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Seeing the 2017 Draft Through Ted Thompson’s Eyes, Part I: The Five Questions Ted Thompson Asks Before Drafting Anyone

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Seeing the 2017 Draft Through Ted Thompson’s Eyes, Part I: The Five Questions Ted Thompson Asks Before Drafting Anyone

 

Many thanks to “Jersey Al” Bracco and CheeseheadTV readers for renewing a second season of “Seeing the Draft Through Ted Thompson’s Eyes.”  Today is the first of three pre-draft installments.

As with last year, this is not a series about who the Packers will draft, though we’ll try our best to spot some likely suspects.  This is a series about why

“Why” doesn’t have to be a hard question, but our brains make it one.  They send our thoughts about football to the “sports department,” where all the memories of our childhood games are stored.  That’s only natural, because that’s what we see every week in the fall:  a contest of guts, skill, and a little trickery, where everyone shakes hands at the end.  And week-to-week, that’s what the NFL is.

But those weekly contests are just the proving ground for a very different game—the one Ted Thompson plays.  He’s not playing football.  He’s playing business management, the same contest every successful business plays.  Thompson has to hire the 53-man workforce best suited to beat other 53-man workforces in weekly contests, all within a strict, salary-capped budget. 

Thompson hires his workforce the same way other businesses do.  He identifies his key veteran employees, and does his best to lock them up.  He poaches talent from other companies, at least when they can bring value he can’t find elsewhere.  And each spring, he and the other GMs get to take their turns picking new hires from the latest crop of college applicants—and we all get to watch.

While Thompson’s game has its own special rules, the same fundamentals of good business management apply.  Those aren’t the same as the principles of entrepreneurship—NFL teams share revenue, so there’s no need to generate a “buzz” to excite investors and crowd out competitors.  (Meddling owners who built their fortunes with risky bets tend to forget that.)  Good business management is a much narrower task:  try to find the best combination of employees to accomplish the task at hand, while keeping a winning culture in the workplace.

With that in mind, we can make sense of why Thompson does what he does, and hires who he hires.  Mike McCarthy and the coaching staff know what they need their employees to do to make their systems function, and everyone on the roster has a role—even if that role is just “insurance.”  When the job fair comes each spring, Thompson takes stock of the job openings, short-term and long, and he fills the positions.

To identify suitable applicants, Thompson asks himself five questions about every prospect.  There are no secret formulas or special tricks.  He’s just asking the same types of questions that any good business manager would ask.  A “no” answer on any of them means a “no” for that prospect. 

Here are the five questions that appear to be on Thompson’s candidate evaluation form:

1.Is he ready to be an adult?

No one likes immature, unaccountable employees.  Bosses can’t trust them, veteran workers can’t stand them, and they infect workplace culture.  When one person fails to take ownership of his role in the company’s success, he invites others to do the same. 

Ted Thompson won’t hire them if he can avoid it.  He hires adults.  Thompson’s roster is stuffed with former draft picks whose maturity jumps off their college resumes:  team captains; good students; community service volunteers; former walk-ons or unwanted recruits who worked their way up.  (Notice how many Thompson picks sound like veterans in their post-draft media interviews.)  Thompson almost never takes players who have questions about their maturity.  When he’s given the benefit of the doubt to questionable cases like Jerel Worthy and Brandon Underwood, he’s been burned.

That means “no” for Oklahoma’s Joe Mixon, one of the most talented running backs in the draft.  Mixon missed an entire season after punching a woman in 2014, and was suspended a game in 2016 for picking a fight with a parking attendant.  That’s not adult behavior, and it can’t be written off as isolated stupidity.  (Thompson can live with isolated stupidity.  Micah Hyde once got arrested at Iowa for making a drunken ass of himself at bar time.)  Mixon will try his best to convince Thompson and everyone else that they don’t have to worry—that was the old Mixon, he’s now ready to be adult.  But Thompson’s heard that story before, and there are other fish in the sea.

2.Does he have the physical tools to win the matchups he’ll face?

