Michael Co­hen sizes up top prospects among lineback­ers, D-line­men.

Packer Plus - - Fan Mail | Lineup - By MICHAEL CO­HEN

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.


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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.

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