Trusting Thompson

GM Ted Thompson hasn’t kept the Packers at perennial contender status by making the draft picks you think he should make. He does it making the ones he thinks should be made. Our W. Keith Roerdink explains.

Photo courtesy Tyler Gajewski/Packers.com

You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need.

That line didn’t come from Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson at the end of the three-day NFL Draft. But disgruntled Packers fans can find some solace in the sage advice of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

Inside linebacker seemed like the uncontested biggest area of need heading into the weekend. Starters A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones were let go, as was once-promising backup Jamari Lattimore. Not only did this team need a starter to line up next to Sam Barrington — who took over the position himself in the final months of the season — it needed bodies and numbers.

So when the 30th pick in the first round was upon them, it seemed sensible to think — with all of the top inside backers available — that Thompson would send word to Selection Square in Chicago that he wanted UCLA’s Eric Kendricks or Clemson’s Stephone Anthony with that top pick to shore up the run defense, give them some improved coverage from the position and allow Clay Matthews to move back to his natural outside linebacker position.

Fans were waiting. Would it be the Bruins’ defensive captain who made tackles all over the field, or the Tigers’ playmaker who was bigger, faster and aced every test in his position back at the NFL Scouting Combine?

And before those fans could even get to know just what Thompson found so enticing about Damarious Randall, a highly versatile free safety from Arizona State who will get a shot at corner with the Packers — New Orleans pounced on Anthony with the next pick. And then New England, who let aging All Pro defensive tackle Vince Wilfork go to Houston, plugged an area of need with Texas defensive tackle Malcom Brown.

That’s the rub. And it was screamed across social media. Fans see a team that should’ve been playing in the Super Bowl if not for one of the most epic meltdowns in NFL postseason history, and should be playing there this year if it can consistently stop the run (see losses last season to New Orleans and “Beast Mode” on the Seahawks’ final drive of overtime by adding another athletic playmaker to the defense.

Add one of the top inside linebackers in the draft (because savvy Packers fans know that there’s a better chance of them winning the lottery than having their team sign a marquee free agent two years in a row), and clear your schedule for next February. The Saints clearly thought Anthony was worth the 31st pick, and the reigning Super Bowl champion Patriots had no problem drafting a player to fill an obvious need.

Of course, it’s not that simple. And a look up and down the Packers’ roster tells you that Thompson has never gone about things that way. Last year was an exception. Safety was the clear-cut biggest area of need, and Alabama’s HaHa Clinton-Dix fell into their laps. Before the snow fell, he was starting. Fan expectation was that Kendricks or Anthony would do the same at linebacker.

But it’s more likely that Thompson takes his (insert groan) “Best Player Available.” To be clear, it’s not the fans’ best player available, or the media’s, or Mel Kiper’s, or some other team’s. It’s Thompson’s. And it’s made after months of examination and consideration. And last Thursday night, with the 30th overall pick — it wasn’t a linebacker. Packers longtime West Coast scout Sam Seale gave a rare insight into Thompson on draft day when he said that compared to former GM and Pro Football Hall of Famer Ron Wolf, Thompson holds his cards close to the vest.

“Sometimes you can tell where we were going with Ron. You can sit in the draft room and say, ‘Yeah, we’re about to take this guy,’ and you know it,” Seale said. “With Ted, you can sit there and you can be like, ‘We’re going with this guy, we’re going with this guy.’ Then all of a sudden, he’ll look at you and be like, ‘Hey, what do you think of your guy?’ That’s the big difference, in my opinion.”

Thompson has taken a quarterback in the first round when he had a Hall of Famer under center for a team looking to make a Super Bowl run. He traded down and took a receiver out of Kansas State in a year when it seemed they needed help in the secondary, not more pass catchers. And he added a jack-of-all-trades receiver/returner out of Kentucky in the second round in what seemed like a luxury pick at a seemingly stacked position. Aaron Rodgers, Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb have turned out to be pretty good picks. And the best offense in football has an offensive line filled with mid-round picks, including a guy that didn’t even get invited to the Combine. On defense, Sam Shields switched from receiver to corner his last year of college and didn’t even get drafted. That’s worked out OK, too.

