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Combine brings Packers edge-rush prospects into focus in draft, free agency

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Amid reports the Packers intend to spend big on a pass rusher in free agency, Green Bay set it sights on the draft’s best edge players. They could be looking at a complete overhaul at OLB this offseason.

NFL: Combine
Florida State’s Brian Burns may have tested his way into play for the Packers at the 12th pick.
Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

After the Packers replaced Mike McCarthy with Matt LaFleur, the most fascinating question facing the team is who will play outside linebacker for Mike Pettine in 2019? Clay Matthews will be an unrestricted free agent with a market thanks to name recognition but not his play. ESPN reported over the weekend, Nick Perry expects to lose the nearly $5 million roster bonus because Brian Gutekunst and Russ Ball won’t want to pay it. A restructure could make sense, but the Packers could also simply cut him outright.

Even if he’s back, his injury history tells a foreboding tale about counting on him to play even 12 games much less 16. That leaves Kyler Fackrell and Kendall Donnerson as the long outside linebackers under contract with Reggie Gilbert as an Exclusive Rights free agent coming off an underwhelming season.

The combine isn’t just for scouting prospects, networking, and shrimp cocktail at St. Elmo’s. Teams work agents. People talk. Reports come out. Deals get done. Oh, and the most important job interviews for a couple hundred 20-somethings are conducted. After the weekend in Indianapolis, it’s much clearer what the Packers are staring at this offseason in terms of a pass-rush rebuild.

If Perry and Matthews are gone, the hole that was already one of the biggest on the roster, becomes an outright crater. According to Rob Demovsky, the feeling among agents who met with the Packers at the combine believe their intention is to go whole hog after pass rushers in free agency, though the number of quality players who will be available has already dwindled since that report came out.

Brandon Graham signed an extension in Philadelphia and the Chiefs plan to franchise Dee Ford. Jadeveon Clowney and Frank Clark also appear likely to get the tag, leaving the Packers to fight with the rest of the league over an underwhelming list of players like Preston Smith, Za’Darius Smith, Anthony Barr, Markus Gholden and others. Considering the expected pricetag for guys like the Smith’s and Barr, the cost could be prohibitive relative to the expected production.

Was the Jimmy Graham contract signs of reckless free agent binges to come from Brian Gutekunst? We’ll shortly fight out and the Packers will have to tread carefully into the waters with prices only going up as the market shrinks.

Luckily, Gutekunst and the front office will have learned a considerable amount regarding the talent of this draft, one loaded with pass rush talent. Defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery made sure to get a front-row seat to watch the edge players go through drills at Indy and they didn’t disappoint. Montez Sweat and Brian Burns, each players who could be in line for the Packers at 12, exploded with historic performances. Some under-the-radar names like Iowa’s Anthony Nelson also tested extremely well, and he’s a player the packers showed interest in over the weekend.

On the other hand, Jachai Polite, a popular match for the Packers in mock drafts, may have cost himself a first-round payday with a dreadful combine, not just on the field, but off it. Teams were turned off by his attitude in interviews, bristling at the criticism of his play and admitting he doesn’t actually watch himself. He later accused teams, including Green Bay, of “bashing” him. Then he jumped low, ran slow, and came up gimpy after his first 40. For a guy who had to answer some character questions, while showing off the juice he has on tape, this was about as bad a showing as Polite could ask for.

Unless and until he shows up to the Florida pro day absolutely shredded, kills the drills and impresses the teams in interviews, any discussion of him at 12 is over.

The same might be true for Clelin Ferrell, who we knew coming into the week wouldn’t test like the Burns and Sweats of the draft, but performed even below where he probably needed to be. Not every pass rusher needs to be an alien-level athlete to be useful in the NFL. Ferrell’s differentiating trait is his ability to counter to the inside and his length is a major asset for him. He got after Alabama’s Jonah Williams who is set to be a top-15 pick.

But for Green Bay, a team that absolutely prizes athleticism, potentially even more with Gutekunst in charge, Ferrell simply may not have the traits they’re looking for, particularly with a high pick.

If the combine eliminated two potential options for the Packers, Gutekunst could feel even more pressure to go out and spend in free agency, a potentially dangerous combination given the talent available. Could it lead him to instead offer the Chiefs picks for Dee Ford, for whom Kansas City has said could be had in a deal for picks? Does this encourage the Packers to move up for one of the top guys?

A confluence of events sharpened the focus on a need position. We now have a better idea of who could be in play for the Packers in the draft, and the free agent market evolves by the day as we get closer to the new league year. Unfortunately for the Packers, the pool of quality players also shrank in the last week, heightening the necessity to nail the positional overhaul expected this spring. Brian Guteukunst showed an adeptness last season, adding two top cornerbacks plus future draft capital, while also finding a diamond in the rough with Tony Brown before plucking Bashaud Breeland off the street.

Given what we’ve heard about the Packers’ plans in free agency, Gutekunst may not take such a patient approach to the edge rush, but if he can find the same kind of success adding talent, he would be 2/2 in offseason positional rebuilds.