Green Bay Packers sit at 5-3, second in the NFC North, midway through the regular se..."/> Green Bay Packers sit at 5-3, second in the NFC North, midway through the regular se..."/>

Three College Players to Watch for Packers in 2015


The Green Bay Packers sit at 5-3, second in the NFC North, midway through the regular season. Despite a few bumps in the road, the Packers look to be a real contender this year and should make the playoffs with a solid second half of the season.

Now, I know it is too early to look beyond this season and talk about the 2015 NFL Draft. After all, there is still 2-3 months of quality football left to play before we can even move on to next year.

However, I would like to take some time each week and highlight a few college players to keep an eye, as Packers fans. The draft landscape is far from being decided at this point. We don’t know how this second half of the season will unfold, and we don’t even know which underclassmen will declare early.

But, with college football really heating up and two months of highly competitive football still ahead of us at the collegiate level, I thought this would be a good time to highlight a few players that project to be early-round picks in the spring and could fill a current need on the Packers’ roster.

Benardrick McKinney, LB, Mississippi State

Mississippi State Bulldogs linebacker Benardrick McKinney (50). Spruce Derden-USA TODAY Sports

McKinney is perhaps my favorite player to watch in college football. He’s a great blend of power and athleticism at the position. At 6-foot-4 and 245 pounds, McKinney has the size and length to hold his ground in the box and shed blocks against the run. He’s also great at moving in space and dropping back in coverage. His sub-4.60 speed helps in this department.

Perhaps, even more impressively, McKinney rarely seems out of place on the field and shows a deep understanding of both the defense and what the opposing offense is trying to do. McKinney has played a big role in Mississippi State’s ascension to the No. 1 overall team in the country.

NFL Draft Scout’s Rob Rang ranks McKinney 30th on his top 2015 draft prospects, and the versatile linebacker projects to about where the Packers will most likely be picking next spring–the late first round.

Anyone watching Green Bay this season, knows the Packers desperately need help at inside linebacker. They rank last in the NFL in run defense, and repeatedly their linebackers get torched in pass coverage. A.J. Hawk has his moments, but he doesn’t have the size to hold his ground against the run, unless he goes untouched, which is rare. Hawk is also taken off the field on obvious passing downs because of his limits in pass coverage.

I’m not sure Jamari Lattimore, Sam Barrington, or Brad Jones are the answers at the position either. With McKinney, the Packers would have both their bruiser in the middle against the run and an athletic linebacker to drop back in coverage.

Shawn Oakman, DE, Baylor

Oakman is currently Rang’s 10th-ranked player for the 2015 draft, and one look at his 2014 numbers and you can see why. Oakman has been a force off the edge for Baylor’s defense, both against the run and as a pass rusher.

Baylor Bears defensive end Shawn Oakman (2) rushes the passer while blocked by Kansas Jayhawks offensive lineman Pat Lewandowski (61). Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Oakman has already tallied five sacks and a whopping 10.5 tackles for loss in only seven games this season. At 6-foot-9 and 275 pounds and sub-5.0 speed, the Baylor defensive end is a rare athlete who combines length and quickness off the edge.

Oakman also has the frame to add weight and is scheme versatile, making him a legitimate option for 3-4 teams in the NFL. Oakman can be disruptive both against the run and as pass rusher. A rare skillset for 3-4 linemen. Many also believe Oakman is just realizing his potential and has a high-ceiling as a player at the next level.

He could bring depth to the Packers defensive line and compete with Datone Jones and Mike Daniels for starting job in the Green Bay’s 3-4 base defense. Oakman could also factor in as an interior rusher in sub-packages.

Regardless, the Packers need help on the defensive line and a rare athlete like Oakman could help address a major need.

Devin Funchess, WR/TE, Michigan

Michigan Wolverines wide receiver Devin Funchess (1) makes a touch down catch in front of Penn State Nittany Lions safety Ryan Keiser (23). Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

I know the Packers’ biggest needs are on defense, but this doesn’t mean offense should be off the table in the first round.

Even if the Packers re-sign Randall Cobb this offseason, they could still use more passing targets for Aaron Rodgers and their offense. Rookie Davante Adams is coming on strong and Jordy Nelson is a stud, but Green Bay is still missing a sizeable target in the red zone.

In the past, this guy was tight end Jermichael Finley, but the current crop of tight ends haven’t stepped up at this point in the season. Starter Andrew Quarless is too inconsistent to rely on each week. Converted wide receiver Brandon Bostick has still yet to make an impact. Rookie Richard Rodgers has flashed at times, but hasn’t emerged quite yet.

Even if Rodgers develops into the player the Packers think he can be, Green Bay may want to consider drafting another athletic tight end prospect, like Michigan’s Funchess. Funchess is a receiver-tight end hybrid, much in the Jimmy Graham mold.

Funchess lacks top-end speed, which may force him back to tight end in the NFL. He certainly has the size (6-5, 230) and athletic ability to create mismatches as a receiving tight end at the next level. He may not offer much as a blocker, but Green Bay could certainly use his presence over the middle of the field in the passing game.

At this point, it is too early to know exactly where these players fall on the draft continuum, but all early indications show that McKinney, Oakman, and Funchess project as early-round players, and more than likely, Green Bay will draft somewhere in the latter half of the first round.

Each player could be a real option for the Packers come draft time in April.