Monday, April 24, 2006

2006 NFL Draft: What do the Packers need?

Most of this week's posts will be draft-intensive...just so you're warned.

You can get scouting reports all over the internet. Sporting News, Sports Illustrated, CBS Sportsline, FOX Sports, and ESPN Insider will all have scouting reports on various players, and there are draft guide magazines everywhere that you can buy books and magazines. So I'm not going to waste time rating players. I will have a mock draft later in the week, but I'm going to start the week by focusing on the primary needs of the two teams I cover, the Packers and the Vikings. We'll start with the Packers, who went 4-12 last year and probably have a few more holes than the Vikings do (insert obligatory "Swiss cheese" joke).

(Please note: Because this draft is not about Brett Favre, and Brett Favre's status is probably not going to be a huge factor - if it isn't a complete non-factor - in the Pack's draft strategy, Brett Favre will receive no further mention in this piece. Belated thanks go out to the folks at ESPN for airing a two-minute piece on SportsCenter Sunday that said absolutely nothing about Favre's status with the Packers, which is the only mentionable part of this story. ESPN instead focused on the fact that Favre is still a topic of conversation on sports radio in Green Bay, and they managed to do so without giving any kind of idea what the majority of fans are thinking about the issue. OMG BREAKING NEWS: EITHER BRETT FAVRE IS COMING BACK OR HE ISN'T.)

The Packers had a bad season last year, and as a result, they pick fifth in this year's draft. That's a good thing, since general manager Ted Thompson didn't bother to spend the truckload of cap room the Packers entered the offseason with. He wants to build the core of this team in the draft, and use free agency to supplement the roster instead of using free agency to build the core of the team. Only time will tell if this strategy will really work, but much of the "Why didn't we sign anyone?" talk is tempered by the fact that this team was so tantalizingly close in so many games a year ago (eight of the 12 losses came by a combined 31 points).

1st round (5) - 5th overall
2nd round (4) - 36th overall
3rd round (3) - 67th overall
4th round (7) - 104th overall
5th round (6) - 139th overall
5th round (33) - 165th overall
7th round (45) - 253rd overall

OLB -->The Packers have some nice players at the linebacker position. Nick Barnett is still developing, and he has some work to do, but Barnett is one of the few players that Mike Sherman drafted who should work out quite nicely for the Packers. However, Barnett is not an overly physical player, and he also doesn't strike as a leader on defense. With Na'il Diggs and Paris Lenon both gone, and Robert Thomas joining Barnett as the only returning player at linebacker, the Packers know they have a need here. They signed Ben Taylor away from Cleveland, but he's hardly a star. A player like A.J. Hawk from Ohio State would be a great pick for Green Bay in the first round. Hawk is a physical player who can make plays all over the field, and his teammates feed off his energy level and intensity. If the Packers look elsewhere with their first-round selection, they could fill this void later in the draft with a player like Bobby Carpenter (also from tOSU) or Thomas Howard (UTEP). Either way, Thompson knows he probably needs to leave this draft with a starting OLB.

OG --> Marco Rivera and Mike Wahle left, and I went on some rant about how offensive guards were being ridiculously overpaid (something I still believe is true, especially given the stupid contract that the Vikings gave Steve Hutchinson). Then, contrary to my rant, the interior of the Packers' offensive line fell apart in 2005, leading to much of the sucktitude that was 4-12. Then Thompson let the Texans overpay for center Mike Flanagan in free agency, so the entire interior of the Packers' line needs to be rebuilt. While there aren't any solid first-round prospects at guard, Georgia's Max Jean-Gilles is a potential second-rounder, and Oklahoma's Davin Joseph could be a fit in Green Bay, too. A good second-day selection could be a guy like Minnesota's Mark Setterstrom. Look for Thompson to get at least one starting-caliber guard out of this draft.

WR --> The Packers have a problem. Their best receiver, Javon Walker, would like to be traded, and he says he'll retire rather than play in Green Bay again. Donald Driver is a nice complimentary piece, but he's not an elite receiver. Robert Ferguson drops too many passes and has missed out on a number of opportunities to increase his role with the team. Rod Gardner has never been able to seize chances to be a top receiver. The Packers need someone who has the ability to be a #1 receiver, and while this draft doesn't yield any blue-chip prospects, they'd be wise to try to grab a developmental prospect like Greg Lee of Pittsburgh or Martin Nance of Miami (Ohio) - the type of player who will be on the board late in the first day of the draft and could develop into an elite receiver within a couple of years.

DB --> Al Harris and Nick Collins are solid starters. The Packers thought enough of safety Marquand Manuel to sign him to a five-year deal, so conventional wisdom suggests that he'll start. However, the Packers need a solid second CB to take the pressure off of Harris, and Ahmad Carroll doesn't appear to be the answer at that position. If a player like South Carolina's Johnathan Joseph falls into the second round, the Packers could take a look at him. There are also rumors that Green Bay is interested in Texas CB/S Michael Huff and could trade down a few spots to get him late in the top ten.

C --> With Flanagan gone, it appears the Packers will try to replace him with a younger player. Scott Wells filled in at guard in 2005, and likely will start at center in 2006. With the pool at center pretty talented this year, the Packers will probably try to get a prospect in the second day who can help provide some depth along the interior of the offensive line. A player like Ryan Cook out of New Mexico could be a good pick-up early in the second day.

DE --> The Packers spent a lot of money to re-sign Aaron Kampman, and they have a lot invested in Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila, but they don't have much behind either player. The Packers need a big, physical end who can push KGB for playing time on rushing downs, as it will help keep him fresh for pass-rushing situations where KGB is still a tough player to block. A late-round prospect such as Devan Long of Oregon or Darrell Adams of Virginia could be a perfect fit.

DT --> While the starting lineup appears set for 2006 (Ryan Pickett and Cullen Jenkins/Corey Williams), the depth is in flux. Donnell Washington has promise, and Colin Cole has shown some flashes. Thompson should still keep his eyes open for a run-stuffer in this draft. Tennessee's Jesse Mahelona and Texas A&M's Johnny Jolly are both run-stopping prospects who could be on the board early in the second day.

Hawk. He fits the Packers' OLB needs, and he is also a potential leader on a defense that severely lacked any leadership and was incredibly soft the past two years. If the first four picks shake down the right way, Green Bay could make a trade down a few spots, pick up an extra pick on the first day, and still get a strong defensive back prospect like Huff - or maybe Hawk would slip far enough to let the Pack sucker an extra pick out of a team like Oakland and still get him.

Here's my read on the Packers' first-round selection, listed in order of likelihood:

1. Hawk
2. Trade down
3. Trade up for Mario Williams (DE, NC State)
4. Huff
5. QBs Matt Leinart or Jay Cutler

Tomorrow, we'll cover the Vikings' needs entering the draft this weekend.

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