The first 2018 mock NFL drafts are out, and at least one has Green Bay taking Da’Ron Payne, a defensive tackle from Alabama. Da’Ron Payne is a great talent, but I don’t think they’ll go that route. New Green Bay Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst likely saw what everyone else saw, and that’s a lethargic pass rush. Safe money would be on edge rusher for his first pick as Green Bay’s decision maker. It wouldn’t even shock me to see him pick three edge rushers in the first two days of the draft.
Gutekunst will be more aggressive with trades and free agency than his former boss Ted Thompson (how could he not?). He’ll also probably adhere to a similar best available player draft strategy. Beyond the first round, where a player picked 14th overall is expected to compete to be a first-day starter, positional need becomes less of a factor. If the right talent falls to Gutekunst in the 2nd or 3rd round, like many successful general managers, he’ll get his guy.
With all that said, I’ll be previewing 10 prospects who have declared for the 2018 NFL draft. I targeted six safeties and four defensive tackles who could reasonably fall to the Packers in the second round. Gutekunst inherits four compensatory draft picks he can include in trades, giving him more flexibility to trade up for a player he likes.
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Morgan Burnett make up one of the best safety tandems in the league, and they have a stable of promising players behind them. However, Clinton-Dix and Morgan Burnett are both slated for free agency next year. Even if he plays at the same level as last season, Clinton-Dix has made a Pro Bowl and can point to issues at defensive coordinator (fair or not). He and the criminally underrated Morgan Burnett will both command at least $10 million a year. If Gutekunst decides to allocate money elsewhere, a deep unit will suddenly need an infusion of talent.Embed from Getty Images
Justin Reid – Stanford
Height 6’1”, Weight 204
If Minkah Fitzpatrick is counted as a cornerback, then Justin Reid is my top free safety for the 2018 NFL draft class. This doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll go in the first round, however. If he does fall to the Packers in the second round, he will be difficult to pass up.
Reid finished the 2017 season with 94 tackles, 6.5 for a loss of yards, 5 interceptions, and 6 passes broken up. When you watch tape from his junior season, you see an athletic safety with a nose for the ball and the height for 50/50 catches. He also has the tackling ability to play well in the box. About half his snaps were actually at nickel cornerback that season. That might have been a double-edged sword, as it showed his impressive versatility but also produced some unfortunate tape. If that causes him to be available when Gutekunst chooses in the second round, it’d be an easy pick.Embed from Getty Images
Jordan Whitehead – Pittsburgh
Height 5’10”, Weight 195
Jordan Whitehead might be a definite first-round talent if he were a bit taller and didn’t start the 2017 season with a three-game suspension. He might be the fastest and most athletic safety of the draft class, and his ball skills were on display with a game-clinching pick against Duke. He’s a willing tackler, but he’ll need to gain some mass to be an NFL starter.
Whitehead had high production when he wasn’t injured or suspended, finishing his career at Pitt with 235 tackles, 8.5 for a loss of yards, 3 interceptions, 12 passes broken up, and two defensive touchdowns, despite 8 missed games. He might be the most intriguing prospect, because he has first-round talents but might fall to the third or fourth round. Ted Thompson didn’t like his cornerbacks to be 5’10”, much less his safeties, but Gutekunst isn’t Thompson. If Whitehead fell to him in the fourth round, there’s a good chance he’d scoop up the safety.Embed from Getty Images
Kyzir White – West Virginia
Height 6’2”, Weight 216
The Packers have a bigger need for free safeties than strong safeties, but the talent at strong safety is deep in this draft class. Still, I think he’s a top 3 strong safety. He’s been projected to go in the 3rd round, though his stock could rise after a solid performance at the Senior Bowl.
White didn’t play until his junior season, but he hit the ground running with 58 tackles, 7 for a loss, three sacks, five passes defensed, and two fumbles forced. His senior season saw him notch 94 tackles, 7.5 for a loss, one sack, three interceptions, four passes defensed, and another two fumbles forced. If he fell to the Packers in the fourth round, he’d be a good candidate to consider even if Whitehead were still available.Embed from Getty Images
Terrell Edmunds – Virginia Tech
Height 6’2”, Weight 220
Terrell Edmunds isn’t projected for the first round like brother Tremaine Edmunds, an outside linebacker who has drawn comparisons to Brian Urlacher. It’s not immediately clear where Edmunds will end up. He had good production in his sophomore and junior seasons at Virginia Tech. He was also credited with 7 passes defensed as a freshman. On tape he looks like a physical tackler, and he often looks good in coverage. He could go as early as the second round, with all his upside. But he might fall as low as the fifth round, as he’s raw and is coming off a season-ending surgery on his left shoulder.
