The Green Bay Packers once again find themselves at the back end of the NFL Draft, this time ensconced at pick No. 26.
There are a ton of worthwhile players to be had at the spot, and the Packers have enough needs that they could go virtually any direction.
However, there are five positions which should take greatest precedence over any other. In this piece, I will give you one player per position who should be looked at—and could be available—at the Packers' position.
I'll also tell you how likely it is that they take a player at this position while we're at it—though keep in mind, at the end of the first, things stay very fluid because so much of your pick is adjusted by the people ahead of you.
The story of the offensive line in 2013 is an up-and-down one, marred by injury and inconsistency.
On the one hand, they were not good at blocking for run plays. According to Pro Football Focus' team needs, they were graded as the 29th-best blocking unit on run plays.
They were better than that—much better—in pass blocking, ranked 13th overall by PFF (subscriber link). As we all know, though, they gave up far too many sacks.
Yes, some of those sacks are directly attributable to Aaron Rodgers holding on to the ball too long, but more than enough appear to be the line's fault to warrant continued concern.
The Options: Let's agree that guard isn't a high need. Josh Sitton struggled at times, but is a good player who will rebound. T.J. Lang is here to stay, and played well when shifted over to right tackle.due to Bryan Bulaga's injury. Tackle and center are bigger concerns.
Also, we can assume that Luke Joeckel (Texas A&M), Eric Fisher (Central Michigan) and Lane Johnson (Oklahoma) are long gone (a completely safe assumption for the first two at least).
So we're looking at late first-round tackles or centers. I like Bulaga at right tackle but think Marshall Newhouse isn't a starting left tackle at this point, despite having come along well the last year. His run blocking was pretty awful. Pro Football Focus had him rated the second-worst on the line—by a mile— behind center Jeff Saturday who was benched by year's end—link to subscriber content.
Derek Sherrod will be returning in 2013 after missing all of last season, but he is a huge question mark right now.
For tackles, the best bet to be available is Alabama's D.J. Fluker. Fluker is a ridiculously good run blocker with a tremendous frame and long arms, which is a coveted metric for scouts, though I believe also a bit overblown.
Most see Fluker as a right tackle though, and there is legitimate concern he won't be able to handle speed edge rushers. Ditto for Tennessee's Dallas Thomas, who is a better all-around blocker and was moved inside at Tennessee in part because of issues on the edge. The Packers could shift Fluker or Thomas to right tackle and try Bulaga at left, but Bulaga is good enough at the right side to really question the pick.
I like the versatility of both, but I am not sold either one is a home run pick here—at least not for the Packers.
If that situation isn't sitting well with Ted Thompson and Mike McCarthy, center would be the other offensive line spot to look at.
This is a weak group of centers, and the only two worth a look are Alabama's Barrett Jones and Wisconsin redshirt junior Travis Frederick.
Jones is a guy who can play anywhere on the line and excelled anywhere Alabama needed him—including at center for the national championship game while playing through torn ligaments in his left foot.
So add "toughness" to the list of characteristics which include "hard worker," "excellent fundamentals" and "high football IQ". He doesn't have the raw athleticism of a high first-round pick, and easily could slide to the second round, but there is no way he makes it to Green Bay's second pick. If they like him—and I think they should—they have to reach a little.
Frederick is another high IQ guy who is great at reading the defense and adjusting to what it's doing. Having switched from guard to center at the start of the season, he showed he was very coachable by not only making the move but excelling at it.
Of course, we all know how good the Badger program has been at churning out offensive linemen the last few years and as has been the case for many of them, Frederick is a high character guy who can lead. He's a bit stiff at the hips and can have some trouble with the more explosive defensive linemen, but he should be a very solid center to anchor the offensive line with.
I'd put the chances of a Green Bay offensive line pick at about 30 percent. Thompson isn't opposed to drafting tackles (Bulaga and Sherrod in back to back years) but there isn't a talent I think they'll fall in love with. As it stands, the Packers have only drafted one center in the first round—back in 1950.
There's a first time for everything, but I don't see a strong chance of it playing out that way.
The general devaluing of the running back position makes first-round running backs rare many years and—as anyone will tell you these days—teams think, "Why waste a high pick when I can find gold in later rounds?"
Which is all well and good unless you can't find gold in later rounds—something which applies to the Packers.
I really like DuJuan Harris, but we all really liked James Starks post-2010 playoff run and that hasn't exactly panned out the way many thought it would.
Ryan Grant probably won't be back. Alex Green has proven to be solid, but unspectacular and Cedric Benson—even if healthy all year—isn't a long-term answer.
So as far as I am concerned, picking a running back at 26—or more specifically the right running back—is more than OK.
The guy I would have on the top of my list if I were the Packers is Eddie Lacy, yet another Alabama player I have high on my boards.
Lacy is a strong, tough and patient running back who waits for his blockers to set up and then obliterates defenders who get in his way.
I could see Lacy stepping right into the starting offense and carrying the ball a lot of times, and becoming a guy who helps to settle what has been a very unsettled position for many years.
Another guy who could sneak into the first for the Packers is North Carolina Tar Heel Giovani Bernard. While he lacks breakaway speed, he runs tough but can also make defenders miss with an array of moves in the open field. When that fails, like Lacy he'll simply run through them or carry them along for extra yards.
