A Scout’s Take on Several of the Top Edge Rushers in the 2017 NFL Draft

t-j-watt-in-cotton-bowl

T.J. Watt

The 2017 NFL draft is now less than a month away. The Green Bay Packers have a number of positional needs on their roster currently. Among those needs is the outside linebacker position or edge rusher.

Edge rushers can be prospects who played defensive end in college in a 4-3 scheme, but also have the attributes to play outside linebacker in the 3-4 scheme, which is what the Packers employ under Dom Capers.

The Packers also need some quality depth at cornerback, running back and at guard.

The odds are that fairly strong that the Packers will address those particular position groups in the first four rounds of the draft.

But it is yet to be determined what the pecking order will be. It depends on how general manager Ted Thompson and his scouting staff have set up their Green Bay draft board.

When it comes to looking at some edge rushing prospects who would fall into the category of where the Packers will be selecting in the draft, which is late in each round, I wanted to get some insight and expertise from one of the best in the business, NFL scout Chris Landry.

I had another opportunity to talk with Landry earlier this week on 620 WDAE’s Steve Duemig Show,  which was guest-hosted by Pat Donovan and Aaron Jacobson.

The Packers will have the 29th, 61st, 93rd and 134th picks in the first four rounds of the draft. I wanted to get a read on what edge rushers might fit in that area, especially in the first two rounds of the draft.

There are a couple of edge rushing prospects that the Packers will not have an opportunity to select, as they will be long gone by the time the Packers select with pick No. 29 in the first round.

I’m talking about Myles Garrett of Texas A&M, who will most likely be the first overall pick in the draft, along with Solomon Thomas of Stanford and Derek Barnett of Tennessee.

Landry has Garrett ranked at No. 1 on his horizontal draft board, while Thomas is ranked No. 3 and Barnett is ranked No. 8.

When I talked with Landry, I specifically asked about Charles Harris of Missouri, Tim Williams of Alabama, Takkarist McKinley of UCLA, Carl Lawson of Auburn and T.J. Watt of Wisconsin.

“Harris is an intriguing guy out of Missouri,” Landry said. “I think he’s as good if not better than Shane Ray.  He doesn’t test out as well, but he’s got great bend, great lean and great close. Good off-the-ball quickness. 253 pounds. Really good player.”

The 6’3″, 253-pound Harris played defensive end for Missouri. In the last two years for the Tigers, Harris had 117 tackles, 30.5 tackles for a loss, 16 sacks, four forced fumbles and one fumble recovery.

Harris was named second-team All-SEC in both 2015 and 2016. Harris ran a 4.82 40 at the NFL Scouting Combine.

Landry has Harris ranked No. 30 on his horizontal draft board.

“Tim Williams of Alabama has got some off the field concerns or issues,” Landry said. “Really talented guy who is long and lean.”

When it comes to Williams, it’s a buyer beware situation, as Williams failed multiple drug tests at Alabama. That being said, in his last two years with the Crimson Tide, the 6’3″, 244-pound Williams had 50 tackles, 38.5 tackles for a loss, 19.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery.

Williams was a second-team Associated Press All-American and All-SEC pick in 2016 when he primarily played defensive end. Williams also showed his speed for his size, as he ran a 4.68 40 at the combine.

Landry has Williams ranked at No. 31 on his horizontal draft board.

“McKinley is a guy who is really an intriguing athlete,” Landry said. “Has a torn labrum which has contributed to some of his problems off the field. But he’s got really great speed off the edge. He might be best as a 3-4 stand-up rusher. This guy was a 10.58 100 meter guy in high school. And he’s 265 pounds and he can really motor. He reminds a bit of Whitney Mercilus who came out a couple of years ago who is with the Texans.”

McKinley played defensive end at UCLA, but also has the potential to become a 3-4 outside linebacker due to his pass-rushing skills and speed.

McKinley, who goes 6’2″, 250 pounds, really stepped-up his play in 2016 with the Bruins, as he had 18 tackles for loss, 10 sacks, and six pass breakups. That earned McKinley a first-team All-Pac-12 designation.

The former Bruin showed off his speed at the combine, as McKinley ran a 4.59 40.

Landry has McKinley ranked at No. 32 on his horizontal draft board.

takkarist-mckinley

Takkarist McKinley

“Carl Lawson is a really good player on third down,” Landry said. “He’s got power and explosion. I’m not saying he’s going to be as good, but boy,  he’s got a little of the qualities of that we saw with Dwight Freeney coming out of Syracuse.”

The 6’2″, 261-pound Lawson played defensive end at Auburn. Lawson has  a great year in 2016, as he had 30 tackles, 13.5 tackles for a loss, nine sacks and one forced fumble. In his career as a Tiger, Lawson had 24 tackles for a loss and 14 sacks.

In 2016, Lawson was named first-team All-SEC and was a Freshman All-American in 2013. Lawson missed the 2014 due to a ACL injury.

Lawson ran a 4.67 in the 40 at the combine, plus had 35 reps in the bench press drill.

Landry had Lawson ranked No. 33 on his horizontal draft board.

“T.J. to me is a guy who is an outside backer who can be played down at nickel,” Landry said. “I see him as a guy who could go late first round. I think he’s got great athleticism. I mean he can bend and he can turn the corner. I think he’s got the ability to rush from a two or three point stance.”

I had the Packers selecting Watt in my very first mock draft, which I put out in early-February.

One big reason why the secondary of the Wisconsin Badgers had such an outstanding year in 2016 (except for the second half vs. Penn State in the B1G title game), was the play of the Front 7 of the Badgers.

Nobody was more prevalent in that regard than Watt, who goes 6’4″, 252 pounds. No. 42 had 63 tackles, 15.5 for loss, and 11.5 sacks in 2016, which garnered him second-team Associated Press All-American and first-team All-Big Ten honors.

Watt also met with the Packers at the combine where he excelled in a number of drills, including the vertical jump (37.0 inches), broad jump (128.0 inches), 3-cone drill (6.79 seconds), 20-yard shuttle (4.13 seconds) and the 60-yard shuttle (11.20 seconds). Watt also ran a 4.69 in the 40.

Landry has Watt rated at No. 39 on his horizontal draft board.

Landry also talked about four edge rushers who might be available when the Packers pick late in the second round with pick No. 61. The players are DeMarcus Walker of Florida State, Jordan Willis of Kansas State, Tarell Basham of Ohio University and Derek Rivers of Youngstown State.

“I think DeMarcus Walker is a more of a guy who is a late second-round value, the FSU product,” Landry said. “He’s a little bit of a tweener.”

In his career at Florida State, Walker had 182 tackles, 45 tackles for a loss, 16 sacks, three forced fumbles and fumble recoveries.

Walker was named third-team All-ACC in 2015 (coaches) and then was named first-team All-American by the Walter Camp Foundation and first-team All-ACC in 2016.

Walker, who goes 6’4″ and 280 pounds, would need to drop some weight to play outside linebacker for the Packers. The former Seminole defensive end also needs to get stronger, as he only had 18 reps in the bench press drill. Walker did not do any other drills at the combine.

Landry has Walker ranked at No. 55 on his horizontal draft board.

“Jordan Willis of Kansas State is very intriguing,” Landry said. “I think he’s got really good athleticism and he plays with a great motor.”

Willis had 115 tackles, 40.5 tackles for a loss, 26 sacks, three forced fumbles and one fumble recovery in his career at Kansas State.

The 6’4″, 255-pound Willis was the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year in 2016, plus was named first-team All-Big 12 and also third-team Associated Press All-American as a defensive end.

Willis excelled at the combine, as he ran a 4.53 in the 40, plus had a 39 inch vertical jump.

Landry has Willis ranked No. 56 on his horizontal draft board.

Jordan Willis

Jordan Willis

“Terell Basham of Ohio is a good player,” Landry said. “And the kid from Youngstown State, Derek Rivers, is really good value in the late-second or early-third.”

Basham, who played defensive end at Ohio, had 158 tackles, 41.5 tackles for a loss, 29.5 sacks, seven forced fumbles and one recovered fumble in his career as a Bobcat.

The 6-4, 269-pound Basham was the Mid-American Conference’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2016.

Basham ran a 4.70 in the 40 at the combine.

Landry has Basham ranked No. 57 on his horizontal draft board.

Rivers, who goes 6’4″, 248 pounds, played defensive end at Youngstown State. In his career in the FCS, Rivers had 173 tackles, 56.5 tackles for a loss, 37.5 sacks, three forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries.

Rivers was named as a first-team All-Missouri Valley Football Conference selection each of the past three seasons. Rivers was also named as a third-team Associated Press FCS All-American in 2016.

Rivers also had a fine combine, as he ran a 4.61 in the 40, had 30 reps in the bench press drill and had a 35 inch vertical jump.

Landry has Rivers ranked No. 86 on his horizontal draft board, but is quickly moving up in status, which is why Landry believes Rivers could be selected in the late-second or early-third round.

So what does all this information mean? It tells me that there is a real good chance that one of the eight players who Landry talked about in this story will be a Green Bay Packer. That will be especially true if the team decides to select an edge rusher in one of the first two rounds of the 2017 NFL draft.

A Scout’s Take on the Top Interior Offensive Linemen in the 2017 NFL Draft

Forrest Lamp

Forrest Lamp

Going into the 2017 NFL draft, the Green Bay Packers have a number of positions that they need to address during the draft. The list includes cornerback, running back and outside linebacker.

