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Dougherty: Explosive inside linebacker Jamin Davis appears made for today's NFL

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GREEN BAY - Inside linebacker is not a premium position like cornerback and tackle are.

Inside linebacker also is not as great a need for the Green Bay Packers, now or a year or two down the road, as cornerback and tackle are.

Yet, there’s a real chance that an inside linebacker, Kentucky’s Jamin Davis, will be an especially attractive option for Brian Gutekunst at pick No. 29 overall, or a few spots earlier if the Packers general manager trades up.

The fact is, the NFL keeps evolving into a spread and speed game, and more than ever there’s great value in fielding an explosive, dynamic athlete in the center of the defense. The Packers haven’t had one in, well, forever.

The late-blooming Davis appears made for today’s NFL. At 6-feet-3½ and with 33-inch arms, he has great height and length for coverage as an inside linebacker. At 234 pounds he has adequate size. And with a 4.47-second 40, 1.53-second 10-yard split and 42-inch vertical jump he ranks at the top of the charts on the explosiveness scale: According to MockDraftable, among off-ball linebackers at the NFL scouting combine since 1999, Davis would rank in the 98th, 99th and 95th percentiles.

The main concern is that in four seasons at Kentucky – one as a redshirt – he was only a one-year starter.

“He’s a super-talented, inexperienced prospect,” said one high-ranking scout in the league. “I think he’ll go in the 20s, but he’s legit, he’s a legit NFL prospect that nobody had heard of three months ago. You’re on Zoom calls with them (last year), he wasn’t even anybody they brought up, so nobody really watched him until the (Gator) Bowl game against N.C. State where word started coming out, this guy’s probably coming out. People are, like, who? Yeah, No. 44. Then you put the tape on and it’s like, whoa, this guy can really play.”

The bigger question is whether Davis will make it to 29, or within striking distance. After consulting six scouts this week, my best guess is Tulsa’s versatile linebacker, Zaven Collins, is off the board by the early 20s, and Davis makes it to the mid-20s at least.

“Really close,” another scout in the league said. “Guys will have concerns with his inability to be more than a one-year starter. He can roll now, I’m OK with him. Twenty-nine wouldn’t shock me because he’s a 25 to 40 guy.”

Of course, there’s no knowing what Gutekunst thinks or which players he might be targeting in the first round. He has the luxury of no must-fill need with his first pick, and he has plenty of positions where he could use quality depth immediately and a starter for 2022: defensive line, cornerback, offensive line, receiver, inside linebacker and even edge rusher.

There’s also the question of whether Gutekunst is more inclined to move up or down, or just stay put at 29. His three-year history as a drafter says he’ll make a move. In his first draft he moved back and then up before selecting Jaire Alexander. In his second he stayed put for his first first-round pick (Rashan Gary) but then moved up nine spots for his other first-rounder (Darnell Savage). And last year he moved up four spots to take quarterback Jordan Love.

This could be a draft where instead of targeting a player with a move up, Gutekunst goes back into the early second round and picks up an extra fourth-rounder. He could then use that extra pick to maneuver up in the second or third round.

“The trades are going to occur between 25 and 45, in my opinion,” one scout said.

Gutekunst also has plenty of other viable options at 29, or with a short move up or back.

Among the players other than Davis I most seriously considered were Virginia Tech cornerback Caleb Farley, Florida receiver Kadarius Toney and Notre Dame tackle Liam Eichenberg. Other possibilities are Washington defensive lineman Levi Onwuzurike Penn State edge rusher Jayson Oweh, Minnesota receiver Rashod Bateman, Georgia cornerback Tyson Campbell and Alabama tackle Alex Leatherwood.

Rightly or wrongly, I eliminated several other late-first round prospects for red flags, Alabama defensive lineman Christian Barmore (uneven play), Mississippi receiver Elijah Moore (size at 5-9½, 178) and LSU receiver Terrace Marshall (medical) among them.

