A close look at the top prospects in the NFL draft
Green Bay — You won’t find many personnel people praising the quarterbacks, tackles, guards, centers, nose tackles and 3-technique defensive tackles available in the National Football League draft next month.
On the other hand, scouts are high on the crop of cornerbacks, 3-4 outside linebackers, inside linebackers, running backs, safeties, 5-technique defensive ends and tight ends.
As for wide receivers, it appears to be an ordinary group.
Now contrast the strong and weak positions in the 2017 draft with the strong and weak positions for the Green Bay Packers. The Packers’ primary needs would appear to be cornerback, inside linebacker and outside linebacker. Their secondary needs seem to be running back, defensive end and interior offensive line.
This draft looks like a perfect match for the Packers.
If the draft class still looks like this when the selections are made April 27-29, general manager Ted Thompson should be able to pick a top-flight player at an area of need in the first round even though the Packers won’t choose until No. 29.
That hasn’t always been the case in the last seven years when Thompson elected to stay put and exercise the 23rd (Bryan Bulaga), 32nd (Derek Sherrod), 28th (Nick Perry), 26th (Datone Jones), 21st (Ha Ha Clinton-Dix), 30th (Damarious Randall) and 27th (Kenny Clark) selections.
Based on pre-combine interviews with six personnel men, an estimate would be 37 players on defense in the first two rounds compared with 27 on offense. Obviously, the defensive slant favors a team such as the Packers that failed defensively last season.
As Thompson gazes upon his draft board for the next 7 1⁄ 2 weeks he should find comfort de- spite having one of the latest choices in each of the seven rounds plus a compensatory pick near the end of the fifth.
He still must make the proper selections among tightly graded players. That will never change. It’s what separates the men from the boys among NFL decisionmakers.
Thompson, however, need not stress about the well running dry in his team’s positions of need. Uncommon depth at cornerback as well as both inside and outside linebacker might enable the Packers to secure a player from those positions at No. 29 they have graded as highly as one that is selected 10 to 15 picks higher.
Look at cornerback, where the injury-related release of Sam Shields and the second-season collapses by Quinten Rollins and Randall leave Green Bay in an untenable situation.
“Get rid of all their corners,” an NFC North personnel man said after the season. “They’ve got too many slow guys. They don’t have one legitimate NFL starting corner. They should draft three corners if they don’t sign one in free agency.”
Fortunately for the Packers, this could be an all-time draft at cornerback, where the record of six first-round selections in 1997 might be threatened.
“This is probably the best group of corners that I’ve done in years and years,” said an executive in personnel for an NFL team with more than 20 years of scouting experience. “I see seven (first-rounders) for sure, and then there will always be a surprise in there.”
An even more seasoned scout said he had never seen such an abundance of defensive backs. Two scouts found it easy to reel off 12 cornerbacks destined for the first two rounds.
“I think there’s incredible depth to be had,” another personnel director said. “And that’s a premium position. You’ve got to have them. That’s the way football’s going.”
There’s little agreement among scouts on who might be the first cornerback off the board compared with the fifth. Major importance will be attached to their 40-yard dash times.
“I’ve got all these guys together,” said one personnel man. “So the speed is going to break the thing down. Then they’ll break out of the pack.”
At this point I have 13 defensive linemen, eight with edgerush ability, and three outside linebackers ticketed for the first two rounds. Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther, a 16year NFL assistant coach, told the team’s website that this loomed as the best “pass rusher draft” in his memory.
“The defensive line overall is strong,” said one executive. “There are lot of players that can play 5-technique.
“There’s some really strong players at the top at 3-4 outside linebacker. Elite-type players. Then there’s good depth.”
As for inside linebackers, the scout said: “There’s no elite-level players. There is a good mix of both middle backers and coverage backers.”
Although safety isn’t a need for the Packers, it’s another loaded area in this draft.
“That safety position is really good,” said one executive. “Strong safety is the best in 10 years.”
Running back surely is the most stacked position on offense. It’s so deep that teams probably will select what’s available in the offensive line first and let better players at running back slide.
“You can get a real quality back throughout the draft, even as a free agent,” said one personnel director. “There’s a ton of guys. Fourth, fifth, sixth round, you can get a very similar guy.”
An average of seven offensive linemen have gone in the first round over the last four drafts. Teams are crying for tackles, guards and centers but their needs probably won’t be met this year.
“It’s maybe the weakest I’ve seen in a long time,” said one personnel director with more than 20 years of NFL experience. “Very weak overall. There’s some developmental players that will be taken higher than normal just because of the need at the position. There’s going to be a lot of backups that are expected to start.
“It’s really gone down. This year is really disappointing.”
Three juniors and a redshirt sophomore are expected to go off the board first at quarterback.
“It’s all projections,” said one scout. “You’ve got a lot of players that are either first-year starters in college football or up-side type players. Nothing that is just guaranteed to be a top-15 NFL quarterback.
“I see some starters that will go in the first round that will be back-end-of-the-league starters. But, if you don’t have one, they’re better than what you got.”
Not since 1992 have the Packers known the hopelessness associated with not having a quarterback. They have more than their fair share of needs, to be sure, but the players in this draft class mesh beautifully with where they’re short-handed.
Packers nose tackle Kenny Clark was the 27th overall pick in the 2016 NFL draft. Green Bay could turn its focus to cornerback in next month’s draft, which is expected to have one of the deepest groups at the position in decades.