Casual Packer fans and draft junkies alike usually watch the draft by putting ourselves in the Ted Thompson’s shoes, grading each pick by how far it varied from what we would have done. Deep down, we all know we’re really in no position to judge. Thompson and his scouts spend countless hours in half-empty stadiums looking for diamonds in the rough, and countless hours ruminating over how to keep the roster at a Super Bowl-contending level. It’s their job to know what they’re doing when it comes to the draft; following the draft is just a hobby for us.
But Thompson never gives us the tools to judge the draft from his perspective, because he never lets us into his thought process. Every press conference question about team needs generates the same vague reassurances from Thompson: “we feel comfortable at that position,” “we should be OK,” “we’ll see.” He never tells us what he’s really thinking, the considerations that truly factored into his decisions to emphasize one position or take a certain player over another. He doesn’t care if we don’t understand his reasons, and he’s not about to clue us in.
Fortunately, Thompson has been around long enough that we no longer need him to tell us anything. This will be Thompson’s 11th draft for the Packers, and his eighth since the defense converted to a 3-4 scheme. That’s a long track record we can use to spot patterns, and to identify certain qualities in prospects that Thompson values more than other GMs do. With a long history to draw upon, we can penetrate the smoke and figure out for ourselves how Ted Thompson is likely to approach this draft, and the prospects he’s most likely to target.
Today, we’ll identify some of those prospects on the offensive side of the ball; we’ll turn to the defense tomorrow. We might not identify the exact same guys as Thompson—his staff knows far more about the prospects for this year’s draft than we can learn online from their bios, amateur scouting reports, and stray quotes from scouts. But we can spot guys whose profiles match up with Thompson’s line of thinking, and we can better understand his selections after-the-fact if we take the time to explore the competing considerations he’ll have to weigh at every point of the draft.
Before we try to trim down the list of 400 or so draftable prospects to the ones most likely to interest Thompson, however, it makes sense to start with a few general criteria that Thompson seems to apply to every draft pick, regardless of position.
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The Qualities Thompson wants in Every Draft Pick
Looking back at Thompson’s past draft picks, we can see three primary criteria for prospects that matter more to him than other GMs.
(1) Character counts. Every year, McCarthy and Thompson have their post-draft press conferences and talk about drafting “Packer people,” and every year it sounds more clichéd than the last. But they aren’t blowing smoke, and they have no reason to be. All of Thompson’s success stories (namely, players who were drafted and extended by the Packers) were labeled high-character, smart, high work-ethic guys coming out of college. Rodgers, Nelson, Cobb, Matthews, Mike Daniels, Josh Sitton—these guys all had scouting reports out of college that were littered with labels like “football junkie,” “team leader,” and “hard worker.” When Thompson has veered from that path—think Junius Coston in 2005, Brandon Underwood in 2009, or Khyri Thornton in 2014—he’s been burned.
Team captains, community leaders, and live-and-breathe-football guys get a major boost on the Packers’ draft board; guys with off-field issues or “football character” problems are devalued by the Packers more than other teams. Thompson will occasionally hold his nose and draft defensive linemen and pass rushers with potential work ethic issues, probably because it always seems that most of the physically gifted defensive linemen and pass rushers have work ethic issues. But guys with questions about their football character will always find themselves lower on the Packers’ draft board than on other teams’ boards.
(2) Don’t bother using draft picks on guys who don’t have the physical tools to succeed. The Packers value performance on the field above combine measurements, but only if those combine measurements are within certain parameters. Cornerbacks shorter than 5’10” need not apply. Quarterbacks with weak arms are out, at least since the Brian Brohm flop. In the late rounds, Thompson would rather take a chance on a raw guy whose physical tools project to the NFL game, rather than bothering with an undersized or slow college all-star whose ceiling is no higher than a serviceable backup. He can find backups in undrafted free agency, and he loves to do so. If Thompson’s going to invest a draft pick, he wants a guy with the physical skills to one day be a starter or meaningful situational contributor.
Of course, can create a bit of a dilemma in the middle and later rounds: if a guy has the physical characteristics to succeed in the pros but has not proven himself at a high level in college, why not? More often than not, it is a work-ethic issue—and Thompson does not take guys with work-ethic issues if he can avoid it.
