Our NFL draft analyst, Ryan Wood, talks with Weston Hodkiewicz about the Green Bay Packers' needs at inside linebacker and the top players available in the 2015 NFL draft. (April 28, 2015) Press-Gazette Media
More than any specific position, the Green Bay Packers' greatest need in this year's NFL draft comes down to philosophy.
In a quarterback's league, the Packers' pass defense took a significant hit this offseason with the departure of starting cornerback Tramon Williams and top perimeter backup Davon House. Their secondary depth was among their greatest strengths last fall. Now, it needs a significant upgrade.
The run defense was never a strength in 2014. At the end of September, it ranked 28th in the league. It ranked 11th in rush defense during the season's final three weeks, improving only after Clay Matthews moved from the edge to inside linebacker.
2015 NFL DRAFT: Complete Packers draft coverage
With the 30th overall pick in the first round, general manager Ted Thompson's decision may come down to whether it's more important to upgrade the pass defense or run defense. Florida State defensive lineman Eddie Goldman could be in play as a big, two-gap nose tackle. So could a versatile cornerback with good size and athleticism like Utah's Eric Rowe or Connecticut's Byron Jones.
Though troubled off the field, Washington cornerback Marcus Peters also could be hard to pass up if he falls to No. 30.
Inside linebacker is the one position at which Thompson could draft an immediate starter, but that's not the only incentive for targeting that position in the first round. It's also the one position where the Packers can upgrade their pass defense and run defense at the same time. Drafting an inside linebacker allows the Packers to move Matthews back outside, where he can wreak havoc on quarterbacks from the edge.
Thompson could take any of the top inside linebacker prospects, but Miami senior Denzel Perryman fits best. He is the most-instinctive, best-tackling and fiercest run-stuffing inside linebacker in his class. The hard-hitting Perryman could be a playmaker in the middle of the defense, something that's desperately needed.
Perryman would be considered a bit of a reach in the first round, and he has potential flaws. At 5-foot-103/4, Perryman is about 2 inches shorter than average height for an inside linebacker. Phil Savage, a longtime NFL personnel evaluator, said height only matters so much for an inside linebacker.
"I always felt that the true box linebacker, the guy who's off the line of scrimmage and can play between the tackles, I never thought that it was that imperative that a guy be 6-2 or 6-3," the former Cleveland Browns general manager and current Senior Bowl director said. "As a matter of fact, I think sometimes they're better off if they are in that 6-foot range because they can play lower, and typically guys have more pop, more explosive burst in terms of pursuing the ball and then catching you with your hat in hand, getting off of blocks.
"So with Perryman, he's a little shorter, but I don't think it hurts his production."
Perryman's lack of height raises the question of whether he can cover tall, lengthy tight ends across the middle of the field. He has below average arm length (317/8 inches), a below average wing span (745/8 inches), and ran an unremarkable 4.78-second, 40-yard dash at the NFL combine.
But test results only mean so much for an inside linebacker. Former Packers linebacker A.J. Hawk may be the best example. Hawk ran a 4.59-second dash at the 2006 combine. He was also an ideal 6-foot-1.
Thompson picked Hawk with the No. 5 overall pick, and though he went on to become a nine-year starter, he was never dynamic.
More than anything, an inside linebacker's success hinges on instincts and physicality. A player at that position must have a knack for taking proper angles, the football intelligence to properly diagnose plays before they happen and the leadership to be a defense's quarterback on the field. Those things might not show up in drills, but they're unmistakable on the field.
That's where Perryman shines. No inside linebacker in the draft is better at finishing plays. Perryman led all inside linebackers with 27 bench reps of 225 pounds, showing the strength valued at that position.
"I think he's an interesting prospect because he's instinctive and he's got some range," Savage said.
To be sure, Thompson will target the best value on defense. That means a dynamic, low-risk defender who can immediately make a difference on the field.
But there's no guarantee such a player will be left at pick No. 30. More likely, the best available player at the end of the first round will be at least as flawed as Perryman.
Goldman isn't seen as much of pass rusher, limiting his value on third down. Jones had exceptional test results at the combine, including a world record 12-foot, 3-inch broad jump, but his game film last season didn't match his athleticism. Rowe has good size (6-1, 205) and speed (4.45), but may project better as a safety than cornerback.
Peters was dismissed from Washington's football program in November after multiple clashes with the coaching staff.
"I think when you talk about Marcus Peters," Savage said, "with where the Packers sit at 30, the only way they get a player like him is if there is an issue. Because if he's clean, he's going to go in the top 20."
One option for the Packers could be trading out of the first round.
Perryman likely would be available in the early second round if the Packers don't take him at No. 30. There isn't a quarterback worth trading into the first round for this year, so it's uncertain if the Packers would have a trade partner.
The Packers could also stay at No. 30, draft a defensive tackle or cornerback, and trade up in the second round to get their inside linebacker. But there's no guarantee Thompson would find a trade partner on Day 2, either.
It's unrealistic to expect a top-tier inside linebacker to fall to the Packers at pick No. 62. Several teams — San Francisco, Houston and Arizona, to name three — could draft an inside linebacker in the second round before the Packers get a chance.
"That's the dilemma for them," NFL Network analyst Charles Davis said.
The most valuable position could be cornerback, but Thompson won't be drafting for an immediate starter there. The Packers are set to move fourth-year corner Casey Hayward from nickel to the perimeter, where he will replace Williams. They also have Micah Hyde ready to be the nickel back.
But for a defense that at times looked helpless against the run last season, a first-round cornerback only makes so much impact. If the Packers want to ensure they improve against the pass and run in the first round, the best pick is Perryman.
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @ByRyanWood