Protecting their investment
Mike McCarthy knew how it looked.
The weekend had begun with the Green Bay Packers making quarterback Aaron Rodgers the highest-paid player in the NFL, signing the face of the franchise to a five-year, $110 million extension that reportedly includes an astonishing $62.5 million in guaranteed money.
Then, the Packers head coach had watched as general manager Ted Thompson went to work on the three-day 2013 NFL Draft, selecting two high-profile running backs – Alabama’s Eddie Lacy in the second round and UCLA’s Johnathan Franklin the fourth – who’d unexpectedly dropped, along with two offensive linemen – Colorado’s David Bakhtiari and Cornell’s J.C. Tretter, both in the fourth round – who figure to elevate the competition among a group that allowed Rodgers to be sacked a league-high 51 times last season.
So, after the Packers’ 11th and final pick -- tied for the second-most players selected in Thompson’s nine years as GM – was in the books, McCarthy understood perfectly what the perception would be, especially after the club had drafted six consecutive defensive players a year earlier.
“The reality of it is we’ve helped our football team,” McCarthy said. “I understand you put numbers on a spreadsheet and you’re (paying) over $100 million (to Rodgers) and then right after that comes four players on offense. I think it’s natural to think that there’s something where, ‘We have to hurry up and put something around Aaron Rodgers.’ That’s really not the case.”
Said Thompson, who’s now drafted 87 players during his tenure: “We’re always trying to get better. We go through this draft process or free agency or the offseason or whatever, we’re always trying to get better. That never stops. This particular draft, there was no set thing (of), ‘We had to help our quarterback.’ Our quarterback is a pretty good player. He doesn’t need a lot of help. But we’re trying to help our team, we’re trying to find new people – some young guys that can come in and help these veterans and help us be a better team.”
Whether it was intentional or not, the Packers did indeed give Rodgers exactly what he needed – assuming Lacy and Franklin can awaken the long-dormant running game and if Bakhtiari and Tretter lead to upgrade up front. Then, in the seventh round, they picked up a pair of intriguing wide receivers to add to their pass-catching group, taking Grand Valley State’s Charles Johnson and Maryland’s Kevin Dorsey.
The team’s other five picks went to defense: First-round defensive end Datone Jones from UCLA; fifth-round cornerback Micah Hyde of Iowa; fifth-round defensive end Josh Boyd of Mississippi State; sixth-round outside linebacker Nate Palmer of Illinois State; and seventh-round inside linebacker Sam Barrington of South Florida.
“I feel pretty good. I think most teams will probably give you the same answer,” Thompson said before going back upstairs to work on the team’s undrafted free agent class. “You work all this time and you’re able to do some things maybe that you didn’t think you could. We not only have an opportunity to bring 11 more guys onto our team and workout this summer see how they compete and compare to the guys that we have, we’re working on college free agency (as well). But we feel good.”
Thompson, who started the weekend with only eight selections, made three trades on Friday that netted him four extra selections, giving him 10 picks at the start of Day 3. He then used one of those in a trade with the Denver Broncos to move back into the fourth round to take Franklin, who like Lacy before him had slid down draft boards.
“We felt like the draft was pretty solid through the middle rounds, so we wanted to accumulate some picks in that area. And I’ve always said the more picks, I think, the better,” Thompson said. “We’ll see. Our team, I’m not going to get into specifics about injuries, but we have some nicks and bumps through last season that was a little bit more than normal. So we’re trying to add some more guys to make sure we’re covered.”
In Franklin, the Packers got a smaller, shiftier back to pair with the bigger, bruising Lacy. Thompson said he decided to go up to get Franklin simply because “we thought it was really good value at that spot,” considering Franklin set the UCLA single-season rushing record last year with 1,732 yards. Lacy and Franklin join a running back group that saw Alex Green, Cedric Benson, James Starks, Ryan Grant and DuJuan Harris all lead the team in rushing in various games and has gone an NFL-high 43 consecutive regular-season games without a 100-yard rusher.
The NFL Network reported that the Packers were actively looking to trade the oft-injured Starks during the draft, and the addition of Lacy and Franklin would seemingly rule out a return by Benson, who met with the team and medical staff last week as he recovers from a Lisfranc foot injury.