So how does Thompson resolve this inherent conflict? He looks for the late bloomers and hidden gems, guys whose failure to fully capitalize on their physical gifts at the highest college levels can be explained by something other than disinterest or lack of intelligence. These might be guys who went through position switches in college (Richard Rodgers, Tony Moll), a switch in primary sports (Demarious Randall, Quentin Rollins, Demetri Goodson), or late physical development, injuries, or other obstacles—basically, anything that can explain why a guy with those physical tools remains unproven or raw, so long as that explanation is not “he has work ethic issues” or “he’s not a good learner.”
(3) Need matters. Thompson’s first selection as Packers GM, Aaron Rodgers, made Thompson the national poster child for the “draft-talent-regardless-of-need” philosophy. In truth, that reputation has always been more myth than reality. Thompson’s selection of Rodgers was more of a “need” pick than people remember (Favre began dropping retirement hints years before Rodgers was drafted), and Thompson has drafted for need ever since.
A draftee may not fill an urgent need for the upcoming Packers’ season, but he will always fill a foreseeable one down the road. Even when Thompson took Jordy Nelson in the high second-round, there was a need in sight: Donald Driver was 32 (and expensive), while Greg Jennings was two years away from free agency (and about to get very expensive). Receivers take longer to develop in the NFL than other positions, and Thompson could see that the Packers needed to put their next lead receiver in the oven in 2008, so that he was ready to take over in 2010 if Driver faded or Jennings priced himself out of the Packers’ comfort zone. And if Driver kept playing well (as he did) and Jennings re-signed (as he did), then Nelson would still have value. In a pass-happy offense with a quality quarterback, you can always go to more three-, four-, and five-receiver sets to get receiving talent on the field.
Bottom line, despite his reputation, Thompson does not draft redundant pieces. Outside of late-round developmental fliers, he won’t draft players who do not have a clear path to becoming meaningful contributors on the team by year two of their rookie contracts.
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Packers’ Draft Preview by Position: Offense
Knowing what we know about Thompson’s tendencies, we can start to sift and winnow through this year’s NFL prospects to identify the guys who best fit Thompson’s criteria. Fortunately, we do not need to watch tape of all of the “draftable” guys ourselves; numerous outlets (including NFL.com, CBS Sports, Sports Illustrated, and Pro Football Focus) provide scouting reports from writers who have watched the tape, and who are paid to know what to look for. Their reports get thinner and harder to find the further down the prospect rankings we go, but they are a great resource for learning the basic characteristics of these players. Combine them with Bob McGinn’s terrific annual draft series in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which includes a number of direct quotes from scouts, and we can get a pretty good consensus on the perceived strengths and weaknesses of the majority of draftable players.
Based on that review, here are the prospects likely to be higher on the Packers’ draft board than the draft boards of most other teams—and thus most likely to end up in the Packers’ training camp this summer.
We can write off a QB in the first four rounds: there is no path for any QB other than Rodgers to meaningfully contribute to the team anytime in the near future. If Thompson picks a QB, he will do the same thing he did when he selected Brett Hundley (R5-2015), B.J. Coleman (R7-2012), Matt Flynn (R7-2008) and Ingle Martin (R5-2006)—take a late-round developmental flier on a guy who is tall enough, mobile enough, and possesses a decent enough arm to maybe develop into a serviceable NFL starter one day. When drafting quarterbacks, Thompson is looking for a guy whose ceiling is something higher than “career backup.”
Who fits the bill this year?
Jeff Driskel, Louisiana Tech. Driskel has ideal attributes for the position: good height (6’4”), outstanding speed (4.5 40-yard dash), a strong arm, and good scouting reports on his character. Driskel isn’t ready to play—Louisiana Tech ran a simplified offense last year, and he was only a one-year starter there after flaming out at Florida and transferring. Those negatives will matter a lot to teams looking for a QB who is ready to be the primary back-up in year one and compete for the job in year two. But they won’t matter to the Packers, who can afford to take their time developing Driskel on the practice squad or the back-end of the roster. Driskel might show up on Thompson’s radar in round 6 or 7, if he slips down that far.
