Draft day was fun again.
For the first time since 2005, when quarterback Aaron Rodgers slid and slid and slid down the draft board and into the lap of general manager Ted Thompson, it was an electric first round of the NFL Draft for Packers fans.
In 2006, the Packers selected linebacker A.J. Hawk. The only question during the month leading up to the draft was whether the Packers would go defense with Hawk or give Brett Favre another weapon with tight end Vernon Davis.
In 2007, Thompson stunned fans and drew their ire with his out-of-left-field selection of defensive tackle Justin Harrell, who barely played during his senior season at Tennessee and has barely played in Green Bay.
In 2008, Thompson traded out of the first round to acquire receiver Jordy Nelson in the second round. Nelson had a decent rookie season; fellow second-rounders Patrick Lee and Brian Brohm were non-factors.
What those drafts lacked in drama, intrigue and excitement, this one made up for tenfold.
In a first-round thriller, a few surprising choices gave Thompson the choice of top-ranked nose tackle B.J. Raji, top-ranked wide receiver Michael Crabtree, top-ranked outside linebacker Brian Orakpo and a big-time offensive tackle in Michael Oher.
"I didn't expect the board to look like that when it got to 9," Thompson said. Thompson was in the fortunate position of being able to add a standout player at three positions of need or add Crabtree to eventually replace Donald Driver as the No. 1 receiver. He went with Raji, who figures to turn a suspect defensive line into a formidable group with his 332 pounds of athleticism.
Thompson wasn't done, though. Trader Ted, who had traded down 13 times and up just once in his four previous drafts with the Packers, basically sold the rest of the draft to move back into the first round. Thompson sent his second-round pick (No. 41) and both of his third-rounders (including the Favre pick) to New England for the 26th overall selection, which he used on USC linebacker Clay Matthews.
"Those are two very large cogs" in Dom Capers' new 3-4 defense," linebackers coach Kevin Greene said.
To get Matthews, Thompson paid a king's ransom, especially considering he found Greg Jennings, Nick Collins, Jordy Nelson and Daryn Colledge in the second round and Jason Spitz, James Jones and Jermichael Finley in the third. Nonetheless, Thompson broke character in making a bold move that caught most people by surprise – Thompson included.
"We really wanted to try to get him," Thompson said. "We have thought about this for the past couple of weeks in terms of what strategies we would use to maybe try to get him at some point. People had him going anywhere from like No. 12 or so to No. 30. We didn't know where it would be. Actually, quite frankly when I was here before (talking about Raji), I had no idea that we would be able to get back in a position that we would be able to take him. I didn't know."
So, while the rest of the teams continued the draft on Saturday evening, Thompson could rest knowing he had added two big pieces to a defense that was gutted last season and too often failed to deliver at crunch time. Raji and Ryan Pickett will share time at nose tackle. Both will be on the field when the Packers go to a four-man line, and Raji is athletic enough to take some snaps at end in the 3-4. Matthews, a one-year wonder at USC with a fabulous and famous family pedigree, steps to the front of the line in a crowded mix at outside linebacker because of his all-around abilities.
"There were some guys that we were eye-balling. Raji and Clay as an example," Thompson said. "We didn't know how things were going to fall. There wasn't any particular plan. … I didn't anticipate doing all that we did today. That's just the way the thing worked."
It will take a few years before we know whether this bolder approach will be the wiser approach. But for one chilly and rainy Saturday afternoon in Green Bay, Thompson made the type of moves that put the thrill back into the draft.
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Bill also is giving Facebook and Twitter a try. Find him on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook.