My track record of predicting Ted Thompson’s draft picks is only slightly more successful than my ability to buy stocks before they take off (never mention Starbucks or Facebook around me) or figure out why my wife is mad at me (again). In other words, it’s not very good at all. In fact, I’m pretty sure that outside of A.J. Hawk in 2006, I’m not doing real well with my draft prognosticating in the Thompson era. I would like to point out that I correctly called the selection of Tony Mandarich in 1989 and Terrell Buckley in 1992. But, for obvious reasons, I try not to bring that up too much.
That said, it might make more sense to tell you what I would do as general manager of the Packers in this year’s draft. It’s just the kind of reverse psychology that might point me in the right direction. If not, I already warned you. So let’s take a trip to an alternate universe where I call out my perfect draft weekend as the pretend GM of the Green Bay Packers, turning my late-night online mock draft obsession into my own temporary reality.
Before we get started, I need to make a phone call to former Packers personnel man and current Seahawks GM John Schneider. It’s been a while since we’ve seen each other around the press box before a game but, once upon a time, Schneider was just getting started in a full-time role under Ron Wolf and I was interning in the Packers’ public relations department. I’m overestimating where this casual acquaintance at best is going to get me.
John would be wondering, with good reason, what the hell I’m doing and where Ted is and how I got his number, but never mind all of that. I offer John the 29th pick in the first round for Richard Sherman, remind him about that Christmas party back in 1994 where we hung out, and then I make some comment about eating pancakes. That last part is a reference from the Kevin Costner movie “Draft Day.” Don’t feel bad, Schneider didn’t get the reference, either. Turns out John wants a little more for Sherman than I’m willing to part with, so I guess it’s time to hunker down in the War Room and get to work. It was worth a try.
If my mock draft (check out the first round here) plays out like the real thing, I’ll have my choice of some playmaking cornerbacks, a guard that I can plug into my starting lineup tomorrow, or a pass rusher to put on the field with Clay Matthews and Nick Perry. I’m not taking Oklahoma running back Joe Mixon. Not here. Not at all. But more on the run game later.
So if my guy is there (and for the purpose of this column, he is), I’m checking with longtime team physician Dr. Patrick McKenzie to make sure we’ve got the medical green light on Wisconsin outside linebacker T.J. Watt. Once I’ve got it, I’m telling the team representative in Philadelphia to turn that card in to Commissioner Roger Goodell and buy themselves a cheese steak. Trading down is always tempting, assuming you have a willing partner. And given the Packers’ approach to free agency, draft picks are worth their weight in gold. But the only thing better than an extra draft pick is getting exactly who want most when you’re on the clock. It’s locked in. Guaranteed. And unlike that time I was sure that little cornerback from Florida State was better than that Troy Vincent kid from Wisconsin, we’re taking the Badger.
To be clear, this is not a “homer” pick. The fact that Watt played at Wisconsin only means I’ve had the pleasure to watch him play more than other prospects. And I’m as impressed as everyone else that’s seen him or scouted him. In a lot of ways, the selection of Watt is reminiscent of the selection of Clay Matthews back in 2009. Matthews was a former walk-on from a famous football family who had to claw and scratch and fight to make a name for himself. He had a limited body of work as a starter, but he had tremendous upside and had given the impression that his best days were ahead of him.
Watt is, of course, the younger brother of Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt, also a former Badger and the NFL’s only three-time defensive MVP. His other brother is Chargers fullback Derek Watt, a former sixth-round pick out of Wisconsin.
And if the intangibles for T.J. aren’t impressive enough, there are always the tangibles. Watt is a 6-foot-4, 252-pounder with 11-inch bear paw hands. His 15.5 tackles for losses, 11.5 sacks and one interception for a touchdown earned him first-team all-Big Ten honors, and his Scouting Combine numbers in the vertical jump, broad jump, 20-yard shuttle and 60-yard shuttle ranked him among the best linebackers in Indy.
