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NFL Draft Preview: Packers will pounce on best available

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GREEN BAY, Wis. — At times, Ted Thompson sounded more like a social worker than a highly regarded general manager of the Green Bay Packers in the midst of his favorite time of the year Wednesday.

While not dispensing any insights for how he hopes things will unfold next week, naturally, Thompson defended his tried-and-mostly-true philosophy of taking the best player available over a player to fill a need in the NFL Draft.

“You factor everything in, but (drafting for need) doesn’t carry as much weight as it might with other organizations because they go about weighing those things differently than we do,” Thompson said in his pre-draft news conference at Lambeau Field.

“There’s a certain amount of weighing in terms of need, but I am adamant that that’s not the way to draft,” he continued. “The way to draft is to take the best player because you don’t know what you’re going to need. You think you need something, but this isn’t play time or anything like that. This is real life, people get banged up, injuries happen, life happens.”

If a typically close-to-the-vest Thompson is to be taken at his word – “That’s what we do,” he asserted – then there’s no telling how he will get the opening night of the NFL Draft started April 30.

About the only certainty is the Packers will leave their fans’ waiting until late in the evening to either make their assigned selection at No. 30 in the first round or swap it out and get the picking started the next day in Round 2.

After all, Thompson has never traded up from an original spot in the first round to another in his previous 10 years of overseeing the Green Bay draft room. The only instance in which he made a significant leap early in the draft was jumping up out of the second round to make a second first-round choice in 2009, which was used on future all-star pass rusher Clay Matthews.

“This particular business is the uncertainty because there’s always that gasp when a name’s called and (those on the outside) go, ‘He picked who?'” Thompson said. “And, you’d hope that you don’t do that so other teams are going, ‘Who did Thompson pick?’ You don’t want that kind of criticism.”

After another offseason of essentially sitting out free agency, Thompson seemingly will have to pounce early and often in the draft to fill a few apparent needs. Much like he did last April, when he addressed a glaring hole at safety by taking Alabama’s Ha Ha Clinton-Dix with the No. 21 pick.

Thompson, a former NFL linebacker, has been partial to restocking and trying to bolster the team’s defense in the draft. The last three first-round selections have been on that side of the ball: linebacker Nick Perry (2012), defensive end Datone Jones (2013) and Clinton-Dix.

With the high-octane offense intact from last season after Thompson meted out lucrative long-term contracts to keep Pro Bowl wideout Randall Cobb and right tackle Bryan Bulaga from leaving as free agents – and likewise retaining Pro Bowl fullback John Kuhn – sticking with the defense should be the priority next week.

The Packers lost three starters from opening day last season, including the inside-linebacker duo of A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones as salary casualties and veteran cornerback Tramon Williams to the Cleveland Browns in free agency. Davon House, Williams’ replacement-in-waiting, also bolted as a free agent, to the Jacksonville Jaguars.

So, that leaves presumably at least one starting spot open at inside linebacker with young prospect Sam Barrington having seized the other spot down the stretch last season and perhaps a starting vacancy at cornerback. Regarding the latter, Thompson didn’t give what would constitute as a ringing endorsement for either Casey Hayward or Micah Hyde to step out of his comfort zone playing the slot and starting outside opposite standout Sam Shields.

“We feel OK,” Thompson said about the current state of the cornerbacks. “We’ve got some young guys that we think can play, and we’re going to give ’em a chance.”

Hayward and Hyde, like the rest of Packers Nation, should know late next Thursday night or possibly not until Friday night how much confidence a tight-lipped Thompson and his coaches have in entrusting them with the starting reins.

“It was huge having them,” Hyde said of Williams and House before the team’s offseason program started Monday. “I think I’d be lying if I said they weren’t a huge part of our secondary.

“But, at the same time, you can’t worry about departures. I think the guys upstairs (management) will get guys in here to fill those positions. We’ll have faith in the coaches and us as teammates that the guys that come in we’ll get them ready.”

Upgrading the pass rush also can’t be discounted with Thompson, never mind that he re-signed veterans B.J. Raji and Letroy Guion to fill out the inside of a defensive line that brings back Mike Daniels and Datone Jones on the outside.

2014 Record: 12-4, 1st in NFC North

First Draft Pick: #30 Overall

BEST FIT: CB Jalen Collins, LSU

The free-agent losses of longtime starter Tramon Williams and would-be successor Davon House probably has general manager Ted Thompson paying closer attention to an impressive upper echelon of cornerbacks in this draft class. Depending on how the board shakes out before Green Bay’s turn at No. 30 in the first round, Thompson could be faced with choosing between Florida State’s starter-ready P.J. Williams and an untested Collins. In the wake of P.J. Williams’ recent DUI arrest, the safer pick just might be the imposing Collins, whose imposing 6-foot-1, 203-pound frame and boundless potential as a playmaker on the boundary outweighs having only 10 college starts in three seasons.

TEAM NEEDS

1. Cornerback: Heir apparent Davon House (Jacksonville Jaguars) preceded the departure of veteran starter Tramon Williams (Cleveland Browns) in free agency last month. The Packers can go about addressing a suddenly glaring need right away in the draft with a good group of cornerbacks expected to get plenty of first-round attention. Green Bay runs the risk of having to plug in slot-cover holdovers Casey Hayward and Micah Hyde, the latter of whom was converted to safety last offseason, on the perimeter to start opposite Sam Shields. The Packers can avoid that experiment by selecting a natural, proven boundary cornerback if they stay put at No. 30 in Round 1 or by sliding back into the top half of Round 2.

2. Inside linebacker: If general manager Ted Thompson rolls the dice by turning to Hayward or Hyde as a full-time contributor at cornerback, then targeting a playmaker at another defensive position in major flux this offseason figures to be in order with the first pick. The Packers have yet to replace underachieving veterans A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones, who were cut in February for substantial cost savings. Of the two starting spots at inside linebacker purportedly open, one figures to be filled by young up-and-comer Sam Barrington. If defensive coordinator Dom Capers still wants to capitalize on All-Pro outside linebacker Clay Matthews’ versatility to flourish inside as he did on a situational basis the second half of last season, then the Packers may be inclined to target another pass rusher.

3. Tight end: Reigning league MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers has the prolific pass catchers he needs at wide receiver with the offseason re-signing of standout Randall Cobb to rejoin fellow starter Jordy Nelson and budding second-year player Davante Adams. Still, Rodgers needs the safety net and firepower over the middle of the field that has been lacking since Jermichael Finley suffered an apparent career-ending neck injury in October 2013. Richard Rodgers, a third-round draft pick, provided glimpses as a rookie of blossoming into a sure-handed pass target for his namesake. However, after jettisoning once-promising Brandon Bostick in the wake of his infamous role in the NFC Championship loss to the Seattle Seahawks, the Packers’ only other holdovers are underwhelming veteran Andrew Quarless and Justin Perillo, a raw second-year player.


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