Others under consideration: Penn State’s Christian Hackenburg could slip to the late rounds, and he fits the physical profile Thompson wants in a quarterback. But his performance the past two years was dreadful and he didn’t handle it well; it’s hard to imagine Thompson forcing McCarthy to deal with Rodgers and Hackenburg in the same QB room. Jacoby Brissett of N.C. State is similar to Driskel in his tools, character, and need for further development. Based on various mock drafts, however, Brissett seems unlikely to slip into round 6, which is probably the earliest the Packers would consider a QB. Nate Sudfeld, Indiana. He’s tall (6’6”) with a good arm, had a breakout passing year for a bad program, and was reportedly a strong team leader. But Thompson values functional mobility with his quarterbacks, and Sudfeld’s slow feet give him a lower ceiling than any of the quarterbacks mentioned above.
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The Packers’ running game last year was a mess: everyone was hurt, everyone had fumble-itis, and Eddie Lacy was more “heifer cow” than “bellcow.” The Packers even had an old-school “cut-for-missing-curfew” episode involving third-stringer Alonzo Harris.
A trimmed-down Lacy will be back next year, as will James Starks (who re-upped for another two years this offseason) and John Crockett, an undrafted rookie who was promoted from the practice squad last year to replace Harris. The Packers haven’t re-signed John Kuhn, but there’s no need for them to do so; Aaron Ripkowski showed promise as a bulldozing fullback in limited time last year, and Kuhn will likely remain available to be re-signed off the street if injuries strike. On paper, at least, it looks like a full backfield.
But that doesn’t mean Thompson won’t grab another running back—and earlier than people may expect. Lacy’s in a contract year, and running backs with histories of injuries and conditioning issues are not the type of players Thompson spends big money on. If Thompson stays true to his M.O. of trying to find future starters a year in advance, he’ll draft a running back who can complement Lacy this year before shouldering more of the load once Lacy leaves in free agency. (Drafting a complementary back, rather than another big bruiser like Lacy or straight-line runner like Starks, also ensures that the new draftee can play a meaningful role even if Lacy is re-signed.) That ideal complementary back would be elusive, more comfortable in the passing game than Lacy or Starks, and would carry a frame capable of serving in a lead-back role if and when Lacy leaves. Basically, the Packers are looking for someone like Matt Forte—a player they were rumored to have been courting as a free agent before he signed with the Jets.
Thompson has been looking for that Forte-like lead back with elusiveness and natural pass-catching ability for a long time. He spent high picks on Brandon Jackson (R2-2007) and Alex Green (R3-2011), and even hedged his 2013 bet on Eddie Lacy by trading up for the more elusive Jonathan Franklin in the fourth round of the same draft. He may be looking for his future starter in the same second-to-fourth round range in this draft—and there are a couple guys slotted to go in those early-to-mid-rounds who fit the profile of what Thompson wants.
Kenneth Dixon, Louisiana Tech. Driskel isn’t the only member of the Louisiana Tech backfield who will interest the Packers. Dixon toasted Conference USA competition throughout his college career, finishing with the second-most touchdowns in FBS history (behind Navy prospect Keenan Reynolds, and ahead of former Badger Montee Ball). Dixon created the bulk of his rushing yards for himself, averaging twice as many yards after contact as before contact and routinely making positive yardage out of broken plays and missed blocks—something Lacy and Starks rarely did last year. And Dixon can catch the ball, putting up strong receiving yardage totals (almost 500 yards last year) for a college tailback.
There are a few reasons for Thompson to pause before taking Dixon early. He’s on the small size for a lead back (5’10”, 215) and missed time with minor injuries in college, a trend that isn’t likely to go away when he faces a steady diet of NFL-sized defenders. Dixon also lacks home-run speed (4.6 40-yard dash). Those may be weaknesses Thompson can overlook if he and his scouts see Dixon as the all-purpose pass-catching threat he’s always wanted to pair with Rodgers. Starks, Lacy, and Franklin all had their own worrisome injury histories coming out of college, and that wasn’t enough to deter Thompson from taking them. He won’t be able to wait to grab Dixon this year—he is a third-round pick in most mock drafts—but Thompson might be able to justify spending a high choice on a new weapon for the offense, particularly if he goes defense in round 1.
