2023 NFL Scouting Combine brings Packers draft targets into focus
The 2023 NFL Scouting Combine has helped bring certain prospects into focus for the Packers while taking others out of serious consideration.
The 2023 NFL Scouting Combine finished up Sunday afternoon. The event, one of the major pillars of the annual draft process, helps bring the top prospects into focus. That holds particularly true for the Green Bay Packers, a team that has heavily weighted measurable athleticism into their rookie scouting.
Today's edition of The Leap views the results from the NFL Scouting Combine through the lens of the Packers' personnel department and looks to identify which players check the right boxes for the team and which ones fell short.
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Based on the NFL Scouting Combine, which prospect solidified himself as a "Packers type" at the combine?
Jason B. Hirschhorn: Three years ago, a highly productive wideout from a blue-blood program entered the combine with plenty of fanfare but questions about his athleticism. That player went on to have a phenomenal performance in Indianapolis, solidifying himself as one of the top prospects at his position and, ultimately, a first-round selection.
That player, of course, was LSU wide receiver Justin Jefferson, now a superstar with the Minnesota Vikings.
A similar trajectory appears underway this year. Jaxon Smith-Njigba, the wideout who actually outproduced Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson at Ohio State in 2021 before injuries derailed his final season in Columbus, arrived at the combine facing many of the concerns that surrounding Jefferson at the same point in the draft process. Smith-Njigba spent much of his time working from the slot -- Jefferson did the same during his last run in Baton Rouge -- and many scouts expected him to deliver acceptable but relatively pedestrian numbers in the speed and agility drills.
But just as Jefferson blew those expectations out of the water in 2020, Smith-Njigba did the same over the weekend. Not only did he hit several size thresholds for a team like the Packers (6-foot-1, 196 pounds), but he delivered some incredible agility scores for a player of any size. Smith-Njigba also delivered the goods in the short shuttle with a 3.93-second short shuttle, the only run below four seconds for anyone in Indy. More impressive still, he ran the three-cone drill in 6.57 seconds, the top finish of any prospect at this combine and nearly three full tenths of a second better than the next fastest receiver.
Smith-Njigba declined to run the 40-yard dash at the combine, opting to wait until Ohio State's pro day on March 22. As long as he takes care of business there, he seems a sure bet to hear his name called early in the first round, perhaps as the top wideout off the board.
Peter Bukowski: Jason’s answer is offensive to me personally because no one has been driving the JSN hype train more than I have. That said, he wasn’t going to be my answer here, I just needed that to be known. (Editor’s note: Jason and Peter have an annual tradition of fighting over who loves a receiver more in a particular draft class).
I’m going to bend the rules here and go with the entire tight-end class. While Utah’s Dalton Kincaid didn’t work out with a back issue, the rest of the class not only acquitted itself but solidified the group as one of the best in a long time. NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah suggested three tight ends could go in the first round, and it’s not hard to imagine why.
A player like Darnell Washington ran the second best three-cone drill at the combine and has 70 pounds on the guy who ran the best one. He can also do things like this:
There are some off-the-field concerns with Washington going back to his high-school days, but the physical tools are off the charts.
Michael Mayer, Luke Musgrave, Sam LaPorta, David Allen, and others all put together terrific workouts and appear to be top-75 prospects, all of whom could be in play for the Packers. I’ll add another name to this list even though Green Bay, in a weird turn, has historically not prioritized athletic freaks at tight end going back to Ted Thompson. There was a player who tested as potentially the most physically gifted tight end in combine history: Zach Kuntz.
And which prospect previously attached to the Packers do you believe has removed themselves from serious consideration?
JBH: With Adrian Amos set to hit free agency and Darnell Savage entering the fifth-year option of his rookie deal, the Packers undoubtedly have an eye on the safeties in the 2023 rookie class. One of the top prospects in that group, Penn State's Ji'Ayir Brown, probably missed the mark from the team's perspective.
While the safety measured big enough for Green Bay -- over 5-foot-11 and 203 pounds -- he lacked the speed and explosiveness Brian Gutekunst and Co. favor at the position. His vertical and broad jumps (32.5 inches and 9 feet, 11 inches, respectively) came in below average. Most damningly, Brown ran a 4.65-second 40-yard dash, a time that most teams will deem too slow.
In the context of more impressive athletes at the position -- Illinois' Sydney Brown probably locked himself into the top 100 picks with an absurdly strong showing -- the Penn State product might have cost himself dearly at the combine.
PB: I’m going to borrow my approach to the first question and say the receiver room in general. If you’re looking to recruit for the Lollipop Guild, this class is for you. Even receivers who are otherwise decently tall like Jalin Hyatt came in underweight. Some of the slight-framed receivers ran slowly.
This shrinks the pool for a team like the Packers that prizes size-speed combinations. Jaxon Smith-Njigba testing like an all-time great change-of-direction athlete helps. Quentin Johnston putting together an explosive workout adds a player to the list potentially, but neither ran the 40. On a fast track in Indy, when they did all the other tests, that smells like two guys who are worried they’ll run slowly. That’s a much bigger deal for Johnston who also came in shorter than expected (6-foot-2 rather than 6-foot-4) than JSN who, as I mentioned, has the kind of short-area burst and explosiveness to absolutely maul teams from the slot.
Smith-Njigba profiles as the kind of player who fits a crucial need for the Packers and slides in seamlessly with Romeo Doubs and Christian Watson. Johnston’s fit as an outside-the-numbers ball winner lacks the same integration.
And the rest of the class? It’s a resounding meh. The only good news is Green Bay will be picking high enough that they will likely get a chance to pick one of the two if they so desire.
Which prospect did the most to improve or hurt his draft stock?
JBH: In a rookie class that seems replete with enticing tight ends, Iowa's Sam LaPorta stood out during his combine drills.
Though a bit undersized at 6-foot-3 and a 1/4 inch, LaPorta exceeded expectations in every other area. His 35-inch vertical and 10-foot-3 broad jump look exceptional for a 245-pound player, and his 4.59-second 40 and 6.91-second three-cone drill put him in elite territory for a tight end. LaPorta put together an outstanding Relative Athletic Score.
His RAS comps him to multiple first-round tight ends (Evan Engram and Dustin Keller) and, most compelling of all, George Kittle. And, certainly, the reputation of Iowa tight ends speaks for itself.
LaPorta probably entered the combine on the border of the Day 2-Day 3 divide. Now, he could conceivably come off the board in the second round.
PB: The Anthony Richardson dream is dead.
I previously suggested on Locked on Packers and The Leap that if the Packers get the chance to take a shot on an athletic marvel like Anthony Richardson, it would be a worthy gamble. He’s not going to be around at 15. Even if Green Bay lands the No. 7 pick in a potential Aaron Rodgers trade, that might not even be high enough.
Richardson set the record for quarterbacks with a 40.5-inch vertical, ran a 4.4-second 40 at 244 pounds, and threw 60 bombs like it was nothing. Forget signal-callers, he might be the most physically gifted player in this draft class.
If I’m a Packers fan, I’m glad the Bears seem totally comfortable passing on a guy like Richardson to see if Justin Fields might be good and worried sick the Lions trade into the top five to snag him. Rarely can a player in the draft walk into the NFL and be one of the five most gifted players at his position. Richardson can, and he just happens to play the most important position in sports.
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