If you don’t think pass rusher is the biggest need, consider that Julius Peppers was second on the team with 7.5 sacks but signed with Carolina, and Datone Jones, last year’s team leader with 16 quarterback hits, joined the Vikings. Matthews has acknowledged that he’ll be a man on the move, lending his Pro Bowl skill-set to the middle of the defense and attacking from across the defensive front. Green Bay wisely re-signed Nick Perry — who totaled 11 sacks in 12 starts in 2016 — to a five-year, $59 million deal. But Matthews and Perry have been sidelined by injuries throughout their careers. Behind them are Jayrone Elliott, a role player with an impressive snap-to-tackle ratio, and second-year linebacker Kyler Fackrell, who was a nonfactor as a rookie. Trent Jordan Watt — you didn’t even know what T.J. stood for, did you? — immediately upgrades the “room” from potentially dangerous to fatal for opposing quarterbacks. You want to improve your secondary? Get to the quarterback faster.
If I snuck out of 1265 Lombardi Ave. and continued the evening at Titletown Brewery (might I suggest the Dark Helmet), I’m feeling pretty good about what went down. But I’ve got big plans for the second and third rounds on Friday night, so I’ll keep at this.
Remember Sidney Jones, the cornerback out of Washington who ruptured his Achilles at his pro day? Well, the recovery is proceeding as planned and doctors think he could be back on the field by October. Jones might’ve been the first cornerback off the board, or at worst second after Ohio State’s Marshon Lattimore. Jones is 6-feet tall, 186 pounds, with a 4.47 40. While he excelled in press coverage for the Huskies, there’s really nothing he can’t do. Since Green Bay brought back Davon House and still has Damarious Randall, Quinten Rollins and Ladarius Gunter in the fold, there’s no hurry to get Jones on the field. But assuming his recovery goes well — and players like Terrell Suggs and Demaryius Thomas have rebounded from the same injury — I’m calling for a top-10 talent at the bottom of the second round. We call that a steal in the pretend GM biz.
Two things to remember about the cornerback situation. One, it’s the deepest position in this year’s draft by a bunch. And two, despite how things went down in the NFC title game loss to the Falcons, the Packers’ trio of young cornerbacks isn’t bad at all. Everyone loved Randall and Rollins as rookies, and both played through groin injuries that impacted their performances last season. Gunter’s 40-time reads like he ran it in quick sand, but his performances against the Giants and Cowboys in the playoffs were works of art. When looking ahead to next season, remember that Thompson is viewing these players on a trend line and grading their entire body of work. His opinion isn’t based on one rough outing. He’s taking their best plays as a base line and planning up from there. That’s the expectation.
Eight or nine cups of coffee and a few trips to the bathroom later, we’re on the clock again. Miami guard Danny Isidora is staring back at us from the big board in the third round. A two-time all-ACC selection, Isidora is a shade under 6-foot-4 and just more than 300 pounds. He played in a pro-style offense at “The U” and has experience in a zone blocking scheme. The surprise signing on Wednesday of Jahri Evans, a six-time Pro Bowler and four-time All-Pro right guard from New Orleans, takes the pressure off this pick to contribute right away. The 33-year-old Evans will slide into the spot formerly held by T.J. Lang for the upcoming season, while Isidora will battle it out with Don Barclay, Kyle Murphy and Lucas Patrick for a backup spot and a chance to start in 2018.
During some down time, I hear a rumor that LeGarrette Blount and the New York Giants are sniffing around each other. Thompson’s unexpected inking of Evans the night before the draft has inspired me. After googling “LeGarrette Blount + agent” with no luck, I finally find a number. Do you know who would be a great complement to Ty Montgomery in the Packers’ backfield? A wrecking ball of a human who led the league with 18 rushing touchdowns a year ago. I don’t know why this hasn’t happened yet, but we hammer out a deal similar to what the Saints just did with Adrian Peterson. And guess what? Blount’s going to have the better year when it’s all said and done.