Every player who sees the field will, sooner or later, find himself in a one-on-one athletic contest against an opponent.  Linemen, corners, and receivers confront those challenges on every play.  Aaron Rodgers faces them every time he dodges a pass rusher, or throws a ball farther or faster than a cornerback can run.  Whenever it happens, McCarthy needs his players to win those matchups, or at least not badly lose them.  And a physical disadvantage in those matchups makes them harder to win.

With a couple out-of-character exceptions over the years, Ted Thompson doesn’t waste draft choices on players who are destined to start at an athletic disadvantage.  He can find inferior athletes through the temp agency, which has a wide selection of lumbering linemen (Ricky Jean Francois, Brian Price), slow receivers (Geronimo Allison), slow corners (Ladarius Gunter), small corners (Josh Hawkins), and running backs who don’t scare defensive coordinators (about a half-dozen over the past few years).  There’s no reason to spend a draft choice on one.

Weaker players are a different story.  Thompson spends picks on them, because strength is the one athletic trait a player can meaningfully improve.  Those lankier picks aren’t ready to play until they add that bulk, of course, as Jason Spriggs and Kyler Fackrell showed us last year.  But if they use their full “redshirt” year to pack on the pounds, then Thompson can get players with first-round physical traits at lower-round prices.

3.Will he be “dialed in” to the job?

It happens to all of us from time to time.  Thoughts wander, we let things distract us, and we don’t fully commit our minds to whatever it is we’re supposed to be doing.  It happens to NFL players no differently than it happens to us.  And Ted Thompson can accept that.  But he can’t accept players whose focus drifts while they’re playing football.

Those kinds of players commit penalties, give up touchdowns, and botch onside kick recoveries.  They infuriate co-workers who are dialed in to the task at hand.  (How many death glares have we seen from Rodgers over the years?)  And “not having your head in it,” like being unaccountable, can be a contagious disease. 

Staying 100 percent mentally engaged is always easier when we’re doing something we love.  To find players who will stay mentally engaged in a competitive battle, Thompson looks for people who love to compete.  These are the ones who are energized by competition, who want to prove they can outsmart, outrun, or outmuscle anyone.  It will always be easier for those players to stay focused and put in the work, because they know their opponents will be doing the same.

Thompson built a roster that’s full of players like that.  Most of his picks played multiple sports in high school, seeking to feed their competitive fix in whatever form they could get it.  He drafts offensive linemen who are “nasty” and fight to the whistle on every snap—because a lineman who mentally checks out, even for one play, can cost the team its quarterback.  Even Davante Adams and Damarious Randall, who looked like their heads were on another planet during their respective sophomore funks, received rave reviews for their every-snap competitiveness in college scouting reports.  Adams pulled it back together; we’ll see about Randall.

4.Does he have the mental wiring for the job?

When a busy restaurant hires a new server, it can’t hire just anyone.  It needs someone with a brain that’s wired to keep track of a dozen things at once, all while carrying on chitchat with strangers.  Professors don’t need that kind of wiring.  They can get along fine with brains that do only one task at a time, so long as those brains are equipped for tunneling deep into the lonely caverns of abstract thought.

Ted Thompson needs people with a different kind of processor, one capable of making lightning-fast, accurate decisions while being battered by bloodthirsty, high-speed brutes.  And there can be zero lag time between brain and body, because those brutes have fast processors too—and any delay gives them the upper hand.  Players with superior circuitry can process and respond to the action more quickly than their peers.  The game looks slower to them than it does for others. 

That’s what got Thompson excited about Quinten Rollins, his 2015 second-rounder.  Rollins is a little small and slow for cornerback, and he only played one year of college football.  People who are new to the game normally need an adjustment period before their processors can keep pace with more experienced players.  (We often hear rookies talk about the game “slowing down” for them after a few months.)  But Rollins didn’t start from behind in college.  He processed the action faster than his peers right off the bat, picking off passes and winning his conference’s defensive MVP in his only college season.  And if Rollins had that kind of high-octane processor, scouts reasoned, then he could be a natural ballhawk who does some game-changing damage in the NFL.

