Dougherty: Tackle looms large on list of Packers' priorities with first-round draft pick
GREEN BAY - In six of his 13 drafts as the Green Bay Packers' general manager, Ted Thompson selected an offensive or defensive lineman with his first pick.
Thompson often said there are only so many athletic big men on the planet, so you have to get them when you can. He backed up those words with his picks — or more precisely, used those words to back up his picks.
Brian Gutekunst, a Thompson protégé and his successor as GM, has yet to select a lineman with his first pick, though two drafts is not much of a sample size. Could this be the year?
Gutekunst certainly can make a case for using his top pick on any position except center, guard, safety and kicking-game specialist. Outside rusher is a stretch, too.
Tackle, on the other hand, figures to be in the thick of the mix when the Packers’ first pick comes up at No. 30 overall (barring a trade up or down).
Gutekunst let starting right tackle Bryan Bulaga walk in free agency and replaced him with a veteran stopgap, 30-year-old Rick Wagner, at a much cheaper cost ($5.75 million fully guaranteed to Bulaga’s $19.25 million guarantee from the Los Angeles Chargers). He’s the fallback option in a year when the coronavirus pandemic will make it tougher for a draft pick to beat him out for the starting job. But even then, the Packers also badly need a bona fide backup swing tackle for this season.
But tackle is a premium position in the NFL, and teams use a lot of high picks trying to fill it. Of the 64 starting tackles listed on NFL depth charts compiled by Ourlads.com, 27 were first-round picks and another 12 were second-rounders. That’s not quite quarterback-level drafting — a little more than half (17 of the 34) of starting quarterbacks as of now were first-rounders — but it still tells you about the demand for tackles. David Bakhtiari, the former Packers fourth-round pick and four-time All-Pro (one first team, three seconds) is the exception, not the rule.
In other words, Gutekunst would have no trouble justifying taking a tackle at No. 30, even if the pick would lack pizzazz.
“Big guys are always harder to find,” said a scout for another NFL team of the draft premium placed on tackles. “You want to protect the quarterback.”
This year’s draft features four tackle prospects who probably will go in the first half of the first round and will be long gone by 30: Louisville’s Mekhi Becton, Alabama’s Jedrick Wills, Georgia’s Andrew Thomas and Iowa’s Tristan Wirfs.
Four others appear to be later first-round and early second-round prospects, and thus possibly on Gutekunst’s radar at 30: USC’s Austin Jackson, Boise State’s Ezra Cleveland, Houston’s Josh Jones and Georgia’s Isaiah Wilson.
There’s a decent chance at least two and probably three will be on the board when Gutekunst’s first-rounder comes up. All four appear capable of playing both tackle positions. If Gutekunst drafts one, the rookie would compete with Wagner for the starting job on the right side, and if he lost that battle he'd be the backup swing tackle, with the assumption he’d become the starter on the right side in 2021.
In conversations this week four NFL scouts ranked the four tackles in different orders, though two rated Jackson best of the group, and two went with Cleveland. Here is a thumbnail look at each:
Austin Jackson, USC (6-4⅞, 322, 5.07 40): Junior entry started at left tackle the last two years, including last season under new USC offensive coordinator Graham Harrell, the former Packers backup quarterback. One of the scouts predicted Jackson will be taken in the 20s.
“I like the potential,” the scout said. “Jackson is huge, he’s athletic, but sometimes he just gets beat and you can’t figure out what’s going on. If you get some of that stuff polished up — technique and footwork and urgency every play — I think he’d be pretty good.”
“You throw in the tape, the (outside pass rusher Bradlee Anae) from Utah who had the real big Senior Bowl, against USC, he didn’t get a sniff (of the quarterback).”
But another of the scouts put a third-round grade on Jackson: “Too inconsistent for me. He’s got a long way to go.”
Ezra Cleveland, Boise State (6-6, 311, 4.93): Three-year starter in the Mountain West Conference. Impressed scouts with his combine workout, where according to MockDraftable’s compilation of offensive linemen’s performance since 1999 he ranks in the 96th percentile in the 40, the 98th percentile in the three-cone drill and 94th percentile in the short shuttle.
Cleveland might be the best suited of the four for coach Matt LaFleur’s outside zone run scheme, which emphasizes athleticism over power on the offensive line.
“He’s upper-body strong, he’s not lower-body strong, so he gets pushed back a little bit,” one scout said. “But he’s very athletic. Good balance, stay in front. There are fewer risers this year, there’s no new information since the combine because there are no pro days, but he sounds like he may be the closest thing to that. I keep hearing him more and more in the first-round conversation.”
Two of the scouts likened him to Bakhtiari coming out — a big reason Bakhtiari lasted until the fourth round was concern about his strength.
“There were times where the Florida State guys kinda pushed (Cleveland) around a little bit,” said a scout who had a third-round grade on Cleveland. “He’s not playing against many teams like that in the Mountain West. Good athlete, tested very well, I just don’t know how strong he plays, that’s the problem I’ve had with him. But I’ve been wrong about lack-of-strength (tackles) before. I was wrong about Nate Solder, ended up in New England, and I was wrong about David Bakhtiari up in Green Bay, that were good athletes but not strong.”
Said a third scout: “It’s going to take him a little bit (of time), but Cleveland’s pretty good. He kind of grows on you. He kind of does everything.”
Josh Jones, Houston (6-5, 319, 5.27): Four-year starter at left tackle with a basketball background through early high school. Also has the athletic skill set for the zone run scheme.
“You talk about a really good athlete,” one scout said. “Not only is he going to get his block on the line, but he’s also going to get a block on the second level. Movement skill is really good, pass set is good. Another guy you want to check on the strength a little bit.”
Said another scout: “He’s overrated. Third or fourth round.”
Isaiah Wilson, Georgia (6-6½, 350, 5.32): Junior entry and two-year starter at right tackle. The mauler of the group.
“I wouldn’t see Wilson as being a scheme fit (with the Packers),” one scout said “He’s kind of a heavier, slower, more of an old-school Dallas where they try to get all those big guys, like a Baltimore offense line, 340 pounds. Cleveland, Jackson and Jones would absolutely fit the (Packers’) scheme.”
Another scout characterized Wilson as an underachiever but a third scout considered him a good pick late in the first round: “Isaiah Wilson is a mean SOB. … This a guy who tries to kill you every single play. He’s a finisher, the hands are inside, there’s power, he’s a nasty guy. He’s a big bully. I have a feeling somebody is going to take him and they’re going to get a guy who’s going to play for 14 years.”