Michael Cohen sizes up top prospects among linebackers, D-linemen.
Green Bay — On a weekday afternoon in mid-February, general manager Ted Thompson stood atop a podium for his annual news conference at the NFL scouting combine. He fielded four questions about his own team, the Green Bay Packers, before considering a forward-thinking inquiry that touched on a philosophical element of the game.
Thompson, preparing for his 12th draft, was asked if more teams around the league could use a player like Arizona’s Deone Bucannon, a compact-car middle linebacker who converted from safety prior to the 2015 season. Bucannon, who is listed at 6-foot-1 and 208 pounds, blends the speed and quickness for coverage with an unexpected ruggedness to stop the run. He is the defense’s answer to the spread offense, and his success last year is likely to spark experimentation across the league.
“There’s always a spot for a football player,” Thompson said. “I’m no different than any other general manager you’re going to have up here. They’re going to say the same thing. If the guy can play football, we can find a place for him. I think that’s the way it is with those certain players. You’re looking and figuring out different ways with the coaching staff that you can utilize those guys.”
With Clay Matthews reverting to his familiar territory on the edge, the Packers are threadbare at the inside linebacker spot. They enter the draft with only four inside linebackers on the roster, two of which combined to play less than one full game last season. The incumbent, if he should be called that, is Jake Ryan, a rookie in 2015 who did not see the field consistently until Week 13. The others were either hurt (Sam Barrington), or stuck on the practice squad (Carl Bradford), or utilized only in subpackages (Joe Thomas).
A fifth inside linebacker, Nate Palmer, was released by the Packers in mid-April. Palmer took over for Barrington, who suffered a season-ending foot injury in the opener against the Chicago Bears, and eventually lost his starting job to Ryan.
“I thought Nate did some really good things on special teams,” McCarthy said at the combine. “I thought he was up and down inside. Jake played better than I think you realize, with his individual grades. He kind of got the opportunity, had the hamstring, and then played special teams and got the opportunity again late in the year. He graded out a lot better on special teams. I thought Jake Ryan had a good year.”
But a promising season from Ryan does not offset the broader positional uncertainty for the Packers, and when Thompson declined to address the need through free agency — the Bears signed two of the top inside linebackers available — he set the stage for a rarity in sports: a safe bet.
With nine picks in the upcoming draft, Thompson will almost certainly select an inside linebacker, and perhaps more than one. He has to. And the task between now and then will be sifting through a relatively weak draft class — one that is ripe with Bucannontype tweeners — and considering the philosophical implications of each player.
Would the next Deone Bucannon work well in Green Bay? Perhaps we’ll have a chance to find out.
1. REGGIE RAGLAND
Alabama, 6-foot-1, 247 pounds, 4.72 seconds in the 40-yard dash
Lowdown: Ragland is unquestionably the top inside linebacker in this year’s draft. A two-year starter at Alabama, Ragland earned first-team All-Southeastern Conference honors as a junior and emerged as one of the best players in the nation during a senior year in which he was a unanimous first-team All-American. Recorded 102 tackles, 61⁄ tackles for loss and 21⁄ sacks 2 2 in 2015. Old-school linebacker who loves to take on blockers and stuff the run. Good instincts. Cut down on missed tackles as a senior. Delivers some big-time hits. Legitimate questions about his speed. Aided by an excellent defensive line at Alabama, which freed him up. Unproven in man coverage. “They see me as a Mike and making the calls,” Ragland said at the combine. “A lot of teams like me playing off the edge but they’d love to see me being a true Mike and making all the calls.”
