Dougherty: Top interior pass rusher a first-pick luxury Packers can afford
The Green Bay Packers don’t really need an interior defensive lineman.
Their best defensive player (Kenny Clark) plays there, and along with Mike Daniels gives the Packers one of the better interior duos in the NFL.
Dean Lowry blossomed into a capable rotational player on the inside last season as well, and even undrafted Tyler Lancaster surprised as an NFL-caliber run stopper as a rookie.
Still, general manager Brian Gutekunst’s spending spree in free agency leaves him with the luxury of taking the player at No. 12 overall he thinks has the best chance of tilting the field in the Packers’ favor.
If he thinks that guy is an interior rusher, the GM should take him and not look back. But are any of the top interior rushers worth taking at No. 12, or worth trading up for if they’re going higher?
To get a better sense, I consulted three NFL sources long experienced in evaluating draft prospects: a defensive line coach who annually conducts thorough study of the prospects at his position, and two longtime scouts, one from an NFC team and one from the AFC.
There’s no debate that the best healthy interior prospect is Alabama’s Quinnen Williams, a likely top-five pick.
Houston’s Ed Oliver ranks next and has a good chance to be a top-10 selection, but depending on the early demand for the quarterbacks and the vagaries of teams’ boards he also might last a few picks thereafter.
Beyond Williams and Oliver, there’s probably not another interior player the Packers would consider at No. 12.
Mississippi State’s Jeffery Simmons is a top-five talent but has two red flags that make his selection at No. 12 a likely non-starter. One was an incident from high school when he was charged with assault for hitting a woman who was in an altercation with his sister. There’s a short video of it on YouTube, and it’s ugly. The other is the torn ACL he sustained in February that probably will sideline him for his rookie season.
Another good interior prospect is Clemson’s Christian Wilkins, but it sounds like he won’t crack the top half of the first round.
The questions Gutekunst and his top advisers have to consider, then, are: Is Williams worth a costly trade up? And if Oliver is still on the board should Gutekunst take him?
To get into the top five for Williams, the Packers probably would have to part with a second-round pick, according to the old Jimmy Johnson draft chart and the Rich Hill chart, which is based on trades made since 2012.
That’s a steep price, and very likely not one Gutekunst would pay for an interior rusher. But in Wiliams’ one season as a starter at Alabama, after he put on 25 pounds and moved from deep in the rotation at defensive end to starter at nose tackle, he was a revelation with eight sacks and 19½ tackles for a loss.
“Normally if it comes down to a tackle and a(n edge) pass rusher, you take the pass rusher,” the scout said. “But you make an exception for the exception. That might be Williams.
“… He had one of the best defensive tackle years in a while. They’re in a sit-and-read defense. If it’s pass on first down, all those guys are sitting there. Sitting there he can convert to pass rush – it’s almost incredible. I’d say it’s rare, what I saw.”
The more realistic possibility for the Packers is Oliver, a dynamic and productive player at Houston.
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Two weeks out from the draft it’s looking likely he’ll be gone by the Packers’ pick at 12, but that’s still not a given. So Gutekunst will have to prepare for the possibility that Oliver will be there.
Oliver is on the short (6-1 7/8) and small (287 pounds) side for an interior player, but in three college seasons (32 games) he had 13½ sacks and 53 tackles for a loss. Those aren’t staggering numbers – he had three sacks and 14½ tackles for loss in eight games last season – but they’re eye-catching enough.
His similarity in size to Aaron Donald (6-1 and 285 coming out of Pitt) has drawn some comparisons between the two. Donald was the No. 13 pick overall in 2014.
And in fact, Oliver’s Pro Day workout – he didn’t do any running drills at the NFL scouting combine because of a hamstring injury – was similar to Donald’s combine as well. Oliver’s 40 was just a little slower than Donald’s (4.73 seconds to 4.68), as was his three-cone drill (7.15 seconds to 7.11). But he had the better vertical (36 inches to 32) and short shuttle (4.22 seconds to 4.39) and did one more bench rep (36 to 35).
That doesn’t mean he’s the next Donald, whose playing strength is much better than Oliver’s and who twice had 11-sack seasons in college.
“I saw where somebody said (Oliver) is the next Aaron Donald,” the coach said. “Don’t ever embarrass yourself by saying something like that. Anybody that compares anybody right now to Aaron Donald is foolish, because there’s only one. I think (Oliver) is a good player. Everybody’s going to say he doesn’t have length, height and all that. But in the right system I think he’d be very good.”
That would be a gap-shooting system rather than the two-gap scheme that Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine plays. However, based on what we saw last season, Pettine appears open to tweaking his system to personnel, so maybe he thinks he could make good use of Oliver. He would have to convince Gutekunst he could do it to make Oliver a good pick for the Packers.
One of the scouts doubts Oliver will make it to 12 anyway.
“This dude’s quickness is unreal,” he said.
The other scout said he probably wouldn’t take Oliver in the first half of the first round.
“Overrated,” he said. “Small guy. Good little player.”
So what would Gutekunst do if Oliver still by chance is available?
That depends on who else is on the board and maybe even on offers to trade back. We don’t know where the GM rates Oliver relative to other top prospects who also might still be on the board, such as edge rushers Montez Sweat, Brian Burns and Rashan Gary.
But if Oliver is there and Gutekunst is looking for the best player, it sounds like he could do a lot worse.