Montez Sweat photo

Mississippi State defensive lineman Montez Sweat runs a drill during the NFL scouting combine Sunday in Indianapolis. His time of 4.41 in the 40 set a combine record for his position, but he also had sterling runs in the three-cone drill and short shuttle.

Welcome to the NFL scouting combine, where fractions of inches and tenths of seconds make all the difference.

They certainly could for the Green Bay Packers during the NFL draft in April.

The combine that concluded Monday turned into an athletic freak show, a surprising development that could pay significant dividends for the Packers, who own the 12th pick in the first round and badly need to turn it into a true difference-making player.

When a larger-than-usual number of prospects wowed NFL scouts with their personal measurements and/or athletic feats during the combine, it created a probable overload for the top 10 picks in the draft, which means the Packers have no need to think about trading up. They can sit tight at No. 12 and likely find a potential game-changer who might not have been available at that spot prior to the combine.

One by one, prospects turned the NFL scouting community on its collective ear during the world’s most televised mass job interview.

Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray alleviated fears that the was too short by measuring 5-foot-10, the new magic number for NFL quarterbacks thanks to Russell Wilson. Edge rushers such as Montez Sweat of Mississippi State and Rashan Gary of Michigan had scouts staring at their stopwatches in disbelief after running the 40-yard dash like wide receivers. Houston defensive tackle Ed Oliver quieted fears that he was too light, weighing in at 287 with no loss of athleticism. Mississippi wide receiver D.K. Metcalf and Iowa tight end Noah Fant put up freaky numbers at just about every station. Michigan inside linebacker Devin Bush measured 5-11, which was a relief for scouts, and then basically did what Metcalf and Fant did in the testing.

Of that group, Murray put himself in contention to be the No. 1 overall pick in the draft and Sweat, Gary, Oliver, Metcalf and Fant will at least force teams to consider them in the 11 picks prior to the Packers’ turn.

Meanwhile, edge rushers Nick Bosa of Ohio State, Josh Allen of Kentucky and Brian Burns of Florida State, Alabama defensive tackle Quinnen Williams, LSU inside linebacker Devin White, LSU cornerback Greedy Williams, Ohio State quarterback Dwayne Haskins, Alabama offensive tackle Jonah Williams, Florida offensive tackle Jawaan Taylor and Iowa’s other tight end, T.J. Hockenson, were already possibilities for the top 10 and did nothing at the combine to hurt their status. Missouri quarterback Drew Lock was impressive throwing the football and, given the importance of the position, some team might scoop him up before the Packers step to the plate as well.

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Not sure if you’re scoring at home, but that is 17 players who could go before the Packers pick at 12, which should leave general manager Brian Gutekunst with some very good options when that spot comes up. The deeper-than-usual group of elite draft prospects plays right into the Packers’ hands. And since they need help at multiple positions on offense and defense, they can select someone they view as a playmaker as opposed to filling a need.

It’s possible the Packers already had targeted a player — like, say, Sweat — who moved out of their reach with his combine performance. It’s more likely, however, the increase in potential top-10 picks will push additional players their way.

Some teams will view players such as Metcalf, Fant and Gary as workout warriors whose college production didn’t match their athletic talents. However, all it takes is one team to fall in love with a player, something that happens every year with players who “win” the combine. If teams fall for such players, it will only help the Packers.

It’s early, but the way it looks now, Murray, Haskins, Bosa, Allen, White, Quinnen Williams and Greedy Williams will almost certainly be off the board by the time the Packers pick. The rest remain a possibility for them.

Should the Packers want an edge rusher at 12, Sweat, Burns, Gary or Clemson’s Clelin Ferrell might be available. Elsewhere on defense, Oliver on the line and Bush at inside linebacker could still be on the board. About the only position of great need on the Packers defense that doesn’t have a player worthy of 12 is safety.

It is entirely possible the Packers will have their pick of the top offensive tackles between Taylor and Jonah Williams. Fant and/or Hockenson might be available at tight end, with Hockenson’s run-blocking ability likely making him more inviting to the Packers. And while Metcalf would bring enormous physical gifts to the wide receiver corps, the Packers don’t need a 6-3, 228-pound receiver, even if he does run the 40 in 4.33. They need a slot receiver and they might be able to find one of those a little later in the draft.

For all of its over-reliance on height, weight and athletic numbers, the combine is the last major reshuffling of the deck prior to the draft. There is plenty of time left and there will be more movement among prospects, but the large number of players who turned the scouts’ heads at the combine created a deeper and more volatile mix of players in the top half of the first round, something that should help the Packers.

But now comes the hard part, deciding which ones will be difference-makers in the NFL.


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Contact Tom Oates at toates@madison.com.