tackling. Nothing.”
Transferred from North Carolina reportedly in the wake of a sexual-assault accusation that never resulted in criminal charges. In his one year at Central Florida last season he had four interceptions and 15 passes defensed.
At 5-10 1/8, Hughes falls a little short of the Packers’ traditional 5-10½ cutoff for defensive backs. But his skill set appears to fit with new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine’s aggressive, man-oriented coverage schemes.
“Hughes is a really good press man corner,” one scout said. “He can run with people, he’s physical, he can stay with guys, he’s got toughness. I would not be worried about him playing in this league.”
Said another scout: “Didn’t run as fast as people thought he was going to run (his time was 4.53 seconds). But he’s a good little player. He’ll be there at 14.”