You can also add the interior offensive line position to the group as well. Especially after starting right guard T.J. Lang and the sometimes starter at center, JC Tretter, as both exited the team via free agency.

The Packers still have a solid offensive line with David Bakhtiari at left tackle, Lane Taylor at left guard, Corey Linsley at center and Bryan Bulaga at right tackle.

But who now fills the hole at right guard is a question, as is who will back up Linsley at center if he can’t play due to injury?

The Packers drafted two offensive tackles in the 2016 NFL draft, but both Jason Spriggs and Kyle Murphy are not sure bets to successfully make the move inside to guard. When Spriggs did get playing time last year, at both tackle and guard, he showed good foot quickness, but also showed a lack of strength at times.

The Packers hope some time in the weight room will improve the latter situation for Spriggs. It certainly did for Bakhtiari. I believe the Packers see Spriggs as their swing tackle.

Murphy would have a better chance to move inside to play guard in my opinion, as he was able to effectively play both left and right tackle at Stanford. The Packers love versatility out of their offensive linemen. Murphy is also a better run-blocker than Spriggs.

Plus, the Packers did re-sign Don Barclay to a minimum contract to remain as a key backup. Barclay can play all the positions on the offensive line, including center, but would be best used as a backup only.

The Packers also really like guard Lucas Patrick who was on the practice squad last season.

All that being said, the Packers definitely need to address the interior offensive line position in the draft. They need to draft a guard and maybe a center as well. Or perhaps someone who can play both positions.

Speaking of the draft and interior offensive linemen prospects, I had another opportunity to speak with NFL scout Chris Landry the other day on 620 WDAE’s Steve Duemig Show, which was guest-hosted by Pat Donovan and Aaron Jacobson.

I talked with Landry last week on the same show about the running back class in this year’s draft.

Unlike the cornerback, running back and edge-rusher positions, the classes for interior offensive linemen (guards and centers) are not nearly as deep or talented.

That’s why I wanted to get a read on the top interior offensive linemen in this draft. Prospects who will most likely be selected in either the first round or the second round, if the Packers and general manager Ted Thompson decide to go that route.

I asked Landry about four prospects, Forrest Lamp of Western Kentucky, Dan Feeney of Indiana, Pat Elflein of Ohio State and Ethan Pocic of LSU.

Landry talked about each of those linemen, as well as Dorian Johnson of Pittsburgh.

“Lamp is a Zack Martin-type player,” Landry said. “Very athletic. Very smart. Very instinctive. Takes good angles. Best in a zone-blocking scheme. And he is the best interior offensive lineman in this draft.”

Lamp was a four-year starter at Western Kentucky. He started three games at right guard in 2013, before moving to left tackle for the rest of his career with the Hilltoppers. All in all, had 51 career starts.

Lamp was named honorable mention All-Sun Belt as a freshman, honorable mention All- CUSA as a sophomore and then was named first-team All-CUSA as a junior and senior.

Lamp tested out well at the NFL Scouting Combine, as he excelled in a number of drills. Lamp also had 34 sets in the bench press, which tied him for second among all offensive linemen.

Landry has Lamp ranked at No. 18 on his horizontal draft board.

“Dan Feeney is more of a power guy,” Landry said. “He’s more of a pure-guard type.”

Feeney played in a program at Indiana which plays at a up-tempo style. Like his former teammate Jason Spriggs, now with the Packers, Feeney also was named as a first-team All-American and first-team All-Big Ten as a senior.

Feeney was also named honorable mention All-Big Ten as a freshman and sophomore, named first-team All-Big Ten and third-team All-American as a junior.

Feeney led the way at Indiana for running backs like Tevin Coleman (now with the Atlanta Falcons) and Jordan Howard (now with the Chicago Bears).

Played some right tackle as a senior due to injuries, but playing inside at guard is where he operates best. Some scouts believe Feeney could also play center.

Landry has Feeney ranked at No. 49 on his horizontal draft board.

“Ethan Pocic played center at LSU,” Landry said. “I think he’s more of a guard and can play tackle. He’s played all positions. His strength is his versatility.”

Ethan Pocic

Ethan Pocic

Pocic  started 37 games on the offensive line at LSU, 27 at center, nine at right guard and one at left tackle.

Pocic was second-team All-SEC in 2015 and first-team All-SEC in 2016, when he also received multiple second and third-team All-American honors.

I had the Packers selecting Pocic in the second round in my post-combine 7-round mock draft for the team recently.

Landry has Pocic ranked at No. 76 on his horizontal draft board.

“Dorian Johnson of Pitt is a very underrated player,” Landry said. “He can play right tackle in a pinch, but is primarily a guard.”

Johnson started three games his freshman year, two at left tackle and one at right guard. Since then, Johnson became a regular at left guard where he started 39 straight games.

Johnson was named second-team All-ACC as a junior and then was name first-team All-ACC as a senior,plus was named to a number of All-American teams.

Johnson excelled in the vertical jump and the broad jump drills at the combine.

Landry has Johnson ranked at No. 77 on his horizontal draft board.

“In terms of Pat Elflein, I think he’s a center,” Landry said. “That’s what he is best at. I think he can play guard, but he is the best center in this draft. I think he’s really effective.”

Elflein was first-team All-Big Ten three times in his career with the Buckeyes. In 2014, Elflein started three games at left guard and 12 at right guard. In 2015, played strictly right guard, when he was also a second-team Associated Press All-American.

In 2016, Elflein moved to center and was named first-team All-American.

Landry has Elflein ranked at No. 45 on his horizontal draft board.

“I think all those guys who I mentioned are all [up there],” Landry said. “Lamp is a first rounder and all the rest are second-round values.”

Pat Elflein

Pat Elflein

In terms of what Thompson might do about selecting an interior offensive lineman in this draft, we can look at his history of doing that since he started running the front office of the Packers in 2005.

In his first year as GM, Thompson faced a situation which closely mirrors what has happened to the team over the last year with his starting guards, when both Josh Sitton (released in 2016) and Lang (left via free agency in 2017) moved on from the team. Both Sitton and Lang had achieved Pro Bowl status as Packers before they found new homes in the NFL.

In the 2005 offseason, both Marco Rivera and Mike Wahle left the team via free agency. Rivera had been named to the Pro Bowl three times in his career with the Packers, while Wahle had been named first-team All-Pro by Sports Illustrated in 2003.

The loss of both Rivera and Wahle opened up a big hole in the middle of the offensive line that Thompson tried to correct that offseason.

Thompson selected two guards (Junius Coston and Will Whitaker) late in the 2005 draft, plus signed Adrian Klemm and Matt O’Dwyer via free agency.

The results were not good, as the offensive guard play was horrible. The Packers finished 4-12 in 2005 and Mike Sherman was fired and replaced by Mike McCarthy in 2006.

Thompson looked earlier in the draft in 2006 to add talent to the guard position. Unlike 2005, this time Thompson selected Daryn Colledge in the second round and Jason Spitz in the third round.

Those selections helped to solidify the guard position as both Colledge and Spitz became starters as rookies and remained starters for a numbers of seasons. Colledge started through the 2010 season, while Spitz started through the 2008 season.

The next changing of the guards occurred in the 2008 and 2009 NFL drafts. In 2008, the Packers selected Sitton in the fourth round and then in 2009 selected Lang in the same round.

Sitton became a starter at guard in 2009 and remained as a starter (both at RG and LG) until he released just before the 2016 regular season.

Lang became a starter in 2011 (both at LG and RG) and remained a starter through the 2016 season.

The replacement for Sitton in 2016 was Lane Taylor, who Thompson signed as an undrafted rookie in 2013. Taylor did a solid job as Sitton’s replacement last season.

The center position was manned by veteran Mike Flanagan in Thompson’s first year as GM in 2005, but he was replaced by Scott Wells in 2006. Wells was originally drafted in the seventh round by Sherman when he was both head coach and general manager back in 2004.

Wells remained a starter through the 2011 season, when he left the team via free agency. Thompson tried to solve that issue by signing veteran free agent Jeff Saturday, but towards the end of the 2012 season, it was apparent that the Packers needed to upgrade the position once again, as Evan Dietrich-Smith, who Thompson originally signed as an undrafted rookie in 2009, became the starter.

Dietrich remained the starter through the 2013 season, but then left the Packers in free agency the next offseason.

The Packers found his successor, Corey Linsley, in the fifth round of the 2014 draft. Linsley had faced a spirited battle in training camp with JC Tretter, who the Packers had drafted in the fourth round of the 2013 draft. But Tretter suffered a knee injury which took him out of the competition.

Both Linsley (38 starts) and Tretter (10 starts) were very solid in their play at center over the past three seasons. After Tretter was injured again in 2016, Linsley took over again at center and never looked back. Tretter then moved on via free agency to the Cleveland Browns.

So what does this all mean for Thompson regarding the 2017 NFL draft and selecting an interior offensive lineman? I’m sure he’ll look back on the 2005 draft and ponder if he waited too late in the draft to select a guard that year. Then again, Thompson couldn’t be too disappointed in that draft, as he selected Aaron Rodgers in the first round and Nick Collins in the second round.

My guess is that because the classes for the interior offensive linemen in this draft are not especially deep, that Thompson will select one fairly early in the draft.

Which means that one of the five players Landry discussed in this story could be a Green Bay Packer in 2017.