Kenyan Drake, Alabama. Badger fans remember Drake well. He torched the touted Wisconsin defense for 77 yards rushing (including an electrifying 43-yard run) and 48 yards receiving in Alabama’s season-opening win over the Badgers last fall. Drake has great quickness and balance, exceptional top-end speed (4.45 40), natural pass-catching skills (he sometimes lined up as a receiver for Alabama), and the ability to break tackles and finish runs—everything the Packers are looking for in a complementary back to Lacy.
Everything, that is, except the frame to take over as the featured back after Lacy leaves. Drake has a taller and leaner build (6’1”, 210) than Dixon and an even more troublesome injury history, including a broken leg in 2014 and a fractured arm last fall. If the Packers take Drake, they will likely plan for a time-share in 2017 between Drake and Starks (or Drake and a 2017 draft pick), rather than counting on Drake to assume lead-back responsibilities on his own.
Mock drafts show Drake falling in the third-to-fifth round range; if Thompson misses or passes on Dixon, Drake might be an option with one of the Packers’ two compensatory picks at the end of the fourth round.
Others under consideration: Notre Dame’s C.J. Prosise has the receiving skills of Dixon and Drake (he played wide receiver at Notre Dame before switching to running back last year), but without the concerns about size (he’s 6’1”, 220, with no major injury history). He’s not as strong a candidate for the Packers because he lacks elite elusiveness, is fumble-prone, and is still learning the position, but he may be the Packers’ RB of choice in the middle rounds if they want to develop his lead-back potential. Paul Perkins of UCLA has no issues with elusiveness—making tacklers miss is his calling card—but he is even smaller (5’10, 208) than Dixon and Drake, and will probably never have the durability to take on more than a part-time workload. Indiana’s Jordan Howard bailed from Alabama-Birmingham after its athletic director announced the school’s intent to shut down the football program, and he acquitted himself well in the Big Ten. He has great size (6’0”, 230) and reports tout his vision, an important attribute for backs when the Packers use their traditional zone-blocking schemes. (How many times have we seen James Starks leave yards on the field by making the wrong reads?) But it will be tougher for Thompson to justify taking Howard than the other names above, simply because his size and bruising running style make him more redundant of Lacy than complementary of him.
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It’s hard to know what to make of the Packers’ roster at receiver. On paper, things look fine: Cobb and Nelson are in their primes (and fresh off extensions), and the Packers have a stable of young guys behind them who have all showed promise at one time or another. Ty Montgomery was a training camp star before losing his rookie year to a messy ankle injury; Jared Abbrederis and Jeff Janis had breakout moments on a big stage in the Arizona playoff game; and Davante Adams . . . well, he’s still technically the same guy who looked like a star-in-the-making at the end of 2014, right? Adams had a mysteriously bad sophomore campaign, but it’s too early to write him out of the team’s future plans. That makes for six warm bodies at the receiver position, all of whom have presumptive holds on roster positions going into next year.
And yet, receiver certainly feels like a need after the passing game’s ugly performance last year. The Packers’ offense may have looked like the Death Star on paper, but Nelson’s injury exposed its big vulnerability: without Nelson, there was no receiver capable of stretching the defense. Opposing cornerbacks could press the remaining Packers’ receivers with impunity, with safeties sitting on routes, unafraid of the deep ball.
The Packers are unlikely to be twice bitten with this problem, even if Thompson does nothing in the draft. By all reports Nelson’s recovery has gone smoothly, and the playoff heroics of Janis—the Packers’ other field-stretcher—offer hope that he can finally be trusted in live game action. But Thompson is not a guy to risk getting caught with his pants down twice. Thompson’s failure to secure a serviceable back-up quarterback led to some disastrous games after Rodgers was injured in 2013; Thompson responded by overpaying Matt Flynn, keeping three quarterbacks on the roster for the first time in years in 2014 and 2015, and trading up for Brett Hundley in the 2015 draft. He could react in a similar way here, finding a spot in the receiving corps for a situational speedster.
The ideal fit would be exactly the kind of player that every Packer fan yearned for last year: an outside receiver who can beat press coverage and frighten defenses with elite deep speed. There are a number of those guys in the draft, but their speed carries a hefty premium. Polished guys with top-end speed are gone by the middle of the second round. Speed guys with warts go in the second through fourth rounds. The fifth through seventh rounds are the land of the super-raw developmental fliers.
