2012 Green Bay Packers Draft Wish List by Position: Outside Linebacker
Let's face it. When designing a mock draft, none of us know which teams will trade up, down, sign key free agents, let stars walk or cut current players for salary cap reasons.
Thus, the order can become irrelevant and planning for a certain slot may be futile. New rules in rookie salaries may make even the most historically unmovable picks in the Top 10 of the draft fair game for trades.
With this new dynamic quality of the draft in mind, I decided to create a Green Bay Packers Draft Wish List rather than mocking the temporary slots or undecided compensation slots.
The approach will focus on positions that could use a little more 'oomph' or even a star player, despite having possibly the most loaded roster in football.
The secondary factor in these picks is how they fit in the Packers' current offensive or defensive systems.
The first installment features possible 3-4 outside linebackers, one of the toughest positions to project due to its numerous responsibilities as both a pass rusher and coverage LB.
The Current Corps of OLBs
In the Packers experiment with late round and street free agent 3-4 OLBs, the rotation of Erik Walden, Brad Jones, Frank Zombo and Vic So'oto has clearly lacked an attacking style defined by the Steelers' 3-4 defensive coaching tree that defensive coordinator Dom Capers has roots in.
While So'oto is still an unpolished, first-year player who needs more time to develop and learn as a backup or role player, the others are completely expendable as far as starting 3-4 OLBs go.
Walden's performance on and off the field in 2011 leaves little to gain in keeping him, though his rise from street free agent last year was one of the most impressive in the Packers championship year of 2010.
With these factors in mind, here are six profiles of 3-4 OLBs who could improve the defense from the beginning rounds to the seventh round of the draft.
Whitney Mercilus, Illinois, 6'4" 265
The Packers defense needs to start invoking merciless pressure, and what better way to do it than to draft Mr. Mercilus himself?
If somehow this guy is available by the 20th-28th selection, expect the Packers to be all over this pick whether by trading up or if Mercilus falls to 28th.
Playmaking seemed to come in bunches for this young man with ideal 3-4 OLB size and impressive speed.
Mercilus was second in the history of the NCAA in forced fumbles in a season with nine in 2011.
Add that to 22.5 tackles for loss (third in Illinois' history and second in the NCAA last year) while leading the nation with 16 sacks and you're looking at a beast to tandem alongside Mathews.
Mercilus plays with a Clay-like motor, a trait that energizes the entire defense and helps create that "swarming" effect so-often noted of great defenses.
That said, question marks remain.
Mercilus only was productive for one year and declared for the draft early in light of this off-the-charts year. He's fairly unpolished in fundamentals and lacks consistent technique ("pad level" as Mike McCarthy would say).
With his family being Haitian immigrants as well as a similar playing style, Mercilus may compare well to Jason Pierre-Paul of the Giants. Many wondered about Pierre-Paul's lack of football experience, but the results in the pros are pretty impressive.
Is Mercilus a similar case study?
Another question is whether Mercilus would adapt quickly from being a 4-3 style, hand-on-the ground DE at Illinois to a 3-4 OLB. In base defense, if Mercilus were drafted, someone in the LB corps would have to handle covering the TE or even a slot receiver at times.
With ILB Desmond Bishop's strengths being stout run support and rushing the passer and counterpart A.J. Hawk having a down year, would the Packers be able to compensate with essentially four LBs who can't cover well?
My take: Mercilus would allow Capers to do more as far as dictating what the offense does through an aggressive blitz-scheme attack, rather than the numerous three-man rushes and conservative approaches witnessed in the Giants game, which allowed Eli Manning the time to look like a world beater.
Capers preaches that he wants to force the offense to change for his aggressive defense, but in 2011 the defense failed to deliver in this regard—especially in contrast to 2010's impressive showing with nearly identical personnel.
Mercilus would be a significant upgrade in being able to create exotic pressures from all over the place. Since Mathews can switch sides, the ILBs could do cross-blitzes and some of the guys in the secondary, particularly Woodson, have the ability to put pressure too.