He also possesses great vision and patience. His biggest problem is durability, as he got nicked up a lot in college and missed two games this year.
For that reason alone, I could see the Packers shying away.
Even though it's my opinion that the Packers should get the best back in the draft, I'd rate this at a 25 percent chance at most. The mentality that you can find a hidden gem later, the complete lack of running backs taken by Thompson in the first as well as other, perhaps larger concerns, will keep this from happening.
Hopefully this year they find the right back later in the draft, but so far it hasn't happened that way.
I'm not ready to give up on Nick Perry—the slow progress isn't a shock when you have a player change positions—but given the poor pass rushing again this season (at least from anyone not named Clay Matthews), I can't fault them, or anyone mock drafting for them, going this route.
As with the offensive tackles, let's assume our top talent—in this case, Jarvis Jones of Georgia—is long gone.
As far as outside linebackers are concerned there are a lot of guys who can either play inside or out. I have another Georgia player, Alec Ogletree, as an outside linebacker (much to the consternation of many Bears fans) but have seen him listed as an inside player. Ultimately I don't think he'll be around for either the Bears or Packers, but it's a good example of some early draft board hair-splitting.
On the other hand, if he's not gone by 26, he shouldn't be around by 27. The Packers would love to see him drop to them. Here's a guy who is a natural outside linebacker, with incredible quickness on the edge who hits with brutality when he arrives at the ball carrier or quarterback. He's good in coverage as well. If he has an issue, it's some inconsistency against the run.
Back from "what if" land, Rutgers' Kaseem Green is a tremendously athletic player who Rutgers (and former coach Greg Schiano) did a great job of bringing along and adapting into a different role in order to get the most out of him.
Green does a great job of zeroing in on the ball and seems to rarely bite on fakes and feints. He does a fantastic job blitzing and closes quickly and with force. Green can also drop into coverage, having played safety to start with at school.
If he has an issue, it's size. Not just that he's a little small at 6'1", 236 pounds, but that his frame appears to be maxed out—he's not putting on more muscle.
Still, his overall speed and quickness may more than make up for that.
Another guy who could be around and is an intriguing prospect (and has an awesome name) is LSU's Barkevious Mingo. Mingo is a bit small for defensive end and will likely be moved to outside linebacker to take advantage of his speed and edge-rushing ability.
Mingo has an explosive first step and is swift; he closes on the ball very quickly. While he sits at 240 pounds right now, he can definitely add mass and he's already good at getting off blocks at the line.
This is a guy who might really rise or fall at the combine next week depending on how he moves and how his physique looks.
If the talent is there, I see this as a 50-60 percent chance of happening. The Packers still believe in Perry, but they are not above being cautious and getting more talent and depth even with an early pick.
And frankly, they need more pass rushers.
The line is probably the biggest need, though the Packers will get some bodies back. On the downside, 2012 second-round pick Jerel Worthy could be sidelined for a chunk of 2013 and the overall run defense was atrocious.
Defensive line—either at end or tackle—is a very strong possibility for round one.
A guy who could drop to them at 26 and fit their need of a run stopper is Alabama nose tackle Jesse Williams. Williams struggles a bit in pass protection, but that's not why you take him if you're the Packers.
You take him because he is a huge beast of a tackle who can be strong at the point of attack and take down backs in the hole. The Packers were mediocre against the run last season overall but really bad against it in losses. Pro Football Focus had this to say about it: "In their six defeats they allowed an average of 186.5 yards per game and 5.5 yards per attempt on the ground."
That's a problem Williams could help solve.
Another guy I like is Ohio State's Johnathan Hankins, a versatile defensive lineman who can play both outside and in. Hankins is a fierce run defender who can make plays anywhere along the line as well as drop into coverage. His downside is that he sometimes takes foolish penalties and sometimes can wear down as the game progresses—even appearing to take a play off.
He also backslid quite a bit statistically last year after a big sophomore season.
Still, I trust the Packers' staff to keep him focused and get him on the program—if they do that, he could become a vital part of the defense.
If the value is there, I'd rate this as a 70 percent chance of happening. The run defense is desperate for help.
To start the offseason, I was steadfastly against the idea that the Packers need to take a wide receiver high. After all, you have Randall Cobb, Jordy Nelson and James Jones. So you lose Greg Jennings and maybe Jermichael Finley. Is that a big deal, really?
As I have spoken with beat writers, fans and given it all a second look myself, I think that if the value is there, the team will take a shot.
I don't expect it in the first round though, as this is a deep class and the players worth a first-round look will go earlier in the first.
Also, the Packers seem to be doing very well with their second-round receivers, so I believe they will wait a round.
Jermichael Finley woes aside, it doesn't appear that they view this as a first-round priority—something I agree with. There's no "must have" first-round talent, so even if they expect Finley to be gone this season via trade, I don't see them using a first-round pick on this position.
Casey Hayward was tremendous last season and Jerron McMillian is up-and-coming. Add to that Morgan Burnett's continued solid play and the likely return of Charles Woodson and I have to like this secondary.
Now, long-term, one might begin to wonder about Tramon Williams (two poor seasons in a row) and of course Woodson's age, but there are players in other rounds worth a look and for now, this isn't as high a priority.
So that's it. Who would you like to see in a Packers uniform during the first round of April's draft? Let me know in the comments and we'll do this again in a few weeks.
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