Pre-Combine Players to Watch at Key Positions

Before the combine kicks off next week, here are a few players to keep an eye on at positions of need for the Packers. 

With the combine set to begin next week, a new batch of NFL hopefuls will be going through interviews and on-field workouts at Lucas Oil Stadium. Every year in Indy, the Combine puts a few new faces on the map as they ascend up draft boards, and on that same note, there are always a few players that end up sliding due to poor performances in drills or private interviews.

This year, the draft class just happens to be loaded with a lot of the Packers’ primary needs. This is the deepest wide receiver class, potentially ever, so you can bet Green Bay will do its homework on some potential names that could go at picks 30 or 62. 

Additionally, there are a number of talented tackles in this year’s class with NFL-starting potential. Regardless of what happens with Bryan Bulaga and possibly Jared Veldheer, this is a nice draft class to possibly lock up a right tackle of the future for the franchise. 

Rounding out the Packers’ top-four needs would be inside linebacker and interior defensive line, and while the inside linebacker class doesn’t exactly leap off the page (more on that in a minute), the big guys on the interior should put on a show in Indy. If the Packers do look to free agency to fill holes at receiver or tackle, a run-stuffing defensive lineman could come off the board pretty early when Green Bay is on the clock. 

Circling back to inside linebacker, it’s always a tough position to predict in the draft. Only two names really stand out in this year’s class as first-round graded players (though that could change after the combine), and they’re likely to be gone before the Packers get to pick. And yes, I know we always expect about 65 names to not be available for the Packers in the first round, but let’s use as recently as the 2019 Draft as an example. The two best inside linebackers in the draft class were Devin White and Devin Bush, and the Steelers were so worried Bush wouldn’t make it to them at No. 20 they traded all the way up to No. 10 to ensure they got their guy. Those were the only two inside linebackers to go in the first round. 

Now, let’s get to some names to pay attention to during the combine next week. For the purpose of this article, I’m only going to highlight a few names from each of the previous four positions listed, but I would highly encourage you to listen to episode three of Pack’s What She Said dropping this weekend to get a detailed breakdown of names to follow in Indy this week. 

Inside Linebackers 

The obvious two names here are Oklahoma’s Kenneth Murray and LSU’s Patrick Queen, so while I could go into some more detail about those two names, I feel like it’d be more useful to put a few new(er) names on your radar. 

Zack Baun - Wisconsin

If you’re a Badgers fan, then this is the exact opposite of putting a new name on your radar, but we’ll get there. Baun is a native of Brown Deer, Wisconsin and even had quite the career as a high school quarterback. He played primarily as an edge rusher for the Badgers during his collegiate career, though he’s indicated he plans to make the switch to an inside linebacker in the NFL. 

Pro Football Focus gave Baun an elite pass-rush grade of 91.0 in 2019, but he’s also able to cover. He dropped into coverage 195 times and only allowed 112 yards. He also tallied five pass breakups and an interception. 

Baun would be an ideal fit for the middle of the Packers defense given his lateral agility and ability to move in space. He was also a stout run defender for the Badgers, something Green Bay needs help with at the next level. 

Troy Dye - Oregon

Dye’s impressive stats leap off the page right from the beginning, with 391 total tackles in his four-year career, 41.5 tackles for a loss and 13 sacks. Dye also had five interceptions and 14 passes defensed in his time at Oregon.

He’s a great coverage linebacker who can match up well against bigger-bodied tight ends in the open field, but he lacks some of that top-level explosive athleticism showcased by other linebackers in this draft class. Still, at 6-4, he’s a dominant force in the middle of the field. Dropping into coverage, Dye only allowed 211 yards for all of 2019. 

Akeem Davis-Gaither - Appalachian State

This is one of my favorite players in the draft class, and he would be a nice day two pickup for the Packers. In his junior and senior seasons at Appalachian State, Davis-Gaither combined for 198 total tackles with 24 for a loss and 6.5 sacks. He also had one interception and broke up 15 passes. In 2019 alone, he posted 15 tackles for loss which was good for second in the Sun Belt, and he also won 2019 Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year. 

Davis-Gaither is a little on the smaller side for an inside linebacker at only 219 pounds, but he’s proven to be a sure tackler with the ability to shed blocks. During his 2019 season, he was primarily asked to drop into coverage rather than get after the quarterback, allowing him to display his quickness in the middle of the field. 

