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Green Bay Packers First-Round Preview: Edge Rushers, Corners and Red Flags

We put a bow on two months of draft preparation with a final look at how tonight's first round could unfold.

T.J. Watt. Gareon Conley and Joe Mixon. Quarterbacks and trades. Those are some of the top story lines concerning the Green Bay Packers for tonight’s first round.

LAST LOOK AT THE FIRST ROUND

General manager Ted Thompson’s first rounds have been all about the best available player. As in, the best available players and best available athletes at positions of need. The Packers’ positions of need are outside linebacker, cornerback and running back, with guard probably out of the conversation after the wise signing veteran Jahri Evans on Wednesday.

At outside linebacker, we stand by what we wrote on Wednesday: Wisconsin’s Watt, Houston's Tyus Bowser and Kansas State’s Jordan Willis make the most sense at No. 29 because they put up big numbers on the field and big numbers at the Scouting Combine. Look at the 20-yard shuttle and three-cone times and their superiority over the rest of the edge rushers who could be in play at No. 29: Watt, 4.13 and 6.79; Willis, 4.28 and 6.85; Bowser, 4.34 and 6.75; Auburn’s Carl Lawson, 4.19 but 7.46; Missouri’s Charles Harris, 4.42 and 7.47; Tennessee’s Derek Barnett, 4.44 and 6.96; and UCLA’s Takk McKinley, 4.62 and 7.48. That Watt and Bowser played in 3-4 schemes give them an edge, so to speak, among the rest of the edge rushers.

According to a source, the pecking order at cornerback before the Conley rape allegations might have been Conley, Alabama’s Marlon Humphrey, Washington’s Kevin King and Colorado’s Chidobe Awuzie. Athletes, one and all, when looking again at 40s and shuttles: Conley, 4.44 and 4.18; Humphrey, 4.41 and DNP; King, 4.43 and a best-in-class 3.89; and Awuzie, 4.43 and 4.14. Compare those numbers to two other potential options — LSU’s TreDavious White and Florida’s Quincy Wilson, who posted excellent numbers in one drill but average numbers in the other (White, 4.47 in the 40 but 4.32 in the shuttle; Wilson’s 4.07 in the shuttle but 4.54 in the 40). USC’s Adoree Jackson, at 5-foot-10, probably isn’t even on the board.

King’s combination of height (6-foot-3) and athleticism make him an all-time elite prospect. However, he was a middle-of-the-pack cover man by PFF’s measurements.

Who survives to No. 29, considering Conley’s trouble (more on that in a moment) and injuries to Washington’s Sidney Jones and UCLA’s Fabian Moreau? Maybe none of the above. If one is on the board, Thompson will have to consider the quality of the prospect, the potential of bouncebacks from Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins, and the overall depth of a tremendous cornerback class.

At running back, reputable reporters today have linked Mixon, Florida State’s Dalvin Cook and Tennessee’s Alvin Kamara to Green Bay in the first round. Mixon has the well-documented incident back in 2014 (more on that later). Cook, who has his own off-the-field issues, was a brilliant all-around performer at FSU, but his 20-yard shuttle time of 4.53 is 0.16 seconds slower than any running back drafted by Thompson. He also fumbled six times last year. Kamara’s shuttle time of 4.42 also was slower than any back drafted by Thompson. He was never the No. 1 back in Tennessee and never has shown he can be “the guy” in the backfield. He is not a power runner and not a pass protector, but at least he didn’t fumble.

CONLEY AND MIXON

Conley and Mixon are the biggest names whose off-the-field question marks could trump their on-the-field superlatives.

Mixon is the best all-around running back in this draft class and would have challenged Leonard Fournette as the top running back available. Packers coach Mike McCarthy covets three-down running backs. Mixon is a four-down back without a flaw in his game. He runs, catches, blocks and returns kicks. In 2016, he rushed for 1,274 yards (6.8 average), caught 37 passes for 538 yards (14.5 average) and averaged 23.5 yards with one touchdown on kickoff returns. He also punched a female student.

Conley is the best cover man in this draft and our second-best cornerback overall, but news broke this week that he has been accused of rape. In our group of the top 22 cornerbacks who match the Packers’ historic height and athletic requirements, Conley ranked second in yards per pass route (0.51), first in passer rating (13.6) and third in completion percentage (32.6), according to Pro Football Focus.

Had Mixon and Conley been red flag-free, they almost certainly would have been top-15 picks. But the red flags are enormous. Conley reportedly will meet with detectives to give a DNA sample after the draft in response to the rape allegations. That decision does little to clear the air ahead of tonight’s first round, though a source said the Packers, as you’d expect, have talked to Conley and/or his agent. Mixon potentially cleared the air with his predraft tour, which included a stop in Green Bay. The team that drafts him will have to be prepared for the public-relations backlash that surely will follow. It’s a forgive-and-forget, short-attention-span world. Don’t be surprised to see Mixon selected in the first round.

And don’t be surprised to see either one wind up in Green Bay.

COWBOYS ARE KEY

Dallas owns the 28th pick — one pick ahead of Green Bay. But that’s not the only reason why the Cowboys are the team to watch. The Cowboys, with a poor pass rush and ransacked secondary, have defensive needs that mirror the Packers’ wish list.
Dallas long has been rumored as the most likely team to take Watt ahead of the Packers, with the Cowboys lining him up at right end in their 4-3. The presumed fall of Conley adds some intrigue. A source on Wednesday said Dallas could grab Conley at No. 28. The Cowboys have a dire need in the secondary after losing starting corners Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr in free agency.

TRADING PLACES

It’s a quarterback-driven league. If you don’t have a quarterback, you’ve got no chance to win. That could make Green Bay’s spot at No. 29 a valuable commodity, should one of the top quarterbacks fall to the bottom of the first round. Generally speaking, bad teams need quarterbacks and bad teams have picks at the top of the round. If one of those bad teams doesn’t take a quarterback at the top of the first round, there are two reasons they might want to move from the top of the second round to the bottom of the first round. One, it ensures they get their guy. And two, first-round draft picks come with a fifth-year team option. That fifth-year option comes at a significant savings compared to giving an accomplished quarterback a second contract. Heck, never mind accomplished. Did you see what the Bears gave Mike Glennon?

Speaking of trades, the number of teams looking to trade back and accumulate picks far outnumber the number of teams looking to trade up. While not exactly a likely scenario, that could make it less costly for Thompson to make a move up for a player he covets.

Bill Huber is publisher of 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 www.twitter.com/PackerReport.


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