After presiding over his 13th NFL Draft as general manager of the Green Bay Packers, Ted Thompson was asked last Saturday how many more he might have in him.
“I don’t know,” he said after laughing at the question. “How do I look?”
Thompson’s not getting any younger and, unlike his more recent crop of draft picks, he is much closer to the end than the beginning. At 64, he is the third-oldest non-owner GM in the league. And against the average age of all the current GMs, he is more than a decade older.
The adage that football is becoming more of a young man’s game seems to apply to GMs as well – nearly half of the league’s top personnel men are in their 40s. The thinking here is that while Thompson remains the final say in Green Bay, he is giving more authority to his personnel staff, including Eliot Wolf (35) and Brian Gutekunst (43), both candidates for open GM jobs around the league this offseason.
If that is indeed the case, Thompson, whose contract reportedly runs through the 2018 season, did not necessarily cede much when asked.
“Well, the way that the draft was set up when I first came to work here and Ron Wolf had just started working here, I watched that. Obviously, I studied what he did, the mannerisms that he took and the way that he affected the marching of the orders out and that sort of thing,” said Thompson. “And quite frankly, I just tried to copy everything that he did, and I hope that I’m still doing it that way in terms of command and direction and allowing other people to weigh in on certain things and that sort of thing. I think we all kind of, during our lifetime over time, especially over a 13-year period or whatever it is, that you’re going to adjust and let the weights and measurements fill themselves out.”
This has been a much more active offseason for Thompson. The onus is really on him to separate himself from those who have come before him. Of the nine people who have held the general manager title since 1946 for the Packers, only one – Vince Lombardi – has won multiple titles. Thompson won his lone title with the 2010 team.
The Packers have seen seven players – many of them core contributors – depart via free agency but have countered by signing five notable free agents from other teams. Plus, they gave Nick Perry a hefty new deal just before he was about to hit the free agent market. When talks with tight end Jared Cook broke down, the Packers covertly, yet swiftly, gobbled up Martellus Bennett similarly to how they plucked Julius Peppers in 2014. And a day before the draft opened, they signed 33-year-old guard Jahri Evans in a move few, if any, saw coming.
The meat-and-potatoes for Thompson will always be the draft, and for several years in a row the annual selection meeting has seemed more needs-driven than best player available, as Thompson often preaches. The Packers went unconventional by taking three running backs – then releasing two others on their roster (Christine Michael and Don Jackson) – and taking defensive players with their first four picks. Defensive backs Kevin King and Josh Jones in the second round address what is arguably the biggest area of need on the team. The Packers finished 31st in the league in pass defense after giving up 269.3 yards per game, second worst in franchise history.
Defense will likely be the ticket to a second Super Bowl for Thompson, and coach Mike McCarthy and quarterback Aaron Rodgers for that matter. Thompson’s draft-and-develop philosophy has taken a hit in recent years, especially with his top-heavy defensive drafts. The verdict is still largely out on the 2016 draft class which included four defensive players in the first five picks. But the 2015 class (three of the first four picks defensive) and the 2012 class (first six picks defensive) have been largely disappointing. Only Perry and Mike Daniels have gotten second contracts. And while 2014 first-round pick Ha Ha Clinton-Dix saw his fifth-year option picked up this week, 2013 first-round Datone Jones signed with the Minnesota Vikings this offseason.
Further putting this year’s draft under the microscope will be that the Packers traded out of the first round (No. 29 overall) and passed up on a popular prospect, outside linebacker T.J. Watt, who went No. 30 overall to the Pittsburgh Steelers. In return for the trade with the Cleveland Browns, the Packers got the first pick in the second round (No. 33 overall), in which they took cornerback Kevin King, and the first pick in the fourth round (No. 108), in which they took outside linebacker Vince Biegel. That put the Packers in a rare position to control the draft boards with most of the day Friday and Saturday morning to mull their decisions, since they had the opening picks to continue the draft those days. During most of Thompson’s tenure they have selected at the bottom of rounds, thereby letting other teams dictate the action.
Those early-in-the-round picks might offer some insight into the Packers’ scouting acumen in the same way that trades up in the draft have done over the years. But have they and the players chosen and signed gotten the Packers any closer to another Super Bowl?
“I sure hope so. I’d like to get one ... or two,” said Thompson last Saturday. “I don’t know. It’s a hard business. We never make any bones about that. When you get to this point in the whole draft process, you understand the work and the ethic that your people that are working with you, you’re working for, put forth every day. That’s the thing I wanted to say, and I hope these guys hear it, that it’s important and it’s good for the Green Bay Packers that we have good people working here and doing stuff, trying to get to that point where you have a chance to win the Super Bowl. That’s what you’re looking for.”
For Rodgers, that means being “all-in” this season. Whether the Packers are there is debatable, but with Thompson at the controls, this might be about as close as they get.