Projection: First round
2. DARRON LEE
Ohio State, 6-2, 232, 4.47
Lowdown: Lee is the first of several Deone Bucannon-type linebackers that will appear on this list, though he is about 20 pounds heavier. A high school quarterback and safety, Lee converted to linebacker and enjoyed a terrific career at Ohio State. He started 15 games as a freshman in 2014 and earned freshman All-American honors after posting some gaudy stats: 81 tackles, 161⁄ 2 tackles for loss, 7 1⁄ sacks, 2 intercep2 tions. He started another 13 games in 2015 and finished as a second-team All-American despite a dip in production. Tremendous athlete who posted the fastest 40 time and fifth-best vertical leap among linebackers. Terrific in man coverage. Small for the position. Lacks strength to be an NFL linebacker. Projects as an inside linebacker in a 3-4 system. “I feel linebackers are changing in the league, to be honest — a lot smaller,” Lee said at the combine. “There aren’t really too many bigger guys. The game is getting faster and you need guys to cover.”
Projection: First round
3. SU’A CRAVENS
Southern California, 6-1, 226, 4.69
Lowdown: Cravens entered the mainstream media as a senior in high school when he was named the USA Today All-USA Defensive Player of the Year. He began his collegiate career as a strong safety and started 13 games as a true freshman, earning freshman All-American honors in the process. He moved to a hybrid strong safety/outside linebacker role as a sophomore and settled in as a strongside outside linebacker during his third and final year in 2015. Led the team in tackles last season with 86, including 15 tackles for loss and 51⁄ sacks. Does not shy 2 away from contact despite being undersized. Frame should support additional weight at the next level. Should be a great special teams option as a rookie. Still learning how to play linebacker. Not an explosive athlete. Could play a hybrid safety/linebacker role like Sean Richardson. “I did about 20 informal interviews yesterday,” Cravens said at the combine. “It was half linebacker, half safety. So, I mean, I think they see the versatility and I guess it all just depends what the team wants.”
Projection: Second round
4. KENTRELL BROTHERS
Missouri, 6-0, 245, 4.89
Lowdown: Brothers was a three-year starter in high school at both linebacker and wide receiver, ultimately pursuing the former at the collegiate level. Started each of the last three seasons at Missouri and improved his production ever year: 70 tackles, 6½ tackles for loss in 2013; 122 tackles, 5 tackles for loss in 2014; 152 tackles, 12 tackles for loss in 2015. Plays with terrific vision and can find the ball through traffic. Anticipates plays well. Tackle machine as a senior. Decent strength for the position. Average athlete who posted a very pedestrian 40 time at the combine. Short, compact frame makes him a bit undersized. Did not get after the quarterback as a pass rusher in college, finishing with only 4½ career sacks. Oldschool linebacker.
Projection: Second round
5. JOSHUA PERRY
Ohio State, 6-4, 254, 4.68
Lowdown: Perry waited his turn at Ohio State and blossomed into a defensive star as a junior and senior. Posted back-to-back seasons with more than 100 tackles, peaking with a team-high 124 and 8½ tackles for loss in 2014. Named first-team All-Big Ten as a senior and was voted in as a team captain. High-character individual who was named a finalist for the Lott IM- PACT Trophy and the Senior CLASS Award in recognition of his off-field work. Terrific size for the NFL level. Thick, sturdy frame. Allowed just one broken tackle in the last two seasons. Needs to work on pad level and quickness. Does not have great speed or explosiveness and might need to come off the field on third down. “I try to carry myself in a way where people would want to respect me, you know kind of put the best image out there and I really do enjoy being around people,” Perry said at the combine.
Projection: Second round
6. DEION JONES
Louisiana State, 6-1, 222, 4.59
Lowdown: Jones was something of a one-hit wonder at LSU, waiting patiently for an opportunity to start and finally getting it as a senior. Made the most of that chance by leading the team in tackles (100) and tackles for loss (13½), while mixing in five sacks and two interceptions. Another tweener prospect who runs very well for a linebacker, evidenced by the fourth fastest 40 time by a linebacker at the combine. Gained tons of experience on special teams during the first three years of his career and could likely contribute there immediately. Hard hitter given his size, not afraid of contact. Can chase sideline to sideline. Must improve as a tackler. One year of experience will work against him. Figures to be a 3-4 inside linebacker.