The 2017 NCAA Basketball Tournament: Wisconsin’s Seniors are Leading the Way

2017 Badger Senior Class in Hoops

When it comes to the NCAA basketball tournament over the past four seasons, no team has been more consistent than the Wisconsin Badgers. The Badgers are the only team in the NCAA to have made four consecutive Sweet 16 appearances, plus Wisconsin has won 13 tournament games during that time, which is also the best mark in the NCAA.

During that time period, the Badgers have been in the Final Four twice and the NCAA title game once.

When the 27-9 Badgers take on the 26-8 Florida Gators at Madison Square Garden in their Sweet 16 matchup, the Wisconsin will have a huge edge in terms of NCAA tournament experience.

Going into this tournament, only one player (senior guard Kasey Hill) for the Gators had put in some playing time in games during the Big Dance. Hill played in five games on the Florida team that reached the Final Four in 2014 before losing to Connecticut.

Compare that to just the seniors on the Badgers. Before the 2017 tourney started, guard Bronson Koenig had played in 16 tournament games and started 11. The same numbers held true for forward Nigel Hayes.

Zak Showalter played in 13 tournament games and started five. Vitto Brown had played in 11 games and also started five.

In the two games in this tournament, all of the seniors have played a big role for the Badgers, but especially Koenig and Hayes.

Koenig has been like an assassin draining key three-point shots (11-23), as he has scored 45 points in the victories over Virginia Tech and Villanova.

While most of Koenig’s points come from the outside, Hayes likes to take the ball inside and create three-point opportunities by getting to the foul line after making a shot. Hayes has scored 35 points in the two Badger wins in the tourney so far, which included the game-winner against Villanova, when he made a nifty reverse-layup via his left hand.

All in all, Koenig and Hayes have played in 16 NCAA Tournament games apiece and Wisconsin is 13-3 in those games.

Koenig has scored 159 points in four years of tournament play, which includes draining 31 three-point attempts.

Bronson Koenig II

Meanwhile, Hayes has chipped in 166 points in that time, plus has gotten to the free throw line 61 times, where has has made 41 of those charity stripe shots (67%).

Still, the game against the Gators should be like the first two games in the tournament were for the Badgers. A close game which will come down to making clutch plays in the end.

Both teams play very good defense. The Badgers were ranked 11th in the country (first in the Big Ten) in defense during the season, as they only allowed 61.8 points per game.

The Gators meanwhile, were ranked 37th in the country (third in the SEC), as they allowed 65.7 points per game.

Florida was magnificent on the defensive end in the their second-round victory over Virginia, as they only allowed the Cavaliers 39 points in that game.

Both teams like to shoot the three, as the Gators made 263-of-728 (36.1) in the regular season, while the Badgers made 276-of-772 (35.8).

So far in the two games in the tournament, the Gators have attempted 43 shots from three-point range, hitting 15 (34.9), while the Badgers have made 19-of-49 (38.8).

Besides the seniors, the player to watch on the Badgers is center Ethan Happ, a redshirt sophomore. Last year, Happ was named Big Ten Freshman of the Year. This year, Happ was named first-team All-Big Ten and third-team All-American by The Sporting News.

In the regular season, Happ averaged 13.8 points per game, 9.1 rebounds per game, 2.8 assists per game and 1.2 blocks per game.

In the two games in the tournament thus far, Happ has 22 points, grabbed 16 rebounds, had five assists and also five blocked shots.

The real good news for Happ is the way he is shooting free throws much better as of late. In the last four games, Happ has made 12-of-19 free throws (63%). That’s much better than the 49.4 mark he had in the regular season.

In terms of the Gators, they may not have a lot of NCAA tournament experience, but they have some very talented players.

Their leading scorer in the regular season was guard Kevaughn Allen, who averaged 13.4 points per game. But in the two games of the tournament, Allen has hit just 1 of 13 three-pointers and 3 of 21 shots overall. But the Gators still won both games.

Why? Mostly defense. Hill (9.7 points per game), the only tournament-experienced Gator coming into this year’s Big Dance, plus junior guard Chris Chiozza (7.1 points per game), are the two defensive stalwarts in the backcourt.

The Gators can also get some points from both guard Canyon Barry (11.8) and forward Devin Robinson (11.4). Robinson also averaged 6.3 rebounds per game.

Robinson has had a great postseason thus far, as he has 38 points in two games, plus has hauled in 16 boards as well.

The Gators caught a bad break back in February, when center John Egbunu suffered a season-ending knee injury.

Up until that point, Egbunu had six double-figure rebound games and was averaging 7.8 points, 6.6 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game.

Nigel Hayes

That injury will hurt the Gators versus the Badgers. Wisconsin loves to shoot the three, but unlike Virginia, the Badgers can pound teams with their inside game as well. Against Villanova, Hayes and Happ combined for 31 points and 16 rebounds and hit 13 of 23 shots.

Both coaches are in their second seasons with their respective teams. Mike White has a 47-23 record over that period for the Gators, while Greg Gard of the Badgers has a 42-17 record. White has won his only two postseason games thus far, while Gard has a 4-1 record in the tournament.

In terms of the game between the Badgers and the Gators, expect another close contest on Friday night at the Garden. The winner of this game will have a real opportunity to move on to the Final Four with a victory.

In a game like this, you have to give the edge to the team with a big advantage in tournament experience and who also have players (Koenig and Hayes) who have been clutch at crunch time in the tournament.

Bottom line, I see the Badgers moving on to the Elite 8 in a hard-fought victory over the Gators.

A Scout’s Take on the Running Back Class in the 2017 NFL Draft

Marlon Mack

Running back Marlon Mack of South Florida.

With the exodus of Eddie Lacy to the Seattle Seahawks earlier this week via free agency, the Green Bay Packers find themselves in a bit of quandary regarding their running back situation.

Right now, the Packers only have Ty Montgomery as a sure thing at running back. And that is just a year after taking on that position full-time after being a wide receiver his first year with the Packers.

The Packers can also re-sign unrestricted free agent Christine Michael, who the Packers brought on last season after he was released by the Seahawks. Other than that, the Packers also tendered an offer to exclusive rights free agent Don Jackson, who received a handful of plays last season with the Packers when injuries hit the running back position hard.

Plus, there are still a number of veteran running backs available via free agency. The list includes Adrian Peterson, LeGarrette Blount and Jamaal Charles.

Fortunately for the Packers and any team in need of help at running back this year, the 2017 NFL draft is extremely deep and talented this year at that position.

With that in mind, I wanted to get the opinion of NFL scout Chris Landry on this group of prospects. I once again was able to speak to Landry on 620 WDAE’s Steve Duemig Show earlier this week, which was guest-hosted by Pat Donovan and Aaron Jacobson.

I first asked Landry to talk about what I believed to be great depth in the running back class in this year’s draft and I mentioned Marlon Mack of South Florida.

“I have Marlon as a high third-round pick,” Landry said. “In the upper-tier third round. I think he, Kareem Hunt of Toledo and the kid from North Carolina State, Matthew Dayes, are all high third-round values.

“You could get what I think would be fourth-round value with guys like Samaje Perine of Oklahoma, Jamaal Williams of BYU, Wayne Gallman of Clemson, all juniors. You’re right, there are guys like Brian Hill of Wyoming, who is an outstanding player. If you want a little back who is shifty, which is not what some people want, you have Donnel Pumphrey [San Diego State] is really good. Elijah McGuire of Louisiana Lafayette is a fifth or sixth-round value.

“There are good players in this draft. I absolutely like Marlon Mack. I think he would be great value at the top of the third round if you can get him there. Maybe even the late second round. We’ll see. I don’t think there is a half dozen players at the running back position who are better than Marlon in this draft. One of them is Joe Mixon, and we know that’s going to be an ownership decision.

“So I think that there is absolutely an opportunity to get healthy at the running back position [in this draft]. And most people prefer the younger guys who don’t have as much wear and tear on them.”

The Packers have a number of needs going into this draft. Mostly on the defensive side of the ball. Positions like cornerback, outside linebacker and inside linebacker. But what if one of the top three running backs were still on the board when they Packers had their selection at pick No. 29 in the first round.

I’m talking about Leonard Fournette of LSU, Dalvin Cook of Florida State and Christian McCaffrey of Stanford.

Would general manager Ted Thompson select one of them if that were the case? The answer is yes, if they were the highest-rated player on the Green Bay draft board.

I asked Landry to talk about the Big 3.

“They all have the same grade, but all are different type of guys,” Landry said. “Fournette is the Adrian Peterson power guy. An impact carry back. Needs to have 25 touches or carries a game. Not as good catching the football.

“Like Dalvin Cook, the more complete back. He can run, has more explosiveness and has more make-you-miss  skills than Leonard. Much more effective catching the football out of the backfield.

at California Memorial Stadium on November 19, 2016 in Berkeley, California.

Running back Christian McCaffrey of Stanford.

“Christian McCaffrey is the smaller satellite back. You can line him up in the backfield, the wing position or the slot position. If you put him in the receiving group, he might be as good as a receiver as there is in the draft. A great route-runner. Superb hands. Nice returner.

“So listen, it’s really like going to a car lot. Do you want a sports car, a minivan, a SUV or a pickup truck? I mean, they are all good, but what do you want? All these guys to me are first-round talent. I think behind them is Alvin Kamara of Tennessee, who has really good explosiveness with size.

