With B.J. Raji's shocking decision to step away from the game, defensive line soars to near the top of the Green Bay Packers’ draft wish list.
Fortunately for general manager Ted Thompson, there is a bounty of big men in this draft.
“There’s so many good defensive linemen,” NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said at the Scouting Combine. “The one way you could look at it is there will be a bunch of them taken in the first round. The other way, which could happen, is that teams are going to look around and say, ‘Man, I can get a second-round defensive tackle in the fourth round, so I’m going to wait.’ Or, ‘I can get a first-round defensive tackle in the third round, so I’m going to attack another need where the draft isn’t as good.’”
Regardless of the scenario, that’s good news for the Packers, who won’t have Raji for this season and Mike Pennel (suspension) for the first four games. There should be an instant-impact player available with the No. 27 overall pick and contributors in the second round and beyond.
Two scouts provided who they thought could be available to the Packers with the 27th pick. Combined, they came up with six players. Interestingly, their lists had only two names in common.
Baylor’s Andrew Billings (6-1, 311): Underclassman. Billings was first-team all-Big 12 during his final two seasons, including second-team All-American in 2015, when he had 40 tackles (32 solos), including 5.5 sacks and 15 for losses. He’s strong, with 31 reps on the 225-pound bench press at the Scouting Combine. Plus, he ran in an impressive 5.05. The strength numbers are no surprise: At Waco (Texas) High School, he broke a 22-year-old state record with a combined 2,010 pounds in the squad, bench press and dead lift. The former record holder? Mark Henry, a two-time Olympian and WWE wrestler. He used that strength to rank third in the nation with 56 run disruptions, which STATS defines as a play that disrupts the run concept. He added 20 pressures against the pass. A scout liked how Billings “creates a new line of scrimmage” and his nonstop effort.
Louisiana Tech’s Vernon Butler (6-4, 323): Butler was first-team all-Conference USA and first-team all-Louisiana as a senior. He registered 50 tackles (28 solos) with three sacks and 10 tackles for losses to anchor one of the top run defenses in the nation. He added a team-high eight quarterback hurries and two pass breakups. According to STATS, Butler had 33 run disruptions and 27 pressures in the passing game. He backed up that production with a strong week at the Senior Bowl. At the Combine, he put up 26 reps on the bench — not a bad number with huge 35-inch arms — and ran in 5.33.
“Butler will appeal to both even and odd fronts with his relentless playing temperament, lateral quickness and power to control the point of attack,” wrote Dane Brugler of NFL Draft Scout.
UCLA’s Kenny Clark (6-3, 314): Underclassman. Clark was a two-year starter who was first-team all-Pac-12 and earned some All-America recognition this past season. In 2015, Clark set career highs with 75 tackles (47 solos), six sacks, 11 tackles for losses and five passes defensed. He ranked 11th in the nation with 43 run disruptions and added 18 pressures. Clark destroyed Arizona State and Nebraska but his TFL count wasn’t great considering the number of tackles he piled up. At the Combine, he ran in 5.06 and put up 29 reps on the bench. A scout compared Clark to Mike Daniels.
“Clark is one of the country's better run-stuffers, winning with strength, a naturally low center of gravity and hustle to plug rushing lanes,” wrote Rob Rang of NFLDraftScout.com and Scout.com. “Overshadowed by flashier athletes throughout much of his career and still developing his pass rush skills, Clark flashes the violence, agility and motor to twist and drive blockers backward, projecting as a three-down interior player at the next level.”
Louisville’s Sheldon Rankins (6-1, 299): Rankins started during his final two seasons at Louisville. As a senior, he was second-team all-AAC with 58 tackles (28 solos), including six sacks and 13 for losses. At the Scouting Combine, he put up 28 reps on the bench and ran the 40 in 5.03 seconds. With his combination of strength and athleticism, longtime NFL scout Dave-Te’ Thomas compared Rankins to Cincinnati Bengals star Geno Atkins, among others.
Said Thomas: “Blessed with excellent balance, field vision and outstanding hand usage, the Cardinals defender plays with the raw power demonstrated by New York Jets All-Pro Sheldon Richardson, but other scouts praise his incredible burst off the snap, comparing that explosiveness to former NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, Aaron Donald of the St. Louis Rams.”
Alabama’s Jarran Reed (6-3, 307): After two years of junior-college ball, Reed was an instant starter during his two seasons at Alabama. He earned all-SEC accolades both seasons, including second-team honors as a senior, when he recorded 57 tackles, including one sack and 4.5 tackles for losses. According to STATS, he held 11 running plays to 0 yards or worse — but only five came in seven games vs. ranked opponents — with 29 run disruptions and 10 pressures. Considering his supporting cast, the ho-hum production worried one scout, though he liked Reed more after the Senior Bowl. He ran in 5.21 at the Combine but did not test on the bench. The other scout said strength is the strength of Reed’s game, which shows with his ability to hold up vs. double-team blocks. Rang called him “country strong.”
Said Thomas: “On first appearances, by no means does Reed look like the explosive mover that he has become when coming out of his stance. He is a huge load to move out once he anchors. He is capable of getting on the edge of a blocker and will keep that advantage when his motor is on. When Reed keeps his pads down, he flashes enough short-area quickness off the snap to attack the blocker. He uses his hands to get a good push off the defender and shocks blockers back with his strength and forceful hand jolt, but you would like to see him do so with more regularity.”
Alabama’s A’Shawn Robinson (6-4, 307): Underclassman. One of the scouts said there was “no way” Robinson would be at 27; the other scout disagreed. Robinson was a Freshman All-American in 2013 and a consensus All-American in 2015. During his final season, Robinson was a finalist for the Outland Trophy (top interior lineman) as he posted 46 tackles (18 solos), including 3.5 sacks and 7.5 for losses, plus 10 quarterback hurries. Robinson had 30 run disruptions — just one more than Reed — but piled up 22 pressures. At the Combine, Robinson ran in 5.20 and put up 22 reps on the bench. His 34.5-inch arms are an asset.
"I thought both Jarran Reed and A'Shawn Robinson, they both showed the potential to give you something as a pass rusher even though they don't have the numbers to support it in terms of sack production," former NFL general manager Phil Savage, who runs the Senior Bowl and provides commentary on Alabama's radio broadcasts, said after last week's pro day. "I thought Jarran had a really good position workout. And with A'Shawn, you have to remember that he's 20 years old, and he's a man-child at almost 6-4, 315 to 320 pounds. People see an upside potential in him, especially if they can draw some pass rush out of him."
Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PackerReport.