Combine: Three Things Pack Learned on Defense

DE J.J. Watt (Darron Cummings/AP)

The Packers have needs at cornerback, outside linebacker and defensive end. The Scouting Combine helped clear up some things about the top players at those positions.

INDIANAPOLIS – With his weekends occupied by playoff games rather than scouting trips and film sessions, Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson said he and his staff were behind in their preparations for the NFL Draft.

With the Scouting Combine continuing with defensive players working out on Monday and Tuesday and more opportunities to interview those players, here are three things on the defensive side of the ball that Thompson probably has a better feel of now than he did last week.

Deeper at cornerback

Last year's draft was considered deep at cornerback but a lot of those prospects were 5-foot-10, give or take an inch. Thompson learned under Ron Wolf, who wound up regretting using his first first-round pick on Terrell Buckley because the 5-foot-9 Buckley, among his other issues, couldn't match up with a growing trend toward big receivers.

That trend hasn't stopped, so Thompson has stood firm on drafting tall cornerbacks. Last year, even with Al Harris' future in doubt and cornerback considered a position of major need, Thompson's only rookie addition at the position was undrafted Sam Shields. In fact, he's never drafted one shorter than 6-foot during his tenure in Green Bay, and Shields and fellow undrafteds Tramon Williams and Josh Gordy are 5-foot-11.

This year's draft, however, is loaded with cornerbacks who stand 6-foot, 6-foot-1 and even 6-foot-2. Thanks to Shields' development, cornerback isn't a huge need but Charles Woodson isn't getting any younger and the Packers have no proven talent beyond their top three corners. That makes Colorado's Jimmy Smith or Texas' Aaron Williams in play in the first round, Texas' Curtis Brown, Utah's Brandon Burton, Virginia's Ras-I Dowling or Ohio State's Chimdi Chekwa potential targets in Day 2 and Utah State's Curtis Marsh, The Citadel's Cortez Allen or Ohio State's Devon Torrence among several possibilities in the fourth round and beyond.

Deeper at outside linebacker

If cornerback was a major need last year, then outside linebacker was a dire need, with Clay Matthews entrenched on one side but Brad Jones a question mark on the other side after a solid half-season as a rookie starter. But, just like at cornerback, Thompson didn't draft an outside linebacker. Yet the Packers somehow won the Super Bowl with a potpourri of guys ranging from veterans (Jones and Brady Poppinga), an undrafted rookie (Frank Zombo), a street free agent (Erik Walden) and the answer to the "Who did the Vikings cut to sign Brett Favre?" trivia question (Robert Francois).

The need at outside linebacker remains so Dom Capers can rely more on playmakers than scheme. While a lot of the prospects played defensive end in college, first-round possibilities Akeem Ayers of UCLA and Justin Houston of Georgia played linebacker so there will be good tape for Thompson and his staff to study.

Replacing Jenkins

Thompson always drafts defensive linemen. As he likes to say, the Good Lord made only so many of them so you can never have too many. The question is, will that spot be a priority with Cullen Jenkins' near-certain departure in free agency? Or Will Thompson feel good enough about last year's second-round pick, Mike Neal, filling Jenkins' spot and last year's hard-working group returning to provide depth?

Perhaps it's coincidence, but Thompson seems to lean toward intelligent, well-spoken players at that position. Jenkins, Neal, Ryan Pickett, B.J. Raji and C.J. Wilson fit that mold. That could have Thompson leaning toward Wisconsin's J.J. Watt, Ohio State's Cameron Hayward, the son of former NFL running back Craig "Ironhead" Hayward, or Temple's impressive Muhammad Wilkerson, who stayed on the straight and narrow despite growing up in a crime-riddled community in New Jersey.


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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.

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