Clay Matthews is back at outside linebacker.
But the need remains heading into Thursday’s start of the draft. After all, looking ahead to 2017, only Matthews is under contract.
Does general manager Ted Thompson take a traditional, edge-rushing outside linebacker? Or, with Julius Peppers, Nick Perry and Datone Jones all entering their final year under contract, does Thompson focus more on the Peppers-style elephant prospects?
JOE SCHOBERT, Wisconsin (6-foot-1 3/8, 244)
Position rank: 6
Notes: Playing outside linebacker in Wisconsin’s 3-4, Schobert was a one-man wrecking ball. He piled up 71 tackles, 9.5 sacks, 19.5 tackles for losses and four forced fumbles. Schobert was named the Big Ten Butkus-Fitzgerald Linebacker of the Year and won the Jack Lambert Trophy as the nation’s top linebacker. In our group of 17 big-school traditional 3-4 outside linebackers, only Joey Bosa had more run disruptions than Schobert’s 30 and only Bosa and Shilique Calhoun had more pressures than Schobert’s 38. He showed he could drop into coverage by allowing just 5-of-11. The knock on Schobert is his lack of size and length. The upside, however, is his versatility. He could fit in the kind of role the Packers used Matthews last season.
“At the Senior Bowl, the teams are required to play a 4-3,” explained Senior Bowl executive director Phil Savage. “The request to the teams is to play one linebacker on the line over the tight and the other two in the box off the line. Well, the Cowboys just didn’t get the memo because they played their classic 4-3 with all three linebackers off the ball. So, Schobert had to do that the whole week and he actually showed a bit of a knack in terms of vision, seeing, reacting. I thought it actually helped him. I think Joe can play on the line, I think he can play off the line. I think he’s just a good football player. He’s going to be a middle-round value for somebody. If I were going to line him up today, I think would try him on the line and off the line.”
KYLER FACKRELL, Utah State (6-foot-5, 245)
Position rank: 7
Notes: After missing almost all of the 2014 season with a torn ACL, Fackrell had 80 tackles, five sacks, 15 tackles for losses, two forced fumbles and a national-best five fumble recoveries as a senior playing outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme. In our group of 17, he tied for first with 14 stuffs (a tackle at or behind the line of scrimmage vs. the run) and finished third with 29 run disruptions. He was also the best tackler, with just four misses giving him a rate of 20 tackles per miss. He played extensively in coverage but gave up only six completions. However, he had just 15 reps on the bench. He must get bigger and stronger.
JORDAN JENKINS, Georgia (6-foot-2 5/8, 259)
Position rank: 8
Notes: Jenkins recorded 59 tackles, with four sacks and 10.5 for losses, plus 20 pressures, 21 run disruptions and two forced fumbles as a senior. He’s got long arms and huge hands, and plays stronger than his bench press (16 reps) would indicate. Before he was “The Freak,” there was a freak accident when he was 12 that left him with four-and-a-half fingers on his right hand.
DADI NICOLAS, Virginia Tech (6-foot-2 7/8, 235)
Position rank: 10
Notes: At 235 pounds, Nicolas is regarded as one of the toughest players in the draft, even sometimes playing defensive tackle this season despite his lack of bulk and strength (14 reps). He had a monster junior season with nine sacks and 18.5 tackles for losses. Miscast a senior, he slipped back to 2.5 sacks and seven TFLs. That only tells some of the story, though. In our group of 17, he tied for sixth with 31 pressures and tied for fifth with 23 run disruptions. He led the front-seven defenders with a 41-inch vertical.
STEPHEN WEATHERLY, Vanderbilt (6-foot-4 3/8, 267)
Position rank: 11
Notes: Weatherly started 21 games during his final two seasons as an outside linebacker in Vandy’s 3-4 scheme. In those seasons, he tallied 101 tackles, eight sacks and 22 tackles for losses. He’s big, he’s long, he’s fast (4.61). He’s just not very productive.
JAMES COWSER, SOUTHERN UTAH (6-foot-3 1/8, 248)
TYRONE HOLMES, Montana (6-foot-2 1/4, 253)
VICTOR OCHI, Stony Brook (6-foot-1, 246)
Position rank: 9, 12, 16
Notes: Other than Eastern Kentucky’s Noah Spence, these are the best of the small-school edge rushers. Cowser statistically might be the best defensive player in FCS history. He owns the FCS records with 43 sacks and 80 tackles for losses. Cowser was the FCS Defensive Player of the Year as a senior, with 68 tackles, 19 tackles for losses, 13 sacks, four forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries. It was quite an encore from his junior season, when his 28.5 tackles for losses broke Jared Allen’s Big Sky Conference record. Cowser showed OK athleticism but excellent change-of-direction agility at the Combine. He was an unrecruited 210-pound nose tackle coming out of high school but left Southern Utah with a 3.99 GPA.
Holmes had a monster senior season with 18 sacks and three forced fumbles. He had a monster pro day, as well, which included a 4.59 in the 40. Scouts tend to shrug their shoulders at small-school production. Not so small-school prospects with speed. Ochi, an All-America selection and the Colonial Athletic Association’s Co-Defensive Player of the Year in 2015, led FCS with 13.0 sacks during the regular season and paced the CAA with 16.5 tackles for losses. From age 9 through 12, Ochi lived in Nigeria with an aunt because his parents thought it was important for their children to be around another culture. He had a so-so Combine.
