Ted Thompson Does it Right
By Walter Rhein
Any time the Packers make the NFC Championship game, it’s a successful season. But just because everybody gets on the bandwagon in January doesn’t mean you should give the fans a free pass for jumping ship in November. Every year it’s the same, the Packers hit a patch of adversity and half the state of Wisconsin (the vocal half!) wants to throw the baby out with the bathwater and start over from scratch.
“Trade Rodgers for a third-round pick and a tuna salad sandwich.”
Sometimes, I swear I was living in Minnesota.
Okay, sorry, that last quip crossed the line.
Mike McCarthy has been the Packers coach for 11 seasons and in that span they’ve reached the conference championship game four times, the most of any NFC team. Folks, that’s about as good as you can be. Nevertheless, the most common refrain from fans in this era has been, “Cheap Ted needs to break out his wallet on some quality free agents.”
You hear this at every Packer watering hole across the state. Men and women grumble the words into their beers and it’s taken as gospel. If you try to contradict this fundamental belief, you’re shouted down and insanity prevails. But no amount of shouting can change the truth.
Ted Thompson does it right.
Sure, with the benefit of hindsight, there are a few things that would have been done differently. For example, we should have kept Casey Hayward instead of Sam Shields, but how was Ted to know his pro-bowl corner would be out on Injured Reserve all year? A fourth-round pick for Randy Moss or Marshawn Lynch doesn’t seem so expensive, unless that fourth-round pick turns out to be David Bakhtiari or T.J. Lang. It would have been nice to see Mike Wahle finish out his career in the green and gold, but you have to remember if he’d have stayed, somebody else would have had to go.
You see, the thing that fans forget when they start complaining about “cheap Ted” is that there’s a thing called the salary cap, which is designed to keep you from keeping everyone.
The formula for the modern NFL is to build a team around a star quarterback, fill the gaps with rookies, and hope that players emerge during the season so you can make a playoff run. Sure, it’s possible to load up at the end of a QB’s career and go into salary cap purgatory, but what happens if a rash of injuries hits you? The answer is you condemn yourself to a series of losing seasons, not just the one you loaded up for.
There were a couple years there where it seemed like Seattle could sign whoever they wanted. The reason for that is their starting QB was a third-round pick on his rookie deal. In the NFL, rookies are cheap, especially later round ones! Now that Wilson is being paid, you don’t see Seattle signing everything and everyone anymore. They had to let Bruce Irvin go, who had a great season for the Raiders.
Aaron Rodgers tilts the field, but there’s also a salary cap cost to having a guy like that. Rodgers’ cap number is around 20 million a year. It’s a good problem to have, but when you assess the moves that Thompson makes, you have to do so with an awareness of what he has to work around. Rodgers’ greatness means that you can’t pay everyone, and there will inevitably be some thin spots on the roster.
What’s the best way to cover up those holes? Pick one:
A. Expensive free agents.
B. Discount free agents and lots and lots of rookies.
The answer, of course, is B.
Charles Woodson, Julius Peppers, Jared Cook all fit into the category of “discount” free agents. Above all things, Thompson is not going to get into a bidding war with somebody and overpay. Of all his free agent signings, Woodson was probably the biggest risk, but there wasn’t a lot of demand for Woodson at the time because he was coming off a broken leg.
Peppers was perceived as possibly too old, ready to hit the veteran wall, and Cook was a classic underachiever, although he had never played with a stellar quarterback before. Both have proved their doubters wrong, or Thompson right, and he didn’t have to pay through the nose to do it.
A critical thing that most Packer fans don’t seem to understand about Ted Thompson is how effectively he maneuvers for compensatory draft picks. Compensatory picks are a way for a general manager to recuperate value for a player who leaves in free agency. The Patriots are especially clever with how they manage the system, often signing a high-profile player for a one-year deal with the intention of letting them walk at the end of the season to “create” a compensatory pick Case in point: Darrelle Revis.
The formula for compensatory picks is too complicated for the casual fan to care about, but understanding how compensatory picks work is critical to comprehending Thompson’s decisions. It’s no accident that the Packers are among the leaders in receiving compensatory picks. You become eligible to be awarded a pick if you lose a high-profile player to free agency. Signing a player during the free agent period counts against you in the formula, unless the player signed was released. Cook and Peppers were both released by their respective teams, enabling Thompson to get them at a discount and ensuring that they did not count against the Packers in the formula for awarding compensatory picks. Otherwise, they would have effectively been trading a third- or fourth-round pick to sign those players.
Expensive free agents are a higher risk than the casual fan seems to understand. In 2014, everyone was clamoring for the Packers to sign Jarius Byrd, who eventually went to the Saints and promptly spent twelve games on IR. Essentially, the risk of high-profile free agents is threefold: risk of injury, high cap hit that keeps you from keeping other players (Saints traded Jimmy Graham a year later in a cap-driven move), and loss of equity in receiving compensatory picks. Meanwhile, the Packers drafted Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, leaving them in a much stronger position at safety than the Saints.
Any good general manager has his hands tied by the salary cap. When you have a player like Aaron Rodgers eating up a good portion of the cap space, you must figure out a way to save money elsewhere. Free agency is not cost effective. The best way to provide quality depth to your team at a reasonable price is through the draft. Thompson hordes his draft picks like they are gold for good reason. He’s a good drafter, but it’s an inexact science, so the more picks he has, the better chance of plucking a diamond from the late rounds. Thompson also does his due diligence with street free agents. Any team’s post-season success depends on a low-profile player stepping up and making a contribution.
Signing a high-profile free agent makes a splash and gives fans something to feel good about before the season starts.
