Thompson: Let's make a deal?
They don’t play baseball at Southern Methodist University anymore, having disbanded the team in 1981 with the arrival of Title IX. But in the spring of 1975, the Mustangs had an outfielder join them for one season. He’d been a three-year starter at linebacker for the Mustangs’ football team, and a team captain as a senior in the fall of 1974.
That outfielder was Ted Thompson, who lettered for the Mustangs that spring. But considering he was more linebacker than line-drive hitter, he learned a thing or two about swinging and missing that season.
So on Thursday afternoon, as the Green Bay Packers general manager talked about the upcoming 2013 NFL Draft and his philosophy about trading forward and backward, he fully understood the baseball metaphor he was about to make – and he didn’t necessarily need the assist from his mentor, retired Packers GM Ron Wolf, whom he credited with drawing the analogy first.
“It’s like Ron always said: ‘It’s kind of like baseball, you’re not going to get a hit every time you go to the plate, but if you have more swings you have a better chance at getting a hit,’” said Thompson, who’ll enter Day 1 of the draft next Thursday with eight selections – the Packers’ picks in each of the seven rounds, plus a fifth-round compensatory selection. “I think as a general philosophy, I’d rather have more than less. But at the end of the day I’d rather have more quality than anything. But quality and quantity both is a nice thing.”
For the most part, Thompson’s previous eight drafts have had both quality and quantity. When the season ended with a 45-31 loss to the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Divisional playoffs, 27 of the 53 players on the active roster were Thompson draft picks, starting with quarterback Aaron Rodgers in 2005. Six more draft picks were on injured reserve or the physically unable to perform list, and two more were on the team’s practice squad.
In his eight drafts, Thompson has selected 75 players: 11 in 2005, 12 in 2006, 10 in 2007, nine in 2008, eight in 2009, seven in 2010, 10 in 2011 and eight last year. But whereas he used to trade in only one direction – backward, to get more “swings” – Thompson is a bit harder to pigeonhole as this year’s draft approaches.
“(You trade up) when you think it’s when you think you see value. That’s the reason sometimes we’ll go backwards, (too) – when we see value later in the draft and numbers at positions where we think there’s value,” Thompson explained during his annual pre-draft news conference at Lambeau Field. “It’s a trade-off. You know that you’re giving up something if you trade up and you know that you’re giving up something in terms of an opportunity to take a particular player in you go backwards.”
In his first three drafts as Packers GM, Thompson executed nine draft-day trades – all of them backward to accumulate more picks. Then, in 2008, Thompson traded back out of the first round (Jordy Nelson ended up being the team’s top pick at No. 36, six spots after the No. 30 selection Thompson traded to the New York Jets) but he also traded up for the first time, moving up in the fourth round to draft Wake Forest defensive end Jeremy Thompson. That broke a streak of 17 consecutive backward draft trades – including seven trades back with the Seahawks – for Thompson.
But overall in that 2008 draft, Thompson still trended toward trading backward. The other four trades he made that year were all to move back, meaning 13 of his first 14 draft-day trades with the Packers had been to add more picks.
But in 2009, Thompson gave up the Packers’ second-round selection (No. 41) and both of their third-round choices (Nos. 73 and 83) to acquire the New England Patriots’ first-round pick (No. 26) that he used on Clay Matthews. (He also received New England’s fifth-round choice in return). Matthews, of course, has been to four straight Pro Bowls and signed a five-year, $66 million extension on Wednesday.
In 2010, Thompson traded up in the third round in order to take Georgia Tech safety Morgan Burnett – his only trade that year.
In 2011, Thompson’s first two trades were backwards, moving back out of the fourth by sending pick No. 129 (fourth) and No. 204 (seventh) to the Denver Broncos for picks No. 141 (fifth) and No. 186 (sixth) in return. Then, Thompson sent pick No. 163 to the San Francisco 49ers in exchange for Nos.174 and 231, then turned around and traded No. 174 and No. 231 to Miami for No. 169 and No. 218, giving the Packers three sixth-round picks (Nos. 179, 186, 197) and two seventh-rounders (Nos. 218, 233) to close the draft.
Then came last year, when Thompson traded up not once, not twice, but three times: He traded up in the second round with the Philadelphia Eagles to take defensive end Jerel Worthy (giving up a fourth-round pick); traded up in the second round again, with the New England Patriots, to take cornerback Casey Hayward (giving up third- and fifth-round picks); and traded up one more time in the fifth round, reacquiring the No. 163 overall pick he’d sent to New England and using it to take inside linebacker Terrell Manning (giving up one sixth- and two seventh-round picks).
This year, armed with eight picks – only the fifth-round compensatory pick cannot be traded – Thompson could again be on the move, and he could be in the market for adding picks if he sees value.
For despite the team’s second straight NFC North division title and a three-year regular-season record of 36-12, the Packers do have some obvious needs.
Even though they used their 2010 (Bryan Bulaga) and 2011 (Derek Sherrod) first-round draft picks on offensive tackles, the offensive line remains a need. And despite drafting Matthews in 2009 and Nick Perry last year, the Packers have only three outside linebackers currently on the roster: Matthews, Perry and Dezman Moses.
The search for an adequate replacement for three-time Pro Bowl safety Nick Collins continues, and with the free-agent departure of Greg Jennings, a wide receiver in one of the first three rounds can’t be ruled out, either. Defensive line is always a need, and perhaps is even moreso with B.J. Raji and Ryan Pickett entering the final years of their contracts. Thompson has drafted a true running back only four times in eight drafts, but this could be the year he does so again. And despite having five tight ends on the roster last season, the Packers could add another this year since starter Jermichael Finley is in the final year of his deal, Tom Crabtree left as a free agent and Andrew Quarless didn’t play a down last year because of a 2011 knee injury.
But one thing is certain: Because of their adamant draft-and-develop approach to team-building, Thompson and his reconfigured scouting staff can’t afford to swing and miss very often. While home runs would be ideal, a few singles and doubles would continue to steady roster building that Thompson likes to do.
“I think (the draft) is important. We’ve always said, (and) we’ve never swayed away from this: We believe in drafting and developing players. We think that is the best way to build your team over the long term,” Thompson said. “That doesn’t mean we won’t sign free agents or do different ways of acquiring players and going to college free agency and that sort of thing, but we do believe that continually every year you need a new class of players and young men to join your team in order to sustain over the long term the ability to win and compete in the NFL."
Does that put greater pressure on Thompson to be right, as he tries to keep the Packers a Super Bowl contender during star quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ prime?
“Pressure’s what you make it,” the 60-year-old Thompson replied. “I’m a single guy, I don’t have children to worry about. It’s not that much pressure. But you want to do right.. I’m not trying to make light of this. It’s important. And we gnash our teeth over it and we try to do the best we can to make the right decisions. But at the end of the day, we don’t worry about things.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.