The debate rages among fans every offseason: What is the best way to build a team?
The main ways to acquire players are through unrestricted free agency and April’s draft. Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson is a firm believer in drafting players and developing them with coach Mike McCarthy and his staff.
This offseason was no different. Thompson did not bring in any unrestricted free agents but was armed with eight selections during the draft. As he’s done several times, Thompson by wheeling and dealing parlayed those selections into more and ended up with 11 picks.
Thompson was able to fill various needs and take some of the top players at their positions. His detractors, however, say that his drafting skill is not enough and more must be done through unrestricted free agency. His supporters, on the other hand, point to the fact he does well at finding players in the draft, most notably after the first round, making his lack of free agent activity acceptable. Another supporting fact is that of the 53 players on the 2010 championship team, 49 were acquired by Thompson, the majority of which were through the draft.
The debate is worthwhile. Since he became general manager in 2005, Thompson has acquired two notable players in unrestricted free agency: defensive lineman Ryan Pickett and defensive back Charles Woodson. Both players were contributors to the 2010 Super Bowl team and were fixtures in the locker room until Woodson was released in February. Thompson’s penchant for the draft, however, has been the main source for acquiring players, but how successful as he been?
As an attempt to analyze draft success, Thompson was compared to the other 31 NFL teams since 2005, based on a point system. First-round draft picks are expected to be starters; if they are, one point was received. Second- and third-round picks received two points if they became starters. Fourth- through seventh-round picks received three points if they became starters. Undrafted free agency often is seen as an extension of the draft, so if a player was acquired after the draft and became a starter with his original team, they received three points, as well.
The draft also can be useful for acquiring depth. Thus, a first-round “depth” player received one-half point, with one point for second- and third-rounders and two points for players selected after the fourth round or in college free agency.
The draft, however, can be a crap shoot and not all draft picks are going to work out. These players are defined as busts. A first-round bust is scored as minus-2 points, a second- and third-round bust is minus-1 and missed picks in the fourth round and later are worth zero.
Also, bonus points were given for All-Pro appearances, and all specialists were given one point.
Thompson’s best year under the point system was not the year that comes directly to mind. It is easy to point to 2005 or 2009, but those drafts were top heavy. His most productive draft was 2010, when he landed four starters and three key depth players, netting him 13 points.
Thompson’s best picks, however, came in 2009, when he landed B.J. Raji and Clay Matthews, and 2005, when he selected Aaron Rodgers and Nick Collins. Three of the four players have been All-Pro selections, and the only one who hasn’t (Raji) is a solid starter and a key piece in Dom Capers’ 3-4 defense. Of the three All-Pros, one is a former regular season and Super Bowl MVP (Rodgers), another had an interception returned for a touchdown in Super Bowl XLV (Collins) and the third is a perennial defensive player of the year candidate and perhaps the most important player to any team’s defense (Matthews).
The majority of Thompson’s good work has not come in Round 1, but rather in Rounds 2 and 3, where he’s gotten seven starters, most notably at wide receiver with Jordy Nelson, Greg Jennings and Randall Cobb in the second round and James Jones in the third.
Thompson has hit on a few undrafted free agents. Sam Shields is a starter who is tied for the franchise career lead in playoff interceptions, including his two in the 2010 NFC Championship Game. His impact allowed the team to use Woodson in more of a hybrid role, which made the defense more effective. Dezman Moses and Don Barclay emerged as key players as undrafted rookies last season.
Thompson is not without failure, as the most famous blunder of his tenure is defensive tackle Justin Harrell, the first-round pick in 2007. Harrell was injured when he was drafted and stayed that way throughout his career in the NFL. Other mistakes include Brian Brohm, who never was able to establish himself as even a quality backup, and Pat Lee. They were taken with second-round picks in 2008.
Overall, Thompson made out well under the point system. In eight drafts, he acquired 55.5 points. That total puts him behind only six teams, including NFC contenders San Francisco and Seattle.
Of the top seven teams under the point system, only Tampa Bay and Tennessee did not make the playoffs last season. Other perennial contenders, such as the Pittsburgh Steelers, Philadelphia Eagles and 2012 Super Bowl-champion Baltimore Ravens, cracked the top 10. The two teams who did not make the playoffs did not have something the other teams on the list do have: a quarterback. The jury remains out on Josh Freeman and Jake Locker, and those weaknesses overshadowed the teams’ overall drafts.
When it comes to drafting, Thompson certainly is not perfect — no one is — but history points to the Packers having added another strong class to an already-strong team.
Jacob Westendorf is a student at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and a sports writer for the school’s Fourth Estate newspaper.