Draft preview: ILB needed, but class is thin
From the moment Clay Matthews was moved to inside linebacker midway through last season, it has represented the Green Bay Packers' biggest positional need.
But it's not the only need.
Cornerback was hit hard in free agency with the departures of starter Tramon Williams and top perimeter backup Davon House. The top two players at nose tackle — B.J. Raji and Letroy Guion — will play 2015 under one-year contracts. Linebacker Julius Peppers turned 35 years old the day Green Bay lost to Seattle in the NFC championship game.
All things considered, the Packers likely will stay put at pick No. 30 in the first round and take the best defensive player available. But inside linebacker is the only position on the roster — offense, defense or special teams — where the Packers could draft an immediate starter. That alone moves the position to the top of general manager Ted Thompson's priority list.
Then consider the potential ramifications if Matthews must burn a full year of his prime doing something other than what he excels at most — terrorizing opposing quarterbacks. Yes, Matthews flourished at the new position, playing at a Pro Bowl level and finishing with 81/2 of his 11 sacks after moving inside.
But a pass rusher like Matthews is best on the edge, not playing the bulk of his snaps off the line of scrimmage. Without A.J. Hawk or Brad Jones on the roster, Matthews could play even more inside linebacker in 2015 if the Packers don't replenish their depth in the draft.
"Usually, I would say, 'Now don't take an inside linebacker with a first-round pick,' " NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said. "However, I think there's a significant intent to get Clay Matthews back outside 100 percent of the time, and I think it's sincere. And I think it makes a ton of sense to me, and it might be worth a pick at 30 with a kid that might be a second-round guy. So I look at that pick as whoever their top-ranked inside linebacker is vs. what's left on the corner(back) board."
Behind inside linebacker, cornerback is the other immediate need on defense. In a pass-centric league, an argument could be made for cornerback being Thompson's top priority.
But the Packers should be set at starter, moving fourth-year corner Casey Hayward to the outside to work in tandem with Sam Shields. While depth is an issue — the secondary is one injury from potential disaster — the Packers should be in good shape with Micah Hyde getting most of the snaps in the nickel subpackage.
That doesn't mean Thompson will choose inside linebacker over corner in the first round. He is likely to draft both positions high, perhaps with his first two picks. Thompson has always been consistent with his draft philosophy. Value, he says, trumps everything — including positional needs.
Complicating things at inside linebacker is a perceived lack of value. The top-tier candidates are diverse, offering multiple flavors depending on defensive scheme. None has earned a consensus first-round grade.
"It's interesting," Mayock said, "because I don't have an inside linebacker, personally, with a first-round grade. Now, having said that, (the Packers) are at 30. And I think five linebackers are going to go in the second round."
While it may be a reach for the Packers to take any inside linebackers in the first round, it also would be a gamble.
The class has a clear top five — Eric Kendricks of UCLA, Denzel Perryman of Miami, Stephone Anthony of Clemson, Benardrick McKinney of Mississippi State, and Paul Dawson of TCU. There's no guarantee any will be on the board when the Packers are scheduled to make their second pick at No. 62.
Kendricks, the 2014 Butkus Award (top linebacker) winner, has been the consensus top prospect since February. He is undersized at 6 feet and 232 pounds, but personnel evaluators rave about his smarts and instincts. Kendricks was a team captain in his final two seasons with the Bruins and can be the quarterback of a defense, making calls and checks on the field.
While Kendricks isn't the hardest hitter, he is versatile. He fits the mold of a three-down player and is considered the draft's top cover linebacker.
"To me, he's a bit more of a Will type, meaning a little bit better out in space," former Cleveland Browns general manager and current Senior Bowl director Phil Savage said. "He's not going to be a dominant run stuffer at the point of attack, but he's got some pop to him. To me, he would need a bigger guy next to him."
The gap between Kendricks and the next four inside linebacker prospects is narrow.
Perryman lacks ideal height at a shade under 5-foot-11, which could be problematic covering tall tight ends. But he's a true thumper against the run, with good instincts and power, and has the best tackling technique of any inside linebacker in the draft.
"Outstanding inside linebacker," ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper said of Perryman. "I think he's a charismatic kid. I think he's an early- to mid-second-round pick."
Anthony has ideal size (6-3, 243 pounds) and ran a solid 4.56 40 at the combine. He's not as good of a tackler as Perryman, and he lacks the second-nature instincts, but he's much more physically imposing.
