Dougherty: Look for Packers to pounce if they can land linebacker Patrick Queen
GREEN BAY - This year’s NFL draft is thick with receiver prospects through the first three rounds and heavy at tackle in the upper first round.
But at inside linebacker, another position that has to rank high on Brian Gutekunst’s needs list, there’s a chance one of the two most coveted prospects, Oklahoma’s Kenneth Murray and Patrick Queen, could get to the Green Bay Packers’ pick at No. 30, or at least within striking range of a trade.
There’s nothing close to a consensus on who is the better of the two, but Murray appears more likely to come off the board first. And the guess here is Queen makes it close enough that Gutekunst can trade up to get him if the GM doesn’t think he can wait for a prospect who could bring the speed and explosiveness the Packers have lacked in the middle of their defense for years.
“You’re getting a guy (in Queen) that’s a finisher,” said a college scout for another NFL team. “You’re getting a guy that can really run, you’re getting a guy that when he steps up to take people on he’s not going to get knocked back. I see a guy that has a lot of upside.
“He’s a sideline-to-sideline player, but usually those sideline-to-sideline players aren’t physical. He’s one of those guys when you see him hit the ball carrier, it stops. … Him and Murray are guys that don’t come off the field. They’re athletic enough to drop, to turn, to run, to deal with teams in this day and age trying to attack you (in the passing game).”
Of course, there’s the chance both inside linebackers are gone before they get in Gutekunst’s reach, as well as the chance another player who appeals as much or more ends up staying on the board until late in the first round. The fact is, Gutekunst has more than enough needs that numerous positions and scenarios are in play for his first pick, including defensive line and cornerback as well as the positions already mentioned.
There’s also Gutekunst’s short history as a drafter, which shows he likes moving around in the first round.
In his first draft (2018) running the show he did two first-round deals, back (from 14 to 27) and then up (from 27 to 18) before selecting Jaire Alexander. Then last year Gutekunst traded up from the second of his two first-round picks (30) to select Darnell Savage (at 21).
There’s good reason to think he’ll be looking to deal again this year.
“I think it’s a really good draft, and I like to move around and see if we can get to the areas of the draft that I think are strong,” Gutekunst said this week.
Both up and back from 30 look plausible for a GM who has plenty of draft needs.
For instance, if he thinks the Baltimore Ravens are going to take Queen at No. 28 — inside linebacker is their biggest hole, though they’re a candidate to trade up for Murray or perhaps take Wisconsin’s Zack Baun at 28 also — then it presumably would take at least the Packers’ fourth-round pick (No. 136 overall) to get ahead of them.
Or, if Queen and Murray are off the board at 30, Gutekunst might try hard to trade back into the early second round, like the Packers did in 2008, when former GM Ted Thompson moved back from 30 to 36 and selected Jordy Nelson.
That would gain Gutekunst an extra pick, likely a fourth-rounder, and leave him in position to select from a group of receivers who are fringe first-round prospects. The best guess is that Arizona State’s Brandon Aiyuk goes late in the first round, but if the Packers were picking in the mid-30s, at least two or perhaps more would likely be available from among Aiyuk, TCU’s Jalen Reagor, Baylor’s Denzel Mims, Colorado’s Laviska Shenault and USC’s Michael Pittman Jr.
Mims has the size-speed combo (6-2⅞, 4.38 40) that fits with Gutekunst’s M.O. at receiver. Reagor is on the short side (5-10⅝, 206) but would bring a dynamic element lacking in the Packers’ receiving corps. And Shenault is a powerful run-after-the-catch receiver who carries durability concerns after ankle and core muscle injuries slowed him last season. Pittman has great size (6-4) and caught 101 passes last year.
“I think Shenault is the best player of all those guys,” a high-ranking scout for another team said. “(The Packers) have got guys like Shenault already — the concept of what Shenault is. (But) if you watch Shenault’s 2018 film from when the guy was healthy, this is a top-10 guy we’re talking about. He’s not a great route runner, he’s more of a big, gimmick kind of guy. But he was unbelievable in 2018, and I think everyone has kind of forgotten about that.”
If Gutekunst trades back he also might consider taking a tackle or Baun.
At least one or two tackles from among USC’s Austin Jackson, Houston’s Josh Jones, Boise State’s Ezra Cleveland and Georgia’s Isaiah Wilson should be available. Of that group, Cleveland looks like the best fit for coach Matt LaFleur’s outside-zone run scheme, which emphasizes athleticism over power on the offensive line.
“My personal opinion is the receivers are better than Cleveland,” one of the scouts said.
Baun is a projection at inside linebacker because he played primarily outside linebacker at Wisconsin. That uncertainty moves him to an early second-round prospect for some teams.
“I have Queen (rated) higher, but you can’t discount what Baun can do as a rusher, standing up and being a difference maker off the edge,” one of the scouts said. “He’s not T.J. Watt, but he’s pretty damn close.”
If both inside linebackers are gone and Gutekunst stays at 30, the guess here is he’d pick one of three receivers (Aiyuk, Mims or Reagor) if either is still on the board, or TCU defensive lineman Ross Blacklock.
At 5-11⅝, Aiyuk is much shorter than Gutekunst clearly prefers at that position, but he’s not small (206 pounds), runs great after the catch (10.9-yard average, according to Pro Football Focus) and has long arms to compensate for his height — his 33½-inch arms rank in the 89th percentile of all receivers who have attended the NFL scouting combine since 1999, according to Mock Draftable. Aiyuk had core-muscle surgery recently, so he might still be on the board at 30.
“(Aiyuk has) the smooth ability to change direction,” one of the scouts said. “Get in and out of cuts, nice feel, crafty, ability to separate.”
Said another scout: “I’m not quite as high on Mims (as Aiyuk and Reagor). Those Baylor guys, they run the spread offense, everything is signaled in from the sidelines, you don’t have to adjust any routes. The mental aspect of playing in a pro offense is so much different than playing in those (schemes).”
Picking Blacklock (6-3⅛, 290) would fit with the drafting theory that athletic linemen on both sides of the ball are harder to find than other positions, as former GM Ted Thompson espoused in selecting Kenny Clark at No. 27 in 2016. The Packers’ run defense was an issue all last season and imploded in the NFC championship game, so Gutekunst might want to add talent to the interior defensive line alongside Clark.
“(Blacklock) would be a scheme fit,” one scout said of coordinator Mike Pettine’s defense. “He’s good against the run, yeah. But some of (the Packers’ run-stopping issues are) scheme related. They have a good defensive line. They just don’t have any gap control.”
As for drafting a quarterback at 30, who knows whether Gutekunst likes Jordan Love enough to consider taking him at 30. Or would the GM gladly trade out for a team that wants him? It probably doesn’t matter, because the chances of Love being available at 30 appear to be slim.
“I don’t think they’ve going to have to deal with that,” one source said. “I don’t think there’s any way Love is there at 30.”
While Gutekunst’s first-round options are wide, the guess here is he’ll do what he can to get Queen to improve the talent in the middle of his defense. The LSU standout is on the small side (6-0¼, 229), but he can really run (4.50 40), and that’s the way they make inside linebackers now. He improved greatly last season, his first as a full-time starter, and would be an upside pick who won’t turn 21 until August.
“He’s explosive, he can run, and he has (great vision),” said a scout who’s bullish on Queen.