Sunday, April 29, 2007

Ted Thompson: Draft Lessons Learned?

As the sun sets on the first day of Ted Thompson's first day of the 2007 draft, one can guess that he’s possibly grinding his teeth a little bit as he prepared to catch some shut-eye.

Criticism wasn’t in short supply for Thompson’s first-day picks, and for the first time, Ted even lashed out a bit at the media for questioning those picks, at one point asking them if they’d rather he send down a scout to talk to them, as he wasn’t going to shoot holes in the kids he had selected.

The young players not only are relatively well-regarded, but they addressed some moderate needs the team was facing: a big defensive tackle to anchor the line next to Ryan Pickett; a smallish running back already used to zone blocking and the WCO; an athletic (albeit slow) young wide receiver that can return kicks; and a hard-hitting safety to challenge Marquand Manuel in the backfield.

No one can argue these players are all solid picks. The question comes in whether or not they would have been available ten picks later.

Ted Thompson built a two-year reputation on “backwards-thinking”, of looking at his targeted players and trading back to get them, and more picks to boot! Thompson amassed an amazing 23 draft picks his first two seasons, with many of them taking on starting roles.

But one situation last season may have affected Thompson’s sudden reverse: why not use the trade-down to get the same player plus more talent this year, too?

Last season, Green Bay held the 36th pick in the draft and seemed poised to take Chad Jackson, one of the heralded wide receivers available last year. However, the New England Patriots wanted Jackson and offered the Packers picks #52 and #75. Thompson has been rumored to have had Greg Jennings high on his draft board, but knew he’d be able to pick him up well after pick #36.

Following the trade, he indeed selected Jennings at #52. Another player that insiders have said Thompson had high on his board was Wisconsin running back Brian Calhoun, and nearly every mock draft had him going in the 70’s. It was a calculated risk to get the player he wanted, a player that would have been a great insurance policy for an injured Ahman Green, and a good fit for the new blocking scheme.

However, the Detroit Lions snuck in and grabbed Calhoun with pick #74, likely a disappointment for Thompson, who didn’t select a single running back the rest of that draft. Amusingly enough, out of 23 draft picks in his first two seasons, not one of them was a running back.

Missing out on Calhoun may have stung Thompson more than we thought, because in this year’s draft, we’re seeing a rather radical departure from what has been Thompson’s usual method: if the guy you are targeting is there, and will likely be there later, trade down.

When I heard Justin Harrell’s name, I didn’t blink an eye or scream in pain. His name had been coming up more and more over the past week or so as a distinct possibility, though more often with a trade-down into the 20’s. Most mock drafts had him going around #32 to the Colts.

But it struck me odd that Thompson elected to take the guy right then and there at #16. Almost immediately, he was open to as much criticism as Miami had taken for selecting Ted Ginn, Jr. in the top ten. Was he afraid he might end up missing Harrell if he went down to 30? Or even 25? Or even 20?

Thompson’s resolve was tested again when he traded down with the Jets in the second round. It’s quite possible that he was hoping to get one of the big fullbacks or halfbacks while moving down from #47 to #63. As it turned out, a run on running backs happened almost right after that trade, with Kenny Irons, Chris Henry, and Brian Leonard all disappearing by pick #52.

Could Thompson have traded down from #63 and still managed to get running back Brandon Jackson? Quite possible, but despite seeing Jackson projected as a third or fourth round selection, Thompson made the pick right there in the second.

Similar stories might be told for third-round picks WR James Jones and S Aaron Rouse, both of whom were pegged to go a bit later than where they did.

This is not to say that the players selected were unworthy, or will not become successful players. In each case, the players seem to have talents and skills that not only address needs on the team, but are all stand-up players of good character. Chances are these guys are “Packer People”.

The question is, though, if they could have been acquired later on, why didn’t we maximize the draft as we have in years’ past with Thompson’s patented trade-down? Were there any phone calls or offers on the table, or was Ted focused on not letting his targets get by?

All four of these guys, like all first-day picks, are expected to take on starting roles (Harrell) or strong contributing roles this season. All may do very well, and Thompson would be given strong credit for a strong draft.

But, whether this draft is strong or weak, whether you think it was genius or idiotic, one thing seems to be true: this wasn’t the same Ted Thompson, expertly finagling picks and still getting the guys on his board, bringing in large crops of talent from the draft.

No, this Thompson was true to his board, and when the pick came up, he took the guy who was highest-ranked on his board, and spent less time looking at how the rest of the league might value those guys. As a result, we may end up with much fewer picks this draft, and not necessarily an improvement in the talent level we’d have had we traded down.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Nick Barnett: Three Key Answers

A while back, I authored an article called "Three Key Questions" about Nick Barnett, and questioned whether or not Ted Thompson OR Barnett would be able to come to a deal this off-season. Well, now that the deal has been signed, let's review those questions and provide some conjecture on how they were answered.