Farley is a real possibility for the Packers because he’s a high-end prospect at a premium position who might be available at No. 29, or at least into the mid-20s, only because of medical concerns. He has the size (6-1⅞, 197 pounds) teams covet at cornerback, and stellar play in 2018 and ’19 (a combined six interceptions, 25 passes defended) after moving from quarterback to cornerback.

But he had ACL surgery in 2017, and at age 22 has already had two back surgeries, including one in March. He also was a pandemic opt-out last season, and because of the surgery was unable to work out for NFL teams this offseason, so scouts haven’t seen him do anything football-related since 2019.

The issue that matters most is his back. I asked two of the scouts this week whether their teams had cleared Farley medically, and both said yes. One said Farley appears to be on track to practice in training camp, the other considers him a good bet to land on PUP and miss the first six games.

The assumption here is that Northwestern cornerback Greg Newsome II will be off the board by the early 20s. Because of the injury Farley has a better chance of still being available at or near 29.

Then it’s just a question of the Packers’ medical grade. It’s also hard not to wonder if the Packers’ recent experience with cornerback Kevin King will influence Gutekunst’s decision. King had injury issues in college at Washington and has missed about one-third (23) of his 64 games in the NFL with various ailments.

On the other hand, plenty of scouts see Farley’s talent as rarely available at the bottom of the first round. That talent at a premium position has to give Gutekunst pause.

“My heart of hearts says Farley is there (at 29),” one scout said. “You’re so established there in Green Bay, why wouldn’t you take a shot at Farley? … Farley is the second-best corner in the draft. (Alabama’s Patrick) Surtain is a plug-and-play guy.”

Said a second scout: “Farley is the one I’ve been putting with the Packers because of the back. The value there, teams that couldn’t bring him in and check that (back) over will be scared by that. He’s big, he’s fast. He’s best in press – you don’t want him playing off, you’ve got to use him to his strengths. But good ball skills, competitive enough in the run game.”

Eichenberg also strikes me as a real possibility, especially in a trade back, and has Packers written all over him. He’s a dark horse as a late first-round pick but was a three-year starter at left tackle for Notre Dame and is a low-risk prospect at another premium position. With center Corey Linsley gone in free agency and left tackle David Bakhtiari (ACL recovery) likely to miss at least the first few games and possibly half the season, Eichenberg also would have a good shot at starting somewhere on the Packers’ line as a rookie.

The guess here is Oklahoma State tackle Teven Jenkins will be off the board by 29, though two of the scouts I consulted preferred Eichenberg anyway. Both likened Eichenberg to former Packers first-round pick Bryan Bulaga, who is entering his 12th year in the NFL and also had short arms – Bulaga’s are 33¼ inches, Eichenberg’s 32⅜.

“Eichenberg is so consistent and so steady and so stable, just do it and move on,” one scout said of picking him at 29. “He can play anything along the line.”

Said the scout: “I think he’s very underrated in this group, I like him a lot better than Jenkins, even (Virginia Tech's Christian Darrisaw). … Not a gifted athlete, but he plays functionally well athletically. His arm length is right on the cusp there, he’s just under 33. You don’t see it show up too much in his play, that’s why I’m not too concerned.”

Toney might have the slimmest chances of this group of being on the board at 29, but the best reason to exclude him as a possibility for the Packers at 29 is because Gutekunst was brought up in a scouting system that devalues receivers as first-rounders – the Packers haven’t drafted one in the first round since 2002. Toney also is on the small side (5-11⅝, 193), and Gutekunst’s first three seasons as GM show he clearly prefers bigger players for that position.

But Toney is a little bigger than former Packers receiver Randall Cobb (5-10¼, 191) and more explosive – Toney ran a 4.37 40 to Cobb’s 4.46, and had a 39½-inch vertical to Cobb’s 33½.

“On third-down matchup there’s nobody in the NFL that can cover (Toney),” another scout said. “Plus his value as a punt returner too. But my god is that guy explosive and quick. The NFC North hasn’t seen someone like that in a while.”

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