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Dougherty: Speedy inside linebacker essential if Packers want to play more nickel defense

Pete Dougherty   | Packers News

GREEN BAY - Anyone who has followed the Green Bay Packers the last decade knows they need to get more dynamic at the defensive position that’s getting harder and harder to fill in the ever-evolving NFL: inside linebacker.

A big question heading into the April 23-25 draft, though, is whether either of the two highly regarded prospects who might be within the Packers’ reach – LSU’s Patrick Queen and Oklahoma’s Kenneth Murray – will be available when general manager Brian Gutekunst’s first selection comes up at No. 30 overall.

I asked four NFL scouts about Queen and Murray this past week, and they were split 2-2 on which they liked better and iffy on whether either will be make it out of the 20s. So  Gutekunst might have to trade up a few spots to get one of them, probably at the cost of a fourth-round pick.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if one of them was there (at 30), but I don’t think it’s likely,” one scout said. “I personally like Queen better because of the instincts. But there are only so many guys like this. They both can run, they both have range, they can cover, blitz.”

Gutekunst’s free-agent signing of Christian Kirksey only slightly lessens his need at inside linebacker. Aside from the need for a quality backup – Kirksey has played in only nine games the last two seasons combined – the Packers also might want to play more nickel (two-linebacker) defense than they have in coordinator Mike Pettine’s first two seasons. Pettine has tried to get by playing dime almost all the time, but can he really stay with that approach after the run-stopping debacle that was last season's NFC championship game?

But to play more nickel the Packers need to draft a linebacker who can run. Plenty of highly rated draft picks end up being average players or busts, but as prospects Murray and Queen fit the bill better than anyone aside from Clemson's Isaiah Simmons, who's going to be a top-10 pick.

A third linebacker worth consideration in the late first round is Zack Baun, who played primarily outside linebacker at Wisconsin but for many NFL teams projects to inside linebacker with some pass rushing mixed in.

There also are a handful of inside linebackers with sub-4.6 speed who could interest Gutekunst in the second round, most notably Texas Tech’s Jordyn Brooks, Appalachian State’s Akeem Davis-Gaither and Mississippi State’s Willie Gay Jr.

Here are thumbnail looks at players Gutekunst could consider at the position in the first two rounds:

Kenneth Murray, Oklahoma (6-2½, 241, 4.52): Three-year starter who in the last two seasons combined had 28½ tackles for loss, 8½ sacks and six passes defended. The scouts who correctly project whether Murray or Queen will be the better pro will have earned their paychecks.

“(Murray) is so aggressive, so downhill he’ll overrun some plays,” one of the scouts said. “But he’s a great finisher, he’s great in the hole. He’s a sideline-to-sideline guy. He’ll light you up coming downhill. I never see him coming off the field. Queen is the same type of guy, but I don’t think he’s as polished. Queen got better as the year went on; Murray’s always been good. Murray, you watch his season then the playoff game against LSU, he was the one guy on defense that was actually making plays for Oklahoma in that game. I have great respect for both those players, but if I had to make the choice of one over the other, I’d go with Murray.”

“Murray definitely has a chance (to be there at 30),” another scout said. “I think he’s a good pick. It’s a real pick. He can do everything. I think Queen is like Devin White (the No. 5 pick overall last year to Tampa Bay). Murray doesn’t use his hands well enough, doesn’t take downhill angles well enough in the run game.”

Patrick Queen, LSU (6-0¼, 229, 4.50): True junior entry is only 20 years old. Last year was his first as a full-time starter; he had 12 tackles for loss, three sacks and three passes defended.

“I think Queen is way better than Murray,” one scout said. “He’s a better linebacker, uses his hands, takes better angles, he makes better aggressive plays, he can play the passing game. I think Murray is a good player, but at the end of the day Queen will not last until 30.”

“The knock on Queen is going to be the size,” said another scout. “The knock on Murray is the ability to take on blocks. I don’t see these guys as being that different from Devin White (in last year’s draft) – Devin White ran in the 4.3s and probably made more ‘wow’ plays, the plays Devin White was more explosive tackling than these two guys. I really don’t think it’s that different at the end of the day. All three will be three-down linebackers.”

Zack Baun, Wisconsin (6-2 3/8, 238, 4.65): Converted high school quarterback was primarily an outside rusher in college. Put up 12½ sacks and 19½ tackles for loss last season.