Question Number One: How much value do the Green Bay Packers place on Nick Barnett?

In my original article, I questioned whether or not Ted Thompson would see Nick Barnett as a part of this team for the foreseeable future, and if he'd be worth a Adalius Thomas-esque $12 million signing bonus.

Well, he got a $10 million signing bonus, quite a load for a middle linebacker that hasn't seen a Pro Bowl as yet. That isn't anything to say that Barnett isn't worth it, but it is clear in the eyes of Ted Thompson that he is.

More so, it is clear that in the eyes of Ted Thompson, Nick Barnett was worth passing up similar-sized contracts for many of this year's free agents to keep that cap space clear for Barnett. I've been scratching my head for weeks wondering how in the world the Packers were going to spend $22 million in salary cap space, and the only two things that I could conclude was the Packers were going to pay big bucks to Nick Barnett, or pay big bucks for Randy Moss.

Amusingly, as the rumors for Moss have gone from "imminent" to "still on the table" to "still a possibility" to "dead in the water", Barnett got wrapped up with the big deal he'd been wanting. Whether or not the two potential deals were related as an "or" situation, we may never know.

Incidentally, imagining that Barnett will count between $6-10 million against this year's cap, and the draft class will take up another $7 million, it doesn't leave much money left over to bring on a certain malcontent wide receiver, does it?

In one fell swoop, Thompson made one good signing, and one good non-signing with this deal.

It is also clear that Ted Thompson valued Nick Barnett more than the free agents on the market: he essentially gave an Adelius Thomas-sized contract to one of his own instead of an UFA. That speaks volumes about both Thompson's assessment of those free agents versus his assessment of Barnett.

It also makes us wonder, just a little, if signing your own good/not great player to a huge deal is any better or worse than signing the good/not great players in free agency to similar deals.

Question Number Two: What is more important to Nick Barnett, team loyalty or a big payday?

I predicted at the time that a deal for Barnett would likely cost us around $9.4 against this year's cap, assuming that Thompson had few other options to spend money elsewhere, and that, wisely, he would spend all he could today in order to preserve room for tomorrow.

While we don't know for sure yet, that number could indeed be close. And the answer to the question was one I forgot to mention: both A) and B ).

It appears that Barnett may have taken a slight hometown discount to stay in Green Bay, but rumors right now estimate that he has signed a $35 million dollar deal.

That's a pretty good deal, even though, according to Barnett's agent, that is on the "low end" of what he was expecting with a new deal.

Adelius Thomas, this season's line-backing free agent prize, signed a five year deal worth $35 million, though almost $20 million of that was guaranteed.

Now, as happy as a moment as this is for us Packer fans, let's be honest: this was an awfully good deal for a linebacker who hasn't made a Pro Bowl, and whose statistical success is measured by leading the team in tackles, not sacks, interceptions, or tackles for loss.

Barnett didn't have to choose between team loyalty or the big paycheck. He got the best of both worlds today, and Ted had the money to spend it with.

Now, of course, we can make the comparison that Barnett would have made more in free agency. Funny thing is, Adalius Thomas was given the same criticism, that he signed for less money to be in a place he wanted to be.

However, we can say that the deal Thomas got ($7M per year) is pretty even with what we're expecting from Barnett's details ($6 mil per year).

Question Number Three: How much faith do the Packers have in Abdul Hodge?

In all of this hubbub and celebration of (finally) a signing, Abdul Hodge's status is quietly going unnoticed. But don't think it is going unnoticed in 1265.

Certainly, you can never have too many good players, but you would think that if Aaron Rodgers was truly ready, and the coach and GM believed it, why would they continue to pay Brett Favre over $10 million a year?

Probably because he's not ready. And may not even be the answer.

If the Packer brass really though Abdul Hodge was the next big thing, would they have signed Barnett to a $6 mil a year contract?

My guess is, probably not. Thompson has shown incredible faith in his line-backing picks before, essentially giving Brady Poppinga every opportunity to win the strong side job in his second year, despite coming off relatively serious injury.

He apparently doesn't have that same faith in Hodge, and Barnett appears to be in the fold for many, many years as a result.

Three questions.

Three answers.

Number 56 will be patrolling the field, sideline to sideline, for the foreseeable future. Ted Thompson saw him as an important cog in the rebuilding process, and Barnett saw dollar signs being offered to keep him here, where he started and has endured probably as many negatives as positives over the past few years (revolving door of defensive coordinators, the hassles with his nightclub).

Now, the burden of proof will be on both Thompson and Barnett to make this Adalius Thomas-esque contract worth the cap space.

Barnett is being paid like a line-backing elite, and the pressure will be now on him to produce like one.