Dipping into the college talent pool

With Super Bowl XLI in the rear view mirror, PackerReport.com's W. Keith Roerdink looks ahead to the NFL draft, and lists a few of Saturday's heroes from last fall who can help the Green Bay Packers get into the NFC playoffs next season.

If you're a fan of college football, it was hard to watch all those rivalry games, conference championships and bowl match-ups without imagining how some of those players might look in green and gold in 2007. Sometimes a high draft pick was about the only way you could console yourself during a Packers' loss last year.

Of course, no team wants to pick too high when it's the reward for a losing season. But the trick is to take advantage of the selections you get and reverse your fortunes. Green Bay plucked four starters from the 2006 draft, for a step in the right direction. While there are not that many starting spots up for grabs this time around, a glance up and down the Packers roster shows a definite need for additional playmakers and quality depth.

The Packers are a young team, aside from their graying, 37-year old quarterback, and they're improving. In the NFL, specifically the NFC, the talent gap is not that wide. There were games this past season that were there for the taking. There were times when defeat was snatched from the jaws of victory. But unlike 2005, you kind of got the sense that things, for the most part, were moving in the right direction. Brett Favre didn't press nearly as much as the previous years. Ahman Green ran well -- at least when there was room to run -- and a host of young playmakers began to step up.

Receiver Greg Jennings is a young Sterling Sharpe without the big mouth and bad attitude. Smooth, precise in his routes, and armed with big-play potential, he's the perfect complement to veteran Donald Driver. But beyond that, there isn't much to get worked up about. Ruvell Martin is a player with a nice upside. He made a handful of key plays, especially in the season finale at Chicago, and at 6-foot-4, is a big target, but the Saginaw Valley State product is a work in progress. On a playoff bound team, he's a No. 4 or No. 5 receiver until he shows more. Koren Robinson will be back from his league-imposed suspension next season, but this remains an area of need for the team.

Fortunately, this year's receiver crop will have GM's drooling like construction workers at the Playboy mansion, and it wouldn't be a shock to see the Packers run this route in the first round. Some tower like giants over defensive backs, and some get downfield like they're burning nitro. Georgia Tech's Calvin Johnson, at 6-foot-5 with a 4.3 40-yard dash, does both. The Yellow Jacket could end up being the No. 1 overall pick, but the beauty contest doesn't end when he comes off the board. USC's Dwayne Jarrett is a SportsCenter highlight waiting to happen and makes catching the ball with one hand, let alone two, look easy. There's Ohio State's Ted Ginn or Tennessee's Robert Meachem. Ginn was one of the Buckeyes brightest stars and possibly the fastest player in all of college football. Meachem averaged over 105 yards per game.

If the Packers opt for another area of need in the first round -- and there's plenty to choose from -- they could come back to receiver with SEC options like Dwayne Bowe (LSU) or Andrae Caldwell (Florida). If they're feeling nostalgic, they could go with South Carolina's Sidney Rice, a redshirt sophomore who could break all the receiving records Sharpe and Robert Brooks once held if he returns in 2007. UTEP's Johnnie Lee Higgins Jr. could be a great second day pick. He averaged just less than 110 yards a game with 13 touchdowns.

Green Bay also needs an heir apparent to Ahman Green at running back. Vernand Morency showed some potential as a change-of-pace back and Noah Herron is a reliable third option, but neither looks like the next big thing in the backfield.

There's no Reggie Bush in this year's draft class, but there might be a Laurence Maroney or Joseph Addai. Oklahoma junior Adrian Peterson seems like the surest shot for stardom. A broken collarbone cut short his 2006 season, but it also cut short his wear-and-tear. He's big (6-foot-2, 220) and fast with rare instincts that could fit perfectly in the Packers zone-blocking scheme. Aside from Peterson, Cal junior Marshawn Lynch is another burner, though a bit smaller at 5-foot-11, 220.

