Outside of a career ending injury to quarterback Aaron Rodgers, the first and most obvious need for the Packers in 2010 is finding a left tackle to take over for current starter Chad Clifton. Despite showing improvements of late, the offensive line as a whole has been one of the worst in the league this season and changes are inevitable in 2010. However, just because the Packers need to address the offensive line does not mean it is a foregone conclusion that they will select a left tackle in the first round next year.
Rather, the Packers would be wise to snatch up Clemson running back C.J. Spiller if he is on the board when the Packers are on the clock. Before your head explodes for an offensive lineman not being at the top of the list, let’s take a look at arguably the best running back in the nation.
Spiller has been a monster this season and his pre-Music City Bowl stats include 1145 rushing yards, 11 touchdowns. He has also added 33 receptions for 445 yards and four touchdowns through the air for the Tigers and is having a stellar all-around season. Spiller will play his bowl game in Tennessee, the home of the NFL’s leading rusher Chris Johnson. Many have compared Spiller’s running style to that of Johnson’s and their measurements are the same within five pounds of each other.
The Packers have lacked a true game-breaker in the run game for quite some time and Spiller would fit the bill perfectly. Spiller’s ability to cut back and break into the second level make him a perfect fit for the zone blocking scheme, something Ryan Grant has lacked since his breakout campaign two seasons ago. Spiller would allow the Packers to use the screen game more efficiently and add a potential, “touchdown every time he touches the ball” running back to the offense.
The other caveat with Spiller is his ability as a kick and punt returner. Spiller has returned an NCAA-record eight kicks for touchdowns and is a threat to go to the house every time he goes back for a kick. If Spiller does not take over starting running back duties right away, he will return kicks and punts for a Packers special teams unit that ranks 21st in average kick returns and 24th in punt returns.
The NFL is quickly becoming a two-running back system and the fact is that Grant is not going to last long if he has no one behind him. Brandon Jackson has proved to be a bust outside of his improved blitz pick-up on third down and DeShawn Wynn is nothing more than a nice practice squad player. Spiller would provide the Packers with a change-of-pace running back, similar to what Felix Jones is in Dallas with Marion Barber.
Entering Week Thirteen, the Packers were slotted to pick 22nd in the first round. Obviously that number can and probably will change slightly between now and April, but that range is where most experts have Spiller going. If he has a big bowl game and runs a sub-4.30 forty at the Combine his stock will surely rise into the top 15, but we have now seen that Ted Thompson is not afraid to depart with his later draft picks if it means getting someone he really likes.
In recent years, Thompson has shown a pattern of going with the best player available in round one of the draft, and then drafting for need in round two. The talent in the first round makes it hard to pass on a player you think could be truly special. Unless you are set at the position with a young, elite-level talent (Chris Johnson, Joe Thomas, Aaron Rodgers, Patrick Willis), drafting the best player available is not a waste of a pick.
At some point early on in the draft, the offensive line will need to be addressed. Thompson is (hopefully) starting to see that a line built on mid-round, little known, athletic college linemen is not going to get the job done. With one of the deepest draft classes this decade, Thompson will be able to find good depth in round two if he does not pull the trigger on a tackle in the first round.
The truth is the Packers are set at multiple positions on the field for quite some time and find themselves with a better future than the majority of teams. That means taking risks in the first round on a potential stud running back will not set them back five years if it does not work. Good teams like the Packers put themselves in those positive situations to be able to do that, so taking a flier on Spiller is a risk worth taking.
Running back might not be the Packers’ biggest need next season, but if a future Pro Bowler is on the board when the Packers pick, need might go right out the window.