The busy week in Indianapolis kicked off with a pair of brief but insightful media appearances from Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst. He revealed that the Packers are planning to retain David Bakhtiari and restructure his deal, while implying that veteran safety Adrian Amos is unlikely to return to Green Bay and suggested the team will be in a market for a safety.
Gutekunst has had a preference towards draft prospects with impressive athletic testing numbers, and we had a handful of prospects that fit what the Packers are looking for turn heads at this year’s combine. Let’s take a look at a few of the biggest names at positions of need.
Darnell Washington, TE, Georgia
This year’s tight end class came into the week with plenty of buzz, but the athletic testing showed just how ridiculous this group is. Outside of Dalton Kincaid, who did not test this week, the other eight tight end prospects I’ve watched and graded posted a Relative Athletic Score (RAS) of 8.0 or higher. Five of those tight ends had a RAS of 9.0 or higher.
There are a few tight ends we could talk about here, but Georgia’s Darnell Washington stole the show with his combination of height, athleticism, and playmaking ability. Coming in at 6’6 5/8” and 264 pounds, he also ran the 40-yard dash in just 4.64 seconds while going viral with an incredible one-handed catch.
Washington has a tackle’s frame with the athleticism of a top tight end. He even acknowledged the comparisons to Packers veteran Marcedes Lewis, listing Big Dog as one of his favorite NFL tight ends during his podium appearance.
An outstanding blocker and a difficult player to bring down after the catch, Washington brings a unique skill set to the NFL game. If Lewis retires or doesn’t return to Green Bay for 2023, drafting Washington would be like getting a younger, more athletic version of Big Dog.
Jaxon Smith-Njigba, WR, Ohio State
Acme Packing Company has spent a lot of time talking about TCU wideout Quentin Johnston, and rightfully so. The Horned Frogs receiver has the height-weight-speed profile that the Packers have historically coveted at the position.
However, it was Jaxon Smith-Njigba that will see his stock rise after this week. Along with coming in at a solid size at 6’1” and 196 pounds, he also posted a very strong 9.41 RAS with some outrageous agility scores. His shuttle time of 3.93 seconds put him in the 99th percentile of wide receivers, and was 0.19 seconds faster than the second-fastest time among wideouts this week.
Smith-Njigba won’t test well in the 40-yard dash, even if he runs the drill at Ohio State’s pro day that’s notorious for helping boost the times of its players. But speed wasn’t JSN’s game with the Buckeyes. Instead, he relied on subtle shifty moves throughout his routes to create separation and make defenders miss after the catch.
The size and agility scores for Smith-Njigba have the Buckeyes receiver back in the Round 1 conversation. He even shared that he had met with the Packers in Indianapolis, fueling speculation that the team could consider drafting him in late April.
Nolan Smith, EDGE, Georgia
It was a great week for this year’s EDGE class, with multiple players testing very well in multiple drills. However, when it comes to on-field testing and off-field interviews, there might not be a bigger winner from the week (at any position) than Nolan Smith.
The Georgia edge rusher suffered a torn pectoral muscle late in the college season, preventing him from showing out in the College Football Playoff to solidify his Round 1 draft grade. That didn’t stop him from tearing up the combine, posting an unreal 4.39 40-yard dash time that gave him a 9.2 RAS despite his smaller stature at the position.
Beyond just the impressive athleticism, Smith absolutely crushed the interview process. His podium appearance showed a prospect with infectious positivity and excellent charisma. One coach I spoke with in Indianapolis said that Smith was the most impressive player he talked to all week.
Smith’s size at just 238 pounds makes it difficult to see if the Packers would overlook his size for his athleticism and abilities as an edge rusher. However, regardless of his testing, Smith is someone Packers fans should want on their team based on his personality alone.
Keeanu Benton, DL, Wisconsin
If I don’t mention Wisconsin’s Keeanu Benton on this list then Corporate Overlord Tex Western may fire me.
In all seriousness, Benton had a very strong weekend after making a name for himself at the Senior Bowl. The former Badgers defensive lineman posted an 8.65 RAS thanks to very strong broad jump (9’3”) and three-cone (7.34 seconds) scores.
While I wasn’t sold on Benton’s lower body strength to avoid getting washed out against the run, his lateral agility and ability to shoot into gaps stood out on tape at Wisconsin. The testing and tape shows a player with good explosiveness and agility that would make him an interesting early Day 3 prospect for the Packers.
Jay Ward, S, LSU
If you listened to Draft Talk 2.0, I talked to Justis about LSU’s Jay Ward, who was my fifth-ranked safety in the 2023 draft class. In a safety group that seriously struggled with athletic testing this year, Ward stood out along with only a handful of others.
Despite being listed at 188 pounds, Ward posted a very solid 8.02 RAS with a 1.53 10-yard split in the 40-yard dash and and 11-foot broad jump.
Ward’s role in the NFL will be largely determined by the team that drafts him. The LSU senior played all over the field for the Tigers, logging over 100 snaps as a slot defender, outside corner, deep safety, and box safety just this past season.
Regardless of his role or frame, Ward plays with a relentless physicality and has the movement skills to stick to skill players in man coverage. With versatility, athleticism, and physicality, he makes for an intriguing chess piece that the Packers should consider targeting.