“I’ll just say this: The way I view our offense with the addition of our two new running backs, I think from top to bottom, you talk about DuJuan and James and Alex and now adding these two guys, I have not had this diverse ability of so many different types of runners and (such) unique athletic ability,” McCarthy said. “Obviously with Lacy being such a big, strong, powerful runner, I think he has a lot better feet than people realize. He’s obviously an accomplished player. And Franklin now, I don’t know how you cannot be excited about the film he has. And, he can really catch the football and do things out of the backfield.
“I feel very, very good about the group because it’s a very competitive situation in the running back room. With that, the way we play offense, there will be excellent opportunity. I’m really looking forward to seeing who grabs the rope and runs with it. This will be the most competitive group that we’ve had in my time here at the running back position. But I think it’s clearly the most diverse group.”
Asked if Lacy and Franklin will alter the way the offense functions – read: will McCarthy call more running plays – the coach was good-naturedly non-committal.
“Hey, if we’re running it good a certain way, we’re running more often that particular way, that’s something we’ve never shied away from in our offense. We get into a lot of different personnel groups, obviously formation utilization is something we’ve always done. We’ve made some scheme adjustments that we’ve (provided), visiting with our players the last two weeks. We have already started that process. Lacy, frankly will fit into some of these changes we’ve made. We’ll see how it goes through the off-season and training camp. I’m excited about it.”
But considering the steady diet of Cover-2 defenses Rodgers and the Packers’ pass-oriented offense saw last season, finding a running back – whoever it is – who’ll command defenses’ respect will make a significant difference.
“If we can get that balance and get the running game going and open up the passing game, which we hope it will, that’s obviously a key to success,” said running backs coach Alex Van Pelt, a former quarterback whose time with McCarthy dates back to their time together at the University of Pittsburgh. “You always want to run well, obviously. We haven’t been satisfied, at least last year watching the evaluation. We needed to get better in that area – whether it be scheme, technique, players, adjust and adapt what we do. We had to improve in the run game, and that was addressed.”
On the line, the Packers ended the season with Marshall Newhouse at left tackle, T.J. Lang at left guard, Evan Dietrich-Smith at center, Josh Sitton at right guard and undrafted rookie free agent Don Barclay at right tackle. Bryan Bulaga, the team’s 2010 first-round draft pick who suffered a season-ending hip injury on Nov. 4, is expected to be full-go when organized team activity practices begin, and McCarthy expressed cautious optimism that 2011 first-round draft pick Derek Sherrod, out since breaking his leg on Dec. 18, 2011 at Kansas City, is on the mend. By getting Bulaga and Sherrod back and adding Bakhtiari and Tretter, the competition should be stiffer than last year, when the team only kept seven linemen coming out of training camp.
“I think every year going forward, you try to create competition. And we have competition already set from the practice-squad kids and the players that we currently have,” offensive line coach James Campen said. “If I'm in that room, let's be honest: You've got two fourth-round picks back-to-back, certainly the competition barometer went up a heck of a lot. So that's a good thing to have. And the men that are already in that room understand that, and they understood that before this draft certainly. Our competition just got better.”
That seems to be the case across the roster. While the quality of the draft won’t be known immediately – regardless of the day-after grades you’ll see – both McCarthy and Thompson felt good about the potential they’d added.
“The NFL is an evolving thing. You try to get better,” Thompson said. “We hope those young men can come in and help our team for sure, and if that causes other teams problems, that’s good.
“In a perfect world, it’d be like you get one of these, one of these, one of these and two of these, but it doesn’t work that way. But I can’t think of any (positions we missed) that stand out. You’re always trying to get better, and we don’t know how that competition is going to go, but we think we’ve increased competition for training camp and who will be on our team.”
Added McCarthy: “The competition for opportunity has definitely increased on our team. If you look at the impact of our (rookie) class last year had on the 2012 season, I look for all those guys to make a huge jump, as I’ve always challenged players going into their second and third year to make that jump. For as young as we are on paper, I like the experience of our football team. And I think we have a chance to achieve our goals.”
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.