While a receiver or running back could be an instant contributor for the Pack and a building block for the future, a more immediate need exists in the defensive secondary. This may be the one area where a rookie could step into a starting spot at safety or cornerback. Marquand Manuel is not the answer at safety, unless the question is: ‘Who was supposed to have covered that guy who just scored?' Anyone who makes me fondly recall the days that Mark Roman was occasionally in position to accidentally make a tackle or knock down a pass should not be starting. Despite Ted Thompson's success thus far in the draft, he's had his share of misses in free agency. Seattle can have this guy back.

To say the secondary had its share of struggles in 2006 is like saying Salma Hayek is kind of hot or Gilbert Brown is a tad overweight. I still can't fathom how a unit that featured Al Harris and Ahmad Carroll at the corners and Roman and Nick Collins at safety ranked first against the pass in 2005, only to sink to the bottom of the rankings for most of 2006. This, of course, was after replacing the mistake and penalty prone Carroll, the underachieving Roman and adding Pro Bowler Charles Woodson and Manuel, who played with the Seahawks in the Super Bowl.

Of course Green Bay also brought back secondary coach Kurt Schottenheimer. And while he wasn't the one out there blowing coverages, looking confused and letting receivers run unchecked like a streaker of the stands, neither he nor his schemes appeared to be the best fit. We also saw way too much of backups Patrick Dendy and Jarrett Bush and not enough of Will Blackmon, who never stayed healthy enough to show what he could do, or big hitting rookie Tyrone Culver. Bottom line is this unit needs help.

Now, it's hard to say how much a rookie could improve this group, but Collins' surprise success as a second-round pick in 2005 should provide a glimmer of hope. Look for the Packers to draft defensive backs early and often in April. One intriguing possibility would involve moving Woodson to safety, a position he spent time at while with the Raiders, if there was a rookie worth starting opposite Harris at corner. Then again, depending how disgruntled Harris becomes with his contract, they may need to have a player to plug in at his spot and keep Woodson at cornerback.

Michigan's Leon Hall, Arizona's Antoine Cason and Cal's Daymeion Hughes are three instinctive, top-flight corners who come ready made to cover NFL-caliber receivers. With no strong safeties rated near the top of the first round, Virginia Tech's Aaron Rouse (6-foot-4) or Oregon State's Sabby Piscitelli (6-foot-3) are two players with a good size-speed combo that Green Bay could catch in later rounds. Junior Reggie Nelson of Florida was a leader for the Gator's 10th-ranked defense in 2006 and one of the top defensive backs in the nation. Adept at corner or safety, Nelson would be a steal in the second round.

Defensive line and linebacker are perhaps Green Bay's greatest areas of strength and quality depth, along with tight end. But if the team could grab Michigan defensive tackle Alan Branch, a 6-foot-6, 331 pound monster who was athletic enough to play running back in high school, they might have an anchor on their line for the next decade. It's no coincidence that Chicago's linebackers thrive because of players like Tommie Harris up front. Getting this high-octane player in front of their young linebacker corp of Brady Poppinga, Nick Barnett and A.J. Hawk could do wonders for the defense. Colin Cole, Cullen Jenkins and Corey Williams are all good players, but Branch might be too good to pass up.

At this point, it's all speculation. The Packers need help at receiver, running back and especially the secondary. They'll likely draft an offensive lineman or two, and maybe even a fullback. Whatever they do, you hope it's a move that will help them in the sunset of the Favre-era and well beyond. There's work to be done. The draft will be upon us before we know it, and as the old cliche goes, ‘next season starts one short day after this season ends.' Or something like that.

Maybe one or two of those players we watched on Saturday last fall ... you know, the ones we thought would look so good in green and gold? Maybe they'll help Green Bay get back on TV next January and possibly into February. Let's hope so.

W. Keith Roerdink is a frequent contributor to Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com. E-mail him at karoer@msn.com.


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