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.

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