It’s not an unblemished record. Thompson drafted Justin Harrell and Derek Sherrod, and traded up for Jerel Worthy. But all things considered, Thompson knows what he’s doing. He doesn’t need to re-earn the trust of the fans every spring. The proof is there. And the results can be seen every January. Green Bay has only won one Super Bowl title under Thompson’s regime, but few teams have been legitimate contenders nearly every year like the Packers have been. Taking the best player available isn’t a theory. It’s been tested. It works. It’s proven. The best players find a way on the field, and Green Bay added eight players that it felt was the right selections at the right time — including an inside linebacker in the fourth round.

The selection of Randall could turn out to be genius if he wins the cornerback position formerly manned by Tramon Williams that most have Casey Hayward penciled in for, or if there’s an injury somewhere in the secondary and the uber-talented Randall steps into a playmaking role. With Williams and reserve Davon House gone via free agency and the team up in the air on the future of veteran backup Jarrett Bush, the secondary was easily the second-biggest area of need.

Second-rounder Quentin Rollins wasn’t even on anyone’s radar early in the season after playing four years of basketball at Miami (Ohio) University. But the guy who was second in all-time steals to five-time NBA champion Ron Harper showed so much skill and athleticism and ball-hawking in one year of football, Green Bay grabbed him. The ceiling on this guy can’t even be seen. In a pass-dominated league, having two young, versatile, athletic defenders is never a bad thing.

After taking receiver Ty Montgomery out of Stanford — a player the team called a “bigger Cobb,” and who will battle Jared Abbrederis and Jeff Janis for reps this summer — they finally got their inside linebacker in Jake Ryan, a two-time team captain at Michigan who played outside before moving to the middle and is one of the most instinctive defenders at his position. But it was quiet clapping by the fan base, who felt more a sense of relief at finally having someone at the position than true excitement.

Ryan’s bio reads a lot like A.J. Hawk’s did back in 2006. Tough, hard-nosed, productive, passionate, instinctive and athletic enough. That’s not a bad thing — especially with Ryan being a fourth-round pick. If he can have a career like Hawk’s, he’ll go down as one of Thompson’s best draft-day steals.

Eliot Wolf, the team’s director of player personnel and son of Ron, said that Thompson joked, ‘Maybe they’ll get off my back now,’ regarding fan reaction following the Ryan pick. But Wolf followed up with, “You know, I honestly don’t believe that had any bearing in the pick.” Of course it didn’t.

It’s worth noting that Ryan’s hardly been handed the position. The team’s biggest X-Factor could be Carl Bradford, last year’s fourth-round pick who was converted from outside linebacker to inside backer and a healthy scratch for 18 games. No one outside the organization knows what kind of progress he’s made. Still, it’s an open competition, and it’s likely Matthews will continue to split time at outside and inside — a win-win for the team considering he’s one of the best in the league at either spot.

Quarterback Brett Hundley from UCLA is the highest selected quarterback Thompson has taken since drafting Louisville’s Brian Brohm in the second round of the 2008 draft. A luxury pick on the surface, Hundley has an NFL frame and arm and if or when Rodgers goes down again — whether it’s one game or several — Hundley has the tangibles to win a game, rather than trying not to lose it. Thompson traded up for Hundley, which tells you what he thinks of him. Projected by some as the best quarterback not named Winston or Mariota, he was a likely second or third-round pick. How do you not take him in the fifth? In a best case scenario, he never plays a meaningful snap but shows enough over a few preseasons that you can flip him for a future high-round pick.

With their final picks, the Packers tabbed a player they hope is the next John Kuhn — though fans yelling “Ripkowski” seems unlikely to catch on, a defensive end who had 11 sacks as a senior and was compared to the Packers’ Mike Daniels, and a tight end from the University of Alabama-Birmingham, a school that’s dropping football next season. Depth? Check. Special teams contributors? Check. Impact players for 2015? We’ll see.

Speaking to the media following the third round on Friday, Thompson was questioned repeatedly about the inside linebacker position and why he seemed unworried about passing on top prospects early on.

“Because I’m a football guy,” he answered with a just a hint of annoyance.

It’s not dismissive, it’s true. Thompson is a football guy. Former player, learned under Ron Wolf, won NFL Executive of the Year, architect of the Super Bowl XLV winning team. He largely ignores free agency, he drafts and develops his own. In a business literally measured by wins, he’s pretty damn good. And if he didn’t draft the players you wanted, he just might’ve drafted the ones Green Bay needs. If history is any indicator, he has.

W. Keith Roerdink has covered the Packers since 1992. E-mail him at karoer@msn.com.


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