But take a few minutes and evaluate how those free agents worked out for their new teams? How many of those teams made the playoffs, or retained their coach, or even had winning seasons? The last thing you want to do in the NFL is get into a bidding war over a player who has never taken a snap in your colors. If you overpay, you’re sentencing yourself to an imminent future of mediocrity. There’s a reason the Packers have made the playoffs for a league-leading eight seasons (tied with New England), and a large part of it is that Ted Thompson doesn’t chase the fool’s gold of expensive, high-profile free agents. If you want to continue winning, don’t clamor for Thompson to change.
How many draft picks has Green Bay had overall compared to other teams? The Packers are at the very top of the heap. Prior to the 2015 season, Thompson had selected 104 players since 2005, more than any team. The Rams, Patriots and 49ers were tied for second with 100.
The Packers led the NFL with 1,860 starts and 3,267 games played from drafted players, which was 119 more starts and 106 more games played by drafted players than any NFL team.
Over that same time span, the Vikings picked 88 players (1468 game starts), the Lions 83 (1176 starts) and the Bears 80 (1072 game starts).
Thompson picked nine players in the 2015 draft and selected seven more in 2016, after starting with nine picks. He used three (2nd, 4th, 7th) to trade up in the second round for OL Jason Spriggs. The 2015 draft looks particularly strong, with CB Damarious Randall, CB Quinten Rollins, RB/WR Ty Montgomery, ILB Jake Ryan and FB Aaron Ripkowski all playing big roles in just their second seasons, with Brett Hundley and Christian Ringo with roles. It’s early to talk about the 2016 draft, but the top six – NT Kenny Clark, Spriggs, OLB Kyler Fackrell, ILB Blake Martinez, DE Dean Lowery and WR Trevor Davis – all have real potential.
Of course the 2005 draft that featured Aaron Rodgers will likely never be topped, and the 2009 (with Clay Matthews, B.J. Raji and T.J. Lang), 2008 (Jordy Nelson, Josh Sitton, Jermichael Finley, Matt Flynn), 2013 (Eddie Lacy, David Bakhtiari, Datone Jones, Micah Hyde, Sam Barrington, J.C. Tretter, Charles Johnson), 2014 (Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Davante Adams, Richard Rodgers, Corey Linsley, Jeff Janis, Demetri Goodson, Jared Abbrederis) and 2010 (Morgan Burnett, Bryan Bulaga, James Starks, Mike Neal, undrafted Sam Shields) classes rate great.
There have been few total bombs; 2012 had Mike Daniels, Nick Perry and Casey Hayward, 2006 featured A.J. Hawk, Daryn Colledge, Greg Jennings and Johnny Jolly, and 2007 had Mason Crosby, James Jones, Desmond Bishop and Allen Barbre, and Thompson traded a sixth-rounder for Ryan Grant.
Even Thompson’s worst – 2011 – offered Randall Cobb and Davon House.
And of course, he backed up those drafts with undrafted free agents almost every year.
Compensatory draft picks
A cornerstone of Ted Thompson’s draft strategy is to let certain players walk in free agency to pick up compensatory draft picks, while still re-signing the ones he feels are the surest bet or most valuable. This strategy will become even more flexible in the 2017 draft, when, for the first time, compensatory picks will be tradeable.
A list of compensatory picks that have panned out, despite the picks coming at the end of later rounds of the draft, include:
Mike Daniels (4th, 2012), Josh Sitton (4th, 2008), Davon House (4th, 2011), Richard Rodgers (3rd, 2014), Blake Martinez (4th, 2016), Dean Lowery (4th, 2016), Josh Boyd (5th, 2013), Jared Abbrederis (5th, 2014), DL Christian Ringo (6th, 2015), TE Kennard Backman (6th, 2015), OT Marshall Newhouse (5th, 2010) and OT Tony Moll (5th, 2006).
Thompson didn’t receive any in his first draft, 2005, or 2009.
Undrafted free agents
Thompson and head coach Mike McCarthy have been more willing to give undrafted free agents a real shot at making the team. It has paid off in the past and will like pay even bigger dividends in the furture, because undrafted free agents choose their team. Why wouldn’t you choose a team that gives UDFA a chance? They are also paid the least of any player until they hit their second contract (after four years).
A list of undrafted free agents that have panned out:
A number of 24% of the 70 UDFAs signed from 2010-2014 earned a spot on the Packers’ 53-man roster.
Sam Shields (2010), Tramon Williams (2007), FB John Kuhn (2007), C Evan Dietrich-Smith (2009), G Lane Taylor (2013), ILB Joe Thomas (2014), WR Geronimo Allison (2016), CB Ladarius Gunter (2015), S Kentrell Brice (2016), S Atari Bigby (2005), S Chris Banjo (2013), CB Makinton Dorleant (2016), QB Joe Callahan (2016), John Crockett (2015), LB Dezman Moses (2012), LB Andy Mulumba (2013), LB Frank Zombo (2010), S Sean Richardson (2012), S M.D. Jennings (2011), OLB Jamari Lattimore (2011), Jarrett Boykin (2012), Don Barclay (2012),
Before Thompson’s time, GB also signed UDFA, including one of the most famous Packers in safety Willie Wood (1960). Others were: TE Paul Coffman (1978), S Johnnie Gray (1975), LB George Koonce (1992), S Mark Murphy (1980), NT John Jurkovic (1991), TE Ed West (1984), K Ryan Longwell (1997) and Cullen Jenkins (2003).
Ryan Grant was an UDFA in 2005, but Thompson paid a sixth-rounder for him in 2007 and he was well worth it.