Not since Ted Thompson directed his first Draft as the Packers general manager back in 2005 has he selected a defensive back shorter than 5-11.
There are two safeties in the the 2013 Draft class, however, that will give the Packers pause. Florida’s Matt Elam measures in at 5-10, while Shamarko Thomas of Syracuse just barely checked in at 5-9 at the NFL Combine, and the biggest question about both of them is whether they’ll be able to overcome their height limitations in the NFL.
“I’m a true believer that it don’t matter what height you are. If you can cover, you can cover,” said Thomas. “You see Earl Thomas in the NFL, he covers big tight ends. He’s only 5-9, 5-10. So I just go out there and compete, work on my technique each and every day.”
Height among safeties in the NFL is somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy. There’s really not that many good ones that are shorter than 5-11, so to an extent, height isn’t frequently something the Packers have to worry about when it comes to the Draft.
But Elam and Thomas aren’t borderline NFL players. They’re uber-athletic and guys who could very likely be off the board by the end of Day 2 of the Draft.
Thomas, in particular, tore up the Combine. He ran the fastest 40 time among all safeties (4.42 seconds), put up the most reps on the bench press (28) and leaped the highest in the vertical jump (40.5 inches).
Because of his size and stature, Thomas has heard many people compare himself to former Indianapolis Colts safety Bob Sanders, an opinion shared by Cheesehead TV’s “Pro Football Draft Preview” analyst Paul Guillemette.
“I think he’s going to be very much in the pros like Bob Sanders coming out of Iowa,” said Guillemette. “I think, unfortunately, he may have the same type of injury-type issues that Sanders had, because he just throws his body around, and it’s strong and muscular, but it’s tightly wound.
“The tightly wound guys are the guys that are prone to the pulls and the hammies and the groins. I like him a lot and so do the scouts, but there are concerns about him physically holding up.”
In Thomas’ defense, he said he checked out well in the medical examinations at the Combine and don’t have a long history of being injured during his college days.
Like Thomas, Elam was no slouch at the Combine either as his 40 time of 4.54 ranked in the top five among players at his position.
At Florida, Elam was part of an elite defensive unit that ranked No. 5 nationally in total defense, No. 5 in scoring defense and No. 4 in run defense in 2012. His 11 tackles for a loss in each of the past two seasons comes as impressive for someone playing in the secondary.
It’s Elam’s athleticism that he feels compensates for any concerns about his height.
“I feel like that’s an advantage, I’m very athletic,” said Elam. “Growing up I was very athletic, and I feel like that separates me a lot. I’m not the biggest safety, I guess, but I feel like I play hard and that makes me stand out.”
It’s the new breed of tight end in the NFL that has the Packers and most other teams looking for tall safeties that can stick in coverage down the seam and not simply be thrown over. The Packers’ own Jermichael Finley, the Patriots’ Rob Gronkowski and the Saints’ Jimmy Graham are prime examples.
Green Bay is presumably in the market for a safety after releasing aging veteran Charles Woodson this offseason. Both M.D. Jennings and Jerron McMillian have the potential to line up opposite Morgan Burnett, but neither has played good enough to prove they’re the unquestioned starter moving forward.
After targeting defensive backs six feet and over for much of Thompson’s reign as general manager, the Packers perhaps relaxed their standards last season by picking a pair of DBs who were 5-11 in last year’s Draft in McMilian and Casey Hayward.
According to Elam, there’s more to playing safety than just being tall, and he has an entire arsenal of other traits at his disposal that sets him apart from other players at his position.
“I play very hard,” said Elam. “I love to strike people. I feel that’s what helped me stand out the most, and I’m very versatile. I can cover the slot receivers, I can go down and cover, I can go in the box and tackle.”
Thompson will most certainly consider the entire package when the Draft rolls around, but whether the Packers willing to go an inch or more below their 5-11 glass floor remains to be seen.
For the Packers, the Draft is frequently about maximizing value and minimizing risk. They’re more willing to take chances on players with question marks in the later rounds where there’s a lesser investment.
What’s different about Elam and Thomas is that they’ll very likely already be gone by the later rounds.
Brian Carriveau is the author of “It’s Just a Game: Big League Drama in Small Town America,” and editor of Cheesehead TV’s “Pro Football Draft Preview.” To contact Brian, email email@example.com.