Packers 2016 NFL Draft: Noah Spence could be worth a gamble

Feb 26, 2016; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Eastern Kentucky defensive lineman Noah Spence speaks to the media during the 2016 NFL Scouting Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 26, 2016; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Eastern Kentucky defensive lineman Noah Spence speaks to the media during the 2016 NFL Scouting Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports /

Noah Spence is one of the most talented players entering the 2016 NFL Draft, but off-the-field concerns cast a shadow over his stock.

On talent alone, Noah Spence is a surefire top-ten pick.

One of the best pure pass rushers the draft has to offer, his future team will land a player with a relentless motor and desire to get after the quarterback. A team in the market for an upgrade to their pass rush is the Green Bay Packers, but are Spence’s off-the-field issues too much of a concern?

Spence was kicked out of Ohio State after failing two drug tests, and this adds a major red flag to his draft stock. Despite Spence’s word that his drugs history is behind him, can a team truly trust him to avoid any further off-the-field issues?

In a fascinating in-depth article written by Bruce Feldman of FOX Sports last October, Spence has worked hard to put the troubles behind him and get his life, and career, back on track.

"“With Meyer’s blessing, Spence and his parents were convinced that Eastern Kentucky was the ideal place to resume his football career. Spence also had a request for Hood, his new coach.“I asked them if they could put me on every drug-test list here even though I know I’m clean,” Spence said.”"

The quote from Spence is particularly interesting. He wanted to be drug tested as often as possible to prove he was staying clean and had made a positive change.

Spence decided to transfer to Eastern Kentucky to prove his value entering the 2016 NFL Draft, and he was dominant, registering 22.5 tackles for a loss and 13.5 sacks. From the outside, it’s easy to see just how big of a talent he can be at the next level. It all comes down to staying out of trouble.

Due to these red flags, it’s hard to envision Spence being selected in the top half of the draft’s first day. Can a team picking inside the top-15, or even top-20, afford to take the risk that he stays clean? Prospects such as UCLA linebacker Myles Jack and Ohio State edge rusher Joey Bosa offer safer selections.

There’s a realistic chance Spence drops all the way down to the late twenties, which is where Packers general manager Ted Thompson will be patiently awaiting his move.

Thompson has historically avoided players with off-the-field concerns, although in recent years he’s stood by defensive end Letroy Guion and tight end Andrew Quarless. Guion was arrested for possession marijuana and a firearm in his hometown of Starke, Florida. He was re-signed to a one-year deal a month after his arrest and signed a three-year extension last month.

Quarless was arrested last July for discharging a firearm but was kept on the roster. He has since hit free agency after an injury-plagued 2015 season.

On talent alone, Spence would be a no-brainer at No. 27. If he falls, the decision will be largely based on Thompson’s meetings with the player — both at the combine and in a personal visit.

The fact Spence is visiting Green Bay doesn’t shed much light on the situation other than that he’s not completely off the Packers’ board. It shows Thompson is willing to cover every base, as all 32 GMs likely are.

If the Packers feel he has put his cloudy past behind him he is well worth the risk. Adding another outside linebacker to rush the quarterback is important in this year’s draft, and this would give Green Bay a rare opportunity to land a top-ten rated talent in the first round.

Julius Peppers and Clay Matthews are expected to be the starting outside linebackers, but Peppers‘ snap count will be reduced again this year as he hits 37-years-old. Behind Peppers, Nick Perry offers depth after signing a one-year “prove it” deal, but staying healthy has been his biggest issue. Young Jayrone Elliott has potential but is still unproven. Datone Jones is expected to feature more at outside linebacker in an “elephant” role, but he needs more production. 

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Denver proved just how effective owning a suffocating pass rush can be. With Matthews, Peppers, Spence and Perry leading the way in 2016, the Packers could have a group of edge rushers capable of regularly getting up in the grill of opposing quarterbacks.

With further upgrades to the defensive line and inside linebacker positions in the later rounds, Green Bay’s front seven would have the facelift it requires to make the next jump. The previous two draft classes has helped build a loaded young secondary; now the attention must be on surrounding Matthews and Mike Daniels with talent up front.

Coach Mike McCarthy expressed his desire to improve the pass rush at the NFL owners meetings earlier in March, per Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

“I think the biggest thing is the pressures,” McCarthy said. We’re getting there, we’re creating matchups and you look at it, it was definitely a positive.

“And you don’t just stop there; it can be better.”

With Spence, it will be better.