With Mercilus, the Packers could rush four effectively without sacrificing coverage guys as extra blitzers.
Courtney Upshaw, OLB Alabama, 6'2" 270
Courtney Upshaw, Alabama. 6'2", 270 lbs. Anticipated round: 1
Alabama coach Nick Saban is repeatedly referred to as one of the top college coaches to implement an NFL-style 3-4 hybrid scheme. Upshaw has four years of experience at Alabama causing opposing offensive coordinators headaches as a pass rusher with elite athleticism for his size.
Like most 3-4 OLB rookies, Upshaw would need seasoning in the versatile aspects expected of a 3-4 OLB/DE hybrid in coverage and play recognition, though some observers feel he can certainly sniff out screens and has a nose for the ball.
Some project he could fall to the Packers at No. 28, though other mocks see him gone by the teens or earlier.
If the Packers think Upshaw will still be available in the early 20s, I could see them trading up considering there are few surefire stars with Upshaw's size and talent that project as 3-4 OLBs in this year's draft class.
Watershed moment: Upshaw was able to wreak havoc on Cam Newton while Newton was QB at Auburn, suggesting he is not only adept at pass rush moves and shedding blockers, but also has incredible closing speed.
Nick Perry, USC, 6'3" 250
USC continues to develop NFL-caliber playmakers. While the highlights make it difficult to discern if Nick Perry creates for himself in this system or if he's a by-product of an overall talented defense (or both), Perry clearly displays exceptional athleticism, playmaking ability and speed rush moves.
The Packers don't necessarily need a rusher who creates solely for himself—just someone to take the pressure off Clay Mathews and be effective in the one-on-one battles. Perry as a Packer could face this scenario with Mathews being double and even triple teamed.
Perry will only be 21 years old entering the draft and is a one-year starter with two years playing time at USC. A similar USC career didn't stop Clay Mathews from being an NFL star with limited collegiate starting time, but one has to wonder if Perry still has a ways to go in gaining strength, exhibiting NFL fundamentals consistently and adapting to NFL coverage responsibilities.
Many mocks envision Perry gone by the 15th pick, so it's unlikely the Packers would bank that many trading chips to move up so many slots. Stranger things have happened on draft day though, and the Packers are well-known to pounce on any great talent that slips (from Aaron Rodgers to Bryan Bulaga, many of Thompson's picks were considered bargains so late in Round 1).
Brandon Lindsey, Pittsburgh 6'2" 250
Lindsey may be a classic "tweener," capable of spirited and powerful production as a college DE, but too small to be an NFL DE with his hand down.
His former coach, who also has NFL head-coaching experience, Dave Wannstedt considered Lindsey "a step too slow" as solely a linebacker and "a step fast for a defensive end," according to CBS Sports. Wannstedt's statements came in 2009, and fortunately for Lindsey, his game and strength have improved. Todd Graham's decision to line Lindsey up as their "Panther" backer (a la Clay Mathews "Elephant" role at USC as a pass rushing OLB/DE hybrid) helped as well.
Watching the highlight reel put together for the 2010 season, we can see Lindsey displays a pretty impressive motor, shedding blocks and running plays down from the backside before any significant gain. He's considered a strong pass rusher, which the Packers need opposite Clay Mathews III.
Prior to the combine, Lindsey is projected to be available into the mid rounds, projected as a 4th Rounder in some mocks. Though Ted Thompson claims to never draft for need, if this guy is available in the late third or as a compensation pick, Lindsey should be atop their board.
The million-dollar question: Would Lindsey be any more physical, disruptive or strong in shedding NFL blockers compared to the current stable of OLBs? My assertion based on his style of play and production in college is yes, Lindsey would compete as an upgrade to Jones and Zombo.
I think Ted Thompson's scout crew would be certain to see how much drive and hunger Lindsey has to become a force in the NFL during the interview process. If Lindsey stands out among a crowd of talented prospects, expect his stock to rise.
