Ted Thompson, Ron Wolf share draft tendencies
So you’re pretty certain, almost positive, that Ted Thompson is going to select either a safety or a tight end in the first round of the NFL draft May 8.
He’s got to, doesn’t he?
Well, don’t put your money on it because it would fly in the face of 19 years of Green Bay Packers history when either Thompson or his mentor, Ron Wolf, were general manager.
One time in the nearly two decades those two have been in charge of the draft room was a first-round pick expended on a tight end, and it wasn’t Thompson who did it.
In 2000, Wolf chose Bubba Franks with the No. 15 pick. And if you think Wolf regretted not taking Julian Peterson, Shaun Alexander or Keith Bulluck—all of whom were selected after Franks and together collected five first-team all-pro honors—you might be right.
Perhaps Thompson learned a lesson from that pick and one he made himself two years later while in Seattle involving Jerramy Stevens, a first-round tight end bust. In nine drafts, Thompson’s highest tight end selection was Jermichael Finley in the third round (No. 91 overall) in 2008.
Thompson has never taken a safety in the first round. In fact, he’s never taken a defensive back in the first round. His highest-selected safety was Collins, a second-round pick (No. 51 overall) in 2005. The next-highest drafted defensive back was cornerback Pat Lee (No. 60) in 2008.
Wolf wasn’t too enamored with taking safeties in the first round either. He only did it once, moving up from the second round to the last pick in the first—No. 29 overall in 1993—to select George Teague.
But even then it can be argued Teague was a second-round pick since there were only 28 teams in the league at the time (Philadelphia and Arizona were awarded first-round compensatory picks in the middle of the round for the free agent losses of Reggie White and Tim McDonald, and the New York Giants didn’t have a pick after exercising it in the supplemental draft on quarterback Dave Brown the year before).
Circumstance and need certainly have played roles over the years when it comes to the selection of top picks of the Thompson and Wolf regimes, but when you look at Thompson’s record and then view Wolf’s, there are consistencies that indicate a philosophy that still exists inside the guarded walls of the Packers draft room.
This is a look at the pure data of Thompson’s nine drafts and what it says about his philosophies and tendencies on his top picks. For these purposes, the first three rounds, which generally encompass the top 100 players in that particular draft class, are being considered.
Why just the top three rounds? That’s typically where the best players are found.
According to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, of the 222 inducted players who entered the league starting with the inception of the college draft in 1936, 104 of them were selected in the first round of the draft, including two bonus picks, who were awarded at the top of the round from 1947-58.
A total of 32 of them were second-round picks and 21 were third-round picks, which means 70.7 percent of all draft-eligible members of the Hall were taken in the first three rounds. (Of the 14 Packers Hall of Famers who entered the league in 1936 and beyond, eight were taken in the first three rounds.)
Just like numbers don’t tell the entire story about a player’s career, a draft record isn’t absolute. Part of the equation in analyzing the Packers is that they have selected 20th or higher in 10 of the 19 Thompson-Wolf drafts and have had a top 10 pick just three times.
That is the price of having only two losing seasons from 1992-2013. But when the numbers swing the way they have in Thompson’s tenure and they match up closely with those during Wolf’s reign, there’s quite a bit that can be gleaned from it.
What do the nine drafts Thompson has conducted in Green Bay tell us about the players he values most?
In Thompson’s nine years, the bulk of his top 100 picks have been defensive backs (six), defensive linemen and wide receivers (five) and offensive linemen (four).
Offense, in general, has been an afterthought.
Of his 29 first-, second- and third-round picks, 11 have been on offense and 18 have been on defense. Of his eight first-round selections, three have been on offense and five on defense.
This does not stray much from the Wolf model.
In his 10 drafts, he had 34 first-, second- and third-round picks. Of those, the bulk of them have been defensive backs (nine), offensive linemen (seven) and defensive linemen (six).
Only 14 of the 34 picks were offensive players.
One thing that can be derived from those numbers is that the Thompson-Wolf philosophy is that offensive skill positions can be filled after the first round. Neither Thompson nor Wolf has taken a wide receiver in the first round despite the opportunity to land some players who turned out to be pretty good.
Thompson has preferred to take wide receivers in the second round and that practice has served him well. He took Terrence Murphy in 2005, Greg Jennings in ‘06, Jordy Nelson in ‘08 and Randall Cobb in ’11. Murphy’s promising career was ended by a neck injury. The rest have been integral parts of coach Mike McCarthy’s offense.