Thompson doesn’t need a polished guy, because if all goes well a rookie receiver won’t see the field this year. He doesn’t even need someone with the promise to develop into a more multi-dimensional threat. He just needs someone with the legs to threaten an opposing defense deep, nothing more. Thompson might not invest a draft choice in the position, and opt instead for bringing in a few raw track guys as undrafted free agents to see if one sticks. But if he wants to use a pick to improve his chances of finding a burner who can contribute, here are a couple guys he might be considering:
Braxton Miller, Ohio State. Miller carries an unusually high price tag for a raw developmental receiver—most mock drafts put him in the third-round range—but he has tools that make general managers’ imaginations run wild. He has good size (6’1”, 200), good straight-line speed (4.45), elite athleticism, and a college career full of game-changing plays with his legs and arm. He’s only played receiver for a year, but that won’t deter the Packers—they don’t need Miller to play much as a rookie. He might be expected to see the field on some gadget plays or to show the defense a different look, but otherwise he can spend his rookie year learning how to play the position and maximize his big-play athleticism.
WR Kolby Listenbee, TCU. A four-time All-American sprinter for TCU’s track team, Listenbee is a pure burner with enough height (6’0”) and ball skills to play outside and haul in bombs. That’s about all he can do at this point—he’s thin (197), doesn’t block much, and didn’t have to learn many routes in TCU’s offense. But all the roster needs right now is someone who can outrun man coverage and put a scare in the opposing defense every now and then. Listenbee can fill that role. Like Miller, he probably won’t come cheap—mock drafts have him in the third- to fifth-round range—but with compensatory picks to spare in the fourth round, Thompson may be willing to spend a mid-round pick on the luxury of a designated deep-threat.
Others under consideration: Notre Dame’s Will Fuller would have been the perfect guy to break bottlenecks in the defense during the Packers’ offensive woes last year, with good size, sprinter speed, and proven performance for a major-college program. Problem is, he’s too NFL-ready. He’ll likely be gone before the Packers’ second-round pick, and the Packers are probably unwilling to commit a first (or even second) round selection to fixing a problem that’s unlikely to recur this year. Moritz Boehringer of Germany carries a late-round price tag and perfect measurables for an NFL receiver (6’4”, 227, 4.4), making him a tantalizing project. But Boehringer is so far under the radar—he played football in Germany at a competition level below Division III here—that it’s uncertain he’ll even be drafted. That will depend on his individual workouts with the teams who wanted a closer look (including the Packers), and we don’t have access to those. UCLA’s Devin Fuller is on the radar, but only faintly: he’s the third-ranked of three UCLA pass catchers in this draft (TE Thomas Duarte and WR Jordan Payton are the others), and he suffered through injuries last year. But he has the right measurables (6’0”, 194, 4.4) and is a former quarterback who went through a college position switch. He could be an option if Thompson waits until the sixth or seventh round to grab his burner. Jay Lee of Baylor lacks elite speed (he ran 4.5) and was lost in the cracks of Baylor’s explosive offense for most of his college career, but he has the size (6’1”, 215 with long arms) to play outside. He also blossomed into a viable big-play receiver last year, averaging almost 20 yards per catch. Reports suggest that he’s more polished than any receiver on this list save Will Fuller, and he looked good in Senior Bowl practices. Mock drafts suggest that he’ll be around in the later rounds, as well.
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With Andrew Quarless out most of last year, Richard Rodgers had a 16-game audition to prove he should be the Packers’ tight end of the future. He didn’t earn the part, often blocking like a receiver and running routes like a lineman, rather than vice versa. Kenneth Backman, a developmental receiver-first tight end who Thompson grabbed in the sixth round last year, showed nothing to suggest he will justify a roster spot this year. Practice squad graduate Justin Perillo was nondescript in limited action. Thompson bought himself a year to figure out the mess at this position when he inked Jared Cook to a one-year “prove it” deal this spring, but tight ends take time to develop in the NFL. If Thompson’s going to have a starting tight end waiting in the wings after this season, he knows he probably needs to find that guy now.