Edmunds finished his collegiate career with 196 tackles, 8.5 for a loss of yards, six interceptions, and 14 passes defensed. He mainly played free safety at Virginia Tech but might project better as strong safety in the NFL. His coverage skills would be limited against NFL talent, but he’s shown potential to develop into a good box safety who can eventually cover today’s receiving tight ends. He would be a great pick if he fell to the Packers in the fifth round. He might even be available if the Packers want to trade down in the fifth round.Embed from Getty Images
Tre Flowers – Oklahoma State
Height 6’3”, Weight 193
Tre Flowers is my favorite sleeper safety prospect. He had good production through four seasons at Oklahoma State, with his 284 tackles and 25 passes broken up the highlights. He averaged one interception a season and never had a sack, which reflects some limitations as a prospect. But despite his small frame, when you watch his tape you see a hard hitter.
Flowers could go as early as the fourth round, but he could fall to the sixth round. In the seventh round, Flowers would be an absolute steal. At the very least, he’s a great developmental prospect. Hopefully the recent departure of former safeties coach Darren Perry doesn’t affect his development.Embed from Getty Images
Siran Neal – Jacksonville State
Height 6’0”, Weight 206
Last but not least, Siran Neal is an intriguing small-school prospect who played cornerback at Jacksonville State. His junior season was notable, with 80 tackles, 11.5 for a loss of yards, four passes defensed and one pick. He’s projected to go in the middle rounds, but like many players from small schools could experience a slide. He received a Senior Bowl invitation, but once there he underwhelmed. If he were to fall the Packers in the fifth round, Gutekunst would have a tough choice on his hands, but he couldn’t go wrong picking Neal.
Playing cornerback showed off his athleticism, but he might not have the speed to match NFL wide receivers. Neal would need to switch to safety, which means he probably wouldn’t see any defensive snaps for a while. But he’d need to contribute on special teams first anyway.
Mike Daniels and Kenny Clark are an excellent defensive tackle tandem, but there isn’t necessarily strong depth behind them (Dean Lowry is promising, but he’s a 7-technique). Montravius Adams, who was drafted over an edge rusher in the third round against the advice of maybe every Packers fan, didn’t do much in his rookie season. Quinton Dial, a transplant from the 49ers, was a reliable defensive tackle who also backed up Dean Lowry at defensive end. There’s a good chance Gutekunst brings in another body or two, at least for competition.Embed from Getty Images
Taven Bryan – Florida
Height 6’3”, Weight 291
It’s hard to imagine Gutekunst spending his second round pick on a defensive tackle, unless Taven Bryan were still on the board. Bryan often gets comparisons to J.J. Watt, and whether or not you agree with that assessment, if you watch his tape you can at least see why. He explodes off the line of scrimmage, and he can shed blocks with strong, active hands. He has the frame for a five-technique, but he could also play three-technique.
Though Bryan has intriguing athleticism, when he isn’t playing well, he struggles to be a factor. Before his breakout 2017 season, when he notched four sacks and six tackles for loss of yards, he barely registered one tackle per game. His inconsistency could weigh down his stock, which could cause him to fall to the Packers in the second round.
Nathan Shepherd – Fort Hays State
Height 6’4”, Weight 310
If you don’t recognize Fort Hays State, don’t worry. It’s been decades since a player was drafted from there. In fact, it was 1987 when the Green Bay Packers drafted Frankie Neal from Fort Hays State in the third round. Beyond the novelty of the Packers drafting two consecutive players from Fort Hayes State decades apart, there is good reason for them to consider drafting Shepherd. He averaged slightly over three sacks per season over the last three years, and he has good length for the NFL. In 2017, he had an impressive 12.5 tackles for a loss of yards.
Shepherd’s stock shot up with a Senior Bowl invitation, but a hand injury suffered in practice might dampen that rise. Like our previous small-school prospect, there’s also a chance he might slide as evaluators criticize his level of competition. Right now I’d expect Shepherd to go in the third round, but if he begins to slide, Gutekunst should prepare to potentially snag him in the fifth round for a great value.Embed from Getty Images
Justin Jones – N.C. State
Height 6’2”, Weight 311
Justin Jones is a prospect I think Gutekunst should target in the fifth round. If he fell to the sixth round, then he should pull the trigger on the Division II product. He had great production in three seasons as an interior pass rusher, averaging about three sacks per season. Of 108 tackles in those three seasons, 22.5 were for a loss of yards, showing his ability to penetrate the backfield. Watching his tape, he sometimes shows potential of being a disruptive force with a quick first step and strength to follow through.Embed from Getty Images
Folorunso Fatukasi – Connecticut
Height 6’4”, Weight 318
Folorunso Fatukasi had great production in his four years at Connecticut, playing in 11 games each season and totaling 170 tackles, 21 for a loss of yards, 14 sacks, and four fumbles forced. When you see his tape and he’s facing double teams, he usually holds his ground. Despite his upside, he might get knocked for not improving his numbers in the two seasons after his breakout sophomore season. He also struggled when playing nose tackle in 2017, potentially hurting his stock further. I see him going in the fourth or fifth round, but there’s a chance he could slide to the seventh round. If he does, drafting him would be a no-brainer.
Have any other tackles or safeties caught your eye?