“But I’m going to tell you, that on the football field, I’m not so sure that Joe Mixon is not the best running back in this draft overall. But…fill in the blank on Joe Mixon. That is going to be a very tough decision. And I’m not advocating for him off the field. I’m just saying, football-wise, he’s special.”

I had the Packers taking Mack in my second mock draft, but based on Landry’s current grade on the former Bull, the Packers would most likely have to pull the trigger in the late-second round to bring in Mack, as opposed to waiting until the late-third round.

When I talked with Landry this week, I also brought up Joe Williams of Utah, who I had the Packers selecting in my first mock draft. Williams was a dynamo in the second half of the 2016 season for the Utes when he rushed for 1,110 yards and nine touchdowns (in six games).

In the the Foster Farms Bowl against Indiana, Williams rushed for 222 yards and another score, plus caught a pass for 56 more yards.

Then at the East-West Shrine Game practices he impressed Landry, who said this about Williams:

“Utah RB Joe Williams has an outstanding burst and he was a little bit thicker than I anticipated. He is going to be a mismatch in the passing game as he gains more experience. He looks like an ideal change-of-pace back at the next level.”

Just to show you how deep and talented this running back class is in this draft, Landry currently has a seventh-round grade on Williams.

Bottom line, no matter what the Packers decide to do about bringing in a veteran free agent running back, the upcoming draft can certainly upgrade the depth and talent at the running back position for the team.

Post-Combine 7-Round 2017 NFL Mock Draft for the Green Bay Packers

Ted Thompson 2016 Combine

The 2017 NFL draft is about a month and a half away, as it will take place in Philadelphia and will start on April 27 and last through April 29.

In terms of the pre-draft evaluation of prospects, we have now seen the bowl games, the all-star games (the East-West Shrine Game, the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl and the Senior Bowl).

We also recently had the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis which lasted from February 28 though March 6.

The only thing left for the prospects to help improve their draft value is the various pro days for the players, which will be viewed by the the scouts, coaches and front office-types who will be in attendance.

Sometimes, a player’s draft value will be severely compromised during a workout, which is what happened last week for cornerback Sidney Jones at the pro day at Washington. Jones suffered a torn Achilles tendon Saturday during the workout.

Jones was projected to be a first round selection as well.

Anyway, it’s been a little over a month since I did my initial 7-round mock draft for the Green Bay Packers.

A number of things have changed since then for the Packers, as free agency has really affected the look of the roster up until this point.

The Packers have seen a number of their players move on from the team in free agency. The list includes center/guard JC Tretter, who signed with the Cleveland Browns, defensive back Micah Hyde, who signed with the Buffalo Bills, outside linebacker Julius Peppers, who signed with the Carolina Panthers (the team which originally drafted Peppers), right guard T.J. Lang, who signed with the Detroit Lions on Sunday and finally running back Eddie Lacy, who signed with the Seattle Seahawks on Tuesday.

In addition, tight end Jared Cook will not be returning to the team either, as the Packers bolstered that position by signing Martellus Bennett (New England Patriots) and Lance Kendricks (Los Angeles Rams) via free agency.

The Packers also re-signed outside linebacker Nick Perry, as well as reserve offensive lineman Don Barclay. The team also brought back restricted free agent Jayrone Elliott, who signed a one-year, $1.6 million contract on Monday night according to Rob Demovsky of ESPN.com.

In addition to that, the Packers also brought back cornerback Davon House on Tuesday in another free agent acquisition. House played the past two years with the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Packers originally drafted House in 2011 and he stayed with the team through 2014 before leaving for Jacksonville via free agency in 2015.

The free agency frenzy is not over, as I expect the Packers to re-sign more of their own players, as well a couple of other players from other teams.

In terms of other unrestricted free agents on the Packers, you still have defensive end/outside linebacker Datone Jones (visiting the Vikings on Monday), running back Christine Michael and longsnapper Brett Goode, who are all unsigned at this time. I expect both Jones and Goode to re-up with the Packers.

Then you also have restricted free agent linebacker Jordan Tripp, who was not tendered an offer.

Plus there are the exclusive rights free agents. The list includes punter Jacob Schum (signed his exclusive rights contract), inside linebacker Joe Thomas (received tender offer), defensive lineman Christian Ringo (received tender offer), wide receiver Geronimo Allison (received tender offer), running back Don Jackson (received tender offer), running back John Crockett (did not receive tender offer) and fullback Joe Kerridge (received tender offer).

Getting back to the draft. In my first mock draft, I had the Packers selecting outside linebacker T.J. Watt in the first round. I still feel like that the drafting of Watt definitely has a real chance to happen (Watt met with the Packers at the combine), but for this mock draft, I will be selecting different players in each round.

But just like I did in my first mock draft, I selected players who I believe would fit in well with the Packers. Not just because of the schemes the team runs on offense and defense, but also how the player can help the special teams units, which were ranked 29th in the NFL in 2016. My buddy Rick Gosselin does a fantastic job of evaluating and ranking the special teams units for all 32 teams in the NFL each and every year.

One of the reasons I’ve had a decent track record over the years in my mock drafts for the Packers is because I utilize the expertise and insight from NFL scout Chris Landry.

Landry will comment on each and every player I select in each mock draft I do.

Okay, enough of that, let’s take a look at my post-combine mock draft for the Packers in 2017.

Round 1: Cornerback Marlon Humphrey (Alabama)

Marlon Humphrey

Height: 6’0″

Weight: 197 pounds

Marlon Humphrey was a two-year starter at Alabama, where he had 81 total tackles, 6.5 tackles for a loss, five interceptions (one for a score) and three forced fumbles.

Humphrey was a Freshman All-SEC in 2015, as the Alabama won the national championship.

Humphrey played in a number of different coverage schemes with the Crimson Tide and he used his track-star speed and athleticism to his advantage. Humphrey is also a very aggressive tackler both in the secondary and in playing the run.

Humphrey recorded a 40-yard dash time of 4.41 seconds at the NFL Scouting Combine. His three-cone drill time of 6.75 seconds was among the best of his position group.

Speaking of the combine, just like they did with Watt, the Packers also met with Humphrey.

The cornerback position for the Packers definitely needs to fortified in the draft and also in free agency. Humphrey would also add much needed speed in the secondary of the Packers.

Landry said this about Humphrey before the national championship game between Clemson and Alabama: “Humphrey steps into the role as Alabama’s lockdown cornerback this season. He’s physical against the run, and he has legitimate track speed.”

Round 2: Center/Guard Ethan Pocic (LSU)

Ethan Pocic

Height: 6’6″

Weight: 310 pounds

Ethan Pocic  started 37 games on the offensive line at LSU, 27 at center, nine at right guard and one at left tackle. That bodes well for Pocic about possibly playing for the Packers, as versatility is one of the attributes that Green Bay looks for with offensive linemen.

Pocic was second-team All-SEC in 2015 and first-team All-SEC in 2016, when he also received multiple second and third-team All-American honors.

Pocic knows how to keep his hands inside while pass-blocking and also has nice lateral movement to pick up blitzers or stunts. Even with his size, Pocic has the ability to get to the second-level with ease.

The former Tiger is also athletic enough to be very effective on sweeps and screens.

With the Packers losing both JC Tretter and T.J. Lang in free agency, selecting a player like Pocic who can help out at both center and guard makes a lot of sense.

Landry said this about Pocic after a Senior Bowl practice: “LSU C Ethan Pocic was up and down today. On one particular snap he was beaten by UCLA DT Eddie Vanderdoes with a swim move. On the next, snap he was able to thwart Alabama DT Dalvin Tomlinson on a speed move inside. Pocic showed the type of adjusting that you like to see after a mistake and looks to take coaching very receptively.”

Round 3: Running Back Marlon Mack (South Florida)

Marlon Mack

Height: 5’11”

Weight: 213 pounds

Marlon Mack was a three-year starter at South Florida, where he rushed for over 1,000 yards in each of those years. In his career as a Bull, Mack rushed for 3,609 yards (6.2 average) and 32 touchdowns.

Mack was also a threat in the passing game as well, as he hauled in 65 passes for 498 yards and another score during his time at USF.

Mack led the All-American Athletic Conference in rushing as a freshman and a sophomore and was named first-team All-AAC in each of his three seasons at USF.

Mack has an explosive burst when running the ball and is very shifty. Has the ability to run away from tacklers, as six of his 15 touchdowns in 2016 went for 43-plus yards.

At the combine, Mack ran a 4.50 40 and excelled in the broad jump with a mark of 125 inches.

Right now, the Packers only have Ty Montgomery as a sure thing at running back. And that is just a year after taking on that position full-time after being a wide receiver his first year with the Packers. With the loss of Lacy in free agency, don’t be surprised if the Packers don’t sign a veteran free agent running back themselves.

Drafting a running back will be a focus of the Packers in the draft and Mack would be an excellent addition. I saw him play many times and Mack is the real deal.

Landry said this about Mack prior to the Birmingham Bowl when USF played South Carolina: “Mack will go down a year or two from now as the steadiest offensive player in Bull history. He’s been a reliable workhorse from the moment he stepped foot on campus, working between the tackles and powering through defenders for additional. The consistency of Mack, who rushed for at least 100 yards in all but three of the games he played in 2015, allowed young QB Quinton Flowers to develop incrementally, without having to overextend himself in the early stages of his career.”

