Predicting exactly which player general manager Ted Thompson will select in the first round is next to impossible, but his distinctive pattern after seven drafts makes it easier to at least narrow down the field of potential candidates. All seven of his previous first-round picks have played in either the Pac-12 (quarterback Aaron Rodgers and outside linebacker Clay Matthews), the Big Ten (linebacker A.J. Hawk and offensive tackle Bryan Bulaga), the SEC (defensive lineman Justin Harrell and offensive tackle Derek Sherrod) or the ACC (nose tackle B.J. Raji). Perhaps it’s just a coincidence, but I seriously doubt it.
While Thompson has no problem choosing players from smaller conferences after round one, he sticks with the big boys when it comes to the money pick. Need is the other thing that should narrow down the field of candidates. Thompson always talks about taking the best available player regardless of position, but let’s be honest, he’ll be taking the best available defensive player regardless of position this year. He has no choice considering just how awful things were on that side of the ball in 2011.
OK, so let’s immediately exclude defensive players from major conferences that almost certainly won’t be around at 28. That list includes Michael Brockers, Fletcher Cox, Quinton Coples, Melvin Ingram, Courtney Upshaw, Stephon Gilmore, Dre Kirkpatrick, Morris Claiborne and Mark Barron.Who might still be on the board? Jerel Worthy, Brandon Thompson, Devon Still, Dont’a Hightower, Luke Kuechly, Whitney Mercilus, Nick Perry and Andre Branch. Notice that Dontari Poe, Kendall Reyes and Shea McClellin didn’t make either list because of where they played.
Some of the players I’ve listed as being available won’t be, but it’s a starting point. I’m going to cross out Kuechly because the Packers are fairly deep at inside linebacker. Ditto Hightower, even though he might be versatile enough to play on the outside in a 3-4 scheme. I’ll get rid of Thompson and Branch because they played at Clemson, and there are more busts at that school than there are at Hooters. Perry and Mercilus scare me a bit because they’re both projections from defensive end to outside linebacker. That increases the risk factor exponentially. And then there were two.
Flip a coin. Worthy has more natural talent than Still, but he was inconsistent in college and he’s a bit short for a 3-4 end. Still isn’t as explosive as Worthy, but he’s built for the position. He has ideal size (6’5″, 303) and is rock solid against the run. And while he probably won’t get 10 sacks, he’ll be a disruptive inside rusher. He’s also a pretty safe pick. After battling injuries as a freshman and sophomore, he’s been durable and dependable for the past two seasons. Adding Still would give coordinator Dom Capers the defensive end he desperately needs. In the loss to the Giants, one starter was a natural nose tackle and the other was a player who had already been cut once by the Packers.
Still is a very solid player, but he won’t dramatically improve the pass rush. That means the next pick should be someone who can provide pressure opposite Clay Matthews. After studying a handful of the second-tier outside linebackers, one player stood out from the rest when it came to getting after the quarterback. West Virginia’s Bruce Irvin isn’t going to be the total package right away, but he doesn’t have to be. One of the returning vets should be able to hold his own on early downs, and then Capers can turn Irvin loose in the nickel package. He’s extremely quick off the edge and he’s dangerous on inside stunts where his explosiveness is usually too much for a guard to handle.
1st round pick: DEVON STILL
2nd round pick: BRUCE IRVIN