Darius Fleming, Notre Dame. 6'2" 250
Fleming's 4.65 40 time is a fairly fast LB time for a man of 250 or more pounds.
If Fleming can add muscle mass to his frame, he could hold up consistently as a 3-4 OLB against the run while also using his strength to shed blockers in pursuit of the quarterback on passing plays.
Based on Fleming's production against elite competition, accumulating tackles for loss against Pittsburgh, Stanford and Boston College in the 2011 season, this LB rises to the occasion.
In his 2010 campaign, Fleming was even more impressive leading a talented defense in tackles for loss with 11 and leading the Irish with six sacks.
Another interesting wrinkle for scouts to assess should be his pass breakups against top competition. Defensive coordinators love it when rushers can disrupt the pass any way possible and that includes pass breakups (which can happen in coverage or in pass rush as batted balls).
Fleming had five total pass breakups in 2010 in key games against USC, Miami, Michigan and Pittsburgh, which suggests he has a mixture of good timing, play recognition and athleticism.
For a guy projected as a fourth-fifth rounder, Fleming could prove to be a diamond in the rough. He also seems poised and well-spoken in this media day interview featured in the video which will likely be important in Ted Thompson's routine staff assessment of character which seems to be paramount in his strategy for building a successful, healthy franchise.
Manny Abreu, Rutgers, 6'3" 260
Though Abreu's college production doesn't contain any eye-popping stats, he definitely fits the mold of a 3-4 OLB "project" with ideal size and the experience of playing both LB and DE for Gary Schiano's Scarlet Knights. His 40 time has been clocked just under 4.7, which is above-average for an NFL linebacker of his size.
Abreu would likely be found in Round 7 and possibly even UFA.
This isn't a "splash" selection, but if other NFL stars (i.e. James Harrison) were found in a pile of undrafted prospects through development by assistant coaches, perhaps Abreu has the dedication, heart and savvy to make it.
In a similar mold, with similar odds, Frank Zombo accumulated five sacks as a rookie before injuries derailed his development.
If Abreu works hard, picks up a 3-4 understanding of his role and stays healthy, he could take off where Zombo was unfortunately sidelined.
Conclusion: Limited Draft Options to Improve at OLB
I fully recognize the few options I chose to focus on aren't all-encompassing of what could improve the Packers' OLB opposite Clay Mathews.
The problem is, since most eligible 3-4 prospects at this position in the 2012 Draft are either undersized, works in progress or in the case of Upshaw and Perry, possibly gone by pick No. 28, the Packers may need to find pass rush elsewhere, possibly in a defensive end or even a stout defensive tackle who can get pressure from the middle (alongside Raji).
Some might argue the Packers could add a Zach Brown-like speedy LB to improve, but that would leave the defense severely limited in the run game and a guy like Brown would be swallowed up by big tackles in pass rush if he can't get around the edge.
Furthermore, another speed rusher would not compliment Clay Mathews' strengths, rather duplicate one of his greatest strengths—speeding around bulky tackles and dipping underneath their shoulder pads to get the angle for pressuring the pocket.
While Mathews is quickly developing to the point where there are almost no holes in his game, it would be foolish to add a speed LB (especially one like Brown who projects more as a 4-3 LB due to his smaller size) unless that LB was extremely skilled in coverage, had a supernatural motor like Mathews and a knack for playmaking.
With that said, the Packers use primarily a nickel defense in passing situations and a coverage linebacker wouldn't add anything to the pass rush leaving mainly these four draft options at OLB and several other OLBs who may or may not be 3-4 material.
The ideal improvement opposite of Mathews would be a great pass rusher with power to be stout in the run game as well. Teams throughout 2011 designed plays to test the mettle of the myriad of LBs that started opposite of Mathews and the Packers need a tough, disruptive player to fill that void.
In the next installment of this series, we'll look at 3-4 defensive linemen at both DE and DT who could improve the Packers defense overall and create pressure without extra blitzers.