Savage said he could see all three — Kendricks, Perryman and Anthony — become full-time starters as rookies.
"I think all three are in a clump there," he said. "I think they'll all be able to help out on special teams. I think it just depends on what flavor of linebacker you're looking for. I'm not sure there's a dime's worth of difference between any of the three as we advance to the draft."
Not every personnel evaluator has the same top three inside linebackers.
Mayock believes McKinney would be the best fit for Green Bay. He has elite size (6-foot-4, 246 pounds) and ran a 4.66 combine 40. He played high school quarterback before switching to linebacker in college, where he played on the edge as well as inside linebacker.
McKinney's instincts have been described as "not great," damning words for a linebacker trying to make the transition to the NFL. There is "boom or bust" potential with him.
"He's the biggest of this group," Savage said, "so there might be some attraction to him because of that bulk. He's not as athletic as the other three, at least in my limited exposure. But he definitely can fill a role as a first- and second-down inside 'backer. I think over the course of time, he could develop more as a pass defender as well."
Of the top five inside linebackers, Dawson may have the best chance to be available in the second round.
That wouldn't be the case if his draft stock hinged solely on game film. Dawson has tremendous instincts, a knack for involving himself in a play no matter where it happens on the field. But he tested poorly at the NFL combine — a shocking 4.93 dash — before running the 40 in 4.76 seconds at TCU's pro day.
Dawson also has drawn questions about his maturity, which is especially bad when compared to four prospects who are squeaky-clean off the field.
"He's got as good of tape as anybody I've seen in the country this year," Mayock said, "but he's got significant character and measurables (issues). He didn't test well, and he's had a lot of questions about his football passion. In all honesty, I love the kid's tape, but he's going to get pushed down late two, the mid-third, even slide into four.
"People are killing his football character. So out of that group, he would be the one that would be sitting there (at pick No. 62), and Ted Thompson and Mike (McCarthy) would have to make some decisions on character at that point."
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @ByRyanWood
Top 5 inside linebackers
1. Eric Kendricks, UCLA
Height: 6-0. Weight: 232. Class: Senior. 40-yard dash: 4.61. Stats: 149 tackles, 111/2 tackles for loss, 4 sacks, 3 interceptions. Projection: Rounds 1-2.
•Kendricks is a bit undersized like many prospects in this class, but the 2014 Dick Butkus Award winner is instinctive, well-rounded, potentially elite in pass coverage and the best inside linebacker prospect in this draft.
2. Denzel Perryman, Miami
Height: 5-11. Weight: 236. Class: Senior. 40-yard dash: 4.78. Stats: 110 tackles, 91/2 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, 1 interception. Projection: Round 2.
•Perryman's lack of height and below-average 40 time will turn off some teams, but he's a gap-plugging thumper against the run with enough athleticism to be a three-down player.
3. Stephone Anthony, Clemson
Height: 6-3. Weight: 243. Class: Senior. 40-yard dash: 4.56. Stats: 75 tackles, 101/2 tackles for loss, 21/2 sacks, 1 interception. Projection: Round 2.
•Anthony has ideal size and tested well at the NFL combine, two positives that especially stand out in an inside linebacker class that doesn't have much ideal size or strong test results.
4. Benardrick McKinney, Mississippi State
Height: 6-4. Weight: 246. Class: Junior. 40-yard dash: 4.66. Stats: 71 tackles, 8 tackles for loss, 3 sacks, 0 interceptions. Projection: Round 2.
•McKinney is the one top-tier inside linebacker prospect with elite size, but his skills will need further development as he transitions to the NFL.
5. Paul Dawson, TCU
Height: 6-0. Weight: 235. Class: Senior. 40-yard dash: 4.93. Stats: 136 tackles, 20 tackles for loss, 6 sacks, 4 interceptions. Projection: Rounds 2-3.
•Some believe Dawson is the top inside linebacker in this draft. He was arguably the most productive in college, and he laid to rest doubts about his athleticism after running a 4.76 40-yard dash at TCU's pro day. But off-field concerns have him slotted fifth on this list.
Clemson's Stephone Anthony can be too aggressive in his pursuit, leading to improper angles at times, but among an inside linebacker class thin on ideal size and speed, Anthony has both.
There is no questioning what TCU's Paul Dawson can do on film, but an awful NFL combine showing and concerns about his maturity could drop him to the late second round or later.
Georgia's Ramik Wilson has ideal size (6-2, 237) and speed (4.66), and with further development could be great value in the draft's middle rounds.