The team that drafts him in the first round or early second will presumably covet his versatility and use him at both inside linebacker and outside rusher. Pettine makes use of versatility, and it's easy to envision him moving Baun around on passing downs, sometimes in coverage and sometimes as a rusher or blitzer. But with the rushers the Packers already have (Za'Darius and Preston Smith and Rashad Gary), you have to wonder if Gutekunst would balk at using his top pick on a player who's unproven at inside linebacker.

“It’s a projection (to inside linebacker),” one scout said. “He played regular inside linebacker at the Senior Bowl; I’d say it was up and down, you don’t want to put a ton of stock in that. To say you’re going to pick him in the first round and that’s what he’s going to do, I couldn’t get there with that. But he’s a good player, he’s going to play. My guess is he’s going to be a good solid player in a defense where he can do a little bit of everything, in a defense where the outside guys and inside guys are somewhat interchangeable. … To say he’s a first-round starting inside linebacker in the NFL, I’m not there. I don’t think he’s going to have as much impact as Murray and Queen.”

“I love Zack Baun,” said a second scout. “I can’t tell you how many times (I thought) there’s no way he’s going to make this play, and he makes it. There were so many times on tape he was running from the back side or taking on a block – he can pass rush, he can get rid of blockers, he’s got pass-rush moves, he’s got finishing moves, he’s got some quickness to him, he’s got lateral agility. … I think he’s going to get picked somewhere between 27 and probably 37.”

Jordyn Brooks, Texas Tech (6-0, 240, 4.54): Four-year starter who in his last two seasons had 27½ tackles for loss and six sacks. Shorter than the preferred height and length for the position but tied for the fifth-best 10-yard split (1.62 seconds) of the 44 inside linebackers at the combine.

If Gutekunst doesn't draft an inside linebacker in the first round, Brooks is a viable candidate in the second round, though that probably would require a trade up from No. 62.

“He’s like a poor man’s version of (Queen and Murray),” one scout said. “Probably not quite as fast as those guys but definitely speed is a strength of his. Doesn’t have long arms, gets covered up some. Lateral chase player. See him as a guy that will be a starter in the league. Comparing him and Baun, you’ve seen this guy (play inside linebacker) for four years as opposed to Baun playing a different position. I personally would be higher on Brooks.”

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“He’s a lot like Murray,” another scout said. “Downhill player, square, physical, makes tackles, never come off the field. In the first round I’d be surprised, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see him early in the second.”

Said a third scout: “Brooks is a good player. Brooks is athletic, he can run, he’s a modern-day linebacker. With Murray you get a little bit better pass coverage.”

Akeem Davis-Gaither, Appalachian State (6-1½, 224, no 40): Didn’t run or jump at the scouting combine because of a stress fracture in his foot that was surgically repaired in early March. An undersized linebacker who last season had 14½ tackles for loss, five sacks and nine passes defended at the FCS level. Blocked a 56-yard field goal on the last play of his team's upset 34-31 win over North Carolina.

Though he lacks bulk and played in a lower-level FBS league (Sun Belt Conference) of Division I, he might end up being an inside linebacker made for today's nickel defenses. 

“Undersized as far as weight, but my gosh does he run,” one scout said. “He’s sideline to sideline, he’ll attack you, he can cover. If he went to Alabama or Georgia or LSU he’d get drafted higher. This guy is a really good player. He’s a finisher, he’s a fighter, he gets to the ball, he’s a tackler. There are a lot of positive things about him.”

Said another scout: “He’s more that kind of space, classic weak-side linebacker. (Nickel linebacker), that’s what he’d be.”

Willie Gay Jr., Mississippi State (6-1 1/8, 243, 4.46): Raw player was only a part-time starter in his three college seasons but an explosive athlete (39½-inch vertical) and big hitter. Draft status could be hurt by off-field issues. Missed eight games last season because of an academic violation and reportedly punched his quarterback a couple days before Mississippi State’s appearance in the Music City Bowl. In 31 games total (six starts) had 11 tackles for loss, three sacks and seven passes defended.

Where he ranks on Gutekunst's board likely comes down to how the GM thinks Gay would fit in the Packers' locker room.

“He’s a 243-pound stout guy that will light you up,” one scout said. “Has some off the field stuff that you have to poke around on. He’s a really, really good player.”

Said a second scout: “I like the crap out of him, I think he’s a good football player. He’s right up in there (with Brooks). He’s not a 30 pick, but he’s a second-round pick.”

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