Round 4: Linebacker Vince Biegel (Wisconsin)

Vince Biegel II

Height: 6’3″

Weight: 246 pounds

Vince Biegel  was the Wisconsin Gatorade Player of the Year as a senior in high school (172 tackles, 21 sacks). That took Biegel to Madison where he was a four-year starter at Wisconsin and was named team captain his senior year. In his career as a Badger, Biegel had 131 total tackles, 28.5 tackles for a loss, 15 sacks, three passes defended and two forced fumbles.

Biegel was named third-team All-Big Ten in 2015 and also second-team All-Big Ten in 2016.

Biegel has excellent quickness around the edge and can diagnose blocks when he dips inside to find the football. Biegel also has nice run-pass recognition and is solid in the running game.  Has also shown decent cover skills. The former Badger plays with a tenacious edge and his motor never stops running.

Biegel was solid in all the drills at the combine and ran a 4.67 in the 40.

At the outside linebacker position, the Packers lost Peppers in free agency and have seen Clay Matthews and Perry miss playing time due to injuries. The team did re-sign Perry and Elliott to bolster the depth. Re-signing Jones is still a possibility, plus the Packers also like the upside of Kyler Fackrell. Still, more quality depth is need at the position, as the Dom Capers 3-4 scheme is based on putting pressure on the quarterback.

Landry said this about Biegel after a Senior Bowl practice: “Wisconsin’s Vince Biegel was hyper aggressive. He is an impressive athlete who needs his athleticism to be honed a bit. Biegel was working tight ends in 1-on-1s and he made a couple of solid plays in coverage. Pass rushing versus tackles was rough today for Biegel, but he’s aggressive and athletic nonetheless. He might be suited to move to an off ball spot.”

Round 5: Cornerback Shaquill Griffin (Central Florida)

Shaquill Griffin

Height: 6’0″

Weight: 194 pounds

Griffin played four years at UCF and started the last two years. In his career with the Knights, Griffin had 113 total tackles, three tackles for a loss, six interceptions (two for touchdowns), 27 passes defended and one fumble recovery.

Griffin played at UCF with his twin brother Shaquem, who only has one hand. Both brothers had big years in 2016, with Shaquem winning the AAC’s Defensive Player of the Year award as a hybrid defensive back/linebacker, while Shaquill was named second-team All-AAC at cornerback.

Shaquill has excellent size, speed and strength for a cornerback. He has the physical ability to succeed in press coverage, plus match receivers stride for stride after their release. Is also an aggressive run defender.

Griffin had a very good combine, as he excelled in a number of drills, which included running a 4.38 in the 40 and having a vertical leap of 38.5 inches.

The Packers need to add speed and physicality to the cornerback position and Griffin can deliver in both areas.

Landry said this about Griffin before the Auto Nation Cure Bowl game between UCF and Arkansas State: “UCF boasts a growing history for developing next-level defensive backs. Griffin has a chance to be the next Knight to play on Sundays. He laid the ground floor in 2015 by starting 11 games, two at safety and nine at corner, and posting 50 tackles, two interceptions and a Knight-high 13 pass breakups.”

Round 5 (compensatory): Defensive Lineman Eddie Vanderdoes (UCLA)

Eddie Vanderdoes

Height: 6’3″

Weight: 305 pounds

Eddie Vanderdoes was a five-star recruit coming into UCLA, but injuries have hampered his time in Westwood. Out of the gate though, Vanderdoes showed the ability he showed in high school, as he was named honorable mention All-Pac-12 and also received Freshman All-American honors.

Vanderdoes followed that season by being named honorable mention again his sophomore year, as he had 50 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss and two sacks.

But the former Bruin star tore his ACL his junior year after playing exceptionally well versus Virginia in the season opener. Vanderdoes came back his senior year and was given honorable mention status for the third time in his career at UCLA.

In his career, Vanderdoes had 122 total tackles, 13.5 tackles for a loss, 4.5 sacks, two fumble recoveries and two forced fumbles.

Vanderdoes showed off his athletic ability at the combine, as the big man ran a 4.99 in the 40.

Ted Thompson likes selecting defensive linemen out of UCLA, as he drafted Datone Jones in 2013 and Kenny Clark last year. Vanderdoes would add some quality depth to the defensive line, plus would offset the loss of Letron Guion, who will miss the first four games of the 2017 season due to a PED violation.

Landry said this about Vanderdoes after a Senior Bowl practice: “Vanderdoes played exceptionally well today in all areas. He beat opponents with quickness, power and intensity. From the snap he’s tough to stop as he showed a great first step, power in his lower body and he worked his hands incredibly well. Even when it looked like Vanderdoes was outmatched, he won the down.”

Round 6: Linebacker Ben Boulware (Clemson)

Ben Boulware

Height: 6’0″

Weight: 238 pounds

Ben Boulware started his career at Clemson as a special teams demon, before becoming a starter at linebacker the past two seasons. Besides being team captain of the eventual national champion Tigers in 2016, Boulware led by example with his fiery play, as he was named first-team All-ACC both in 2015 and this past season.

In his career at Clemson, Boulware had 261 total tackles, 26.5 tackles for a loss, eight sacks, five interceptions, four fumble recoveries and seven forced fumbles.

Like Biegel, Boulware is a natural leader and never stops playing hard until he hears the whistle. Boulware is compact, but is fast to the football. He seems to have the knack for making a big play. Boulware has also shown some nice ability in pass coverage. No matter what, you are going to get a terror on special teams.

The biggest area in which Boulware can help the Packers immediately is on special teams, which really need help. Boulware will also push Blake Martinez, Jake Ryan and Joe Thomas for playing time at inside linebacker.

Landry said this about Boulware after a Senior Bowl practice: “Boulware is not a great athlete but he is a terrific football player. Best in the box, he’s instinctive, shows great anticipation and fires up the field. He’s also nasty and wraps up tackling. He struggles moving outside the numbers and in reverse.”

Round 7: Offensive Tackle Jonathan McLaughlin (Virginia Tech)

Jonathan McLaughlin

Height: 6’4″

Weight: 293 pounds

Jonathan McLaughlin started all four years at Virginia Tech and started 49 games overall. In his freshman year, McLaughlin started all 13 games and was named second-team freshman All-American by College Football News.

In his career as a Hokie, McLaughlin started 26 games as a left tackle and 23 games at right tackle. In 2016, McLaughlin was named third-team All-ACC at right tackle.

McLaughlin has a good wingspan and has quick feet, but needs to become more consistent. He shows good power in blocking for the run game.

McLaughlin is better suited for zone-blocking scheme, and has the physical attributes which could see him move inside to guard in the NFL.

With the Packers losing both Tretter and Lang to free agency, there is a good chance that one of their draft picks from last season, either Jason Spriggs or Kyle Murphy, would move inside from the offensive tackle position to play right guard. Because of that, it would be wise to draft a player who has experience at both tackle positions, plus one never knows when the injury bug will bite Bryan Bulaga at right tackle.

Prior to the East-West Shrine Game, McLaughlin met with the Packers. As did two other players who I had the Packers selecting in my first mock draft, cornerback Fabian Moreau and running back Joe Williams.

Landry said this about McLaughlin after an East-West Shrine Game practice: “McLaughlin displayed strength in his legs when getting into his pass set, as he was hard to move in one-on-one drills and had a great base. He has a lot of length in his arms and legs and uses it well. McLaughlin could stand to improve his quickness in his feet. McLaughlin had a very good day of practice. He was quicker today and was strong in the 11-on-11 period. He is able to stay low through his blocks and has a strong drive in his run blocks.”

The 2017 NCAA Basketball Tournament: Wisconsin Gets the Rodney Dangerfield Treatment (No Respect)

Greg Gard II

Head coach Greg Gard and his Wisconsin Badgers must feel like Rodney Dangerfield tonight. As in, not getting any respect. That’s based on the No. 8 seed they received in the 2017 NCAA basketball tournament.

For a team which has been to three straight Sweet 16 appearances in the NCAA basketball tournament, which no other team has done over that time, plus has won more tournament games (11) than anyone in that span, placing the Badgers with a No. 8 seed in the East bracket is a total slap in the face.

Adding to that, the 25-9 Badgers finished tied for second in the Big Ten (12-6) in the regular season and then made it to the title game in the Big Ten tournament as well, yet four other teams from the Big Ten conference had better seeds.

What the F!

Okay, I understand that the 25-7 Purdue Boilermakers received a No. 4 seed, as they were the Big Ten regular season champs (14-4) and they also beat the Badgers in their only matchup.

But to give a No. 5 seed to the 24-9 Minnesota Golden Gophers, who the Badgers beat twice in the regular season and finished ahead of them (11-7) in the Big Ten standings makes absolutely no sense. Plus Wisconsin advanced farther in the Big Ten tourney.

Nor does giving a No. 6 seed to the 24-8 Maryland Terrapins, who the Badgers beat in their only matchup in the regular season, plus knowing the team didn’t even advance to the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals.

The 24-11 Michigan Wolverines received a No. 7 seed, which was helped by winning the Big Ten tourney. Michigan finished 10-8 in the Big Ten in the regular season and split their two games against Wisconsin.

I have no problem with the seeding of the Wolverines, just that the Badgers should have been seeded higher than them. That obviously includes Minnesota and Maryland as well, based on the entire body of work.

I mean it’s great that the Big Ten received seven tournament bids, but Wisconsin certainly deserved better than the seeding they received. Not just because of what they did this past year, but also because of what they have done these past four years.

