There are five or six defensive players the Green Bay Packers would love to have in the first round of this year’s NFL draft.
Bradley Chubb, the draft’s best pass-rushing prospect, tops that list but almost surely will go in the first five picks.
Odds are Georgia linebacker Roquan Smith won’t get out of the top 10, and Virginia Tech linebacker Tremaine Edmunds probably won’t last much longer than Smith.
And the most coveted of the top three defensive-back prospects, Ohio State cornerback Denzel Ward, probably won’t make it out of the top 10, either.
But what if Florida State’s Derwin James or Alabama’s Minkah Fitzpatrick makes it to 14? The smart money says general manager Brian Gutekunst would jump at either, and the guess here is that James won’t make it but Fitzpatrick will.
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“The reason I say (Fitzpatrick’s chances of being on the board at 14 are) a little bit better, with James you know exactly what you’re getting, where you’re going to play him,” said a high-ranking executive with an NFC team. “With Fitzpatrick, is he a safety, is he a corner, is he a slot?
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“It’s a little bit of, to a lesser extent, the Jabrill Peppers conversations last year, where-are-you-going-to-play-him? kind of thing. It’s a good thing to have with (Fitzpatrick), because he’s much better in coverage than Jabrill Peppers. (But) if you don’t necessarily know where he fits in, you’re not going to pick him real high.”
Predicting drafts always has a crapshoot element to it, but this year especially so with the Packers because they have a new man running their draft. Gutekunst has no history as a decision maker, so there are no tendencies to guess on whether he’s more likely to trade up, trade back or sit and pick at No. 14.
If he’s willing to trade up a few spots – a fourth-rounder to move up maybe two spots, or a third-rounder to move up three or four – the most likely target very well could be Edmunds. At Virginia Tech, Edmunds played mostly inside linebacker, but he occasionally rushed from the outside as well. His combination of size (6-4 ½) and speed (4.53-second 40) suggest that he’d fit well in new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine’s scheme as a player who could line up almost anywhere on any down.
Whether Edmunds even makes it to the 10th pick is a big question though, because the San Francisco 49ers at No. 9 appear to be a likely destination if Smith already is off the board. But who knows what trades might happen, and how they might affect who’s taken when?
If for some reason Edmunds still is available at 10 or 11, it could give Gutekunst pause.
“(Edmunds) is not asked to rush very often, and when he is asked to rush he kind of just wins on athletic ability, he doesn’t necessarily have a plan,” another scout said. “You can tell he hasn’t been coached up on the finer points of rushing.
“I’d take Edmunds (over Fitzpatrick or James). I think he’s a better player than the two safeties … head and shoulders.”
After Chubb, Ward might be the Packers’ best match of need and talent, but as the top cornerback prospect he probably doesn’t have much chance of making it to even 10.
James and Fitzpatrick don’t neatly fit the Packers’ needs like Chubb or Ward, but they offer enough to think Gutekunst would take either anyway.
James is more of a pure safety who’s at his best as a disruptor and blitzer around the line of scrimmage. None of the handful of scouts I’ve talked with in the past couple weeks liked him as a nickel cornerback, but all said he could also play linebacker in a league where teams are moving big safeties to linebacker to improve pass coverage on tight ends and running backs.
“That’s a blue player, playmaker, Pro Bowl, phenomenal athlete,” a third scout said. “You can do so much with him.”
James would be something of a redundant pick for the Packers because they drafted a similar player in last year’s second round, Josh Jones. But if they see James as a difference maker, he’d be hard to pass up.
“Very similar to the one they drafted last year but better,” a fourth scout said.
Fitzpatrick might have the best chance of that group to still be there at 14 because of questions whether he’s a jack-of-all-trades – he’s started at cornerback, nickel back and safety at Alabama – but master of none. Of course, it only takes one team, so someone who especially likes him might take him in the top 10. But some teams think he’s just a glorified safety, whereas others think he can play cornerback, at least early in his career.
The Packers have an open starting spot at nickel cornerback, so the guess here is that they see Fitzpatrick beginning his career at that position if they pick him.
“There are teams that think he can do (the nickel),” one of the scouts said. “I have a few reservations. But he can certainly cover. I view him as a safety. I think he’ll be a good coverage safety.”
One possible wild card for No. 14 is massive Washington defensive lineman Vita Vea.
He’s not an obvious match with the Packers because their deepest position in quality is the interior defensive line with Mike Daniels, Kenny Clark and free-agent signee Muhammad Wilkerson.
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But at his pre-draft news conference, Gutekunst espoused a personnel philosophy much like that of his previous boss, Ted Thompson, that suggests he’ll like players such as Vea.
“Big guys are harder to find than small guys at every level of football,” Gutekunst said Monday.
One scout said Tampa at No. 7, Oakland at No. 10 and Washington at No. 13 are possible destinations for Vea, so Gutekunst might not face the decision. But if Vea is still there and the GM is thinking longer-term and sees real potential as an inside pass rusher, he might take Vea at 14.
“(Vea) is really good,” one scout said. “I don’t see him as a strong fit (for the Packers) because of the other guys they have.”
The Packers haven’t picked as high as No. 14 since 2009, when they had the No. 9 pick overall. But though this is rarefied draft air for them, they conceivably could end up in no-man’s land. With four quarterbacks expected to be gone by 14, plus running back Saquon Barkley and guard Quenton Nelson, that still leaves seven picks before the Packers select.
That means the six aforementioned defensive players (Smith, Edmunds, Ward, James, Fitzpatrick and Vea) could be gone by the time the Packers’ pick comes up. That would leave Gutekunst a little bit in no-man’s land where he’d have to look to other positions, take a chance on potential or trade back.
One possibility is Texas-San Antonio pass rusher Marcus Davenport. But he carries extra risk, especially for a first-time drafter, because he played in college at a low level of competition.
“He’s more of a project,” another scout said. “He’s going to go in the first round, I understand that. He’s more of a you’re hoping he’s going to become a good player.”
One dark horse is Notre Dame tackle Mike McGlinchey, who could be an immediate starter at the Packers’ open right tackle position.
“He’s a big, pretty powerful, good solid player,” one of the scouts said. “You know what you’re getting with him.”
Another is Alabama receiver Calvin Ridley, who’s expected to go sometime in the middle of the first round.
“He only ran 4.49 but he plays fast,” a scout said. “He’s a good route runner, can snap off a route. Good hands. Not real strong, that would be the knock on the guy.”
Cornerbacks Mike Hughes of Central Florida and Josh Jackson of Iowa are other possibilities.