Defensive Linemen

There are a few names here that likely will be off the board before Green Bay is on the clock, those names being Derrick Brown of Auburn and Javon Kinlaw out of South Carolina. Because of that, here are a few day two and possibly even day three prospects to keep an eye on in Indy. 

Ross Blacklock - TCU

Blacklock is another one of my favorite players heading into the combine. He has a little bit of an injury history that will likely be talked about quite a bit in Indy, missing his entire sophomore season to an Achilles tear, but he had a fantastic bounce-back season as a junior that should put a lot of the injury concerns to rest. 

PFF gives Blacklock an 89.5 run defense grade in 2019, and that’s where he’d be best-suited to help the Packers. As one of the most athletic big bodies in the draft class, Blacklock could squeak into the first round on draft night with a strong combine performance, but he’s likely an early day two name at this point. During his two seasons with TCU, Blacklock had 67 total tackles with 15.5 for loss and 5.5 sacks. 

Justin Madubuike - Texas A&M

Madubuike is a versatile defender with explosive athleticism, though draft scouts believe he’s best suited at 3-technique in the NFL. During his final two seasons with Texas A&M, Madubuike had 85 tackles with 22 tackles for a loss and 11 sacks. He’s pegged as more of a run-stuffer than a pass rusher, which is exactly the complement the Packers need opposite Kenny Clark. 

Raekwon Davis - Alabama

Davis is another name on this list that’s better-suited to stop the run than rush the passer. PFF gave him a high run-stop grade of 87.9, but only a 71.2 as a pass rusher. Davis has the position flexibility to play 3-tech of 5-tech, though he played the vast majority of his snaps in the b-gap in college. Davis had 175 total tackles in his collegiate career with 19.5 tackles for loss, 11.5 sacks, and one interception. 

Offensive Linemen

Four offensive tackles came off the board in the first round in 2019, and it’s entirely possible four or five are taken in 2020. Jedrick Wills Jr. of Alabama and Tristan Wirfs from Iowa are probably the two biggest names at tackle at this point, but also keep an eye out for Andrew Thomas of Georgia, Mekhi Becton from Louisville, and Josh Jones out of Houston to round out the top five. 

Josh Jones at 6-7 is an absolute unit, only allowing 18 pressures on over 1,200 snaps in his three-year career. He also only gave up one sack in 2019, and was awarded a 93.2 overall grade from PFF. Jones had the highest win rate of any tackle at the Senior Bowl. 

If the Packers don’t take a tackle in the first round, I’m also high on Matt Peart from UConn as a late day two or possibly even day three selection. He was given a 90.0 overall grade from PFF in 2019, and he played all but one snap of his collegiate career at right tackle. He’s a nice developmental player that could sit behind Bulaga or Veldheer for a year or two then take over as the right tackle of the future for Green Bay. 

Wide Receivers

Finally, let’s look at some wide receivers, which feels like an improbable task at this point given how many could go in the first three rounds of this draft. The first two names expected to come off the board are of course CeeDee Lamb of Oklahoma and Jerry Jeudy from Alabama, so I won’t spend any time on those two. 

A few names that have been mocked to the Packers quite a bit include Laviska Shenault Jr. from Colorado, Brandon Aiyuk of Arizona State, and Justin Jefferson from LSU. 

Shenault Jr. is a dynamic playmaker who ranked first in the Pac-12 in receptions in 2018 with 86. He had 10 receiving touchdowns in three seasons and seven rushing touchdowns with 2,223 all-purpose yards. He’d be another gadget player for Matt LaFleur’s offense. 

Aiyuk spent lots of time during his collegiate career as a kick returner and punt returner, which is something the Packers might be looking for if Tyler Ervin isn’t brought back this offseason. He’d be an immediate deep threat for Green Bay with a grade of 90.4 from PFF on deep balls. He’s also tied for fifth in yards after the catch with 10.9 per reception. 

Jefferson is the biggest of the three receivers at 6-3, and he had a great 2019 season. Not only did he rank first in the SEC (and NCAA) with 111 receptions, but he also hauled in a whopping 18 touchdowns. 

I’m sure we’ll be revisiting a lot of these names after the combine to see whose draft stock is ascending and whose is declining, but at least heading into next week, here are a few names I’ll be keeping a close eye on. And don’t forget to listen to Pack’s What She Said for an in-depth look at not only the players listed above, but plenty more at each position. 

