Sunday, April 22, 2012

Packers Draft Preview

I've read the countless amateur NFL Draft sites, digested Milwaukee Journal Sentinel legend Bob McGinn's first batch of draft previews, even purchased Mel Kiper's draft report for the first time in many years, all in an effort to get a handle on who the Packers might target in this year's draft.

The one x-factor that research can never account for is general manager Ted Thompson's creative approach to building his roster. The Packers followed up a Super Bowl title with a 15-win season, including setting the record for most consecutive wins. You'd think Thompson would concentrate on maintaining a championship caliber roster, perhaps by plugging the team's surprising number of holes in free agency. Nope. Instead, Thompson has let one Pro Bowl player (Scott Wells), possibly two regular starters (Ryan Grant and Erik Walden) and a key backup (Matt Flynn) depart in free agency.

Though Thompson did make a rare move by signing an unrestricted free agent in Jeff Saturday to start at center, the Packers enter the draft with as many as three holes in their starting lineup if we presume that Pro Bowl safety Nick Collins' career is finished because of his neck injury. So once again the Packers will seek to improve by developing their own young players and adding competition through the draft. This year, Green Bay has 12 draft choices, which if I'm not mistaken, is the second most in the entire league. That means the Packers once again figure to have one of the youngest rosters in the league.

But it also makes this year's draft, especially the first three rounds, especially intriguing. It would appear to fans like me as if Thompson has the ammunition with so many extra draft choices to package a few picks together so he can trade up and take a player to fill a hole. But with so many starting positions -- defensive end, right outside linebacker, safety -- unfilled, it might make even more sense to hold on to the 12 picks. The more draft choices you have, the better yoru odds of coming with a few surefire contributors in your draft.

The Packers largest single need in order to remain a contending team is to improve their pitiful pass defense, which was one of the worst in NFL history last season. How did the defense go from leading the Packers to a Super Bowl title to setting records for futility? A number of factors, not the least of which was the record breaking offense, which gave the team huge leads week after week and forced opponents to chuck the ball a lot as they tried to play catch up. But there was also the fruitless pass rush, which produced just 27 sacks, Collins' injury, a nagging shoulder injury to Tramon Williams and the regressed play of nickel back Sam Shields. This feels more like a draft for an 8-8 team than a 15-2 team.

According to my research, the draft shapes up nicely to meet the Packers' needs at defensive end and outside linebacker, and not so great with their needs at safety and backup quarterback. It seems that as many as 10 players could be drafted by the Packers in round one to start at outside linebacker opposite Clay Matthews. Here is a brief summary of those players based on my amateur research of draft sites, professional Packers media coverage and my own uneducated opinion of how they might fit on Green Bay's roster.

1. Melvin Ingram, South Carolina, probably the best edge rusher in the draft and the one player I think it would be worth coupling draft picks together for a trade up. Ingram's college highlights indicate he is best prepared to play in space and create havoc as a 3-4 OLB.

2. Shea McClellin, Boise State, a rugged farm boy who has the advantage of having been used in a variety of ways for the Broncos, which must appeal to defensive coordinator Dom Capers who likes to get creative with such versatile players. A month ago, his name was not really in the conversation but now there is serious question as to whether he'll be there at 28, so again, he may be an option for a trade up.

3. Courtney Upshaw, Alabama, sort of the inverse of McClellin, is a guy everybody knew a lot about since he was a star at Bama, but now is inexplicably sliding down draft boards. He's tough, also versatile, and would seem like an every down player, because he can hold the point of attack against the run and create pass rush with his great strength. He's sliding, and I have a feeling he could be the pick if Green Bay stays at 28.

4. Vinny Curry, Marshall, if the previous three players are gone I wouldn't be at all surprised if Curry is the pick. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel had a story about him this week that said something to the effect of, "Curry could be Packers first round pick," so there's that. He plays his ass off, had a great college career and is super athletic, but some teams question whether he is best suited for a 3-4 OLB, so the question with him might be scheme not talent.

5. Whitney Mercilus, Illinois, was a "one-year wonder" at Illinois, but in that one year he led the nation in sacks with 16 and forced nine turnovers. He also seems to have the "fluidity" of movement you hear scouts say is needed for a 3-4 OLB. Packers fans remember preseason wonder Vic So'oto, who lacked that same attribute. He also seems hungry to succeed because he wants to provide for his parents, who are Haitian immigrants.

6. Donta Hightower, Alabama, I'm a little stumped on Hightower being continually mentioned as a possibility because he was a middle linebacker in college and Green Bay has three starting-caliber players at middle linebacker already. Having said that, Hightower was lined up outside and would seem to be talented enough to make the position switch. I'm not sure I would be comfortable teaching a guy a new position when there is such a clear need for an immediate upgrade. Now there are several other players on this list that were college defensive ends who would also be moving to a new position, but their main concentration was still rushing the pass rusher, whereas Hightower was only occasionally asked to do so for the Crimson Tide.

