It’s Friday and time for another round of NFL Draft thoughts with the countdown to the big day down to just two weeks.
With the hype surrounding the wide receivers in this year’s draft and the Packers’ needs along the offensive line and interior of the defensive front, it has been easy to forget the linebacker prospects and the depth they could fill on Green Bay’s squad. This week’s edition of draft thoughts focuses on a player from both the inside and outside, as well as a look at some prospects to consider in the secondary.
Alex Highsmith could be a late-rising, second-day option on the edge
The back story of HIghsmith is incredible. The Charlotte 49er arrived to the team as a walk-on before earning a scholarship prior to the 2017 season and never skipped a beat. Highsmith went on to receive Conference USA accolades as both a junior and senior while earning third-team All-American recognition as a senior. The edge prospect racked up 14 sacks in 2019 and showed flashes of pass-rush potential even against his toughest opponents.
Yesterday, an anonymous player personnel assistant detailed several prospects of interest in this year’s draft and also named Highsmith as an eye-popping talent. That individual went as far as to say that Highsmith gave Clemson’s left tackle a more difficult time than Ohio State’s Chase Young, widely believed to be among the top two players overall this year. While Charlotte was no match for Clemson in the contest, Highsmith certainly held his own against the run as well as the pass, and his initial get-off allowed him to make several plays behind the line of scrimmage.
There is little doubt that Highsmith can improve his physicality at the position, but he is still young in his development. Despite that, he still displays a wide variety of pass-rushing moves between spins, inside swims, and straight speed, and can bend the corner well. Highsmith looked slippery at times from a stand-up position and had consistent effort no matter how much time was left on the clock. He’s a player that could find himself on Green Bay’s radar in round three as a 3-4 edge prospect.
A day-three middle linebacker could be targeted once again
If there are two things I know about the Packers, it’s that they have not typically spent premium draft capital on inside linebacker and that they scout Mississippi State University extensively. Green Bay had four former Bulldogs on the roster in 2019 and have drafted and priority picked up several over the past decade. This year, the Packers could fulfill both of the above criteria with one player.
Willie Gay, Jr. arrived to Starkville as a decorated hometown recruit and he showed flashes of stardom over his first two years in a maroon and white jersey. But Gay’s promising collegiate career was severely impacted by a junior season marred by an eight-game suspension and perhaps the middle linebacker should have stayed for his senior season. As it is, Gay has been firmly standing pat as a day-three prospect despite posting very athletic numbers at the Combine (4.46 forty, 39.5” vertical, 21 bench reps) and carrying much of that athleticism over to the field as a thickly-built 6’1,” 243-pound player.
There is no doubt that Gay has areas to improve on, showing inconsistency in his decision-making and angles that allow him to get swallowed up by blockers and allow larger gains. However, Gay has not played that many games overall and he does show plenty of physicality and speed to get to the sideline quickly when his instincts are correct. More tape during his junior year and a senior campaign likely would have vaulted Gay up draft boards in 2021. Right now, Gay could provide the Packers with depth at inside linebacker while he continues to learn the position behind Christian Kirksey and Oren Burks, and competes with Ty Summers. He’d be a potential steal on day three with measurables that are difficult to find at his position.
Cornerback early in the draft should not be overlooked
There is no doubt that the Packers have placed a lot of bets on first- and second-round cornerbacks over the past several years. As a result, the rather healthy unit made large strides in 2019 when there was growth among its members and the safety and edge-rushing positions were revamped. Cornerback is not a pressing need in this year’s draft, but looking ahead, it certainly could be one.
Kevin King is entering the final season of his rookie contract and his future is unknown after plenty of injuries and inconsistent play since joining the team. While Green Bay does have Jaire Alexander in the fold, the depth behind him is largely unproven in the form of Chandon Sullivan, Josh Jackson, and Ka’Dar Hollman. Tony Brown was once a promising undrafted pickup, but the Packers let him go during last season. While there are several avenues for the Packers to secure depth at cornerback within the next year, they could also begin preparing for a possible King departure now.
Players like Trevon Diggs, Kristian Fulton, and AJ Terrell could be late first-round options with combinations of size, speed, and length if still on the board when the Packers pick at 30. Behind them, Bryce Hall and Cameron Dantzler could be day-two alternatives worth considering. While it would make much more sense for Green Bay to load up offensively early in the draft, a cornerback in the first few selections would not be a surprise.