 

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Maggie Loney is a writer for Cheesehead TV, podcaster for the Pack-A-Day Podcast and Pack's What She Said, and hosts a weekly live show called Happy Hour through Game On Wisconsin. Find her on Twitter at @MaggieJLoney.

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Comments (22)

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stockholder's picture

February 21, 2020 at 07:14 am

Hyping guys before the Combine is a mistake. The only way to sort these guys out is in their underwear. I Prefer Free Agency for Defense. Especially along the DL. And I'll find it very interesting if they do let Martinez go. I hope Gute Bargain shops this draft.

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jannes bjornson's picture

February 21, 2020 at 12:10 pm

Combine will confirm 40 times etc, but their Film is the evidence you have to base your selection on. Obviously, their history of injury has to factor in the early rounds.

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Guam's picture

February 21, 2020 at 07:53 am

The biggest concern I have for the 2020 version of the Packers is ILB. The draft has a load of talent at WR and OT and some talent at interior DL. There are a plethora of good veteran FA interior DL. Unfortunately neither the draft nor free agency have any depth of talent at ILB. Either the Packers get lucky or we could fill three of our four holes and have an ongoing problem at ILB in 2020.

No team is perfect and the good old days (Lombardi era) of having an All Pro at nearly every position are dead and gone. If Gute can patch three of the four holes well, I can live with a weakness at ILB. That still should make us highly competitive for the SB.

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dobber's picture

February 21, 2020 at 08:22 am

"The biggest concern I have for the 2020 version of the Packers is ILB."

Especially if they're letting Martinez walk...which appears to be the case. When your roster is all but bare at the position, you've gotta do something. My nagging fear is that they bring in a mid-late round guy (or two) and resign themselves to essentially letting Bolton, Summers, and Burks fight it out for Martinez's position. Maybe they can hide those players if they upgrade next to Clark, but I think the upgrades would have to be significant in order to try it.

I don't think he was an All-Pro by any means, but Martinez was more than a JAG at ILB. People keep offering the sentiment that just about anyone would be better than Martinez...I don't want just anyone in that role.

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Guam's picture

February 21, 2020 at 11:37 am

I think the big issue with Martinez is his price tag. If the Packers resign Bulaga and Crosby (which Gute has stated he intends to do), they simply do not have the money to also resign Martinez. I agree with you that Martinez is not a JAG, but I don't think he is worth an eight digit annual salary either (and more importantly neither do the Packers).

I just don't see many options for the Pack at ILB since they won't have the money to sign Littleton or Schobert either. I think it will be Bolton, Burks, Summers and a draft choice vying for the ILB spot.

I guess can live with that if they fix the DL, WR and backup OT through FA and the draft (not because I want to, but I just don't see other options).

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stockholder's picture

February 21, 2020 at 11:36 am

TT showed how to fill needs in 2016. Think about it. DL! Clark We were lucky he fell .You say some talent. I say None, beyond pick 15. Free Agency is the immediate success! Spriggs OT. Bust! Now comes need to replace Fackrell and Martinez! We have the same needs. So as many blasted TT. He still showed the blue print to this draft. The difference in this draft is the Offensive players. The best bang for the Buck. If we draft a LB, you'll miss out on offense. The better player! So until the decision is made on Martinez, even Bulaga. TTs Blue print is the wrong one. Why Because Clark, Spriggs, Fackrell, and Martinez didn't get us any where. Gute must make a splash in FA.

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jannes bjornson's picture

February 21, 2020 at 12:09 pm

There is value in rounds three and four for the ILBs. Get a couple big boys up front to crash the gaps.

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stockholder's picture

February 21, 2020 at 12:19 pm

Watch this guy. Lewis Alabama. Replaces Frackrell. and Goodson.

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jannes bjornson's picture

February 22, 2020 at 10:31 am

Edge guy with a high second rd. grade. Maybe Gutedkunst re-signs Bulaga and goes on a LB shopping spree by moving up in the second round for this guy or Baun, then bags another with the three pick?