Unfortunately, it’s not a banner year for high-ceiling tight ends. There are a few blocking-first tight ends, who won’t interest Thompson. As the Cook signing suggests, after witnessing last year’s offensive meltdown, Thompson is not interested in drafting a tight end who can’t beat linebackers in man coverage. The presence of Cook and Rodgers gives Thompson the luxury of grabbing a developmental project and redshirting him, but Thompson needs someone who can be ready to start in 2017. He probably won’t want to pin his hopes on anyone who is too far from being a finished product.
Here are a few guys that Thompson might peg for the starting TE role in 2017:
Hunter Henry, Arkansas. The consensus top tight-end on everyone’s board, Henry makes this list because Thompson may view the Packers’ TE needs as significant enough to warrant a first-round pick. That’s probably what it will take to get Henry, a guy with the ideal resume: top national recruit and high-level production in the SEC from his freshman year through his All-American junior year, all in an offense where he ran NFL routes. His measurables come right off the spec sheet for NFL tight ends (6’5”, 250, 4.65, Wonderlic of 28), every scouting report raves about his character, and he catches everything. It’s easy to picture Aaron Rodgers falling in love with the guy, and that’s not a small consideration for Thompson: he essentially wasted a roster spot the last two years because of Janis’s failure to develop Rodgers’ trust.
Henry isn’t a physical freak, and he’ll probably never be a guy who keeps defensive coordinators awake at night. But he’s a polished tight end who can beat man coverage, run competent routes, and consistently catch the ball—and with Nelson and Cobb to pressure the defense elsewhere, that’s all Rodgers really needs. Analysts’ comps for Henry may be unexciting—Heath Miller is the most common one—but a young Heath Miller would have been a godsend for this offense the past several years. Super Bowl contenders like the Packers don’t need to swing for the fences in the late first round; solid doubles will keep them competitive. Henry checks every box in the Packers’ criteria, and Thompson could feel relief in drafting such a high-floor player in the first round.
The only issue is the price tag: mock drafts suggest that Henry’s a decent bet to be available at pick 27, but very unlikely to slip to the Packers’ next selection at pick 57. If Thompson sees a future Pro Bowl defender on the board in the first, he’s likely to pass on Henry in round one and look for someone with similar skills and projection later at a cheaper price. The tight-end crop this year is thin, but there are a couple of guys in this draft who might be good consolation prizes for Thompson.
Austin Hooper, Stanford. Hooper, the consensus no. 2 tight end, is Henry lite: he’s a little shorter (6’4”), a little slower (4.7), and a little less polished than Henry. His ceiling is a little lower, too, as is the price tag (he’s going in the second or third round in most mock drafts). It’s never sexy to spend a second- or third-round pick on a guy whose ceiling is probably “low-end starter,” but a low-end starter would be a big improvement over what the Packers will have on the roster at TE in 2017. After wasting a roster spot for two years waiting for Brandon Bostick to develop—and another spot on Backman last year—Thompson is not going to let wishful thinking persuade him that he can count on a developmental guy being ready to contribute in 2017. He needs his next starting TE in this draft, not a flier—and Hooper and Henry are the only safe bets with the physical tools and proven receiving skills to be surefire starting-caliber NFL tight ends by 2017.
Ben Braunecker, Harvard. If the Packers miss out on the top two smart, 250-pound tight ends with pass-catching skills, Thompson has another option from the same mold later on. Braunecker was a team captain who dominated the Ivy League, and his measurables (6’3”, 250, 4.7) suggest that he can survive the jump in competition level. The need to make that jump makes it more questionable whether he can challenge for a starting role in 2017, but those questions also mean he comes at a big discount off Henry and Hooper prices. He should be available in the mid- to late rounds of the draft, with mock drafts pegging him anywhere from the fourth round to undrafted.