I would think that the seniors like Nigel Hayes, Bronson Koenig, Zak Showalter and Vitto Brown are feeling totally disrespected. Again these are four guys who have seen this team go to three straight Sweet 16s, two Final Fours and one NCAA title game.

2017 Badger Senior Class in Hoops

To me, the seeds of Wisconsin and Minnesota should be completely reversed. The Badgers deserve the right to be playing with the higher No. 5 seed and also to be playing in Milwaukee to begin the tournament.

Oh well, it is what it is. The Badgers now get to face a tough Virginia Tech team coached by Buzz Williams, who used to have the same job with Marquette. If the Badgers are fortunate to get by the Hokies, they will most likely (99 percent chance) get to play against the Villanova Wildcats, the No. 1 seed in the tourney and the defending national champions for the right to get to their fourth straight Sweet 16.

Well, it’s no use crying over spilled beer and bad cheese. The tournament begins for the Badgers on Thursday against the Hokies. I have a feeling that the Badgers want to prove to the NCAA selection committee that they will use this lack of respect as motivation in the tourney.

Rodney Dangerfield also didn’t get a lot of respect. But you know what? Rodney always got the last laugh.

Green Bay Packers: Free Agency is Like a Poker Game to Ted Thompson

ted-thompson-at-the-combine

I don’t know how many of you play poker, but if you ever did or do, you probably wouldn’t like sitting across the table from someone like Ted Thompson. Why? Well, not because he wins all the time, but because you could never get a good read on his hand based on his facial expressions.

Thompson of course is the head honcho in the front office of the Green Bay Packers and he runs his team similar to how he views a poker table. Sometimes he won’t even sit down at the table. Other times, he wins a big pot and then just walks away. But his look will never change.

When it comes to free agency, at least since Thompson became general manager of the Packers in 2005, the former Houston Oiler linebacker rarely dips his toes into the abyss known as unrestricted free agency.

Thompson’s approach to running the Green Bay organization, along with head coach Mike McCarthy, is to utilize a draft-and-develop program.

In 11 seasons since that partnership of Thompson and McCarthy took place in 2006, the Packers have had 114-61-1 regular season record, with six NFC North titles, nine playoff appearances, four NFC title game appearances and one Super Bowl win.

It’s rare that Thompson dips his toes into “pure” free agency, when he picks up a veteran NFL player who has had decent success with another team or teams in the NFL. Instead, Thompson depends much more on the draft and signing “street” free agents or undrafted rookie free agents.

But when Thompson has signed a free agent player like Ryan Pickett, or signed players who were recently released by the previous teams like Charles Woodson (Oakland Raiders), Julius Peppers (Chicago Bears) and Jared Cook (St. Louis Rams), the results have been pretty good.

When it comes to re-signing their own players in free agency, Thompson and the Packers often wait close until to the midnight hour in bringing back that player. Thompson has done that over the years with players like corner back Sam Shields, right tackle Bryan Bulaga, wide receiver Randall Cobb and most recently with outside linebacker Nick Perry.

Going into the start of free agency in 2017, the Packers had several players who were eligible to become unrestricted free agents. One was Perry, who the Packers re-signed Thursday morning before the actual start of free agency later that afternoon.

Perry signed a five-year, $59 million contract on Thursday, while the Packers also re-upped reserve offensive lineman Don Barclay to a one-year deal worth $1.3 million.

Nick Perry

With the signings of Perry and Barclay, the Packers were approximately $30 million under the cap figure of $167 million set for this year.

The Packers have lost three players to free agency already, as center JC Tretter signed with the Cleveland Browns, while defensive back Micah Hyde signed with the Buffalo Bills and outside linebacker Julius Peppers signed with the Carolina Panthers, who were the team who first drafted Peppers back in 2002.

Jason Wilde, citing a league source, reports that the Packers never made offers to either Hyde or Peppers.

That left players like right guard T.J. Lang, running back Eddie Lacy, tight end Jared Cook, outside linebacker Datone Jones, running back Christine Michael and longsnapper Brett Goode as unsigned unrestricted free agents.

Thompson is playing the ultimate poker game of bluffing with both Lang and Lacy, as the Packers are allowing them to visit other teams to see what the market says that they may be worth. It’s important to know, that Thompson has an ace up his sleeve, as reportedly both Lang and Lacy will allow the Packers to match or at least counter the offers made by other teams.

Speaking of poker, both Cook and his agent now know that they overplayed their hand against Thompson and Russ Ball, who is the team’s contract negotiator, on Friday.

The Packers made the re-signing Cook a priority this offseason, as he played a big role in the team’s six-game winning streak to the end the regular season and then also the success the Packers had in the postseason.

In fact, quarterback Aaron Rodgers often praised the addition of Cook as being the main reason the offense was clicking late in the season and in the postseason. Rodgers also said that re-signing Cook should be a priority for the Packers.

With that as ammunition, Cook and his agent bluffed Thompson and the Packers one too many times, as the team broke off talks with Cook and then signed Martellus Bennett instead.

The Packers signed Bennett to a three-year deal worth anywhere from $18.5 to $21 million.

This was a rare signing for Thompson, which made this move somewhat shocking. As I mentioned earlier, it’s not that Thompson won’t bring in other players from other teams, as he did that with Woodson, Peppers and Cook, but Thompson shies away from signing “true” unrestricted free agents.

Why? Because they can have an impact on the compensatory picks a team will receive in the NFL draft the following season. Woodson, Peppers and Cook were all released by their former teams before the Packers signed them. That meant that the Packers would not be affected at all in the compensatory pick process.

Martellus Bennett

But the signing of Bennett will, but Thompson still thought it was a risk well-worth taking. Thompson knew all about Bennett, who had played with the Chicago Bears for three seasons before being traded to the  New England Patriots last season.

Bennett, who stands 6’6″ and is 248 pounds, is a tight end who can stretch the seam down the middle with his speed and athleticism, plus is solid run-blocker, which is something the Packers have been looking for at that position for years now.

Bennett caught 55 passes for 701 yards (12.7 avg.) and seven touchdowns for the Patriots in 2016. In his career with the Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, Bears and Pats, Bennett has 403 receptions for 4,287 and 30 touchdowns.

Bennett was selected to the Pro Bowl in 2014 when he was with da Bears.

Time will tell how things will develop with both Lang and Lacy, along with all the other free agents like Jones, Michael and Goode, but one thing is for sure, with the signing of Bennett, Thompson is looking to win at the poker table in free agency.

Even if you can’t tell by looking at him.

The 2017 NFL Draft: The T.J. Watt to the Green Bay Packers Bandwagon is Growing

t-j-watt-in-cotton-bowl

Almost a month ago, I put out my first and only 2017 NFL mock draft for the Green Bay Packers thus far. I plan to put out three more before the actual draft begins on April 27, including one later this week. But in my first mock, on February 10, I had the Packers selecting linebacker T.J. Watt of Wisconsin with pick No. 29 in the first round.

Since then, that prognostication has picked up some steam and the Watt to the Packers bandwagon is growing.

This past weekend, Michael Cohen of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel wrote that Watt is well-positioned for the Packers to select at pick No. 29.

Pete Prisco of CBSSports.com put out a mock draft yesterday in which he had the Packers selecting Watt in the first round as well.

NFL media analyst Daniel Jeremiah was on the Watt bandwagon early like myself, when he had the Pack taking the Wisconsin linebacker at pick No. 29 in early February.

NFL Network draft expert Mike Mayock won’t put out an actual mock draft until the night before the draft, but he did compare Watt and his skill set to that of Clay Matthews of the Packers recently.

“The easy comparison is Clay Matthews. He’s an edge rusher who fits best into a 3-4 system,” Mayock told MMQB. “He has a similar game to Clay — an edge who can drop in coverage and has a motor that just won’t stop.”

Watt also told the media at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis on Saturday that he will be meeting with the Packers soon. That sure won’t stop any speculation about him going to Green Bay in the draft.

Watt certainly didn’t hurt himself in the workouts at the combine on Sunday either. The 6’5″, 243-pound Watt did well in all categories.

Watt finished 12th among linebackers in the 40-yard dash with a time of 4.69. Watt also had 21 reps on the bench press which placed him tied for eighth.

But in the other five workout categories, Watt was at or near the top in every one of those drills.

T.J. Watt at the combine

Watt finished second in the vertical jump with a leap of 37 inches. The Pewaukee, Wisconsin native was also tied for first in the broad jump with Jabrill Peppers of Michigan with a jump of 10’8″.

Watt finished second in the 3 cone drill with a time of 6.79. The former Badger also tied for first with Ben Gideon of Michigan in the 20-yard shuttle with a time of 4.13.

Finally, Watt finished first in the 60-yard shuttle with a time of 11.20.

As Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel wrote this past weekend, the primary needs of the Packers are cornerback, inside linebacker and outside linebacker.

Green Bay must feel pretty fortunate going into this draft, as those three positions appear to be very deep.

It might come down to the old best player on Ted Thompson’s board at pick No. 29 when the Packers make that pick.

The outside linebacker position will probably have some clarity for the Packers at the time of the draft, as I expect Green Bay to re-sign Nick Perry and Julius Peppers.

The agent for Peppers, Carl Carey, confirmed to various media outlets today that Peppers will indeed play in the NFL in 2017.

