The 2014 NFL Combine wrapped up Tuesday following several days of interviews, medicals and workouts in Indianapolis.
Here's some takeaways from the Green Bay Packers point of view:
Versatility on Defense
No, the Packers won't be intentionally getting smaller along the defensive line, and a full-time switch to a four-man front isn't in the works. But it's crystal clear that head coach Mike McCarthy is demanding a more multiple, personnel-friendly look from Dom Capers' defense moving forward. That vision can take on many shapes, including Nick Perry's role expanding to include an "elephant" type position, Micah Hyde shifting around the secondary to keep him on the field, or a mix-and-match blitz package that includes more variety than we saw in 2013. Maybe part of the plan includes re-signing B.J. Raji and giving him more freedom to be an attacking player. It finally seems the Packers are dumping the idea of fitting square pegs into round holes and focusing on how to best maximize each unique talent they possess on defense. Novel concept. Maybe this draft will feature a few true 3-4 players, too.
Flooded Receiver Market
From the top down, this is one of the better incoming classes of receivers. By the time workouts wrapped up in Indianapolis, you could count as many as a dozen receivers with first-to-second round ability. It's very possible that when the Packers come on the clock at No. 21 and No. 53, a receiver will be the best player available. GM Ted Thompson could very well pull the trigger on a pass-catcher at either spot, especially if the value is overwhelming. Given the emergence of Jarrett Boykin and the stunning depth of this receiver class, it's not difficult to understand why the Packers are more than comfortable letting James Jones test the open waters as a free agent. Nelson-Cobb-Boykin-Rookie X looks like the most likely top-4 at receiver next season.
First Things First
Per Adam Caplan, the Packers are focusing on their in-house free agents before getting serious about contract extensions with veterans still under contract. It's not a surprising strategy, as the Packers are bogged down with picking through which of their own unrestricted free agents they want to bring back. There's still much sorting out to do with the likes of Sam Shields, B.J. Raji, Jermichael Finley, Evan Dietrich-Smith, Matt Flynn and the enormous group of expiring contracts. Don't expect much movement on the extensions for Jordy Nelson and/or Randall Cobb until this early summer, when free agency and the draft have been completed. The Packers have plenty of time to get both players signed to longer deals.
Hyde's Next Frontier
The Packers want to up the snap count for Micah Hyde, the surprising fifth-round rookie who played primarily as the nickel and dime back last season. The easiest way for his playing time to increase is to evolve his role to include snaps at safety, especially in the base defense. McCarthy stressed his desire for Hyde to be a "three-down player," which will require some cross-positional training. Maybe the Packers see him as a poor man's Charles Woodson, who was capable of playing safety in the base defense and slot corner in subpackages. Hyde is certainly a strong enough tackler. However, don't cross off safety as a need just yet. Hyde doesn't possess great speed or quick-twitch athleticism. Cross-training him at safety is a strong way to improve his versatility within the defense, but the Packers still need a serious talent infusion at the position. Drafting one in the first two rounds should still be on the table.
Speaking of Safeties...
This is a strong, relatively deep class of safeties. There isn't a can't-miss player, like an Ed Reed, Earl Thomas or Eric Berry. But both Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Calvin Pryor are top-40 picks, capable of starting immediately and making an impact at the backend of Green Bay's defense. You want a rangy, more Thomas-esque safety? Clinton-Dix is for you. You want a physical, tone setter like Kam Chancellor? Pryor is your safety. And this draft has some attractive later round options, such as Deone Bucannon, Jimmie Ward, Tre Boston, Terrence Brooks and Kenny Ladler. Unless the Packers make a splash in free agency and sign a veteran safety, one needs to be plucked from this incoming class. There's really no excuse for sitting on your hands again this year.
The Packers want to bring four quarterbacks to camp, which hopefully means Matt Flynn is likely to return and a late-round pick will be used on a developmental player. Scott Tolzien has a bigger than expected arm and enticing potential, but going into this summer with him as the unquestioned No. 2 quarterback is just begging for 2013 to repeat itself. Maybe the lesson was learned. A quartet of Aaron Rodgers, Flynn, Tolzien and Rookie X sure beats the socks off the merry-go-round of quarterbacks Green Bay shuffled through last summer.
Money to Spend
Based on a salary cap projection of $132 million, the Packers could be looking at over $34 million in available cap space. A big chunk of that will go to re-signing free agents, such as Sam Shields, B.J. Raji and the rest of Green Bay's in-house options. Another $5 million will be set aside for the incoming draft class. But from there, Ted Thompson should have the necessary cap space to make a few moves in free agency. I'm still very hesitant to buy into the idea that he will deviate from his typical operating procedure and get serious in unrestricted free agency. But if there were ever a year, this must be the one. The two areas most likely for him to spend have to be at safety and along the defensive line, where the Packers have obvious needs and the market appears to have reasonable options. Amazing that just one year after signing Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews to blockbuster deals, Thompson still has the freedom of ample cap space. Let's see if he uses it.
Zach Kruse is a 25-year-old sports writer who contributes to Cheesehead TV, Bleacher Report and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He also covered prep sports for the Dunn Co. News. You can reach him on Twitter @zachkruse2 or by email at [email protected].
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