Saturday, March 29, 2008
Time for Thompson's Picks to Step Up
Mike McCarthy has talked about players "grabbing the rope", especially about young players who need to step up and establish themselves. He's certainly had no shortage of young players to choose from in his two years as head coach.
But with the departure of Brett Favre, the venerable lightning rod of leadership and criticism, McCarthy is left with the task of building this team post-Favre. As several other Sherman holdovers also approach the sunset of their Packer careers--Donald Driver, Al Harris, and Chad Clifton--the time has come for the players that Ted Thompson has drafted to "grab that rope".
In his first three drafts, Ted Thompson has come away with a stunning 34 draft picks, mostly a result of his penchant for trading down to stockpile more picks. This compares to the 21 picks that Mike Sherman acquired in his first three drafts, and 31 picks that Ron Wolf used in his first 12-round drafts.
Mike Sherman was perhaps not the most astute drafter in the history of the Packer organization, and his penchant for trading up to get the player he wanted ended in disaster on more than one occasion. Therefore, when Thompson began trading down, it was cheered by many because, they figured, trading down=smart and trading up=dumb.
Frankly, any of those strategies are smart or dumb, as is staying put...it just depends on who you have doing the drafting and how good the scouts and talent evaluators are. But in theory, when you trade up, you are trading quantity for quality. When you trade back, as Thompson has done, you trade quality for quantity.
Of Thompson's 34 picks, an amazing 23 remain on the present roster. That's a pretty big chunk of your team that are draft picks with three or less years of experience, and also a testament to Thompson's hands-off approach to free agency.
In contrast, of Wolf's first 31 draft picks, only 17 remained on the roster going into his fourth season. We do remember that Wolf was more liberal with his use of free agency, trades, and other signings, just a much a sign of Wolf's style as a sign of the very new nature of salary caps and free agency of the time.
But Wolf's 17 picks going into 1995 also gave us nine starters, and very solid starters at that. Robert Brooks, Edgar Bennett, and Mark Chmura started from the 1992 draft; Wayne Simmons, George Teague, Earl Dotson, and Doug Evans from the 1993 draft; and Aaron Taylor and Dorsey Levens (at fullback) from the 1994 draft. All but Levens were well-established and all were major contributors for the 1995 team.
In contrast, Thompson's picks also estimate around 8 starters for the upcoming season, but the term "solid starter" doesn't apply to as many of them.
Aaron Rodgers is penciled in to start, and still doesn't have any competition for the job.
Korey Hall is also pencilled in to start, though John Kuhn or a new acquisition would challenge him for his job.
Greg Jennings is well-established at WR, and looks to take over the #1 spot when Driver retires.
Mark Spitz and Daryn Colledge both struggled at guard this past season, and offensive line still remains a top concern this offseason.
AJ Hawk is a solid, if unspectacular starter at linebacker.
Brady Poppinga has struggled on the other side, and Brandon Chillar has already been brought in to challenge him for his starting job.
Nick Collins has held on to his starting job, despite struggles with coverage and assignments.
There are some other draft picks, such as Tony Moll, Adrien Barbre, Aaron Rouse, and Justin Harrell who may challenge for spots, and of course, Mason Crosby is our kicker.
But none of these players appear ready to truly shine at their positions. While Jennings, Collins, and Hawk all earned Pro Bowl 2nd or 3rd alternate status last season, all of the 2008 Packer Pro Bowl picks and first alternates were Thompson free agents (Woodson) or Sherman holdovers (Favre, Driver, Kampman, Harris, Barnett, and Clifton).
All of those players are well-established veterans, and we wouldn't necessarily expect young draft picks to be earning Pro Bowl berths. But Ron Wolf also supplemented his talented picks with veteran talent, utilizing free agency to completely redo the roster, with only LeRoy Butler as any holdover from the previous regime by 1995. Reggie White, Brett Favre, Keith Jackson, Frank Winters, Sean Jones, Gilbert Brown, and George Koonce were all acquired by other means than the draft by Wolf, and their contributions were monumental.
This is not to compare Thompson unfairly to Wolf, who was the GM in a different time, when free agency was in its infancy and there were nowhere near the salary cap pressures yet. In addition, Wolf benefited from many of these older free agents willing to come to Green Bay and work for a lesser salary in order to be a part of a championship.
But the pressure is on 2007's Executive of the Year to have his strategy pay off, capitalizing on an unexpected run at the Super Bowl to give this team what it needs to win today as well as tomorrow. Some of the picks from his first few years will need to step up and show they are as much "quality" as they were a part of "quantity".
It cannot be lost that Ron Wolf's fourth draft was probably one of his most successful, bringing 4 solid starters by the end of their rookie seasons (Newsome, Henderson, Freeman, and Timmerman) as well as an future All Pro special teamer (Travis Jervey).
But instead of looking at Thompson's picks with confidence, we continue to hedge our bets, hoping Rodgers can stay healthy, hoping one of the guards will finally step up and establish himself consistently, hoping Hawk will live up to his draft position and play like an All Pro, and hoping that Collins will start to improve more. We also know that some of the starters, like Poppinga and Hall, may just be there until someone better comes along.
At some point, Ted Thompson is going to have to play his cards to insure that when the rest of the Sherman holdovers are gone, his own picks will be able to continue to carry this team. Last draft, we saw Thompson do something he hadn't done in his previous two drafts: he didn't trade down on the first day. Why? Perhaps is looking at a need for quality over quantity, and didn't think he could afford to do his patented trade-downs and not get the high-quality talent he needs.
This draft, picking 30th, its a sure bet that the first- and second-tier players will be gone before Thompson even gets a chance to trade down. For a team that has already lost its starting quarterback, knowing that our offensive tackles and cornerbacks aren't getting any younger, this has to be a bit of pressure on Thompson this offseason.
To his benefit, he hasn't panicked yet, only signing a mid-range linebacker to a modest contract. But all that ails this team isn't going to be fixed in the 2008 draft. The free agent market is pretty dry this year, with mostly aging veterans still available. But the Packers haven't been linked to many of those free agents, anyway.
This means that, consistent with the Thompson credo, the players presently on the roster are going to have to "grab the rope" and step it up in 2008 and beyond. Hopefully, Ted Thompson was able to find just enough quality amongst all of that quantity he invested in.