Others under consideration. If he misses out on Henry and Hooper early, Thompson won’t be leaving the draft feeling comfortable about the future of the TE position in Green Bay. There are other prospects with the physical tools to beat linebackers in man coverage, but all of them are either undersized, unpolished, or have other red flags. South Carolina’s Jerrell Adams has the same measurables as Henry and played in the same conference, but never put those tools together and started only 15 games in his career. Reports suggest that the culprit was either work ethic issues, mental issues (his Wonderlic of 15 is very low for a tight end), or both—not the kind of player Thompson gambles on, especially with a third- or fourth-round price tag. Thomas Duarte (UCLA) and Devon Cajuste (Stanford) are oversized receivers who some teams are contemplating at tight end. Thompson could conceivably grab one to serve as a situational weapon in a future time share at the position, but neither has the size or track record to be a credible blocker in a starting TE role. Tyler Higbee of Western Kentucky is a converted receiver with great size (6’6”, 250) and OK speed (4.75), but was arrested just two weeks ago following a drunken brawl. Thompson will sometimes forgive stupid mistakes early in someone’s college career, but not ones that come weeks before the guy is about to join the professional ranks.
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Just as last year’s injuries to the receiving corps exposed the Packers’ lack of vertical deep threats, injuries to the line exposed a different (and equally destructive) flaw in the roster: horrible depth along the offensive line. Thompson’s collection of undrafted rookies and practice squad graduates (Don Barclay, Josh Walker, Lane Taylor, and Greg Van Roten) routinely put Rodgers’ life and limb in jeopardy when injuries forced McCarthy to put them on the field. When McCarthy juggled positions along the line in an effort to minimize the harm, it only exacerbated the problems. It will be hard for Thompson to forget just how lost Josh Sitton looked playing left tackle at the end of the season—and just how much it endangered his franchise quarterback. If last year taught Thompson anything, it’s the value of quality depth at all positions along the line.
Thompson needs to add quality depth to the line for another reason, as well: 60 percent of the starting line will be free agents after the season. The deals of Josh Sitton, T.J. Lang, and David Bakhtiari all expire at the end of this year, and none will be cheap to re-sign. Sitton and Lang have established themselves as two of the premier guards in the league, and Bakhtiari is a competent starting left tackle in a league that doesn’t have enough of them. To make matters worse, the rookie deal of J.C. Tretter—the one backup who showed glimpses of being able to handle a full-time starting gig—will also expire at the end of next year.
As a result, it’s quicker to talk about what the Packers don’t need along the line than what they do:
(1) They don’t need any linemen who are limited to playing center. Cory Linsley looks to be the future there, and if his play this fall causes any reason to think otherwise, Thompson knows he can re-sign Tretter for starter’s pay, plug him in at his natural position of center, and have no worries about the position going forward.
(2) They don’t need a day-one starter. The Packers’ starters are set, and Tretter and Lane Taylor can, between the two of them, provide good-enough back-up for most positions along the line. Thompson will be happy to take a guy capable of playing right away if he slips, but he won’t be interested in the paying the full-sticker premium that comes with a plug-and-play offensive lineman. More likely, Thompson will opt for someone who isn’t that far away (the Packers may need him to be a starter in 2017), but who could use a redshirt year with NFL line coaches and an NFL strength program.
In this draft, Thompson can find those guys with future-starter potential right where he likes to find his starting linemen: in the middle rounds of the draft, where the Packers have the benefit of two extra compensatory picks this year. Thompson will probably be looking to add two linemen in this draft, at least one of whom has the tools to survive at left tackle should Bakhtiari price himself out of Thompson’s comfort zone in free agency next year. (Tretter’s playoff performance proved he could credibly fill in at left tackle if injuries strike Bakhtiari again this year.) Position versatility will be a big, big plus on the Packers’ draft board: if Thompson manages to extend all three of Sitton, Lang, and Bakhtiari, he’s still going to want his draft picks to have value as a multi-positional back-ups even if they won’t have a chance to compete for starting jobs in 2017.
Here are a few of those mid-round guys who might fit that profile, and who check off the other boxes Thompson looks for with offensive linemen:
Joe Haeg, North Dakota State. Thompson doesn’t penalize big guys for playing at low-level programs; after all, few people in the world have linemen size or coordination at age 17, when big-program recruiters coming calling. When he’s looking at small-school guys, Thompson wants to see NFL size and feet. He likes guys who grew out of tight end or played other sports in high school, and who eventually dominated low-level competition once they learned a little about playing the position.
