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Dougherty: Medical concerns cloud Packers' draft outlook at cornerback

GREEN BAY - When the Green Bay Packers’ first pick comes up at No. 29 overall next week, Brian Gutekunst very well might have to answer a big question that crops up for general managers early in the NFL draft every few years:

If you’re picking later in the first round, how do you weigh the risk of a recent, serious medical issue against the talent that otherwise would have seen a player drafted among the top 15 picks?

It’s a question teams faced in 2016 with linebackers Jaylon Smith (No. 34 overall to Dallas and Myles Jack (No. 36 overall to Jacksonville), and in 2019 with defensive lineman Jeffery Simmons (No. 19 overall to Tennessee).

This year, that player is Virginia Tech’s Caleb Farley, who plays a position, cornerback, that surely ranks high on Gutekunst’s priority list. Farley had microdiscectomy surgery on his back last month, his second such procedure since he injured his back in 2019. Farley’s status is further clouded because he didn’t play last season as a coronavirus opt out and was unable to work out for NFL scouts this spring because of the recent surgery.

Without the surgery, Farley would have been the No. 1 cornerback on at least some teams' draft boards and a likely top-15 pick. He might still go top 20, but there’s also a chance that concerns about the two back surgeries along with ACL reconstruction from his freshman year in college will leave him available at the bottom of the first round or even early second.

A lot of teams are finalizing their medical grades this week as they wrap up draft meetings — Farley was part of a group of draft prospects who had an injury re-check in Indianapolis earlier this month. If his recovery from surgery continues on track, he should be ready to play football a little before the start of NFL training camps in late July.

“Our doctors think he should be OK, but there are some teams that might not have him as OK,” said an NFL scout who bumped Farley to the second round because of the injury. “The fact that he’s only 22 and had two procedures on his back, some teams are going to have a problem with that. I think he’s the best corner in the draft if he didn’t have the problems.”

Another scout said his team hasn’t given Farley a final medical grade so deferred on whether he’d take the chance at the bottom of the first round.

“If the doctors say he’s going to be OK you could roll the dice on it,” the scout said. “He’s 22, he’s probably going to heal from it. You just might not have him this year. But if those doctors red flag it, then you can’t take him in the first round. Then I don’t know when you’d take him.”

Farley has the physical makeup teams are looking for in an outside cornerback. He’s tall (6-1⅞) and has long arms (33½ inches) — the league averages for cornerbacks at the NFL scouting combine dating to 1999 are 5-11⅜ and 31½.

He was a high school quarterback who was probably going to play receiver at Virginia Tech, but then switched to cornerback after redshirting his freshman season because of the knee injury. Farley was an immediate starter on defense and in his 24 games at Virginia Tech in 2018 and ’19 showed natural playmaking talent with six interceptions and 25 passes defensed.

The problem with back injuries is they never really go away and have to be managed throughout a player’s career. Doctors can have only so much confidence in whether a surgically repaired back is going to be an issue that regularly crops up with a player and diminishes his talent in the NFL.

For what it’s worth, Smith, Jack and Simmons have had good careers to date coming back from their major knee injuries. Smith missed his rookie season recovering from his severe injury but hasn’t missed a game since and in 2020 signed a contract extension that averages $9.8 million a year. Jack has missed seven games and signed an extension in ’19 that averages $11.6 million. And Simmons missed almost half his rookie season (seven games) and two games last year but is an ascending young defensive lineman in the league.

“I never was that crazy about Farley,” a third scout said. “He’s big and he can run, but he’s limited in how you have to play him in that he has to be a press guy, when he’s off he really, really struggles. Then the back, that scares you to death.”

Two cornerbacks figure to be off the board in the first 15 to 20 picks, Alabama’s Patrick Surtain and South Carolina’s Jaycee Horn. Thereafter several cornerbacks could be in play at the end of the first round, or early in the second if Gutekunst trades back. Following are thumbnail sketches of each:

Greg Newsome II, Northwestern (6-0, 199, 4.38 40): Decent chance he goes in the top 20, though there’s an outside shot he could still be available far enough into the 20s for a Packers trade up if Gutekunst really likes him. Newsome led the Big Ten in passes defensed last season with 10 in six games. His 4.38 40 made a strong impression on teams concerned about his speed.