Projection: Second or third round
7. SCOOBY WRIGHT III
Arizona, 6-0, 239, 4.90
Lowdown: Wright, whose given first name is Philip, is best known for one of the greatest statistical seasons in history as a sophomore in 2014. His numbers were borderline unreal — 163 tackles, 29 tackles for loss, 14 sacks, 6 forced fumbles — and by the end of the year his mantle included the Bronko Nagurski Trophy, the Rotary Lombardi Award and the Chuck Bednarik Award, all of which are given to the nation’s top defender. Injuries limited him to just three games as a junior in 2015, and Wright elected to skip his senior year to enter the draft. Incredible instincts for the position. Tenacious presence on the field. Plays faster than his 40 time, which was alarmingly slow. Not a great athlete. Does not change direction well. “My motor was nonstop, best in this draft,” Wright said at the combine.
Projection: Third round
8. TYLER MATAKEVICH
Temple, 6-0, 238, 4.81
Lowdown: Matakevich earned just a single scholarship offer coming out of high school in Connecticut, a state generally devoid of football prowess, and parlayed that chance into a tremendous career. A four-year starter at Temple, Matakevich recorded at least 100 tackles all four seasons and finished as the leading tackler (493) in school history. Took home the Chuck Bednarik Award and Bronko Nagurski Trophy in 2015, when he led the Owls in tackles for every single game. Team leader at Temple. Terrific ability to diagnose plays and find the ball. Does a great job of reading the quarterback’s eyes. Changes direction well despite being an average athlete at best. Needs to get stronger. Too many missed tackles. Could work as a 3-4 inside linebacker, but he does not check the three most important boxes: size, speed or strength. Must hang his hat on production. Projection: Third or fourth round
9. JOE SCHOBERT
Wisconsin, 6-1, 244, 4.76
Lowdown: A multi-sport star at Waukesha West High School, Schobert began his stay at Wisconsin as a walk-on in 2012 before eventually earning a scholarship. He held a starting spot for each of the last two seasons and was fairly productive as an outside linebacker. Average total tackles (69 in 2014; 79 in 2015) belied a propensity to make plays in the backfield, evidenced by 33 combined tackles for loss in those two seasons. His total of 19½ tackles for loss in 2015 was the eighth-best mark in the country. Showed good versatility with five forced fumbles, three passes defended and an interception last season. Good agility, avoids blockers well. Solid special teams contributor. Undersized for the next level with very short arms. Needs to cut down on missed tackles. Could shift to a 3-4 inside linebacker. Projection: Third or fourth round
10. NICK VIGIL
Utah State, 6-2, 239, 4.72
Lowdown: Vigil redshirted his first season and then started 30 of the 40 games he played over the next three years, entering the draft as a junior. Vigil was an impressive statistical player who mixed big-time tackle numbers (123 as a sophomore, 144 as a junior) with a keen ability to knife into the backfield and disrupt from the middle of the field. Caught the attention of scouts by posting 38½ tackles for loss and 15½ sacks in just three seasons — the former ranks third in school history. Terrific vision stemming from his days as a high school running back. Anticipates very well when reading plays. Needs to add a bit of weight. Looks more athletic than the combine numbers showed, though he did post the fastest 20-yard shuttle time among linebackers. Slightly above average athlete. Projection: Third or fourth round BEST OF THE REST 11. B.J. Goodson, Clemson; 12. Dominique Alexander, Oklahoma; 13. Blake Martinez, Stanford; 14. Jared Norris, Utah; 15. Nick Kwiatkoski, West Virginia
Reggie Ragland won a national championship at Alabama. He seems like a perfect fit for the Packers’ defense at inside linebacker.
Wisconsin’s Joe Schobert may have the versatility to play inside or outside linebacker and will probably be selected in the third or fourth round.