GREEN BAY – Sportswriters can snicker and sarcastically call Ted Thompson’s annual pre-draft press gathering a non-news conference all they want, and by Thompson’s own admission, they’ve probably got a point. The Green Bay Packers general manager says every year that he’s not going to give away any of what he calls “proprietary” information, and he doesn’t.
“I think it's good to have this talk, but then don't get mad at me if at the end of it you realize I haven't really said a whole lot, because that's sort of my job,” Thompson said to open one year’s presser. “I apologize for that, but that's the way it usually is. Sometimes you guys take a shot at me after this one, but we'll see.”
Thompson has made some variation of that joke just about every year since, but in 2009, he did deliver a small glimpse into how the Packers’ draft board is put together – one that is particularly instructive in advance of the 2012 NFL Draft, which kicks off in prime time on Thursday night with the first round.
At that 2009 pre-draft press conference, Thompson was asked how his board worked, and he actually explained it – stepping away from the microphone and walking to the front wall of the Lambeau Field media auditorium (making his explanation inaudible for broadcast media) to take reporters through it.
Thompson pointed to the top of the wall and explained, “We have all the positions across a long wall (at the top), and we always start with the receivers (first) over here, and then it goes tight ends, tackles, guards, centers, quarterbacks, running backs, fullbacks, defensive ends, defensive tackles and so forth … You don't need me to go through the whole thing.
“And then we have … it would be horizontal, right? Horizontal lines going like this, and the very top horizontal line, anything above that would be first-round players, second-round players, third-round players, fourth-round players. And so the board is going to (have) guys at each position and there's a certain number of players in a lot of the rounds at those positions, and some rounds there may be a blank where there's no players in that particular round.
“And when you go through the draft, in a perfect world, if you've done your job properly, you sit there and you just let it come to you, and if it's your pick in the first round, you look up there and if you've got two guys, then you say. ‘OK, there's the two guys we would take at this pick, which one do you want to take? Or if there are four guys, and then somebody calls and wants to move two spots up to your spot, then you think, ‘Well, you know, we've got four guys we'd like to have, we can trade back and we know we're going to get one of two (left).’ That's kind of the way it works.”
So what does all this have to do with this year’s draft?
As he prepares for preside over his eighth draft as the Packers’ GM, never has Thompson’s team had such obvious needs. Even in 2005 and 2006, when the cupboards were mostly bare after coach/GM Mike Sherman’s less-than-stellar drafts, the needs weren’t as clear-cut as they are this year.
While Thompson annually refuses to acknowledge areas of need on his roster, we don’t need him to. They are a pass-rushing outside linebacker to pair with Clay Matthews, a pass-rushing defensive lineman, a safety to replace just-released three-time Pro Bowler Nick Collins, a cornerback, a backup quarterback to replace Matt Flynn and a guard/center prospect to be mentored by Jeff Saturday.
With so many roster holes despite their gaudy 15-1 regular-season record, Thompson should be able to marry the best player available on his board – which, in truth, is something of a misnomer – with one of his team’s myriad of needs.
So how does need factor into Thompson’s picks?
“Need factors in if you have what you consider, the way they're up on the board, identical players at Position A, Position B, and you feel you have a more pressing need right at this moment for Position B,” Thompson explained. “But if there's a difference in those players, if Position A is truly a better player, then we feel like you have to take Position A. Because a draft is not a let's-get-ready-for-minicamp (thing); a draft is an investment in a player that's going to be here for a number of years. And when you don't take the best player, it'll just come back and bite you every time.
“We've all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. I've taken players based off need or what I perceived to be a need and passed on another player that was really a better player. But we try not to do that, and I have people that keep reminding me of that all day long.”
Of Thompson’s first-round picks – California quarterback Aaron Rodgers (2005), Ohio State linebacker A.J. Hawk (2006), Tennessee defensive tackle Justin Harrell (2007), Boston College nose tackle B.J. Raji (2009), USC linebacker Clay Matthews (2009), Iowa tackle Bryan Bulaga (2010) and Mississippi State tackle Derek Sherrod (2011) – only Hawk, Raji and Matthews filled immediate, pressing needs. In 2009, as they converted to the 3-4 defense, the Packers also had a high grade on Texas Tech wideout Michael Crabtree but opted for Raji, who filled a pressing need. Thompson then traded back up into the first round to nab Matthews, another player at a position he needed.
“We felt like when Clay fell a little bit in the first round and we had already taken B.J., the fact that we would use that sort of arsenal of draft choices to try to move up and take him, we felt this is a guy that’s by far the best player on the board,” Thompson said. “And he also would fit a particular need that we have.”
Meanwhile, although veteran tackles Mark Tauscher and Chad Clifton weren’t getting any younger, Tauscher was the right tackle starter entering 2010 and Clifton the left tackle starter to open 2011. It wasn’t as if those positions were vacant. Bulaga and Sherrod were taken to fill eventual needs, but on draft day, their selections weren’t imperative.
This year, fixing the defense – especially the pass rush, which was a major factor in the Packers giving up more passing yards than any defense in NFL history – is an imperative. And fortunately for Thompson, he should have some interesting options when he goes on the clock at No. 28, the first of his 12 draft picks.
At outside linebacker, among those who could be on the board are Boise State’s Shea McClellin, Syracuse’s Chandler Jones, Clemson’s Andre Branch, Alabama’s Courtney Upshaw or Dont’a Hightower, USC’s Nick Perry, South Carolina’s Melvin Ingram, Illinois’ Whitney Mercilus or West Virginia’s Bruce Irvin. On the defensive line, Penn State defensive end Devon Still or Michigan State defensive tackle Jerel Worthy figure to be available at 28.
“I’m a firm a believer, and I know it sounds trite and maybe I’m making it up and we don’t do that, but I think you absolutely have to treat a draft choice, especially early in the draft as a long-term investment. And the best policy, in my view, is to take the best player because it gives you the best chance at getting a return on your investment,” Thompson said. “We’re not blind at what we’re trying to do and what we have and don’t have, but you can’t make an exception. If you have someone who have graded that’s clearly the best player, you take that player.”
That evidently was the case last year in the first round, when Thompson passed on Arizona outside linebacker Brooks Reed and selected Sherrod at No. 32.
Reed would have given the Packers that Matthews-complement immediately, rather than sticking with the conglomerate of Erik Walden, Frank Zombo and Brad Jones. At the same time, the Packers did have a healthy, albeit 35-year-old, Clifton set to start at left tackle after starting all 20 games (including playoffs) the year before. Nevertheless, Thompson didn’t go for the immediate need, although he did fill a long-term need.
Now, Thompson will have another shot at getting Matthews some help. His hope would be that at No. 28, McClellin – or whomever he has his eye on – is the best player on his board and fills a pressing need.
“You have the way you think the thing is going to fall, and you’re saying, ‘If all things being equal, I’d rather take this guy because he’s a little better at this and can help us a little bit with whatever we’re trying to do, whether it be on defense or offense,’” Thompson said. “Sometimes it falls that way, sometimes it doesn’t. But if you stick true to your plan and take the best player, it takes a lot of the guesswork and angst out of it. There’s no need in getting worried. The people in front of you are going to draft who they’re going to draft. When it gets to your turn, that’s what’s important. Make sure you take the best player you can take.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today,” and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.