The first round is almost here.
And here’s the question everyone’s asking: Who will the Green Bay Packers pick in the first round?
Let’s figure it out.
General manager Ted Thompson will talk about taking the best player available but that’s almost always at a position of need in the first round. Last year, in answer to B.J. Raji’s retirement, he selected Kenny Clark. In 2015, in response to losing Davon House and Tramon Williams and the pending free agency of Casey Hayward, he selected Damarious Randall. In 2014, with a dire need at safety, he picked Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. In 2013, in need of a young playmaker on the defensive line, he grabbed Datone Jones. In 2012, after Green Bay got only 12 sacks from all of its outside linebackers combined the year before, he selected Nick Perry. In 2010 and 2011, Thompson nabbed Bryan Bulaga and Derek Sherrod as the heirs to the longtime starting tandem of Mark Tauscher and Chad Clifton.
You know the needs in this draft. To me, the one that’s begging to get filled is outside linebacker. Clay Matthews is coming off a so-so season by anyone’s standards and a terrible season by his standards. Until last year, his worst season was six sacks (2011) and 50 tackles (2013). Last year, he had five sacks and 24 tackles. Julius Peppers and Jones left in free agency. While flawed players, the past-his-prime Peppers had 7.5 sacks and Jones led the team in quarterback hits with 16. Then throw in the desire to move Matthews around the defense, and you’ve got a position that’s short of players, in general, and impact players, in particular.
What about cornerback, you ask? Maybe — maybe — they’ll be fine with Randall and Rollins bouncing back from poor and injury-plagued second seasons. Maybe Davon House will play like he did in 2015 with Jacksonville, when he finished third in the NFL in passes defensed. That’s not to say Green Bay should rest comfortably with Randall, Rollins, House and LaDarius Gunter. But the beauty of this corner class is the depth, especially with huge questions around three of the tops guys: Ohio State’s Gareon Conley (rape allegation), Washington’s Sidney Jones (Achilles) and UCLA’s Fabian Moreau (pectoral). All of that probably ensures Alabama’s Marlon Humphrey and Washington’s Kevin King will be gone.
What about guard, a huge need without T.J. Lang? Western Kentucky left tackle Forrest Lamp is the only one worth of the first round and he’ll probably be off the board. Besides, if Thompson wouldn’t pony up to keep Lang, why would he invest the top pick in a guard — no matter the importance of protecting Aaron Rodgers?
What about running back? Getting a sidekick for Ty Montgomery is vital but the two first-round talents who could be at No. 29, Florida State’s Dalvin Cook and Oklahoma’s Joe Mixon, have well-documented red flags. And Cook tested so poorly at the Combine that, based on Thompson’s history, he might not in the conversation had he been up for sainthood.
With all of that said, our official prediction is:
OLB T.J. Watt, Wisconsin. Watt seems like the logical pick. First, he’s damned good — with the possibility of getting much better. He was moved to defense during training camp in 2015 and had a huge 2016 with 11.5 sacks and 15.5 tackles for losses among his 63 tackles. He forced two fumbles and intercepted one pass to earn second-team All-America.
As we’ve demonstrated throughout the scouting season, Thompson seems to love the 20-yard shuttle as a key measuring stick at just about every position. Watt’s 4.13 in the shuttle was by far the fastest of any front-seven defender at the Combine. That was part of a tremendous Combine: Watt (6-4 1/2, 252) ran his 40 in 4.69 with a three-cone time of 6.79, 21 reps on the bench and a 37-inch vertical. Don’t overlook the family name, either. Even the usually tight-lipped Thompson admitted “It’s a contributing part of the equation” when we indirectly asked about Watt by asking about Matthews. When you match production, to athleticism, to genetics, to the upside that comes with experience, you have a potential star at a position of tremendous need.
Of course, all of that is true for the teams that pick before Green Bay, so Watt might not get to No. 29. If not, here are my hunches, in order.