While I’m at it, I also re-sign running back John Crockett. Great kid, high energy, liked what he showed out of the backfield before he hurt his shoulder in the final preseason game against the Raiders. Let’s bring them all in and see how it shakes out. We’re probably good on running backs at this point.
In the fourth round, I grab cornerback Howard Wilson out of Houston. Or Houston Wilson out of Howard. Honestly, I’m pretty tired at this point. I don’t know how Ted does it. Hang on … I’m being told it is, in fact, Howard Wilson from Houston. Anyway, this kid’s a ball hawk and a great athlete. Good size. Might not give you much in run support. But he had the second-fastest short-shuttle time behind Kevin King, a likely first-round pick out of Washington. He can also play right away while we’re all waiting patiently for Jones.
With two picks in the fifth, I opt for North Carolina wide receiver Mack Hollins and, 10 picks later, Michigan inside linebacker Ben Gedeon with the compensatory pick. Hollins is 6-foot-4, 221 pounds and led the nation with 24.8 yards per catch as a junior. He closed his Tar Heels career 81 receptions for 1,667 yards and 20 touchdowns. Hollis entered campus as a walk-on and became a four-year captain. He’s got height, weight, speed and special teams ability. Sounds like a good fifth-round pick to me. Gedeon is a 6-foot-2, 244-pound thumper who led all linebackers at the Combine with 27 reps on the bench press. He ran a fast shuttle time but a slow 40, so he’s more of an early-down type of player.
Things are moving fast at this point in the draft. In the sixth, defensive end Keionta Davis from Tennessee-Chattanooga gets the nod. He was a two-time FCS All-American and the Southern Conference’s Defensive Player of the Year. Last season, he led the league with 10.5 sacks and 11.5 tackles for losses among 44 tackles. A little slow to be considered an edge rusher, the 6-foot-3, 271-pounder is worth a look at the three-technique or possibly the elephant position after tallying 31 career sacks and forcing eight fumbles.
With my final pick as pretend GM, I’m very tempted to take a safety out of the Air Force Academy named Weston Steelhammer. He seems to be a little undersized and is probably an undrafted free agent at best, but I’m certain he has the coolest name in the entire draft and maybe in most drafts. Remember Michael Stonebreaker, the linebacker out of Notre Dame back in the 1990s? Also a great name. This one is arguably better. The writer in me desperately wants everyone to see and hear this name as many times as possible between now and August. However, after a brief conference with the college and pro personnel staffs, I’m talked out of drafting a player based solely on his name. This is apparently frowned upon. Eliot Wolf has stopped making eye contact with me at this point. I grudgingly get them to admit that it is, in fact, one of the coolest names they’ve ever heard, which I’ll claim as a personal victory.
Instead, we go with an avalanche of a young man from the University of Colorado named Josh Tupou. At 6-foot-3 and 325 pounds, Tupou is a classic nose tackle. He’s not going to give you anything in the way of a pass rush, but good luck moving him. Tupou earned Pac 12 honorable mention with a career-high 45 tackles and two sacks. He will eat up the gaps in the line along with everything they put out at Golden Corral. I might be more excited if his name was Josh Megadestroyer, but overall it’s a solid close to my weekend.
In the span of three days, we’ve upgraded the Packers’ pass rush in a big way, grabbed one of the best corners in the draft at the bottom of the second round, found some quality depth at guard, signed a veteran sledgehammer (but not a Steelhammer) who rushed for 18 touchdowns last year, and added depth in the secondary, receiving corps, inside linebacker and defensive front.
I’m pretty certain Ted Thompson will find similar success when the actual draft gets under way — albeit with some different names joining the Green and Gold. But hopefully I’m correct on that first pick that Goodell calls out for Green Bay on Thursday night. And if my predictions have taken a turn for the better, maybe I’m right on the second-round selection, too.
W. Keith Roerdink has covered the Packers since 1992. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.