Dougherty: Defensive-line help for Packers will be hard to come by in this draft
GREEN BAY - The NFL’s best defenses generally have the best defensive lines.
So it’s no surprise the Green Bay Packers, who finished No. 13 in points allowed last year, need help on their defensive line.
The problem is, this year’s NFL draft is looking about as lean as they come for first-round prospects for the interior of a defensive front. Only two have much chance of going in the first round, and it’s not a given either will be off the board by the time the first round ends: Alabama’s Christian Barmore and Washington’s Levi Onwuzurike.
“I don’t think there’s anyone else that even warrants consideration in the first round,” said one NFL scout recently.
“You’re just really trying to manufacture these guys,” a scout for another team lamented. “It’s not like years past where you had some big-time players.”
Drafting a defensive lineman would fit with the Packers’ first-round philosophy for the last couple decades. Former general manager Ted Thompson often talked about how rare big, athletic players are, and advocated getting them early when you get the chance. With eight of his 13 first-round picks he took what can accurately be described as big players (offensive and defensive linemen, and edge rushers).
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Packers GM Brian Gutekunst has often called the NFL a big man’s game as well, and is very much in the market this year to find another quality lineman for his defense’s interior. That goes especially if new defensive coordinator Joe Barry wants to play five-man fronts (two outside linebackers and three interior linemen) as much as his previous team, the Los Angeles Rams, did last year using the Brandon Staley 3-4 scheme that Barry is bringing to the Packers.
Staley last season liberally mixed an unconventional nickel that included a five-man-front (plus one inside linebacker and five defensive backs) with a more conventional nickel (four-man front and two inside linebackers) last season. If Barry wants to do the same with the Packers, he could use an upgrade for the defensive line. Kenny Clark is one of the better interior defenders in the NFL, but no one from among the other returnees (Kingsley Keke, Dean Lowry, Tyler Lancaster and Anthony Rush) distinguished himself in 2020.
One and maybe both of Barmore and Onwuzurike figure to be on the board when Gutekunst’s pick comes up at No. 29 overall. Both are likely to be drafted in the latter third of the first round or early portion of the second.
They’re very different players – Barmore is more of a nose tackle-type at 6-4⅛ and 310 pounds, whereas the smaller Onwuzurike (6-2⅞, 290) is at his best when trying to disrupt by shooting gaps.
Both also have the warts that go with being late first- to early second-round prospects, rather than top-15 players. Though it’s worth pointing out Clark was the No. 27 pick in the ’16 draft, and he has more than panned out.
Based on recent conversations with five NFL scouts, Barmore is the more talented of the two and has the better chance of being off the board when the Packers pick. As a redshirt sophomore last year Barmore had eight sacks, which is good for an inside rusher, and after his occasionally indifferent play earlier in the season came on late in the SEC championship game and NCAA playoffs – he was named defensive MVP of the national championship game.
“A hard guy to move off his spot,” one scout said. “He saw his share of double teams and stood his ground. You don’t see many plays where he chases the play to the outside – he does his thing in a small area. His power is impressive, but you don’t see much else to take notice. Others around him are more active. I’d like to see more plays where he’s disruptive. He played a lot better in the playoff games.”
Multiple scouts described Barmore as raw and inconsistent – the redshirt sophomore played in only 24 games with six starts.
“There’s a chance he could go real high, and there’s a chance he might slide out of the first round,” one scout said.
Said another: “Barmore talent-wise is as good as Kenny Clark. ... I still think he probably goes Round 1.”
Onwuzurike is probably best suited as a three-technique in a 4-3 scheme, but all five scouts consulted thought he could also play end in a 3-4 scheme such as the Packers will use when they deploy five-man fronts.
Onwuzurike was one of the many opt outs from college football last season, so teams are grading him off his 2019 game tape. It didn’t help that after a good start in practice at the Senior Bowl he missed most of the week because of an injury, then was unable to finish his pro day workouts because of a hamstring injury.
“He’ll catch your eye and grab your attention with some play where he’d get off a block and run all the way to the sideline,” one scout said, “or beat a rush and it’s a screen and he’ll run all the way to the numbers and make the tackle, and you’re like, ‘Wow, that’s a big man that’s moving.’ But then there’s eight plays after that where he doesn’t do anything.”
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Onwuzurike wasn’t a big numbers guy – in his final two seasons he had 12½ tackles for loss and five sacks combined. But he was disruptive at times and plays hard.
“Not much to dislike about his game,” another scout said. “He plays the run well and has the quickness to cause problems in the pocket as a pass rusher.”
Said a fourth scout: “You have to have him try to shoot gaps. I just think he’s going to struggle in there. Those little guys struggle unless you’re Aaron Donald, he’s the exception.”
As for a scheme fit, Barmore figures to be the better prospect for the Packers. But it would hardly be a surprise if Onwuzurike ends up being the better player. The first player picked at a position often doesn’t prove to be the best.
Regardless, if Gutekunst is going to upgrade the interior of his defensive line in the first round, it probably comes down to one of those two.