I don't think I'll ever win the award for being Ted Thompson's biggest acolyte, especially from Day One. I've been critical, even into the Super Bowl era; while acknowledging his finer points along the way, too. There's always been something that has prevented me from fully mounting the Thompson Bandwagon, though...just a continued, residual doubt hanging around from some of his earliest decisions that I immaturely refused to completely put to bed.
Last night, however, sealed it for me. I'm on Thompson Train full-board. Sorry for being so late to the party.
You're first reaction, however, might be that I am only seeing the light because crazy ol' Ted is wildly trading up in the draft, a complete 180 degrees from when I used to cry foul in the mid-2000's when he kept passing up players I liked to trade back. But that isn't it.
Stepping back and taking the big picture in focus, managing the draft isn't a lottery or a contest, and I think (like many others) we got caught up in the gamesmanship of making our own mock drafts and picking our favorites on who we thought the Packers should pick up. As time has moved on, I've stopped following the pre-draft furor as intently as I have in the past, and have enjoyed just sitting back and watching it unfold.
Does anyone really care anymore who the Packers would have gotten with those three picks traded away to get Clay Matthews? Seriously? In the end, we don't obsess on where a guy was picked* three years after the fact: we're just as happy with a late-round Josh Sitton as we are with a first-round Bryan Bulaga. This team has been built through the draft and street free agency, not through the high-priced world of unrestricted free agency. The latest SI article praising the Giants conservative, plan-for-tomorrow business formula could have just as easily been written about the Packers.
No, what impressed me about Thompson last night wasn't just the simple fact he traded up to get guys he wanted, but the realization that he now valued quality over quantity. There was no way twelve draft picks would have made the roster, and he essentially traded every possible mid-rounder he could have to get two higher picks in the second round. With two more project picks today in the fourth, the Packers will likely come away with five players that will have a legitimate chance to make this roster, at positions of need.
Six years ago, as Thompson was clearing salary cap space and players he deemed expendable from the old regime, he went the other direction, valuing quantity over quality. I remember folks really touting the great picks of Daryn Colledge, Jason Spitz, and Tony Moll, literally plugging them into three starting spots along the offensive line right away. One by one, they dropped out of the lineup, and eventually, the roster when they weren't considered valuable enough to keep around once their contracts expired. But at the time, Thompson was in the business of filling gaping holes in his roster, and threw enough players at them, hoping they would stick.
In some cases, like wide receiver and tight end, he filled them admirably. At other positions, like the offensive line and linebacker, he needed to reinvest in those positions with high draft picks later after the quantity didn't stick.
Many of us thought these were the Thompson Rules: always trade back. Always bring in more players than you need. And you must admit, the rhetoric at the time did little to discourage us from believing that Thompson truly believed that mediocre talent burned in the crucible of competition would create Pro Bowl players.
But the truth is that Thompson drafts for need; not the need of the positional players, but the need of his roster. With the offensive side of the ball only needing depth and "heir apparent" players with time to be developed, the Packers traded up to fill holes on their suddenly-vulnerable defense, bringing in impact players with not only a chance to develop into stars, but an opportunity to learn on the job in their first season. As players like Charles Woodson and Ryan Pickett look into the twilight of their careers, Casey Heyward and Jarel Worthy were brought in as not only their heir apparents, but contributors right away.
Heyward also fills the void of Nick Collins, with rumors swirling that either he or Woodson would move into the free safety position. DC Dom Capers implied it might well be Woodson. Thompson emphatically indicated it would be Heyward. Speculation immediately broke out in Packer Nation about how Capers will modify his defensive schemery to accommodate his new horses.
Obviously, there's going to be some reality checks along the way. Very few draft picks are plunked into starting positions in their rookie year and become instant solid starters. But the die is cast, and no matter how much Thompson wants to say that the players on his board just happened to show up where he wanted, and these were not need-based picks, he may have done as much to fill holes in one draft as he did in 2009, when he nabbed BJ Raji and Matthews in the first round.
Not to be forgotten in all this, of course, is the selection of USC's Nick Perry, who (with the subsequent selection of Worthy) appears to be a shoo-in at the other OLB spot opposite Matthews, which has had more turnover of employees than the third shift at Arby's.
He didn't trade up to please the fan base (though many screamed joy each time he did). He did it because he could afford to, and because he needed to invest in quality players that have a higher chance of blossoming sooner. And he had the ammunition with which to do it, without costing him dearly in the long run.
Ted Thompson is perhaps as good as any scout-turned-GM in the league, but now that we fully understand his approach, it makes his history as a drafter (and eschewer of free agency) make that much more sense. No, he's not crazy, nor is he ultra-conservative.
He's just a plain old good businessman, the highest testament of which is that a result-now fan base have completely bought in to the lack of high-risk, expensive signings that usually get everyone excited, and now celebrate what we might have once classified as tentative or safe.
And while I've been along for the ride for several years now, I truly get it today. I'm on board.
* Except AJ Hawk.