Joe Haeg fits the profile. He was a skinny 235 pounds in high school and walked on to North Dakota State, before promptly starting 60 games finishing his career with FCS All-American honors. He has a left-tackle frame (6’6”, 304) and left-tackle athletic testing numbers, some of the best among linemen at the Combine. He needs more strength and technique work, but that’s exactly what the Packers can offer him with Bakhtiari under contract for another year. And if the Packers re-sign Bakhtiari, then Haeg can provide depth behind Bulaga, as well—he started his North Dakota State career at right tackle.
Willie Beavers, Western Michigan. Willie Beavers has the NFL size (6’4”, 325) and athleticism to play anywhere along the line, and a long track record (40 starts) of success against MAC competition. Like Haeg, he has some technical flaws and needs NFL strength training and coaching. The Packers can give him that. Mock drafts suggest that he’ll probably go off the board in the same range as Haeg: third- to fifth-round.
Caleb Benenoch, UCLA. Benenoch is another guy who needs a year of NFL technique and strength work, but has the physical gifts (6’5”, 305, 4.98) and intelligence (27 on the Wonderlic) to develop into a quality NFL starter. Reports say Benenoch is more likely a guard than a tackle at the NFL level, but he played both spots in college. And scouts like his character, too.
Isaac Seumalo, Oregon State. Seumalo never really found a home at Oregon State—he played all over the line, and his career was interrupted by a broken foot that cost him his 2014 season—but he played well wherever he found himself. While he’s probably limited to guard in the NFL, he has a good frame for the position (6’4”, 303 with room to grow) and some of the best agility testing numbers among linemen at the combine. He’s also a team captain and smart guy who graduated early with a business degree. If the Packers’ medical staff is OK with Seumalo’s foot, he could be high on the Packers’ board in rounds four or five.
Others under consideration: There are a number of other mid- and late-round guys with traits that will appeal to Thompson, and none would be a surprise for the Packers from the fourth round on. Spencer Drango of Baylor was a four-year starter at tackle, including an All-American season last year. He will probably need to move to guard at the pro level, but he has NFL size (6’6”, 315) and showed enough transferable traits to make scouts think he can succeed at guard in the pros. Harvard’s Cole Toner is less athletic than Haeg, but fits a similar profile. He has a good frame (6’5”, 306) for tackle, smarts, and a long track record of keeping people blocked. He might not have seen many twitchy edge rushers in the Ivy League, but he took care of whoever lined up across from him, being named All-League the last two years. Kyle Murphy of Stanford is another guy with tackle size (6’6”, 305) and a great track record, earning all-conference honors at right and left tackle in consecutive years. His athleticism isn’t elite and, like everyone else on this list, his needs a year of strength training and technique work. Even then, his ceiling is probably just a serviceable starter or quality swing-tackle backup. But we saw last year the kind of chaos that can ensue when the roster lacks a quality third tackle. Iowa’s Jordan Walsh is probably too small to pencil in as a future starter anywhere but center (6’2”, 292), but he could be a seventh-round depth pickup for the interior line. Scouts like his agility and Kirk Ferentz-coached technique, and have good things to say about his character. Best case, he bulks up in an NFL strength and nutrition program and becomes a starting-caliber guard. Worst case, he’s a ready-to-use spare tire for the interior who can get the team through a game without endangering Rodgers.
Finally, Thompson would love to add Indiana’s Jason Spriggs or Kansas State’s Cody Whitehair—but so would everyone else. Spriggs might be the most athletic left-tackle prospect in the draft, while scouts say Whitehair looks a future pro-bowler at guard after an All-American season last year at tackle for the Wildcats. It would be a shock to see either of those guys on the board when the Packers’ late third-round pick comes around, and if history holds, Thompson won’t spend a first- or second-rounder on an offensive lineman this year. Thompson’s drafted a first- or second-round lineman only three times (Daryn Colledge in 2006, Brian Bulaga in 2010, Derek Sherrod in 2011), and on each occasion there was a starting job to be won along the line that fall. That’s not the case this year, and Thompson probably figures there’s no reason to pay a premium for a ready-to-go lineman when he can get a promising redshirt candidate at a discount.
Editor's Note: This 2 part series is provided to us by Matt Lynch, a Madison-area Packer fan and draft junkie who has been following Packers’ drafts closely ever since the team went for Tony Mandarich at no. 2 overall in 1989.
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