Rollins hasn’t worked out so far, but that doesn’t stop Thompson from seeking players who see the game slower than their peers.  His draft classes are always full of defenders with “instincts,” receivers with “ball skills,” backs with “vision,” and other indicators that they have the rare kind of processor needed to keep up in the NFL.

5.Does he add new value to the organization?

Good companies don’t hire people they can’t put to work, and they certainly don’t hire “the best prospect available, regardless of position.”  If a company needs to move inventory, it hires a salesperson, not a third-string plant foreman.  And it won’t pay more for a world-class salesperson if a run-of-the-mill one can do the job.  Unused talent doesn’t add value to company, so there’s no sense in paying for talent you can’t use.

Companies can’t go without insurance coverage, of course.  But they don’t pay for more coverage than they think they’ll need, and neither does Thompson.  He’ll sometimes pony up a late draft pick for a new policy, like he did with sixth-round swing tackle Kyle Murphy last year.  But other than backup quarterbacks—which are high-premium but highly necessary coverage—Thompson can’t afford to pay early-draft prices for Cadillac insurance plans.  There are too many value-adding jobs to be done. 

For that reason, we can be confident that 2016 second-round Jason Spriggs will have a starting job waiting for him at left tackle as soon as he proves he’s ready to play.  He isn’t ready yet—he was a “redshirt” pick who needed at least a year to bulk up.  But once he does, scouting reports say he has the perfect size and athleticism for left tackle, with Pro Bowl potential.  Thompson believes those reports; if he didn’t, he wouldn’t have traded up to take Spriggs in the second round.  And Thompson didn’t draft Spriggs to play the vacant right guard position, where Spriggs’ elite athleticism and length is less valuable.  (If Thompson wanted someone well-suited to guard, he could have taken Cody Whitehair instead.) 

Once the 6’6” Spriggs is ready to go, then the 6’4” David Bakhtiari can finally move to his more natural home at guard.  That’s what he was drafted to be—Bakhtiari’s 2013 scouting reports pegged him as a future guard/backup left tackle, and former first-rounder Brian Bulaga was slated to start at LT that year.  But Bulaga got hurt and Bakhiari kept finding ways to win, despite being shorter than ideal for the position.  That physical disadvantage disappears when the newly bulked-up Bakhtiari moves inside.  Meanwhile, all of the other traits that made him an All-Pro tackle should make him an All-Universe guard.  And don’t worry about Bakhtiari’s feelings in moving to a less “important” position.  He’s paid the same either way, and everyone knows he can still play left tackle—which provides Thompson with a Cadillac insurance policy at no extra charge.

*             *             *

Thompson is a business manager who hires people for jobs.  He drafted Spriggs for the job of “potential 2017 starter on the line.”  He filled other open positions in last year’s draft, as well:  “athletic nose tackle to replace B.J. Raji” (Kenny Clark); “potential 2017 starter/contributor at OLB” (Kyler Fackrell); “ready-to-play inside linebacker” (Blake Martinez); “defensive line rotational depth” (Dean Lowry); “situational deep threat” (Trevor Davis); and “swing tackle insurance” (Kyle Murphy).  We discussed those openings in last year’s version of this series, and tried to identify the best candidates to fill them.  We also discussed others that went unfilled in the draft, like “potential 2017 starting tight end” and “potential 2017 starting running back.”  (There are never enough picks for everything.) 

We’ll do the same thing this year in Parts II and III of this series.  We’ll look at the Packers’ short- and long-term roster outlook through Ted Thompson’s eyes, identifying the positions for which he’s hiring on both offense and defense—and the job candidates who can answer a strong “yes” to all the questions above.

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Fan friendly comments only: off Comments (25) This filter will hide comments which have ratio of 5 to 1 down-vote to up-vote.

egbertsouse's picture

Somehow I just can't conceive of TT, standing on the practice field in his Ma Joad hat with a blank stare and his mouth hanging open, going through this kind of detailed analysis. Maybe Wolf does this job for him.