This year, there is a very strong wide receiver class, and Thompson could very well take another one to replace James Jones, a free agent who was a third-round pick in ‘07.
But with so many good ones available—as well as having two third-round picks—Thompson isn’t likely to use a first-round pick on a receiver. Not when he has shown supreme confidence in finding one later in the draft.
In ‘08, for instance, Thompson could have taken tight end Dustin Keller, safety Kenny Phillips or cornerback Brandon Flowers with the 30th pick, but he instead traded back to the fifth pick of the second round and took Nelson. It turned out to be a good decision.
As for the other skill positions, Thompson’s selection of quarterback Aaron Rodgers in ’05 has been every bit as brilliant as Wolf’s decision to trade a first-round pick for Brett Favre in ’92. But he also swung and missed with the second-round selection of Brian Brohm in ’08 and hasn’t taken a quarterback higher than the seventh-round since.
Wolf never took a quarterback in the first three rounds, yet he still managed to unearth future starters Ty Detmer (ninth round), Mark Brunell (fifth), Matt Hasselbeck (sixth) and Aaron Brooks (fourth). Thompson found himself desperately short of a backup last season and might look to draft someone this year.
Thompson has taken just three running backs in the first three rounds—Wolf took two—but appears to have hit a home run with Eddie Lacy. Again, the Thompson-Wolf system doesn’t view running backs as a good bet in the first round.
Tight ends, as mentioned earlier, aren’t a priority. After Finley, Thompson took Andrew Quarless (’10) and D.J. Williams (’11) in the fifth round and Ryan Taylor (’11) in the seventh. The tight end class is deep this year, so again history may provide a clue about Thompson’s plans.
If you want an absolute for Thompson, it is that big men and defensive backs matter more than anything. The longer you wait to draft them, the worse your chances. Wolf thought pretty much the same way.
The problem for Thompson is that he has missed way too often on those positions, forcing him to rely on developmental players taken later in the draft to carry the weight. And that has been part of the reason the Packers have been so poor on defense in recent years.
Thompson has spent five picks in the first and second rounds on defensive linemen and has gotten exactly one Pro Bowl player from them. The first-rounders were Justin Harrell (’07), B.J. Raji (’09) and Datone Jones (’13) and the second-rounders were Mike Neal (’10) and Jerel Worthy (’12).
Harrell is gone; Raji made one Pro Bowl but after a poor season was offered just a one-year deal; Jones is an unknown; Neal is now an outside linebacker; Worthy hasn’t provided anything in two seasons.
That’s a whole bunch of high draft picks not producing much of anything.
At defensive back, Thompson hasn’t seen fit to use a first-round pick, but landed a star in the second in Nick Collins (’05). Between then and 2012 when he took promising cornerback Casey Hayward in the second, it’s been one mediocre defensive back after another.
There was safety Aaron Rouse in the third round in ’07, cornerback Pat Lee in the second round in ’08 and safety Morgan Burnett in the third in ’10.
It’s not easy in the NFL to hit on defensive linemen and cornerbacks because their transition from college to the pro game is probably more difficult than any position except quarterback. Given how important defensive line and cornerback positions are and how difficult it is to find really good ones, you can see why many general managers take multiple shots at them in the early rounds.
Wolf continually took his swings at defensive backs and some he hit on (Darren Sharper, Craig Newsome, Tyrone Williams, Mike McKenzie) and some he didn’t (Terrell Buckley, Antuan Edwards, Fred Vinson, Bhawoh Jue).
Another area in which Thompson has come up short is the offensive line. He has used four top 100 picks, including first-rounders Bryan Bulaga (’10) and Derek Sherrod (’11), but has very little to show for it. In fact, not a single one of his offensive line picks has been voted to the Pro Bowl.
Last year, his starting offensive line consisted of three fourth-round picks and two undrafted free agents.
Wolf had much better luck, nailing Aaron Taylor (’94) and Ross Verba (’97) in the first, Mike Wahle (’98) and Chad Clifton (’00) in the second and Earl Dotson (’93) and Mike Flanagan (’96) in the third. Wahle, Clifton and Flanagan were a part of arguably the best offensive line in the Thompson-Wolf era.
So does all of this mean that there’s no chance Thompson takes a tight end or safety in the first round? No. The makeup of the draft class has something to do with that and it all depends on how the first 20 dominoes fall.
But history means something and if you’re a bettor it might be wise not to forget it.