7. Nick Perry, USC, was an accomplished college player, who excelled at rushing the passer. I might have him ranked higher as a possibility except that he flat out said he didn't want to have to stand up and play OLB in the pros, so that has to hurt his stock for a team like the Packers who would ask him to do just that.

8. Andre Branch, Clemson, is a guy who I feel like is ranked a little lower than he deserves because people have bad memories of Clemson's pitiful Orange Bowl blowout loss to West Virginia. What the hell was that about? He could sneak into the first round and it wouldn't be shocking, but it would seem like 28 is just a tad too high for him.

9. Chandler Jones, Syracuse, is another guy who would be rated higher based solely on athletic ability, but again he appears to be best suited as a 4-3 defensive end. I wonder if he would be a good fit for the Bears? He has one brother in the NFL and another is a UFC champ, so he's got the blood lines. He also had a knee injury concern last season, which is always scary *coughs* Justin Harrell *coughs*

10. Bruce Irvin, West Virginia, would probably not be worthy of a first round selection, but could just maybe be there in the second round. He might be the best pure pass rusher of this group, but he's a little small and he's never played 3-4 OLB.

11. Ronnell Lewis, Oklahoma, is tough, athletic and a talented pass rusher, but he had huge problems in the classroom and his coaches were rumored to have told him to go ahead and skip his senior season to go pro. I don't view that as a very good sign.

Two possibilities after the first round: Johnathan Massaquoi, Troy, who was a pass rushing force as a junior and then asked to play the run and drop into coverage more as a senior, so he may be well equipped to play OLB in Capers scheme. Olivier Vernon, Miami, never lived up to his high school recruiting status, and then got caught in the Hurricanes most recent absurd scandal, but he could be had for pennies on the dollar and could translate into a 3rd or 4th round steal.

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If the Packers don't go OLB in round one, because there just isn't great value at 28, and there is a good chance they could still get a good player in a later round, then here are the possibilities:

1. Derek Wolfe, defensive end, Cincinnati, is one of my favorite players in the draft and right now four days out, I hope he's the Packers pick. While we debate the poor college production of some first round talents, Wolfe notched 20 tackles for loss last season and was named Big East player of the year. He is strong at the point of attack and might be the best 5-technique defensive end who would fit Green Bay's 3-4 scheme. Ever since Cullen Jenkins left, there's been a huge void at this position for Green Bay and Wolfe seems like a guy who would be an immediate and immense upgrade. Kiper absolutely loves this guy, which is either a good or a bad thing depending on your perspective, but I think the facts support his high opinion. Wolfe would look great in green and gold.

2. Harrison Smith, safety, Notre Dame, could be a solid choice. The Packers have need at safety because of Collins' likely retirement and Smith has the size, speed and experience to start right away. He didn't create many turnovers in college, but last year's fill in starter Charlie Peprah was among the league leaders at safety with five interceptions and yet he was still a liability in coverage. I'd rather have a guy who tackles well and can match up with tight ends, but doesn't catch the ball all the time, than a sticky-fingered safety who can't cover at all.

3. Dontari Poe, defensive tackle, Memphis would be an option in a trade up, or if he happens to fall on draft day which seems possible. Poe is enormous, fast, and the strongest player in the draft. He didn't produce up to his size and strength in college, but he does play hard and seems coachable. I would not be at all disappointed if he was the pick and the Packers went with a massive starting 3 of Poe, BJ Raji and Ryan Pickett up front, yielding to pass russ specialists like Anthony Hargrove, and occupying blockers for the linebackers to make more plays. I could really envision this pick and would be pleased if it came together.

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So there are my first round possibilities. I rank the team's needs as: 1. OLB, 2. DE, 3. safety, 4. cornerback, 5. running back, 6. backup quarterback, 7. center, 8. fullback.

I feel like some of those needs could be met if the young players already on the roster improve this offseason, and the recent trend for the Packers has been for that to happen. I look at TJ Lang, Desmond Bishop, Jordy Nelson and Marshall Newhouse as guys who have gotten better and stepped up when opportunity arose. If the Packers bank on other young players like Devon House, MD Jennings, Jamari Lattimore and Graham Harrell stepping up similarly this offseason, then there would be fewer holes on the roster and perhaps more leeway to package draft choices together to trade up for the right guy, like Ingram or Poe. Otherwise I'm happy if Thompson stays at 28 to pick someone like Wolfe and then turns to OLB in the second or third rounds.

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