Jersey Al's picture

Letting that TT hate slip out...

egbertsouse's picture

Don't hate him, he's good but not great. He could use an image consultant though, too many bad photos out there.

dobber's picture

Nice article, Matt. Enjoyed it.

Handsback's picture

Love the analysis of TT's thought process. I also bet that what you put on paper his mind goes through in seconds when he sees a player working out. He can check off the character box pretty quickly by looking at reports and backgrounds, but see the player going through their workouts and realizes the rest. It's called by oldtimers, "he's forgotten more than we will ever know".

Community Guy's picture

thank you Matt.. i enjoyed the topic and look forward to the next post.

livelovepackers's picture

Great insight Matt. It always amazes me that some Packer fans think they are smarter than TT and staff when it comes to the draft, when in fact TT and company have 99% more insight than the average fan such as myself. I think your analysis is spot on as to what the packers are looking for

JohnnyLogan's picture

I beleive TT may in fact go through those evaluations, and he's made some great picks. But I think anyone would even he went strictly by internet scouting reports. You're bound to hit. Has he been head and shoulders above other GM's? Don't think so. I see more talent on other teams, covered up by his one spectacular pick, Rodgers. But as you say there are never enough picks. Not using FA properly, leaving huge holes for years at a time, LB, TE, makes him an incomplete GM. His biggest failing, Dom Capers. A DC with enormous fails, and yet he's a lifer with this team. Unfathomable. TT has been an average GM. No more.

cuervo's picture

Ted Thompson does not hire and fire assistant coaches...that's McCarthy's responsibility. Your impression of his biggest failing isn't even in his job description.

That said, his drafts from the last 5 or 6 years have been terrible when compared to his drafts early on.

Since '61's picture

I think that this article makes numerous assumptions about TT's or anyone's thought process when it comes to hiring personnel or selecting players. Based on my own experience with hiring personnel I use a consistent process but it is very flexible based on what I learn about the candidate as we go through the process. I have often found people who would be a better fit in another position than the position they have actually applied for. The Packers most likely have a profile for every position on the team. The profile probably includes the physical and character traits they would most prefer as applicable to each position. Then they prioritize and rank the players based on how close they come to the profile and consider need for the team and overall value to the team. This is all combined with scouting reports and observations during the combine and pro-days and the Packers create their board. This is obviously an overly simplistic evaluation of what takes place but I would expect that the Packers process is very flexible to accommodate the fact that player availability is a very random factor during the draft and the Packers need to constantly adjust their board and player rankings based on who is still available. At that point I think it's difficult to make assumptions about what TT is thinking about, especially with the time factor during each round. In the end it's all about the on field results and I think we can conclude that TT has done a good job overall with his drafts over the years but he has made some poor picks and he has had some very poor draft classes. It's a crap shoot and the Packers have fared better than most teams but realistically if we take away Aaron Rodgers where would we have been over these last 10 seasons? Thanks, Since '61

Spock's picture

Good article, Matt. The only thing I would question is the concept of moving Bakhtiari to guard. Bakh has proven to be a very good left tackle. Spriggs was drafted before Bakhtiari had signed his extension. Not saying Bakh wouldn't be moved eventually, but I guess that we'll see more on this in training camp. Right now I see Spriggs as the backup swing tackle (vs. Barclay!!!) for this year. You never know where the injury bug will hit (sigh) so if he is ready sooner that is great insurance!

stockholder's picture

Every draft we make TT God. And at the end of the year we Bitch. In Ted I don't Trust. Ted is just Lucky. His words are not written on anything that says he's great. He's been around Football long enough to know how to cover his ass. Thats what he sees. Cover your butt first. He wins more than loses because of A-Rod. Not because he's some swami or guru. He's a copy cat, and not a trend setter. Just stop kissing his ass. And you'll see the packers can be just as good with the next man. In fact I don't think his shoes will be hard to fill at all. The organization filled Wolfs. Some people have had their fill of Ted. TT has become a thing. His middle finger gets in the way of your Article. The eyes only see what they want to see.

Turophile's picture

When people want to make a point they tend to the extreme, as you do in your post. If Ted was just lucky he wouldn't have lasted more than a decade, no matter which single player he drafted.

