Draft preview: positional analysis

James Jones is one of 10 unrestricted free agents

The NFL Draft is only two days away. The Packers have nine selections – including two choices in the fourth and seventh rounds. While GM Ted Thompson will almost certainly pick the best player available at No. 32, he’ll be looking to fill some needs after that. So what are the team’s greatest needs? Here’s my annual position-by-position analysis:

QUARTERBACK- Aaron Rodgers and backup Matt Flynn might be the best 1-2 punch in the NFL. The problem is that Flynn is likely to leave after this season and No. 3 Graham Harrell is probably best-suited for his current role. Thompson hasn’t drafted a player at this position since 2008, but that will very likely change in a few days. It’s imperative for the Packers to find a potential replacement for Flynn, and fortunately, there are a handful of fairly intriguing prospects who should be available in the middle rounds.

RUNNING BACK- The Packers would be foolish not to seriously consider a stud like Alabama’s Mark Ingram if he falls to 32, but otherwise, this is a position that probably doesn’t need to be addressed until Saturday. If healthy, Ryan Grant is a very good back and James Starks showed enormous potential late last season. That’s more than enough firepower for a team that made the playoffs a year ago with Brandon Jackson and John Kuhn as its main ball carriers. With free agent Jackson not expected to return, Thompson could look to add a back in the middle rounds to compete with Dimitri Nance for the No. 3 job.

FULLBACK- Coach Mike McCarthy has fought to keep three players at this position in recent seasons, and with both Kuhn and Korey Hall scheduled to become free agents once a new collective bargaining agreement is reached, the Packers could conceivably select a fullback in the later rounds. More than likely, however, Kuhn will be re-signed and Thompson will add an undrafted free agent or two before the beginning of training camp.

TIGHT END- Even with Jermichael Finley coming back from knee surgery and Andrew Quarless showing some promise as a rookie, this is still a position Thompson might look to bolster. Finley could be a free agent following the 2011 season, and he’s the type of player who’ll want to break the bank. The enigmatic Quarless has the potential to be a poor man’s Finley, but he could just as easily be out of the league in a few years. Neither Tom Crabtree nor Spencer Havner has the physical skills to be much more than a reliable No. 3.

WIDE RECEIVER- The Packers ended last season with the best quartet of receivers in the league, but that doesn’t mean this isn’t an area of need heading into the future. James Jones will become a free agent as soon as a new CBA is reached and he’ll be looking for an opportunity to start. Donald Driver is coming off his worst season in over a decade and there’s no guarantee he’ll bounce back at the age of 36. That leaves Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson as the only receivers who can be counted on heading into the draft. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Thompson address this position within the first three rounds.

OFFENSIVE LINE- This was a priority a year ago and it’ll be a priority later this week. Rodgers is (by far) the most important player on the team, and with his left tackle turning 35 in June and his left guard expected to sign elsewhere as a free agent, solidifying that side of the line has to be near the top of Thompson’s to-do list. The coaches like T.J. Lang, Marshall Newhouse and Nick McDonald, but not one of those youngsters can truly be counted on in 2011. The Packers have added at least two offensive linemen in five of the last six drafts and that pattern could very well be repeated this year.

DEFENSIVE LINE- This position became a priority the minute Johnny Jolly was arrested for the second time in three years. With Jolly no longer in the picture and free agent Cullen Jenkins expected to sign elsewhere, it’s almost a certainty that a defensive lineman will be selected within the first four rounds. The Packers currently have only two proven commodities (Ryan Pickett and B.J. Raji), and the former turns 32 in October. Mike Neal and C.J. Wilson have potential, but the jury is still out on both players. Neal couldn’t stay healthy as a rookie and Wilson may not have the skills to be more than an adequate backup.

LINEBACKER- The Packers are four-deep at inside linebacker, but that doesn’t mean Thompson will ignore this position. If he can find a good prospect in the middle rounds, he might be able to shed some money by getting rid of Nick Barnett and/or Brandon Chillar. As far as outside linebacker is concerned, there’s no guarantee Thompson will add a player. That’s because Erik Walden, Frank Zombo and Brad Jones are probably as good if not better than what’ll be available in the draft after the third round. So if the outside linebacker position isn’t addfressed on Thursday or Friday, it might not be addressed at all.

CORNERBACK- Charles Woodson, Tramon Williams and Sam Shields are the best trio in the league, but a team can never have enough good corners. And while it’s unlikely that Thompson would take a player at this position early, he probably wouldn’t hesitate to add one on Saturday. The coaches haven’t given up on Pat Lee and Brandon Underwood, but neither young player showed much progress in 2010. In fact, it wouldn’t be a shock to see speedy Josh Gordy leapfrog both of them at some point in the future. The former Central Michigan star impressed a lot of people with his work on the practice squad last season.

SAFETY- Green Bay is in good shape with Nick Collins, Charlie Peprah and Morgan Burnett. The coaches also like veteran Anthony Smith and second-year man Anthony Levine. Throw in versatile Jarett Bush and this position is as deep as any on the roster. The only way Thompson drafts a safety is if one is simply too good to pass up in the later rounds.

SPECIALISTS- Brett Goode is a terrific long snapper and Tim Masthay was about as good as any punter in the league late last season. Kicker Mason Crosby is coming off another solid but unspectacular season. The former Colorado star hasn’t connected on 80 percent of his field goals since entering the league in 2007, but McCarthy really believes in him. That’s because Crosby is an incredibly hard worker and about as normal as any kicker can be. He’ll be a free agent once a new CBA is reached, but he wants to return and the team wants him back. If a specialist is drafted, it’ll be a returner. That position has been a problem since the day Allen Rossum signed a free agent contract with the Falcons in 2002.

THE DRAFT CONTEST CLOSES TODAY AT 11 P.M. (ET). HIT THE LINK AT THE TOP OF THE PAGE FOR DETAILS.

About the author

Packer Update is the creation of a longtime fan. My name is Michael Rodney and I was a sportswriter in the early 1990s. I worked full-time for a newspaper in South Jersey, but I still managed to get quite a few articles about the Packers published during that time. I hope you enjoy reading this blog as much as I enjoy writing about the most storied franchise in all of pro sports.