Alabama free safety Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix would be a shoo-in for the Packers in the first round, but is unlikely to be on the board at No. 21.
With 20 players set to become free agents by March 11 and a disappointing early exit from the 2013 playoffs, Green Bay's 2014 NFL draft will be one of the most important ones of Ted Thompson's tenure.
Thompson is famous (or infamous) for his draft-and-develop strategy, often preferring to select players based on highest value on the board over need. Yet the addition of players at key positions who would be ready to contribute immediately in 2014 may be the determining factor in whether the Packers can make it past the Wild Card Round of the playoffs late next season.
The following five players are near-locks to appear on the Packers' draft board. With perceived needs at safety, defensive tackle, inside linebacker and outside linebacker—and depending what happens with free agents Jermichael Finley, Andrew Quarless, Matt Flynn and Evan Dietrich-Smith, tight end, backup quarterback and center—players were selected with a slight emphasis on need over value while still ensuring there is at least a possibility they will still be on the board for Green Bay to select.
While it is, of course, possible that Green Bay re-signs some of its unrestricted free agents or, in a more unlikely event, makes a splashy free-agent acquisition to address these positions, for the sake of this exercise the following five players have been chosen assuming these needs will not have been solved by the draft.
Note that the following is not a mock draft but an overview of players likely to be on the Packers' draft board. As such, it is extremely unlikely the Packers will be in position to draft more than two of these players. However, care has been taken to balance need and value with likelihood of them being available at Green Bay's draft position.
All prospect rankings from CBSSports.com unless otherwise noted.
The Packers finished the 2013 regular season ranked 24th in yards per game allowed, at 247.2, and safety play was the major culprit.
Pro Football Focus (subscription required) did not rank a single Green Bay safety higher than 63rd, where Morgan Burnett graded out among the total 86 safeties. M.D. Jennings ended the season at 67th. They allowed opposing quarterback passer ratings of 139.0 and 148.8, respectively, which were among the top-10 worst in the league for safeties.
Needless to say, with Jennings set to become a restricted free agent, free safety is perhaps the Packers' greatest need.
Unfortunately, safety is also a need for several other teams with picks ahead of the Packers in the first round, including the Tennessee Titans at No. 11, the St. Louis Rams at No. 2 and No. 13 and the Chicago Bears at No. 14. While it isn't highly likely Clinton-Dix will still be on the board at No. 21, if he is, Thompson can be expected to select him there, as he fulfills both value and need.
It helps the Packers that Clinton-Dix is not currently the highest-rated free safety by CBSSports.com. That honor is held by Louisville's Calvin Pryor. If St. Louis elects to use its first two picks to fulfill its needs on the offensive line and at wide receiver, Tennessee selects Pryor and Chicago chooses a defensive lineman, the Packers could find that Clinton-Dix falls to them.
Clinton-Dix would be an instant contributor in Green Bay's struggling secondary in 2014, which the team desperately needs. It's not a positional group that can afford to be developed throughout next season. His nose for the ball and burst ability in the open field would help turn around two of the team's greatest issues, lack of takeaways and missed tackles.
If he's still on the board, Clinton-Dix is a virtual lock for the Packers in the first round.
If Clinton-Dix is unavailable for Green Bay to select at No. 21 in the first round or if Ra'Shede Hageman, currently projected to be off the board by the end of the first, falls deeper into the second round, he'll certainly be on Thompson's short list.
Packers defensive linemen B.J. Raji, C.J. Wilson, Ryan Pickett and Johnny Jolly are all set to become unrestricted free agents, and while few things about free agency and the draft are certain, that the team won't re-sign all four is guaranteed.
Regardless of who stays and who walks on the defensive line, a solid defensive tackle will be a top need for Green Bay in this draft. Hageman, at 6'6" and 311 pounds with a gigantic wing span, is perfectly built to be a 5-technique defensive end in the Packers 3-4 scheme.
Though first-rounder Datone Jones currently fills that role for the Packers, he's undersized at 285 pounds and ended the season third on the depth chart behind Raji and Wilson. If either of them depart, Hageman is an obvious choice to fill their spot and become an instant contributor for the Packers. His ability to eat up blocks would be a huge asset to Green Bay's run defense.
Thompson likely won't give Kyle Van Noy a serious look if he's available at No. 21 in the first round, but if he's still on the board in the second, he would be a steal of a value pick.
With a cap number of $11.100 million for 2014, Green Bay is clearly committed to Clay Matthews, who will likely be playing on the left side at some point next season so that the Packers can accommodate their other investment, Nick Perry, on the right side where he is more effective. All four of his sacks in 2013 came from the right side.
Still, two years later, first-rounder Perry has failed to become the true complement to Matthews he was drafted to be. The Packers ended the season grading out 29th in pass rush by Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Though they were eighth in sacks, those are just one part of the pressure puzzle, and the Packers didn't alter the outcomes of games by getting after the quarterback. Adding some talent on the outside who can contribute immediately is a game changer for this defense, which saw most of its pressure come out of the interior in 2013.
Due to the 17 unrestricted free agents the Packers must decide whether to re-sign or let walk, it's likely Green Bay won't be able to bring Mike Neal back. Depth at the position was in critical condition much of the season due to injuries, getting to the point where the Packers had just one healthy outside linebacker available for their final game against the 49ers.
Van Noy has a proven ability to drop into coverage as well as get after the quarterback. He's another player who would be a perfect addition if he were to fall to the Packers in the second round, but other teams may have him rated higher on their draft boards than Green Bay, and as a result, he may be gone by the end of the first.
Though he is thought by some to be undersized and to be lacking ideal athleticism, Thompson won't underestimate Chris Borland.
A playmaker all over the field, Borland possesses the motor and energy that often seem to be missing in the play of Green Bay's front seven. And his senior-year regular-season numbers (102 tackles, four sacks and two deflected passes) speak for themselves.
The run defense has been missing the impact of Desmond Bishop, who was instrumental in the Packers' 2010 Super Bowl run, on the inside, and Borland would be an instant contributor, which the Packers need. It's likely Green Bay will re-sign restricted free-agent inside linebacker Jamari Lattimore, but his primary impact is on special teams. Borland's error-free and passionate game is the boost on the inside the team needs.
Borland's film shows a marked ability to shed blocks and make plays both in the box and in space, with a proven track record of rushing the passer. He's an all-around contributor who makes up for his size with the level of his play, and if other teams pass on him on account of it and he's available come the third round, Thompson may see an opportunity.
Will the Packers' medical staff clear Finley to return to play in 2014? If he is cleared, will Green Bay be willing to commit to the cap space he would require to stay?
These are not the only questions surrounding the tight end position in Green Bay; though they haven't been given ample opportunities, Andrew Quarless, Brandon Bostick, Ryan Taylor and Jake Stoneburner have not yet proved themselves to be a viable option to replace Finley's role in the offense.
It's highly likely Green Bay addresses the tight end position in the lower rounds, but if Finley walks, look for the Packers to address it higher. As the fifth-ranked player at his position, C.J. Fiedorowicz is likely to be on the board by the Packers' third-round pick and is a possible target for Thompson.
A skilled pass-catching tight end, Fiedorowicz possesses soft hands but is nonetheless a physical blocker, with nice size at 6'6" and 265 pounds. He led the Hawkeyes in touchdown receptions, with six, and would be a clear-cut answer to one of Green Bay's biggest issues in 2013 after Finley went down: red-zone production. The Packers need a tight end threat in the red zone, and Fiedorowicz could be a star in this offense for many years to come.