“Before the workout I was confused with what was wrong with him, why he wasn’t higher,” one scout said. “Size, speed, he’s got great feel, plays with burst. You see the speed on the field, hips. Ball skills are outstanding. I thought he has all-around skills at corner.”

Asante Samuel Jr., Florida State (5-10⅛, 180, 4.38 40): Son of 11-year NFL cornerback Asante Samuel. The Packers made an exception for Jaire Alexander to their 5-10½ minimum height guideline for cornerbacks, and even though that has worked out well, would Gutekunst really be willing to make an exception again, especially in an early round? Samuel could be a strong candidate for slot cornerback, which has become a starting position in the NFL. In two years as a starter in college, Samuel had 24 passes defended and four interceptions.

“Just a natural player,” one scout said. “Quick, fluid, got feet and hips, burst, ball skills. His size does show up some, that’s the only knock I had on him. He can get pushed around a little bit at the moment of truth when the ball is there.”

Said a second scout: “I like Samuel. He ran OK. I don’t think he plays super fast, but he covers well, he’s instinctive. He’s little so he’ll give up some stuff to bigger guys. I’d take Samuel over Newsome. The thing with Samuel, is he going to be better than a third corner because of his size and strength? He was a little bit better of a college player than Newsome, but Newsome has all the rest of the things, he’s faster and he’s bigger, he’s longer.”

Eric Stokes, Georgia (6-0⅝, 194, 4.29 40): Ran a 10.39-second 100 meters as a high school track star in Georgia. Had 17 passes defended and four interceptions in 23 games as a full-time player in college.

One scout rated Stokes the fourth-best cornerback of the class behind Surtain, Horn and Newsome: “He’s big, he’s fast, excellent ball skills, instinctive. His knock is the tackling a little bit, but corners now, they’re just get’ em down guys, pretty much all of them.”

Said a second scout: “I have him behind Samuel. He has a nose for the ball and creates big plays. He knows how to position himself to take the ball away. At his best when he can walk up and play press coverage, likes to get his hands on a receiver and run with him up the field.”

Aaron Robinson, Central Florida (5-11½, 186, 4.38 40): Transfer from Alabama had three interceptions and 20 passes defended in 22 games in ’19 and ’20.

“You talk about your ideal slot, he is that guy,” one scout said. “He’s sudden, quick-twitch, he’s the toughest out of all these guys by far just as far as the run-support stuff.”

Said another scout: “He has some burst, but there are some negative things about him that to me say he’s not a first-rounder. You could see some mix-ups and some issues they had in the secondary, and he was usually involved in it.”

Kelvin Joseph, Kentucky (5-11½, 197, 4.34 40): Third-year sophomore began his college career at LSU. Had four interceptions in nine games last season after redshirting in ’19. Big concerns about his maturity after Kentucky coach Mark Stoops asked him to opt out for final two games because Joseph’s effort level dropped so much at the end of the season.

“He’s a major-league talent, legit,” one scout said. “But he’s a huge risk.”

Said another scout: “Looks the part. Was asked to take the best receiver and handled it. Did a nice job in the Alabama game but struggled badly on a double move against Florida where (first-round tight end) Kyle Pitts caught him leaning outside. He’s always around the ball and knows how to play it in the air. You can tell he has a chip on his shoulder.”

Tyson Campbell, Georgia (6-1, 193, 4.36): More of a second-round prospect than first. Has the build and speed of an upper-end prospect but is raw despite starting 24 games in college.

“Against Florida he covered Pitts a couple times and held his own,” one scout said. “His size helps him, but he lacks finish. He ran under 4.40, but the tape didn’t show that.”

Said another scout: “The Georgia guys, Stokes and Campbell, they both can play. But Campbell couldn’t judge the ball in the air if he had to, he cannot defend the pass. He’s right there 20 times in a row, and they’ll catch 18 of them. It’s unreal.”

Ifeatu Melifonwu, Syracuse (6-2½, 205, 4.48): His brother, Nonsu, was a second-round pick by the Raiders in 2017 and is on his third team as a safety on the 49ers’ roster. Ifeatu has outstanding size for a cornerback and tested well (41½-inch vertical). Likely to be a second-rounder.

“He’s definitely better than the brother,” one scout said. “The brother was strictly a height-weight-speed prospect that people were convinced they could develop. This guy is a corner, he may flex to safety one day. He held up pretty well at the Senior Bowl. He’s got a degree of height, weight and speed. I’d say he’s got a chance.”

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