"We" don't make Ted God. He's just a man who gets some stuff right and some stuff wrong. He gets paid big bucks because he is successful at what he does, relative to all the other drafters. Emotive words like 'lucky' are pretty stupid, when applied to a guy who has been Packers GM from 2005 to 2017.

As for being a copy cat, I don't agree with that either, because if that were true he wouldn't be at the extreme end of draft and develop philosophy. You can't have it both ways.

You don't like him, I do get that, but don't try to pretend we all think he is god, it's just that after all this time some of us have more trust in him than you, and that isn't extreme.

stockholder's picture

Turo, TT fired Sherman after a bad year. Mind you after a bad year . He's lived to long on the 2010 accomplishments. He's had Favre and Rodgers. He's become a master at the blame game. We should hold TT to the same high standards; he held sherman too. Sherman didn't get it done ,and the same thing is happening with TT. I call TT lucky. And the stupidity is the people over him, not holding him to the same standards. The copy cat is the 3-4-4 defense. Just Unbelievable when I watch articles of praise. Not liking him has nothing to do with this. Never met him. It's about praise for what? (2010?) Wins and losses Turo. Thats the judgement.. The point is since 2010, TT is not getting it Done. The same things sherman was fired for.

vj_ostrowski's picture

Sherman was fired for a 4-12 season and the fact that a GM always wants to hire their own guy. There have been stories (Wilde & Demo have corroborated) that Sherman couldn't work with TT either.

But yeah, 7 or 8 straight trips to the playoffs is exactly the same.

dobber's picture

Sherman just got demoted from being GM. Why would he want to be there?

stockholder's picture

He had experience. He didn't have the people around him that TT has now. Sherman was doing it all. And that was the mistake. Look at what MM and TT do now. A very unfair comparison. He also had to deal with Brett Favre and other problems that were firsts. Just No job appreciation. TT just puts his face out there, and you and others lick it up like a puppy.

dobber's picture

Sherman never had any experience as a GM. He was in way over his head in scouting and personnel management.

"He didn't have the people around him that TT has now"

As GM, he had control of who was around him, just as TT does now. If he surrounded himself with poor advisers, that's on him. There's nothing unfair in that comparison.

croatpackfan's picture

Luck is the residue of the design!

dobber's picture

Uh Oh...the draft prospects at CB get thinner...and thinner...

profootballrumors.com/2017/04/gareon-conley-accused-rape

JohnnyLogan's picture

TT's drafts have not been special. We're having trouble at CB now. He drafted Randall and Rollins, both of whom were actually pegged as safeties and we're surprised they're having problems. He had so much faith in them he let Heyward go. He drafts slow LB's and the middle of the field against us is a a free zone. His D line picks are average or below. And to the person it's not his job to fire Dom, no, but he's the GM. He could tell McCarthy to fire him or he could leave. You're in charge of more than just drafting when you're the GM. He's been mediocre at best, awful when it comes to defense.

PatrickGB's picture

Good article, fresh look at TT. I like it. TT does pretty good at the end of rounds. Also, our team has a lot of money tied up in a handful of players and gives him less flexability in FA so I think he has often had to try to do more with less and I give him a pass on many decisions. Not all decisions, but many decisions he has to make he does ok. I give him a B- .

sonomaca's picture

Good piece. However, sometimes you can't find the perfect prospect. The Packers have lots of high quality guys, but not many speedy ones.

The situation with Gareon Conley will be interesting. If he starts to fall, what does Ted do?

dobber's picture

Conley could be La'el Collins all over again.

Who's going to pick a guy with rape allegations looming over him? Not only is it the legal matter itself, but the PR bomb waiting to go off over his character. Admittedly, he hasn't been charged, but neither was Collins. Collins wasn't even, supposedly, a suspect in his legal mess.

In the end, with injuries to Jones and Moreau, and with Conley in this mess, the talent at the top at CB in this draft isn't what it once was.

sonomaca's picture

Top prospects dropping like flies. Probably other bad apples we don't know about.

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