If the OLBs Are Gone, Packers Have Safety Net

With Nick Collins' future likely to be determined after the draft, Green Bay has little choice but to invest an early pick in a safety. According to a source, two defensive backs have joined the Packers' first-round conversation.

The Green Bay Packers are in dire need of an outside linebacker, but there's at least a decent chance that the two players they appear to be coveting — Whitney Mercilus and Shea McClellin — will be off the board by pick No. 28 of the first round.

With the future of former Pro Bowl safety Nick Collins unlikely to be determined until after the draft, the Packers probably will be forced to use an early pick on a safety.

Two names have emerged as possibilities in the first round.

With Alabama's Mark Barron a likely top-20 pick, the second-best safety in the class is Notre Dame's Harrison Smith. Smith (6-foot-2, 213 pounds) appears to be an ideal fit for the Packers, who use their safeties interchangeably and don't have a strict "strong" or "free" safety in their scheme. His intelligence would be a tremendous asset, as well, as he would be asked to jump into the starting lineup immediately if Collins doesn't return.

Smith started 47 games during his career, including 32 at safety and 15 at three linebacker positions. As a senior, he ranked second on the team with 90 tackles and became the 11th player in school history to top 300 stops for his career. He didn't have any interceptions but broke up 10 passes.

With his size, he presents a favorable matchup against tight ends.

"That's something that I think I'm good at, and that I can bring to teams, is the ability to cover tight ends man-to-man," he said at the Combine. "It's something I did throughout my career. In practice I got to go against Kyle Rudolph, who was a high draft pick last year. This past year I went against Tyler Eifert, and he'll be picked next year. So just being around good competition and going up against it every day in practice."

Here is what NFL scout Dave-Te' Thomas wrote about Smith as part of his information that is presented to NFL scouting departments:

"Smith has a quick break to get to the thrown ball and he shows fearlessness stretching out to get to the ball at its high point, evident by his 28 pass deflections and seven interceptions for the Fighting Irish. He is like a quarterback on the field for the defense, as he knows everyone's assignments and makes sure the rest of his teammates are in position to make the play. His take-charge attitude was highly displayed during his senior year, as he took the kid gloves off and did not hesitate to get vocal when a player would make a mental error.

"Smith is an impressive-looking athlete, with a V-shaped torso, thick chest, broad shoulders, muscular arms, large hands, good bubble, thick thighs and calves, along with room on his frame to bulk up even more without losing any quickness. He is the type that does everything the coaches ask, is a workout warrior and pushes others when they see his work ethic. The transition from one coaching staff under Charlie Weis to the new regime under Brian Kelly succeeded because Smith took over the locker room.

"Smith is quick to react to the action in front of him, stepping up to plug the rush lanes or disrupt the action in the backfield, as he's produced 19 stops behind the line of scrimmage for the Irish. It is rare to see him caught out of position, as he is not the type to peek into the backfield too long or bite on misdirection and play action."

A wild card could be Vanderbilt cornerback Casey Hayward, who almost inexplicably has been overlooked by the media pundits but is held in high esteem by scouting departments.

Hayward (5-11, 192) picked off 15 passes in his career, including seven as a senior. What makes Hayward an intriguing safety is his combination of physicality and playmaking ability. For his career, he registered 18 tackles for losses. His 7.5 tackles for losses as a senior led all NCAA defensive backs.

Thomas called Hayward one of the "most fearless hitters in the collegiate game."

In pass defense as a senior, opponents completed a pitiful 19.5 percent of passes thrown his direction, according to research provided by Thomas' NFL Draft Report. He led the nation with 1.39 yards allowed per pass attempt and finished seventh with 17 passes defensed.

"I definitely say it is kind of natural, and it is about watching film," Hayward said at the Scouting Combine of his penchant for interceptions. "I watch a lot of film so I kind of know what is going to happen before it comes."

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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.

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