Over the past week, the Green Bay Packers have seen six of their former key players (T.J. Lang, J.C. Tretter, Datone Jones, Micah Hyde, Julius Peppers, and Eddie Lacy) depart for other teams. Tight end Jared Cook won't be back after the Packers added Martellus Bennett and Lance Kendricks and is still looking for a new home. Don't forget the retirement of cornerback Sam Shields. From a year ago, that's eight major players from the last two seasons who are gone. That's a lot to replace.
As an expansion on Chris Peterson's writing about Packers players lost in free agency, I explore how they might replace some of those areas via the upcoming NFL draft.
Ah, the draft. Also known as Ted Thompson's playground. The Packers general manager has become known as the Godfather of "draft & develop" over the years, whether that moniker is deserved or not. Thompson often defers to younger and, let's be honest, cheaper options to replace lost veterans. In a few recent seasons past (2013, 2015), he's done nothing in free agency outside of his own former players and exclusively used the draft to re-stock the cupboard.
I'm not here to start tossing names of who should be drafted where. I'll leave that to our draftniks and those who know better. What I do want to discuss is how the Packers might and might not approach this draft.
Often times when a team loses a player, fans immediately look for a veteran replacement on the open market. For example, Lacy leaves and everyone is clamoring hard for Jamaal Charles or LeGarrette Blount. The reality is that Thompson prefers to draft his backs but Lacy's departure doesn't suddenly mean a running back has to be a first-round priority. Taking a running back in round one is a risk at any spot, let alone late in the round. Ted doesn't like risk, as we know.
Lang and Tretter's departures have many thinking that Forrest Lamp should suddenly be Green Bay's top pick. In the last 12 drafts, when has Thompson drafted a guard in the first round? He hasn't. After hitting on Lang, Josh Sitton, David Bakhtiari, Tretter and Corey Linsley in later rounds, don't expect that philosophy on where to find offensive line help to change. Thompson clearly doesn't value guard like some other teams do.
Often it's said that teams should draft the best player available in round one and address needs later on. The reality is that some needs require a player who can realistically start on day one. That most likely means a first rounder. That then requires teams to shuffle their board of best overall players and find the one that instead best fills a hole.
In the Packers' case, many want to see a cornerback or pass rusher taken first. We've seen Ted take the best overall player and we've seen him fill a need in round one. It's hard to say what he does this year but if he finds, say, a Corey Davis sitting there when their pick comes along, he may have to jump on that. Many will criticize the move with the Packers defense having so many needs. But remember the draft is the time to take the best players to help in the future.
It might be this year's draft but that doesn't mean the Packers are solely thinking about this season alone. In the next few years, there are more big departures possible and so there are many future concerns to account for. This is one of the reasons why Thompson has been so big on accumulating picks and not compromising the compensatory pick formula by signing a lot of unrestricted free agents.
Some look at the players lost this year and how there are only two players left from the 2012 draft and just one from 2013 and question whether the Packers and Thompson are still succeeding at developing who they draft. Last year, Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins failed to make jumps from year one to year two, leaving the cornerback position hamstrung at times (namely the NFC Championship game). Another example is the safety position in 2013 and the inside linebacker position in recent years.
Those memories have many wanting Thompson to take safer options early in the draft to address a big need. A guy like T.J. Watt, for example, seems to be an easy selection to add pass rush. Watt has the name and pedigree, but he's never played a down in the NFL. With any rookie, there is risk. Every team misses on a pick now and then. Thompson and the Packers have hopefully done enough due diligence to minimize the chances that they'll be letting most of these new players leave in four years.
When all is said and done, the Packers need to drown out the outside noise and stick to what works for them when draft day comes. They can't solve all of the needs in one day or with one pick. I've said before, cheetah's don't change their spots and we shouldn't expect Green Bay's draft strategy to deviate much from years past.
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