There’s Daniels, then questions
Thompson likely to add to inexperienced D-line
Green Bay — As the Green Bay Packers stumbled through the middle of their season — at one point losing three straight games and eventually dropping four out of five — a portion of general manager Ted Thompson’s focus diverted toward dollars and cents.
Having identified defensive end Mike Daniels as a cornerstone of the franchise, Thompson and his front office, especially vice president of football administration/player finance Russ Ball, maneuvered the negotiating process for a four-year extension worth $41 million.
As news of the deal went public in mid-December, a day after the Packers defeated the Dallas Cowboys at home, Daniels was applying the final brush strokes to a tremendous season. He played better than 67% of snaps for defensive coordinator Dom Capers and led the line in pressures with 32. He finished third on the team in tackles per snap and tallied 61⁄ tack
2 les for loss, a career high.
By extending Daniels, the Packers etched an important name into their forward-thinking depth chart. At just 26 years of age — he does not turn 27 until May — Daniels may anchor the defensive line for the remainder of the decade.
Around him, however, lingers the type of uncertainty that is unavoidable at times in a draft-and-develop system, especially in the wake of a j arring roster change.
The football hiatus of nose tackle B.J. Raji likely reorganized Thompson’s draft board, heightening the importance of defensive linemen and asking more probative questions of the players already under contract.
Can promising youngster Mike Pennel, who plays both defensive end and nose tackle, be counted on in the wake of a four-game suspension? Will Christian Ringo, a sixth-round pick in 2015, develop quickly enough to join the rotation? How many reps, if any, are afforded to Datone Jones after coach Mike McCarthy announced a move from defensive end to elephant rusher?
As the roster stands, Daniels and veteran defensive tackle Letroy Guion are the only linemen with both game experience and defined roles.
“I think you need big men,” McCarthy said in a sit-down interview at the NFL scouting combine. “There’s only so many. We need to get bigger. We’ve been getting bigger, and we need to continue to get bigger. That’s something we’re all focused on, and so I think you really have to watch yourself. Everybody wants to take the best player available on the board, but you also have to be aware of your depth chart too.”
Whether it’s nose tackle or defensive end, the Packers have legitimate needs. Here are five players who can fill the role of defensive end in a 3-4 defense:
1. DeFOREST BUCKNER
Oregon, 6-foot-7, 291 pounds, 5.05 seconds in the 40-yard dash
Lowdown: Buckner paired consistency with production at Oregon, especially in 2015. He led the Pac-12 in sacks with 101⁄ and finished fourth in
2 the league with 17 tackles for loss. More impressive, though, was his steadiness: Buckner tallied a sack in the final eight games of the season; he recorded at least one tackle for loss in 12 of his team’s 13 games. Earned All-America honors as a senior. Physical specimen with an NFL-ready body. Plays with intensity. Possesses the body type and skill set to line up at multiple positions, especially in sub packages. Needs to improve pad level and base. Played in a 3-4 scheme at Oregon. “I’m one of the best D-linemen in this draft,” Buckner said at the combine. “I played in every technique possible, from nose and rushing outside at end. I can do everything. I can stop the run. I can also rush the passer, which I did a lot better this year. They can get a complete defensive lineman when they pick me.”
Projection: First round
2. A’SHAWN ROBINSON Alabama, 6-4, 307, 5.20 Lowdown: Robinson is living proof of the juggernaut program coach Nick Saban built at Alabama. A former five-star recruit, Robinson contributed from his first day on campus and earned freshman All-America honors in 2013. From there, Robinson developed into one of the most feared linemen in all of college football. Consensus All-American as a junior; opted to skip his senior year. Sturdy frame with tree-trunk legs built for interior line play. Remarkable power. Tossed defenders on more than one occasion during his career. Produced as a pass rusher with nine career sacks. Pad level must get better. Does not play with great quickness. Mentioned Julius Peppers as a player he studies. “I have strength and power so I feel like those two, combined with the size I have, is really great,” Robinson said at the combine. “I think that sets me apart from everybody else.”
Projection: First round
3. SHELDON RANKINS Louisville, 6-1, 299, 5.03 Lowdown: Rankins compares favorably with Mike Daniels in terms of height (6-0½) and weight (303) and plays with similar explosiveness. His game is built on power, and 28 reps on the bench press showed it. Two-year starter at Louisville who found success rushing the passer with 14 combined sacks. Potent run stuffer. Finished with at least 13 tackles for loss in 2014 and 2015. Attended the Senior Bowl with the goal of playing “violent” to prove he could win one-on-one pass rush battles. Adapted spin move from basketball court to football field. Played all three downs at Louisville. “I just feel like my versatility does a lot for me — the fact that I've played in a 3-4, I've played in a 4-3, I've played all up and down the D-line, from zero nose to a five technique,” Rankins said at the combine. “I feel like, when you turn on the tape, you see me doing a lot more things.”
Projection: First round
4. ROBERT NKEMDICHE Ole Miss, 6-3, 294, 4.87 Lowdown: Nkemdiche arrived at Ole Miss as the top defensive end prospect in the country and did not disappoint. Freakish athleticism and quickness translated to some form of All-America honors in each of his three seasons, plus a pair of first-team All-Southeastern Conference honors. Remarkable physique, chiseled. Solid tackler. Uses spin move in pass-rushing situations. Sometimes his effort failed to match incredible potential. Production should have been better given his talent. Career ended in disappointing fashion after Nkemdiche was arrested for marijuana possession following a fall from a hotel window in Atlanta. Admitted to being drunk when he fell. “I have changed,” Nkemdiche said at the combine. “I’ve (sharpened) my focus to what’s important and kept away from things that can take football away from me and jeopardize my career because I love the game so much. I never want it to be taken away from me, and I know if I’m in situations like that it can be taken away from me.”
Projection: First round
5. ADOLPHUS WASHINGTON Ohio State, 6-3, 301, 5.17 Lowdown: Like Nkdemiche, Washington’s career at Ohio State ended with a legal issue when he was cited for solicitation in December. The subsequent suspension from coach Urban Meyer cut short his senior season. Prior to the issue, Washington was a two-year starter for the Buckeyes who relied on agility and quickness to rack up impressive numbers against both the run and the pass. Tallied 17½ tackles for loss and 8½ sacks over the last two seasons. Decent power, solid tackler. Needs to get stronger in his lower body. Relies almost exclusively on speed. Must develop bull rush and play with more consistent effort. “They can think whatever they want to think,” Washington said at the combine. “But up until (the citation), I’d never been in trouble, never failed any drug tests, never did anything. But if people want to think of me as a different person, that’s just what they’re going to think.”
Projection: Second round
BEST OF THE REST
6. Jonathan Bullard, Florida; 7. Carl Nassib, Penn State; 8. Charles Tapper, Oklahoma; 9. Chris Jones, Mississippi State; 10. Shawn Oakman, Baylor
Mississippi’s Robert Nkemdiche was arrested for marijuana possession. He still projects as a first-round pick.