Monday, April 28, 2008

Ten Things That I Think I Think About the Packers’ 2008 Draft

The book has closed on yet another quirky draft by Packer GM Ted Thompson, and now the doors are opened for opinions and commentary on how we think this draft went. As always, it is rather silly to take any comments seriously, because we have no idea how these players will do in the long run. Remember last season, most people had David Clowney pegged as the difference-making WR from the draft, and it ended up being James Jones (something I had predicted, as Jones was far more of a go-up-and-get-it kind of receiver).

So, from Nelson to next year’s sixth rounder, here are Ten Things That I Think I Think About the Packers’ 2008 Draft.

1) I am still torn on the Jordy Nelson pick. On the upside, I think he’s a great prospect, a guy with great athleticism, and from what I hear, great character. I think you give a guy like this a season to learn from Donald Driver, and you are going to have a solid player reminiscent of Ed McCaffrey or Joe Jerivicius in a couple of seasons…a fantastic #2 receiver and possession guy that can occasionally make a break in the open field.

That stated, I don’t get why Thompson took him. I’m sure he was the best player on his board at the time, but why do you draft Driver’s heir apparent when you’ve already drafted his heir apparent each of the last three years? Murphy, Jennings, and Jones were all first day picks, and we have two that already look the part. Certainly, finding a #3 and #4 can’t be nearly as difficult, especially when we already have Koren Robinson on the roster.

“But, Ted Thompson doesn’t draft for need,” you say. And yet, almost every other pick in this draft was picked for need: a quarterback to replace Brett Favre, a cornerback to replace Harris, a tight end to replace Bubba Franks, a couple of tackles to replace Clifton and Tauscher, and another quarterback for Craig Nall. Add in a defensive end (which indirectly replaces Corey Williams and/or KGB) and yet another wide receiver, I question why we didn’t draft an heir apparent at a more critical or urgent position.

Al Harris is showing some signs of losing a step, one he can’t afford to lose. Bubba Franks is gone, leaving a huge void in the run blocking and pass protecting schemes. There were players available at #30 that would have been certainly more serviceable than the position players we got later on: Brandon Flowers, despite not being a physical corner, certainly is more NFL-ready than Patrick Lee, and Jermichael Finley is a finesse pass-receiving tight end, not the H-back of a tight end we might have picked up with Dustin Keller.

We’ve certainly learned that Thompson has some sort of method to his madness in the past, and that he usually hits on his wide receivers. But, there’s a point where holes do need to be addressed, and I do think that while we now have a solid WR prospect in the fold, we missed an opportunity to seal up another needed position for years, instead of bolstering one of the only hole-less squads on the team.

2) Brian Brohm is somewhat on an enigma. For one, his early selection (and the news that Thompson was going to trade up (gasp!) to acquire him) does seem to send a message that there is going to be some competition at the quarterback position, which is certainly a good thing. I was a little surprised they took a quarterback that early, as I really felt it was going to be more of a solid project player later on, with a veteran taking the #2 duties for a season or two.

That stated, this places two solid, young, and talented quarterbacks at the helm for the Packers, one who was raw and unprepared at the beginning of his career, but in his fourth year, appears ready to lead the team. The other brings a load of talent, but is best served by sitting and digesting the speed of the NFL game and possibly taking over if Aaron Rodgers is unable to deliver or ends up leaving in the next season or two.

Both quarterbacks bring a mixed bag of leadership ability, an accurate arm, and high degree of intelligence to the position. They also bring a history of getting banged up, which is going to be a far cry from the ironman quarterback who recently retired. The best situation will be for Brohm to ride the pine and allow Rodgers to finally prove his worth, but chances are that Brohm may have to get some playing time this season. As may Matt Flynn. And Jerry Babb.

3) The pick of Patrick Lee, on the surface, appears to be exactly what Thompson wanted: a corner that played a good brand of physical coverage. It seems like when Antoine Cason went off the board just ahead of the Packers pick at #30, Thompson had Lee as his next corner for that reason, bypassing other corners that may play better in space or have a more accomplished resume.

There’s a point where you draft a player to fit your style or scheme, but you also can’t discount talent. I voiced this concern back in 2006, when the Packers drafted Daryn Colledge, who wasn’t necessarily highly regarded as a guard, but seemed to be “a good fit for the zone blocking scheme”. He’s a tweener with some limitations, but as long as he was in a certain scheme, he would be effective enough.

Two years later, Colledge is still struggling, and if the Packers were to ever give up on the ZBS (as many other teams that experimented with the scheme have), where does that leave a guy like Colledge?

Similarly, if we draft a corner simply because he’s the next guy with physical skills, regardless of everything else, don’t we paint ourselves in a box? Lee is far from a completed product, and with the physical nature of his play comes a penchant for holding. We’ve already gone through this with Ahmad Carroll, proving that just playing physical doesn’t compensate for speed, timing, awareness, and discipline.