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Stroh's picture

February 23, 2020 at 10:58 pm

I don't see Lewis being on the Packers radar. They have too much invested in the OLB room already w/ Z Smith, P Smith and Gary at OLB who will get the vast majority of snaps. Besides them they have the kid from Baltimore, who was the pass rusher at Bama before Lewis. His name is Tim Williams. They acquired him during last season and he finished on the PS because the Packers needed to get Campbell active. He is the 4th OLB in the room to take Fackrell's spot. Baun is a possibility in rd 2, but #30 is way to rich for him IMO. We'll have to see how he tests, but I don't see Rd 1 talent. Maybe he proves me wrong, but if Watt was a late 1st, Baun should be a late 2nd IMO.

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Tundraboy's picture

February 21, 2020 at 08:35 am

I think it's pretty obvious . If ever a team needed to go wide receiver shopping in the draft it's us. We haven't done that in a while. After that or in between definitely need to get an OL and I'd look for a DL in free agency. As for the rest of the draft, we can tinker around and take some gambles.

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mrtundra's picture

February 21, 2020 at 09:00 am

As for WRs to look at, I'd say KJ Hamler and Jalen Reagor are two speedy WRs we could consider. Reagor will be the second coming of Jeff Janis, as he does not run routes well. Do we need a project like that or are we looking only for speed at that position? Reagor reportedly ran a 4.2 40 at school. Hamler is also fast and can catch the ball. Denzel Mims supposedly has a big catch radius and could be looked at in round 2. A sleeper(?) I like, from his tape, is Jauan Jennings from Tennessee. A big bruiser who can move the chains with defenders on his back. Jennings may be had in the 6th or 7th round.

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stockholder's picture

February 21, 2020 at 11:57 am

AiYuk, Reagor, and Kamler would be fantastic 2nd rd. Picks. All need help with the route tree. But would be perfect in the slot. Duvernay Bowden Thomas are the best bet later for the slot. 5-7 . All these guys have dropped Balls. All have speed.

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Dzehren's picture

February 21, 2020 at 09:47 am

OL should be a top emphasis this offseason. Bulaga’s contract is up, Bak & Lindsey’s contract’s are up next year and lumbering lane Taylor’s cap # is not equal to his production. Plus these guys are about 29 years old.

This draft is loaded with OL. MLF wants to run the ball & QB 1 needs to be protected.
A youth movement at the position is needed as the draft is OL rich.

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jannes bjornson's picture

February 21, 2020 at 12:17 pm

Bhaktiari is the only priority re-sign, if he gets through 2020 healthy.

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Dzehren's picture

February 21, 2020 at 01:44 pm

Agreed. We need replacements.

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WMA's picture

February 21, 2020 at 04:52 pm

Agree. Would not mind seeing 2 of the top 4 picks in the OL. RBs in rounds 3-6. ILB rounds 3-4. WR - round 2 as that is our sweet spot.

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Stroh's picture

February 24, 2020 at 11:02 am

I can see a rd 3 or 4 draft pick to replace Linsley, but I honestly don't think they'll be looking to replace Bulaga or Bahktiari this draft. They should be more concerned w/ re-signing both of them. OT can easily play at a high level into the 30's. The Packers did it with Clifton and Tauscher.

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flackcatcher's picture

February 21, 2020 at 09:59 am

I'll only add that to remember the Packers will be drafting to their system. For example, the Packers like bigger wide receivers in MLF offensive scheme. And Pettine has looked for bigger longer DE and DL for his defensive scheme and big rangy DB if he can get them. For what's worth, this could become a value draft, where GM Gute trades out of the first for more picks later on. Packers have a lot of needs in backup positions that remain unfilled. Along with Dobber's point about free agency, I wouldn't look for a big day in the draft. Just the filling of holes, and maybe future core players and backups on a young team...

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jannes bjornson's picture

February 21, 2020 at 02:25 pm

How did that work for them the past two seasons? They have to get a fast slot guy, not lumber legs.

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HankScorpio's picture

February 22, 2020 at 10:08 am

"For example, the Packers like bigger wide receivers in MLF offensive scheme."

I don't think we really have any idea whether that is true or not. He's been on the job for one year and played the hand he was dealt. It could be that he loved the hand and wanted to play it. But it could be they were emphasizing roster changes in areas they deemed a higher priority.

I hope it is not true. Any coaching staff that cannot adapt to players is handcuffing the personnel dept.

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mnbadger's picture

February 21, 2020 at 12:34 pm

Thank you for digging deeper and ignoring players the pack has no shot at. Makes good reading this time of year.

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