GREEN BAY — For the second straight year, outside linebacker appears to be an area of need for the Green Bay Packers.
That doesn’t mean general manager Ted Thompson will select one in next week’s NFL draft.
He didn’t last year, instead choosing a different approach to try to bolster the spot opposite star Clay Matthews.
Finding an outside linebacker to fit into the 3-4 defense sometimes requires teams that use that scheme to get creative. That’s what Thompson did last year, when he signed three undrafted free agent defensive linemen with the intentions of converting them into outside linebackers.
Undrafted players are long shots to make the 53-man roster as it is, but Tim Knicky, John Russell and Frank Zombo faced the additional challenge of trying to make it at a position they weren’t used to playing.
Knicky, who played defensive end at Stephen F. Austin, was released last June.
Russell, who played defensive tackle at Wake Forest, was released a month later before the start of training camp.
And then there was Zombo, who played defensive end at Central Michigan and beat all the odds with the Packers. Not only did Zombo make it through training camp and earn a spot on the roster, he ended up starting opposite Matthews part of the season after Brad Jones was placed on injured reserve with a shoulder injury.
“It’s not like they knew they had a diamond in the rough there in Frank Zombo,” said a scout from an AFC team. “But he ended up being an outstanding player. ... It’s such a projection.
“There were some things that you saw on film with Frank Zombo in college but really not enough to say he was going to be the player he was. If anybody says he was going to be the player that he was this year for the Packers, they’re only fooling themselves. But there’s no doubt that he has the intangibles that made him into that player.”
Part of the reason the outside linebacker position is so difficult to project is because so few college teams use 3-4 schemes.
Justin Houston, one of the top outside linebacker prospects in this year’s draft, is a rarity because he played in a 3-4 scheme at Georgia.
Brooks Reed, on the other hand, played defensive end at Arizona but is being projected as an outside linebacker in the NFL. Ditto for Dontay Moch, who played defensive end at Nevada but doesn’t have the size (6-foot-1, 248 pounds) to play that position at the next level.
“You still go by, is the guy a good football player?” Thompson said during his pre-draft news conference Thursday at Lambeau Field. “There are position specifics that you would like: ideal height, ideal weight, strength numbers, athletic ability and things like that. But there’s enough cross training between the end of the college season, you go through the combine, you go through the pro days, you do all that, from an athletic standpoint, you can see that.”
Texas A&M’s Von Miller is by far the best outside linebacker prospect in the draft. He might be the best player overall and likely will go in the top five picks.
The next tier includes Houston and UCLA’s Akeem Ayers, but both of those players likely will be gone by the time it’s the Packers’ turn to close the first round with the 32nd overall selection.
Some mock drafts have Reed going to the Packers.
“The outside linebacker group is good,” Pittsburgh Steelers director of football operations Kevin Colbert told reporters at the NFL Scouting Combine in February. “There’s more available to us than has been in the past.”
The group of inside linebackers isn’t as good. It’s unlikely any of them will be selected in the first round, and the best of the bunch, Illinois’ Martez Wilson, may be best suited to play on the outside.
Two former University of Wisconsin linebackers will hope to hear their name called next week. But Culmer St. Jean, a middle linebacker, and Blake Sorensen, who plays on the outside, likely will go undrafted and end up in camps as free agents.