Packers Drafts: Draft and Develop vs. Instant Impact

Almost every team in the league got more of an instant impact from its rookie class. That point was driven home in the most important game of the season.

Draft and develop.

It’s been the Green Bay Packers’ way under general manager Ted Thompson. Year after year, Thompson brings in a bumper crop of rookies, and an astoundingly high number of them make the team. Then it’s up to coach Mike McCarthy and his staff to develop those rookies into contributors and starters.

In time, perhaps the Class of 2016 will yield a harvest of several quality starters from a season-ending group of 15 rookies (plus five more on the practice squad). That didn’t happen this year, but what would you expect from a seven-man draft class that we called “The Replacements” on draft weekend?

Using the “Player Finder” tool at Pro Football Reference, the Packers got 17 starts from this year’s rookies. That ranked 29th in the league.

(Note: Pro Football Reference lists first-year players as rookies. Please forgive me for not going through every “rookie” who started a game but was actually a first-year player. The one team impacted significantly on our chart was Pittsburgh, with first-year receiver Eli Rogers’ eight starts being the difference between it finishing ninth and tied for 12th on our rookie-starts chart.)

To be sure, counting starts is not a foolproof way of measuring the impact of a rookie class. That’s certainly true in Green Bay’s case. The Packers rely on their nickel package, which means there are two defensive linemen in the game most of the time. Thus, first-round pick Kenny Clark wasn’t expected to become an immediate starter, not with Mike Daniels and Letroy Guion forming an experienced tandem. Second-round offensive tackle Jason Spriggs and third-round outside linebacker Kyler Fackrell were drafted at positions manned by veteran starters.

In fact, that’s true about almost the entire Class of 2016. The lone exception was the first of Green Bay’s two fourth-round picks, inside linebacker Blake Martinez. Martinez started nine games — most among this year’s rookies and equating to more than half of the Packers’ 17 starts from rookies. Clark, Spriggs and undrafted receiver Geronimo Allison started two games, and undrafted safety Kentrell Brice and undrafted running back Don Jackson started once.

While this methodology is akin to battlefield triage, it is interesting to compare Green Bay’s rookie contributions with those from the rest of the league. And to compare them to past Thompson-McCarthy draft classes.

Being a good team doesn’t necessarily mean there is no room for draft picks to make an impact. Dallas received the third-most starts from rookies, with Atlanta (sixth), the Giants (seventh), Pittsburgh (ninth), Oakland (11th) and Detroit (12th) also in the playoffs.

The target for Green Bay is Atlanta, which routed the Packers in the NFC Championship Game and will face New England in Sunday’s Super Bowl. It’s incredibly interesting to contrast these two drafts.

Thompson’s first draft choice was a reactionary move, with Clark a necessity after B.J. Raji’s surprising decision to quit. As the calendar flipped to December and then to January, Clark played better and better. Drafting for need sometimes backfires, but that doesn’t appear to be the case for Clark. He looks like a longtime starter alongside Daniels, giving the Packers a potentially dominant defensive tackle duo as a starting point.

But the second- and third-round picks, Spriggs and Fackrell, were forward-thinking draft choices. With David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga, there was no chance for Spriggs to compete for a starting job. With Clay Matthews, Nick Perry, Julius Peppers and Datone Jones, Fackrell had no chance to compete for a starting role, either. In the case of Spriggs, he was insurance with Bakhtiari heading to free agency (at the time). In the case of Fackrell, he was insurance with Perry, Peppers and Jones heading (and still heading) to free agency. The other fourth-round pick, defensive tackle Dean Lowry, was drafted to provide key depth.

Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff went for — and received — immediate splashes on defense. First-round safety Keanu Neal started 14 games, second-round linebacker Deion Jones started 13 games, fourth-round linebacker De’Vondre Campbell started 10 games and undrafted cornerback Brian Poole started nine games.

The Falcons, of course, won the NFC Championship because their defense held the Packers scoreless in the first half while the Packers’ defense was destroyed by Matt Ryan and Co.

In that light, contrast the impact of the rookies on defense. For Green Bay, Clark played 31 snaps but Fackrell didn’t play any, Martinez wouldn’t have played any had Jake Ryan not been injured and Lowry played 18. Added together, Green Bay’s top four rookie defenders played 67 snaps and combined for five tackles (one for a loss).

Poole, by contrast, played all 68 snaps by himself. Poole, Jones (64), Neal (62) and Campbell (57) combined for 251 snaps, 22 tackles, four quarterback hits and one pass defensed. They are building blocks for what looks like a fast-improving defense that’s tailor made for stopping today’s pass-heavy offensive attacks. The Packers have Daniels and Clark as building blocks, though it’s fair to ask how much they can help against the elite quarterbacks that define the postseason.

Maybe Thompson’s forward-thinking draft will pay dividends next season. But this year’s draft has to be about the here and now if the Packers are going to be playing in the Super Bowl on Feb. 4, 2018, in nearby Minneapolis.

Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PackerReport.

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