Patrick Lee has a lot of ground to make up to be a player in the NFL, and likely, will get his chance as a nickel back. Every write-up I see on Lee says he’s fits best as a Cover 2 corner…which means we need pretty solid safety play in order for him to be successful. Knowing Brandon Flowers, a more accomplished prospect that may not have been as physical as Lee, was available at #30 is going to rub Thompson’s rhubarb if this pick doesn’t pan out.

4) I may be accused of being overly negative so far (I prefer “critical”), but frankly, I was content with our first player picked (perhaps not necessarily when he was picked) and was happy with Brohm. The Lee pick was a good one in the sense that he was the “next-best” bump-and-run corner, but I am sketchy on taking players simply because they have specialized talent instead of overall talent.

However, you may slap the negativity label on me when I discuss Jermichael Finley. Yes, at that point in the draft, he might have been the best player available, or at least the best tight end available, but the more I read on him, the less I feel he is going to be on our roster come September.

Finley is a hard guy to find positives on. First of all, he’s young: a redshirt sophomore who has a body that is going to have to fill out significantly in order to be an NFL tight end.

Secondly, he’s really missing the skills set that this offense is going to need. Without Brett Favre back in the pocket using his ability to move around and make time while under pressure, the offensive line is going to lose its mulligan pretty quickly. Even with Favre, the offensive line has often needed additional blockers to help in pass protection, and one of those key cogs was Bubba Franks, who was an exceptional blocker.

Franks was let go because he was being paid top-flight tight end money for being essentially a one-dimensional player. To replace him, we would hope we could find a tight end that could not only bring similar blocking skills, but add the receiving skills that seemed to disappear from the TE position the past few seasons.

Finley is an athletic young man, as most tight ends are, but I think he is going to be ill-prepared for the transition to the NFL. He came out early because he is expecting his second child and needed the money. Yes, there are those who say had he stayed another year at Texas he would have been a first-rounder.

But right now, I don’t think you’re going to see him on the field. He's a one-dimensional pass-receiving tight end. Donald Lee is going to needed to be on the field more often with his middling blocking skills, to accommodate the protection of Aaron Rodgers. It’s not going to be often we can afford the extra luxury of a pass receiving tight end who is a liability as a blocker.

Once again, this goes back to the trade-down and the loss of Dustin Keller, who isn't necessarily a great blocker either, but had more ability to make that transition to a multi-dimensional tight end than Finley does.

Even more interesting was that the Packers had a chance to take perhaps the tight end with perhaps the best blocking ability of the top tight ends at #60, when they took CB Patrick Lee. Martellus Bennett, taken at #61 by Dallas, brings Antonio Gates-esque receiving potential as well as the size to execute the blocking the Packers need.

In the end, Finley may end up surprising me, and certainly, I hope he does. But I think this was a need pick that didn’t really meet the needs we had, and I'll won't be surprised if he doesn't make the final roster.

5) Following the Finley pick, Thompson did something he had never done before: he traded up in the fourth round to take a good defensive end. Now, mind you, I’m partially biased on the trade-up. I think that trading up has taken a bad rap from Packer fans the past few seasons, mainly because Mike Sherman traded up fairly often and had some poor results. Since Thompson traded back, and Sherman traded up, some of the Packer fans then deduced that trading back is always good, and trading up is always bad.

This is far from the truth. Trading up is a risk, true, but if you have properly scouted and know the guy you want is a solid pick, you trade that quantity of picks for a quality pick that may bring a higher return. Of course, if that player doesn’t pan out, you’ve wasted two picks on him.

Trading back can be just as risky, however. You just don’t see the risk because you don’t know who would have been picked at, say, #30, and be able to compare it. However, trading back to get two lesser players can be a good thing if those players work out. If they are average or worse, then you begin to wonder if there was a higher-quality player available.

Such is going to be the debate with Thompson’s trade-back of #30. We will also debate his trade up to #102 to pick up Jeremy Thompson, a guy who has some durability and motivational questions, but appears to be a guy that can work his way into the defensive line rotation right away. Given the Packers lost starting DT Corey Williams, this makes the addition of Thompson as a need, and a good pick at that.

Thompson has some work to do in terms of increasing his size and technique, and hopefully, he has the wherewithal make that happen. He may not become a star, but appears to be a good, solid player to rotate in. Given that Thompson had his stock rising as the draft approached, and that he was still available despite being pegged by some as a potential second-round pick.

6) Two tackles were taken in the fifth round, including a puzzling pick of a player not even invited to the combine, Josh Sitton. Sitton, despite playing tackle at Central Florida, is projected to move to guard because of his lack of explosiveness and mobility.

Most people were searching their draft sheets for Sitton’s name, to no avail, as he wasn’t even on many of them. Once again, Thompson is drafting one of his patented small-school flyers, thinking that he has noticed something everyone else hasn’t. I’m not sure if Sitton will amount to much more than a utility lineman, but we can hope for the best.

