With one of the most surprising picks on the second day of the draft, the Green Bay Packers drafted a defensive lineman from Conference USA. No, it wasn't Justin Ellis, the nose tackle who had been getting a lot of publicity this draft cycle. It was Khyri Thornton, from the University of Southern Mississippi.
Toward the tail end of Thornton's collegiate career, he made some progress to get viewed as a prospect, eventually earning 2013 Second-Team All-Conference USA honors. That wasn't enough to get him into one of the major all-star games to show off his talent in front of dozens and dozens of NFL scouts, though.
Instead, he went to the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl, where at the end of the week, he was ESPN's Todd McShay's No. 1 prospect at the game.
Jason Hirschhorn of SB Nation's Packers site was at the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl and had some notable thoughts on Thornton:
On defense, it turned out to be a better night for the front seven. Southern Mississippi defensive tackle Khyri Thornton frequently took up multiple blockers, displaying the fast hands and athleticism to pressure the quarterback. On the one occasion that the American team allocated just a single linemen to block Thornton, he burst through for a sack.
He performed well enough in the game to earn a combine bid, and he also did well for his size there.
Thornton is best suited as a penetrating defensive lineman. In a 3-4 defense, that means he's likely to play base as a weak-side defensive end. Heavier than Datone Jones, he might be able to get into the rotation at strong side, too. He would have to be able to contribute consistently enough, though, to be trusted on passing downs.
In Green Bay, there isn't much room on the defensive line. With big-body players like Josh Boyd and Jerel Worthy likely to get an increased snap load, there's not much room for Thornton get time early in base or heavy sets.
With players like Mike Daniels, Jones and even potentially Julius Peppers and Mike Neal coming off the bench for passing situations on the defensive line, that's not really his role on the team, either.
Ideally, Thornton seems to be a player who on the surface doesn't play much in 2014 but is a key piece to develop. Since Cullen Jenkins left, Ted Thompson has been looking for a bigger defensive end who not only can play the run, but also create pressure. Thornton has the size and the pressure creation parts figured out, but to stop the run at the NFL level, he must learn to read the run game better.
At the end of the day, Thompson comes from the Al Davis drafting tree via a connection with Ron Wolf. This pick is very Al Davis-ish. That is not to say it's a bad thing.
Rarely can you find quality defensive linemen later in the draft. Thornton is currently a project for 2015, where he may find a starting role in that Jenkins role the team has been searching for ever since Jenkins left for Philadelphia after the Super Bowl.
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