“There has been communication with the Packers, and there’s a tremendous amount of mutual respect between Julius and the Packers organization,” Carey said. “They’ve been great to him over the years, and that carries a lot of weight with him. Of course, free agency is unpredictable, so we’ll see what happens over the next several days.”

Peppers has been injury-free during his three year tenure with the Packers, but he’s also 37 years-old and will be playing in his 16th NFL season. Like in 2016, I expect his snaps to be limited at times in 2017.

Perry (two games missed in 2016 and 20 games missed in his five-year career) and Clay Matthews (four games missed in 2016 and 15 games missed in his eight-year career) have been anything but injury-free, which is another reason why selecting someone like Watt makes a lot of sense.

The Packers also like the upside of second-year outside linebacker Kyler Fackrell, but as Mayock has said, Watt has the playmaking ability of Matthews. That type of ability is hard to find, as No. 52 has 72.5 sacks, 13 forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries (one for a touchdown), plus has six interceptions (two for scores) in his career.

If the Packers did select Watt with the 29th pick of the first round of the 2017 NFL draft, it would be the first time since 1948 that Green Bay selected a Wisconsin native who also played his college ball for the University of Wisconsin in the first round.

The Packers selected back Earl “Jug” Girard of the Badgers in 1948. Girard hailed from Marinette, Wisconsin.

Finally, the Packers have to be looking at the lineage of the Watt family in the NFL. Brother Derek, who also played at Wisconsin, is a fullback with the now Los Angeles Chargers and is 24 years-old.

But the brother that people will certainly compare T.J. with is J.J., who has won the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award three times with the Houston Texans.

Like his brother J.J., who will turn 28-years-old on March 22,  T.J. first started out as a tight end in college and then became a talented late-bloomer on defense with the Badgers. The comparisons are striking.

Bottom line, if the Packers do select T.J. Watt and if he comes anywhere close to the production of his brother J.J. in the NFL, the team would have to be ecstatic.

A Conversation with David Baker, the President/Executive Director of the Pro Football Hall of Fame

david-baker-pro-football-hall-of-fame

Before David Baker was named President and Executive Director for the Pro Football Hall of Fame in early 2014, he certainly had a very interesting background in sports.

The 6’9” Baker was a power forward and captain of the basketball team at the University of California at Irvine from 1971–75. After his college career was over, Baker also played two seasons of professional basketball in Europe.

In terms of professional sports and having a leadership role, Baker was first an owner for the Anaheim Piranhas of the Arena Football League in 1995. But Baker soon had an even bigger job in the AFL, as he was named Commissioner of the league in 1996 and remained in that position through the 2008 season.

Under Baker’s watch, the AFL experienced unprecedented growth in attendance, TV ratings, revenue, corporate sponsorships, merchandise sales, and profitability.

I was able to witness the love for the AFL in person a few times, as the Tampa Bay Storm won two of it’s five overall AFL titles during that time. The Storm’s current team president is former Tampa Bay Buccaneer great Derrick Brooks, who also was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2014.

Excelling in the world of sports runs in the Baker family, as son Sam was a former three-time All-American left tackle at USC and played six years with the Atlanta Falcons from 2008-14.

Sam was the 21st pick in the first round of the 2008 NFL draft by the Dirty Birds. I was writing for Packer Report at that time and I did an interview and story about Sam before the draft, as the Packers were reportedly interested in perhaps selecting Baker at pick No. 30 in the first round.

Another son Ben, who was also an offensive lineman, played his college football at Duke and is now a Senior Manager of Broadcasting at NASCAR in Charlotte.

Baker and his wife Colleen, also have two other children, daughter Leyla and another son named Michael Ray.

When he wasn’t directly involved in sports, Baker has had an extensive and successful background as a business professional.

After obtaining a Juris Doctorate degree from Pepperdine University School of Law, Baker became an attorney in California, as he specialized in corporate mergers, acquisitions and real estate law.

If that wasn’t enough to keep him busy, Baker also served as a City Councilman and Mayor of Irvine, California from 1984-88.

Starting in 2010, Baker also became a Partner in Union Village, LLC, the largest healthcare project in the United States. Union Village is located in Henderson, Nevada and became the first Integrated Health Village in the world.

It was in during his time at Union Village, when Baker was approached about becoming the President and Executive Director for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

“The Hall did a national search,” Baker told me. “A guy named Jed Hughes called me. Jed was the head of the sports division at Korn Ferry. Jed used to be a coach for a long, long time with the Steelers, UCLA and other places. Anyway, Jed called and asked if I would be interested in applying for the job and I told Jed that I love the Hall, that I knew my predecessor (Steve Perry) well and I thought it would be great, but that I was really involved in this thing at Union Village and I told him that I just couldn’t do it.

“Jed told me that he would send me the job description via email anyway and if I changed my mind to call him. At that end of the day, I’m cleaning out my email and I was in Atlanta at the time, and I forwarded the job description note to my wife Colleen, with a another little note saying you’ll never guess what happened today.

“Colleen called me about 15 minutes later and told me that we were going to do this thing with the Hall. And I told her that I had already told them no. Colleen said that I should call them back. I countered by saying that we were involved in this big project at Union Village. Colleen then said it was time to pass the baton there.

“I also told her how cold it was in Ohio and then asked why she wanted to do this so bad. And Colleen said, ‘Have you read this thing?’ And quite honestly I hadn’t. And Colleen said that I have to read it because this job is about what you believe.

“You know, my mom and dad could not read or write. And if it wasn’t for sports, and in my case it was basketball, but I always loved football the most, but sports provided me an education and sports introduced me to people who I never would have met otherwise. And it took me to places I never would have gone to.

“But more importantly, it taught me things about lessons in life. Not only did those lessons help me succeed, but even more importantly when I was knocked on my tail in life by mistakes of my own choosing, it helped me survive and get up again.

“For me now at the Hall of Fame, I call it the church of football. It may not be any particular doctrine of a church, but the things that the game teaches, like perseverance, commitment, sacrifice,  teamwork, love, loyalty and discipline, are all things that are taught every Sunday at some church.”

While Baker was heading the AFL as Commissioner, he  got to know his counterpart in the NFL, Paul Tagliabue. During that association, Tagliabue introduced Baker to his right-hand guy, a fellow by the name of Roger Goodell.

That relationship became quite strong over the years.

“Roger and I had dinner once a month for ten years before he became Commissioner of the NFL,” Baker said.

In the three-plus years that Baker has been the head of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he has been involved in some very emotional moments when he has told a nominee for induction that they had indeed been selected to enshrinement in the Hall.

As President and Executive Director for the Hall, one of Baker’s duties is to inform a nominee whether he was inducted or not.

In Baker’s first year at the Hall, he had such a moment after first informing both Michael Strahan and Derrick Brooks that they inducted into the Hall.

“The third guy was Ray Guy,” Baker said. “Ray had been eligible 29 years and had been a finalist nine times and had not been called yet. When I got a hold of Guy, I said, ‘Ray, this is Dave Baker, President of the Hall.’ Ray said, ‘Yes Sir,’ in that southern drawl he has.

“So I tell him, ‘Ray, it is my great pleasure…’ I got that far and I could hear him drop to the ground with the phone rattling around. I could hear his wife asking him if he was okay. I thought I killed my first Hall of Famer!

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“Ray took about two minutes to get up and when he got back on the phone he said, ‘I don’t think I understood it until now how big a thing this is for me.’

Baker also talked about what recently occurred last month when he informed Jerry Jones that he was inducted.

“I’ve known Jerry for a couple of decades,” Baker said. “He was one of the owners in the Arena Football League. Jerry is probably the P.T. Barnum of our time. Jerry had 20 of his family waiting with him to find out if he was inducted. And when I knocked on his door, they were screaming and yelling and every single one of them were crying.”

But the induction announcement which touched Baker the most was when Kurt Warner made it into the Hall last month.

“It is a special moment for each one of them who get inducted,” Baker said. “But for me, it was a little more special with Kurt Warner. I had seen him grow up. I had seen him rise (in the AFL). I saw him overcome the donut in his NFL career when he was with the Giants before he went to Arizona.

“I just have the greatest respect for him. More as a human being. Far more than a football player. We share some spiritual values together. But what was real interesting about that was two years ago when Kurt was eligible for the Hall for the first time, I wanted to make sure that I was the one who call him, as we also call the guys who don’t make it.

“I told Kurt that it didn’t happen that year and that I hoped I could call him next year with better news. And Kurt says, ‘Commish, that’s okay. Don’t worry about it. But you have to tell me, did my friend Orlando [Pace] make it?’ Well Pace didn’t make it that year and Kurt was more upset about that than about the fact that he didn’t get in.

“That speaks to the kind of man he is. The next year Kurt did not make it again, but Orlando Pace did get in. But when I knocked on the door this last time, not only Kurt was there, but Brenda and their eight kids were there as well. It was just a great moment when I was able to let him know that he was in.

“To me, Kurt Warner is not only the kind of football player, but the kind of man who belongs in the Hall of Fame. When I’m introduced at places, sometimes I’m introduced as the President of the NFL Hall of Fame. But it’s the Pro Football Hall of Fame. That includes the Arena Football League and NFL Europe. Kurt won championships in the AFL and NFL Europe, plus in the NFL. The only thing Kurt doesn’t have is a Canadian Football League title. I’m just so proud of him.”