The Packers then took Breno Giacomini, a tackle from Louisville, possibly after he realized he took the wrong tackle in the previous pick. This project has a little more potential, with most scouts saying he needs to bulk up. However, in a zome blocking scheme, he may be ready to contribute sooner than later. Given that Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher are both looking older, this was a good project player to bring in and provide some potential down the road. He does have some character issues, but hopefully he's coming into a good environment and those won't come into play as a pro.

By most reports, Giacomini has a good motor and is a tenacious blocker. I have a feeling that Mike McCarthy will find a place for him on the roster.

7) There’s nothing like finding all your backup quarterbacks in the same draft, huh? After taking Brohm in the second round, Thompson raised another eyebrow by taking LSU QB Matt Flynn. Flynn brings a zesty leadership from his time with a winning program to the Packer locker room, despite having nothing more than average skills. This was an interesting contrast to Brohm, who has the knock of being not as effective of a leader as a franchise QB needs to be.

In other words, Brohm has the tools but needs to learn how to do more than just be the BMOC. Flynn may be the one to help him on his way. While Flynn probably will not have the ability to start in the NFL, his smarts and leadership may allow him to become the next Ty Detmer. I would count on Flynn as a practice squad player this season, but keep an eye out for him if we see Rodgers or Brohm struggle with injuries. He might be sending in signals by the end of the season.

8) After taking another WR in the seventh round, then trading another seventh rounder to the Saints for a sixth-rounder in the 2009 draft, Thompson essentially did something most of his Supporters claim he doesn’t do: he drafted primarily for need. It was certainly not a glittery draft like that of the Chiefs, and in fact, seemed a bit methodical. But after he took Nelson in the second, every position seemed to fill a need of a missing player or a player that is again quickly.

It makes you wonder if we’re finally starting to see the real Ted Thompson, now that he has stockpiled his roster with 36 draft picks in the first three drafts. Coming away with his first non-double-digit number of draft choices in his Packer career, as well as his first trade-up ever (even with the Seahawks), makes you wonder if some of the gleanings we’ve taken from his first couple years are looking to be the “Rebuilding Ted” and now we’re seeing the “Maintaining Ted”.

Certainly, this seemed like little more than a “Maintaining” draft. No real playmakers or difference-makers were added, which is difficult to do from the 30th spot in the draft. It’s not a bad draft, for sure, but like many of his other drafts, has a ways to go to see if we’re going to get any real solid starters out of it.

9) Once again, the draft still left some positions open that Thompson seems to have trouble addressing. Despite knowing that Ryan Grant is the only established back on the team (and even his half-season of success may be a fluke of a pass-happy offense), Ted did not even pick up a developmental running back in this draft. There were rumors that Ted was looking for another trade up that might have netted him Texas RB Jamaal Charles (taken by Kansas City in the third round), but he apparently balked at another trade-up in the same draft.

Fullback, another position that could have been aided with the draft, went unaddressed as Thompson appears comfortable with converted linebacker Korey Hall. Instead of taking Brett Swain with a seventh round throwaway pick, he could have taken Peyton Hills, a project fullback that has a lot of versatility and projects well in a West Coast Offense.

Finally, Ted Thompson appears content with the safeties, which has continued to be a sore spot for this defense. Having two Pro Bowl corners has allowed the holes in the deep secondary to not hurt as much is it could, but the Packers currently have three players at safety that are all cut out to be hard-hitting run support players and struggle in coverage. Nick Collins has never repeated the perceived success from his rookie season. Atari Bigby is a street free agent who, despite coming on at the end of the season, hurt the team repeatedly with coverage mistakes and foolish penalties. Aaron Rouse is much in the same mold, a tweener linebacker/safety who projects as another strong safety.

The Packers are in dire need of a ball-hawking free safety who can act as the quarterback of the defense, and has the awareness to help the corners in over coverage. As Al Harris and Charles Woodson age and lose a step, not having a player who can fill that void is going to become more and more of a liability.

10) How the heck do you spend $35 million? For years, the Favre Critics wailed that Favre was handcuffing Ted Thompson with his huge salary cap hit, not allowing him to pick up the free agents at other positions. Well, now Thompson has Favre’s cap space, and the question becomes: where do you spend it? Jason Taylor? Is there a running back or a safety out there that can fill a void and justify a pricey salary?

This is the job that Ted Thompson gets paid to do, and coming off a 13-3 season (and drafting as if we won the Super Bowl and only have to develop depth), the heat is on for Thompson to figure out the difference between losing and winning an NFC championship game, as well as proving that Brett Favre isn’t the difference between 13-3 and 8-8.

The 2008 draft answered some questions, but left an awful lot of the open. But, like any draft, the proof will be on the field this preseason.

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