“Well, No. 1, they have to dominate their competition at that level. That's the first thing,” Chargers GM Tom Telesco, who drafted North Dakota State’s Kyle Emanuel in the third round in 2015, said at the Combine of small-school players. “If you can do that, hopefully they're in an all-star game; you can see them compete against other Division I players. But sometimes, you just have to go on the traits that you see, and you've got to project them to this level. Sometimes, you don't know until they get here.”
YANNICK NGAKOUE, Maryland (6-foot-2, 252)
ERIC STRIKER, Oklahoma (5-foot-11 3/8, 227)
TRAVIS FEENEY, Washington (6-foot-3 5/8, 230)
Position rank: 11, 14, 15
Notes: These three will be designated pass rushers. In his final season, Ngakoue set a single-season school record with 13.5 sacks. He was pretty much a nonfactor, otherwise, with just 37 total tackles and 4.5 stuffs. It was almost as if playing run defense was annoying. All Striker did for the Sooners was make plays. Along with 7.5 sacks, he ranked first with 16 stuffs, fifth with 34 pressures, tied for second with 30 run disruptions. Striker became a national face on race in light of racism at an OU fraternity. Feeney had eight sacks, 17.5 TFLs and three forced fumbles as a senior, tying for seventh with 31 pressures but 13th with 17 run disruptions. A sizzling 4.50 in the 40 helped his draft stock, but he’s had four shoulder surgeries.
MATT JUDON, Grand Valley State (6-foot-3, 275)
Position rank: 6
Notes: Judon won the Gene Upshaw Award, which goes to the best offensive or defensive lineman in Division II. Judon led all of college football with 20 sacks and wound up just a half-sack short of the Division II record. He piled up 81 tackles, including 23.5 for losses, along with three forced fumbles. The TFL count is a bit of a concern — 3.5 vs. the run — and he sustained a torn MCL in 2012 and torn ACL in 2013. He didn’t disappoint at the Combine — a 4.73 in the 40, 35-inch vertical and 30 reps on the bench.
CHARLES TAPPER, Oklahoma (6-foot-2 5/8, 271)
Position rank: 7
Notes: As a senior, Tapper had career highs across the board — 50 tackles, seven sacks, 10 tackles for losses and four forced fumbles. Other than height, Tapper has it all — a 4.59 in the 40, 34 3/8-inch arms and 11-inch hands. However, Tapper has a genetic disorder that can cause complications when paired with physical exertion. He played through that to collect 15 sacks in his final three seasons.
ANTHONY ZETTEL, Penn State (6-foot-3 7/8, 277
Position rank: 8
Notes: Zettel recorded four sacks and 11 tackles for losses as a senior. That’s not bad, but it pales to his junior production of eight sacks, 17 tackles for losses and three interceptions. He was the only player in FCS ranked among the national leaders in sacks and interceptions per game. As a senior, his 16 pressures were ahead of only Iowa’s Drew Ott, who missed half the season — “it’s like he forgot how to get to the quarterback,” a scout said — and his 27 run disruptions ranked sixth among our elephant candidates.
SHAWN OAKMAN, Baylor (6-foot-7 5/8, 287)
Position rank: 9
Notes: Oakman, with his freakish height, physique and ability, had a huge junior season with 11 sacks, 19.5 tackles for losses and three forced fumbles to earn All-America accolades. He returned for his senior season but saw his draft stock spiral downward, with 4.5 sacks, 14.5 tackles for losses and two forced fumbles. Then, he was arrested a couple weeks ago on sexual assault charges. The incident served as a bookend of sorts after he was kicked out of Penn State, where he redshirted in 2011. The ho-hum play and baggage will push him far down draft boards. But there aren’t many people walking the Earth put together like Oakman.
RONALD BLAIR, Appalachian State (6-foot-2 1/8, 284)
JASON FANAIKA, Utah (6-foot-1 3/4, 271)
Position rank: 10, 12
Notes: Undersized but productive for this duo. Blair was the Sun Belt Conference’s Defensive Player of the Year as a senior. He led the conference with 19 tackles for losses and ranked second in the league with 7.5 sacks. He led our 11-strong group of elephants with 47 run disruptions and was second with 71 tackles but was eighth with 25 pressures. He might be short but he’s got 34-inch arms, making his 32 reps on the bench all the more impressive. However, he ran just a 5.15 at the Combine. Short and slow isn’t a great combo. Fanaika played at Utah State in 2010 and 2011, took a church mission in 2012 and redshirted in 2013. He started in both seasons for Utah, including a couple games at linebacker. He showed linebacker-worthy change-of-direction skill with his 20-yard shuttle at the Combine. As a senior, he had four sacks but tied for third among the elephants with 34 pressures. However, he 10 missed tackles, with his 5.3 tackles per missed tackle better only than Carl Nassib in our elephant group.
DREW OTT, Iowa (6-foot-4 1/2, 273)
Position rank: 11
Notes: Ott’s senior season ended with a torn ACL. In six games, Ott made only 11 tackles but were they impactful: five sacks, 7.5 tackles for losses and three forced fumbles. Impressively, he played through a dislocated left elbow for four games. He applied for an extra year of eligibility, which the foot-dragging NCAA only recently denied. Along the way, he gained a mentor in Aaron Kampman.
Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PackerReport.