Dougherty: Packers seeking a center fielder to solve safety problem

Pete Dougherty
Packers News
View Comments

For immediate need, safety ranks as high as anything on the Green Bay Packers’ draft list.

They have one sure starter in Adrian Amos, the former Chicago Bears free agent they signed this offseason at an average of $9 million a year.

Amos is versatile enough to play either safety, but he’s better suited lining up more often near the line of scrimmage. 

So really, the Packers are looking for a center fielder. That most certainly isn’t former second-round pick Josh Jones, who in two NFL seasons has been too much a liability when lined up deep. He’s really more of a linebacker than safety.

That leaves the Packers with 36-year-old Tramon Williams as their fallback starter across from Amos, but coach Matt LaFleur has said he’d prefer to leave Williams at cornerback if possible.

In other words, coordinator Mike Pettine could very much use another option for a starter on the back line of his defense, one who specializes in coverage and playing the ball.

There aren’t any safety prospects who are viable candidates for the Packers’ first pick, No. 12 overall. But several could be in play at their next two selections, Nos. 30 and 44, and maybe the most interesting is a dark-horse candidate, Virginia’s Juan Thornhill.

Virginia Cavaliers safety Juan Thornhill (21) returns an interception in the fourth quarter against South Carolina Gamecocks wide receiver Chavis Dawkins (83) in the 2018 Belk Bowl last December in Charlotte.

He’s part of a group of late-first and second-round prospects that includes Delaware’s Nasir Adderley, a relative of former Packers great Herb Adderley; Washington’s Taylor Rapp; Mississippi State’s Johnathan Abram; Florida’s Chauncey Gardner-Johnson and Maryland’s Darnell Savage.

Thornhill, though, jumps out as the kind of free safety made for today’s game, with the emphasis on coverage. He’s big enough (6-0¼, 205 pounds), runs faster than fast enough (4.42 40) and is explosive (his 44-inch vertical jump is tied for third best among all players at the NFL scouting combine dating back to 2006).

More importantly, he can play the ball. He had seven interceptions in two seasons as a starting cornerback at Virginia, then six last year as a safety. I haven’t found him in the first round of a mock draft on any of the major NFL websites, but one NFL scout I talked to thinks Thornhill has a decent shot at going at the bottom of the first round.

“Probably will (be available at 30),” the scout said, “but I keep hearing his name more and more on the first-round stuff over the last week. He’s like a 44-inch vertical and 11-something broad (jump). He had six picks this year. Supposed to be all football, great kid. OK tackler, not the most physical dude in the world.”

RELATED: Packers could be content to stand pat at WR

RELATED: 'Never to soon' to plan for Packers' QB future

DOUGHERTY: Trio of edge rushers could tempt Packers

Thornhill was also a standout basketball player in high school in Altavista, Va. — he won three state titles in basketball and two as a quarterback and safety in football — but chose football because Virginia’s coaching staff convinced him he’d have a better shot at a career in the NFL than NBA.

“He has great ball skills, that’s from basketball,” said a defensive coach for an NFL team. “He was a (mid-major) basketball recruit.”

Following is a thumbnail look at the aforementioned safeties who are possible picks for the Packers at Nos. 30 or 44:

Adderley (5-11¾, 206), Delaware: Like Thornhill, he’s a cornerback converted to free safety. He had nine interceptions in his two seasons after the position switch. In at least some scouts' eyes he dropped from a late first-rounder to the second round after he ran 4.58 at his Pro Day, though he also pulled a hamstring while running that 40 and was unable to finish out his testing.

Adderley is football-smart and appears ready to start in the NFL as a rookie despite playing at the FCS level in college. His grandfather and Herb Adderley were first cousins.

“He’s always around the football,” a scout for a second NFL team said. “He’s good in coverage. When the ball goes over the head and goes down the field he’s got really nice read-and-react skills, he’ll go get it. He plays well in the red zone. If you have crossers he’s aware, he’ll carry guys, he’ll cut them off, he’ll be in position. He’s got really good football awareness and intelligence.”

Abram (5-11⅜, 205), Mississippi State: He could be a late first-rounder but is much better suited playing near the line of scrimmage, which for the Packers would make him redundant with Jones.

“(Abram) is in the box, defending the run, hitting people, not so solid in coverage,” one of the scouts said. “Really not too good at coverage.”

Rapp (5-11¾, 208), Washington: A smart, instinctive player better suited for strong safety, though he can do both. His terrible 40 time at his Pro Day (reportedly in the mid-4.7s; he didn’t run at the combine because of a hip-flexor injury) has raised questions about whether he’s fast enough to be a good NFL player.

“I think (teams) are going to make a big mistake on him,” the other scout said. “I know he ran 4.74, (but) you watch the tape the guy plays so much faster than that. … He tackles really well. I’d put him down in the box. He’s tough, he’s around the ball. He doesn’t miss tackles. He can handle the physicality of the linebacker play down there if he has to.”

Gardner-Johnson (5-10⅞, 210), Florida: He played safety and nickel cornerback in three seasons at Florida and finished with nine interceptions. He’s athletic enough (4.48 40, 37-inch vertical), and one of the scouts rated him just behind Adderley and Thornhill as a pure free-safety prospect.

“He covers in the slot,” the scout said. “He’s 211 pounds, he’s big enough to play (safety), but he can really, really cover. Absolutely he can play free. The 2017 tape will show you that.”

Darnell Savage (5-10¾, 198), Maryland: Some teams are wary of safeties under 200 pounds, but Savage is a quick-twitch athlete who’s a late riser in the draft process. He ran the second-fastest 40 (4.36) of all the safeties at this year’s combine and had an excellent vertical (39½ inches) as well. He was a three-year starter and finished his college career with eight interceptions.

“The names I’m hearing flying up the board are Thornhill and Savage,” one of the scouts said.

The guess here is the Packers would pass on the strong-safety types (Abram and Rapp), because Amos can play that spot, and if they want a box safety they already spent a second-round pick on one (Jones) two years ago.

But keep an eye on Thornhill, Adderley and Gardner-Johnson when the Packers pick at 30 and maybe even 44.

Thornhill is slightly overaged at 23½ years old, Adderley lacks high-end speed and Gardner-Johnson barely surpasses the Packers’ usual 5-10½ height minimum at defensive back. But they’re the kind of center field prospects the Packers haven’t had for years, and Pettine needs the help, like now.





View Comments