OLB Tyus Bowser, Houston. Don’t be caught off-guard if this is the pick. An NFC scout who read our edge-rusher rankings said I was “way, way off” by having Bowser ranked 10th. Despite missing five games with a broken orbital bone suffered during a scuffle with a teammate at a team-bonding event — he didn’t throw a punch — Bowser was second-team all-AAC with 8.5 sacks and 12 tackles for losses among 47 tackles while playing outside linebacker in the Cougars’ 3-4 scheme. He added three pass breakups and one forced fumble. He is a player without a major flaw — strong against the run, rushing the passer and dropping into coverage. In fact, he dropped frequently into coverage, which makes his career total of 21.5 sacks all the more impressive. Bowser (6-2 5/8, 247) tested well at the Combine (4.68 in the 40, 4.34 in the shuttle, 6.75 in the three-cone, 21 reps on the bench, 37.5 vertical), and was a good enough athlete to spend parts of two seasons on the Houston basketball team.
OLB Jordan Willis, Kansas State. Willis (6-3 3/4, 255) closed his career with a bang. He earned All-America and Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year accolades with a school-record-tying 11.5 sacks. He added 17.5 tackles for losses, 52 tackles and three forced fumbles. Willis started the final 39 games of his career and finished with 26 sacks, 40.5 tackles for losses and seven forced fumbles. Compared to Watt and Bowser, Willis ran the fastest 40 (4.53), second-fastest shuttle (4.28) and third-fastest three-cone drill (6.85), and he edged them both in the bench press (24 reps) and vertical jump (39 inches). Watt and Bowser played 3-4 outside linebacker while Willis was a 4-3 end who first and foremost was a pass rusher. He wasn’t as good against the run as those two, either, and it’s anyone’s guess how he’d do in coverage.
ILB Zach Cunningham, Vanderbilt. The Packers have a decent inside linebacker rotation with Jake Ryan, Blake Martinez and Joe Thomas. But they haven’t had a difference-making inside linebacker since Desmond Bishop’s brief heyday. Cunningham left Vandy following a junior season in which he became the first unanimous first-team All-American in school history. In 2016, the Butkus Award finalist ranked among national leaders in several categories, including an SEC-leading 125 total tackles and four fumble recoveries. His 71 solo tackles ranked second in the league and his 16.5 tackles for losses ranked third. While most players with high TFL counts are pass rushers, Cunningham didn’t record a single sack; all of his tackles for losses stopped running plays. He is long (6-3 1/2 with 34 3/8-inch arms) with above-average athleticism (4.67 40, 4.29 shuttle, 7.03 3-cone, 35 vertical). He’s a got a three-down skill-set as an instant starter.
CB Chidobe Awuzie, Colorado. If you project Ohio State’s Marshon Lattimore, Alabama’s Marlon Humphrey and Washington’s super-sized Kevin King as off the board, and Ohio State’s Gareon Conley as either off the board or undraftable due to the allegations, who does that leave as the best of the rest? Awuzie, Florida’s Quincy Wilson and LSU’s Tre’Davious White. Let’s rank them:
40: Awuzie (4.43), White (4.47), Wilson (4.54).
Shuttle: Wilson (4.02), Awuzie (4.14), White (4.32).
Vertical: Awuzie (34.5), Wilson (32.0), White (32.0).
Height: Wilson (6-1 1/2), Awuzie (5-11 7/8), White (5-11 1/4).
Production: White (four seasons: six interceptions, 34 passes defensed, 1.5 sacks, 11 TFLs, two forced fumbles; 10.0 yards and three touchdowns on punt returns), Wilson (three seasons: six interceptions, 14 passes defensed, one sack, 4.5 TFLs, one forced fumble), Awuzie (four seasons: three interceptions, 25 passes defensed, nine sacks, 25 tackles for losses, three forced fumbles).
Thompson usually goes for the shuttle, which would tip this for Wilson. However, Micah Hyde served as the team’s slot corner. With Hyde in Buffalo, Rollins is penciled in for that spot at the moment. Maybe Rollins will be fine but Thompson can’t be counting on it. In our group of three, Awuzie and White have the slot experience. Awuzie wins based on athleticism and production.
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.