Last year, Baker was able to knock on the door of Brett Favre after he was inducted. Some people may not recall this, but Favre and Warner were teammates for a brief period in training camp with the Packers in 1994. The undrafted rookie was released in camp, as the Packers had a pretty good stable of quarterbacks at the time, which included Favre, Ty Detmer and Mark Brunell.

After Warner was released by the Packers, he went to the AFL, NFL Europe and then the NFL again. We all know what happened after that.

favre-and-warner

Baker had an interesting conversation with Favre, as he told him that he was inducted.

“A year ago, I knocked on the door of Brett Favre,” Baker said. “That particular day we deliberated for about 10 hours, but it took 10 seconds to select Brett Favre. So when I knock on Brett’s door and saw him, I first made a joke. I said, ‘Brett, it’s my great pleasure to tell you, provided you don’t retire, that you will be going into the Pro Football Hall of Fame as one of the 303 greatest players, coaches and contributors to ever play this game.’

“Brett heard the first part, but when I got to the second part about being among the 303 greatest players ever, Brett put his hands in his pockets and hung his head humbly like a kid. Because he knew how big this was.”

Big indeed. As Baker explained to me, there are several hundred million men who have played the game of football in some fashion. Of that group, only 2.2 million played college football. And when you take it to the professional level, there are only 27,000 who been be paid to play, coach or officiate in the National Football League.

So to be among the 300-plus players, coaches and contributors in the Pro Football Hall of Fame is truly an outstanding honor.

As I heard these great stories from Baker, I kept thinking about Jerry Kramer. Why? Because he has all the attributes as a player and also as a man to be among the greats in Canton.

In 1969, the Pro Football Hall of Fame named their NFL 50th anniversary team. The first team consisted of Jim Thorpe, Johnny Unitas, Jim Brown, Gale Sayers, Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch, Cal Hubbard, Don Hutson, John Mackey, Jerry Kramer, Chuck Bednarik, Gino Marchetti, Leo Nomellini, Ray Nitschke, Dick “Night Train” Lane, Emlen Tunnell and Lou Groza.

Every one of the members on that legendary team are enshrined as players in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. All except one. That would be Jerry Kramer.

Kramer was also named to the NFL All-Decade team for the 1960s. Looking back on the players who were named First-Team All-Decade through the year 2000, there were 145 players who were given that designation.

And up until now, 133 of those players have been inducted into the hallowed halls in Canton. Kramer is among the 12 who haven’t as of yet.

The fact that Kramer was not only a First-Team All-Decade player, plus was the lone guard on the NFL 50th anniversary team, make his omission from the Pro Football Hall of Fame truly puzzling.

Kramer was a five-time AP (First-Team) All-Pro and also named as an AP (Second-Team) All-Pro once, plus was also named to three Pro Bowls for the Packers. No. 64 would have had even more honors if not for injuries and illness. Kramer missed half of the 1961 season due to a broken ankle and almost all of the 1964 season due to an intestinal ailment which took nine operations to resolve.

Kramer was an integral part of a great Green Bay team coached by the legendary Vince Lombardi. Those teams won five NFL championships in seven years, including the first two Super Bowls.

In addition to that, the Packers became the only team in the modern NFL to win three straight NFL titles, when Green Bay won it all in 1965, 1966 and 1967.

No. 64 played a key role in a number of those championship contests.

In the 1962 NFL Championship Game versus the New York Giants at very cold and windy Yankee Stadium, Kramer doubled as a right guard and as placekicker. Kramer booted three field goals on a very difficult day to kick, as  some wind gusts were over 40 mph during the contest.

Kramer scored 10 points in the 16-7 victory for the Packers, plus helped lead the way for fullback Jimmy Taylor to gain 85 yards rushing and also score the lone Green Bay touchdown. As a team, the Packers gained 148 yards rushing that day.

Kramer earned a game-ball for his efforts that day in the Bronx.

In the 1965 NFL Championship Game versus the Cleveland Browns at snowy and muddy Lambeau Field, Kramer and his teammates on the offensive line had a sensational day.

Taylor and halfback Paul Hornung led a rushing attack that gained 204 yards, as the Pack won 23-12. The power sweep was especially effective, as Kramer and fellow guard Fuzzy Thurston kept opening big holes for the backs as the Packers gained big chunks of yardage past the line of scrimmage.

Hornung scored the last touchdown of the game on one of those power sweeps. Kramer pulled left and first blocked the middle linebacker and then a cornerback, as the “Golden Boy” made his way into the end zone.

Then came the 1967 NFL Championship Game (better known as the “Ice Bowl”) versus the Cowboys at frigid Lambeau Field. In that legendary contest, Kramer made the most famous block in the history of the NFL.

The playing surface that day was truly a frozen tundra, as the game-time temperature was 13 below zero.

In the closing moments of the game, down by a score of 17-14,  the Packers had to drive 68 yards down the frozen field to either tie or win the game.

It all came down to 13 seconds to go with no timeouts at the 1-yard line of the Cowboys. The Packers could have kicked a field goal at that point to tie the game at 17-17.

But coach Lombardi decided to go for the win. If the Packers run the ball and are stopped short of the end zone, the game is over.

Starr called a 31-wedge play in the huddle, which calls for the fullback to get the ball. However, Starr decided to keep the ball after conferring with Lombardi on the sideline about the play.

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Starr thought it would be better to try to get into the end zone himself due to the slippery and icy conditions near the goal line. He followed Kramer’s classic block on Jethro Pugh and found a hole behind No. 64 to score the winning touchdown.

When one looks back on the consistent success of those great Green Bay teams under Lombardi, there are two points which certainly have to be made.

The power sweep was obviously the signature play for the Packers under Lombardi. Plus, Starr’s quarterback sneak with just seconds remaining in the “Ice Bowl”, had to be the signature moment of the Lombardi legacy.

Kramer played a prominent role in both of those instances.

Even with all that, Kramer has still not yet been inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Between 1974 and 1987, Kramer was a finalist for induction into Canton nine times. Nine times! That in itself tells you that Kramer was a tremendous player.

But as all this was going on, a lot of Kramer’s teammates with the Packers were getting inducted. This included players like Taylor, Starr, Hornung, Forrest Gregg, Ray Nitschke, Herb Adderley, Willie Davis and Jim Ringo.

But Kramer’s name was never called for induction. In 1989, another former teammate was inducted. Safety Willie Wood finally heard his name called, after also being a finalist nine times, just like Kramer.

In all, Kramer has seen 11 of his former teammates get inducted, as well as his legendary head coach.

In 1997, Kramer was a senior finalist, but for some reason he did not get the votes necessary for induction.

Many of Kramer’s peers who either played against him or with him and who were selected to be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame have endorsed Kramer to receive that same honor.

I asked Baker about Kramer’s bewildering omission from the Hall.

“There is a huge backlog with the seniors, as I’m sure Rick Gosselin has let you know that,” Baker said. “Whether a player is nominated or not can be very subjective. Sometimes it’s by a razor-thin margin.

“The thing that most defines the men who are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, are the guys who aren’t in the Hall. We are talking about some really spectacular players.”

The senior backlog may get a helping hand in the centennial year of the NFL in 2019. Gosselin, who sits on the seniors and the contributors committees, proposed that a number of worthy seniors be put into the Hall of Fame that year.

Baker talked about that possibility.

“To get into the Hall, it’s really elite and exclusive company,” Baker said. “That’s why I’m considering a proposal to expand the senior section in the NFL centennial to include some more deserving guys.”

Earlier in the story, Baker talked about the various attributes that players learn playing football. Things like like perseverance, commitment, sacrifice,  teamwork, love, loyalty and discipline. These are also things Kramer learned from Lombardi when he played in Green Bay.

“Coach Lombardi had a tremendous impact on my life,” Kramer told me awhile back. “The fundamentals that he taught us were fundamentals for life. They were about football, but also about business or anything else you wanted to achieve.

“You would use the Lombardi principles. He believed in paying the price. He believed in hard work and making sacrifices for the betterment of the team. His principles were preparation, commitment, consistency, discipline, character, pride, tenacity and perseverance.

“Those things are still helping me today.”

Kramer also talked about Lombardi’s background which helped him achieve great success in the NFL.

“Coach Lombardi read ancient Greek and Latin, plus taught chemistry and algebra,” Kramer said. “He was a very bright man. In a lot of ways, he was more like a teacher, as opposed to a coach. He believed that he was a teacher, first and foremost. For him, teaching and coaching were one in the same.”

Yes, Vincent Thomas Lombardi was a great coach and a great teacher. But he was more than that. He was also a great man. A man who molded great football players to be sure, but more importantly than that, he molded great people.

Kramer is certainly a testament to that, both as a man and as a player.

This is what Lombardi said about Kramer in a 1969 article in the Chicago Tribune:

“Jerry Kramer is the best guard in the league,” Lombardi said. “Some say the best in the history of the game.”

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The voters who named the NFL 50th anniversary team in 1969 would definitely agree.

I sincerely hope that the day is coming very soon when Baker will knock on Kramer’s door and say, ‘Jerry, it is my great pleasure to tell you that you will be going into the Pro Football Hall of Fame as one of the greatest players, coaches and contributors to ever play this game.’

That is a moment that is long overdue in my opinion, but I know the occasion would be very rewarding for not only Kramer, but also for his family and friends as well. Not to mention all the fans who have supported his enshrinement in Canton for all these years.