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Seeing the 2017 Draft Through Ted Thompson’s Eyes, Part II: Offense

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Seeing the 2017 Draft Through Ted Thompson’s Eyes, Part II: Offense

Welcome back for Part II of this season’s “Seeing the Draft Through Ted Thompson’s Eyes.”  In Part I, we identified the five factors that matter most when Thompson is deciding how to use his limited draft choices, roster spots, and salary cap space.  We did it by remembering that the Packers are a company in the business of winning football games, and Thompson selects his 53-man workforce the same way any good business manager would.

Today, we look at Thompson’s current job postings for the Packers’ offense, then pull a few leading contenders from the stack of online resumes of this year’s draft prospects.  Tomorrow, in Part III, we’ll do the same thing for the defense.

QUARTERBACKS

The waiting begins. Maybe Aaron Rodgers beats Father Time, but Father Thompson can’t plan on it.  From here on out, Thompson knows his primary duty is the same as when he first arrived:  make darned sure the roster always includes a conceivable heir apparent to the aging franchise QB.

For the time being, that man is Brett Hundley.  He was hurt in last year’s training camp, so it’s hard for us to judge.  But he can make the kinds of plays that NFL starters do, and he outplayed everyone else in his rookie class in the 2015 preseason.  That probably qualifies him as “conceivable.”

Hundley’s signed for another two years, so there’s no need to go hunting for Rodgers’ next apprentice yet.  That’s a good thing, because Thompson won’t find a suitable one still hanging around in the later rounds, as Hundley was.  In a normal year, someone like Tennessee’s Joshua Dobbs would be an alluring fixer-upper.  He’s athletic, with a good arm and a good brain—the guy majored in rocket science, for crying out loud—and everyone loves his leadership.  But his passing mechanics are a complete teardown project, meaning Thompson and McCarthy won’t know if he’s “conceivable” for a while.  In the meantime, Dobbs dropkicks undrafted sparkplug Joe Callahan off the roster—and Thompson thought enough of Callahan to burn a roster spot on him as a third QB.

Thompson will occasionally buy lottery tickets like Dobbs when the cost is only a late-round pick—the equivalent of a decent depth player like swing tackle Kyle Murphy, last year’s sixth rounder.  He bought one in 2012, with B.J. Coleman, and 2006, with Ingle Martin.  (As we said, they’re lottery tickets.)  But in this year’s thin draft class, Dobbs will cost a mid-rounder, and mid-round players are contributors.  Last year’s fourth rounders, Blake Martinez and Dean Lowry, both saw meaningful action as rookies, and they’re borderline starters this year.  To a good business manager like Thompson, buying lottery tickets at inflationary prices isn’t a good use of company resources, especially with Hundley in the fold.  He can wait until 2018 to find the next apprentice.

RUNNING BACKS

For two years, Thompson watched the Packers’ offense run short on weapons when it mattered most.   This March, he decided he’s done pussyfooting around.  Thompson bought McCarthy some heavy artillery in Martellus Bennett and Lance Kendricks, and that type of firepower can put defensive coordinators between a rock and a hard place in double tight end sets.  McCarthy just needs the right kinds of backs to take advantage.

He already has one.  Ty Montgomery is perfect for two-TE sets, slashing through the big holes created by extra blockers and spitting out five- and 10-yard gains.  His receiving skills come in handy for playing games of “find the mismatch,” too.  But he’s injury prone, so he needs a backup who can do those same two things.  There’s no need to splurge on an early-round deluxe like Christian McCaffrey or Alvin Kamara.  Montgomery’s bigger and he picked up six yards a carry last year without even knowing the position. 

But if Rodgers could ask Santa Thompson for just one more toy, it would be a rarer kind of running back.  There are only two of them in this draft.  One is far out of reach:  LSU’s Leonard Fournette will be taken in the early first round.  But the other will last a little bit longer.

D’ONTA FOREMAN, Texas.  Foreman’s about the size of Eddie Lacy at his Alabama best, but they don’t have much else in common.  Lacy ran like a wild boar.  Foreman was small when he arrived in college, and still runs like he’s the hunted, not the hunter.  But Foreman put on 40 pounds at Texas—the good kind, not the Lacy kind—without losing his small-back speed.  That makes him too big for a pesky pass coverage gnat to handle by himself, and too fast to be swarmed by them. 

And that puts defensive coordinators in a pickle.   Every time they swap out a smaller defender who can cover for a steadier tackler who can’t, Rodgers eyes his next meal in coverage.  Switch out pass-rushing hyenas for run-plugging hippos, and Rodgers will just patiently stalk the savanna—waiting for the weakest of the cornerback herd to wander from his man.  Foreman’s size and speed alone mean fewer gnats buzzing around Rodgers’ favorite targets, and slower pass rushers to dodge.  (“And that’s an investment in my health and happiness!” pleads Rodgers.) 

Thompson knows that Rodgers doesn’t really need Foreman.  He’ll have fun with his new passing-game toys even if the playroom is crowded.  But he also knows that if he misses out on Foreman, that’s it—there are no other backs after him with the size and speed to clear things out for Rodgers.  Foreman will probably cost a second-rounder, and maybe a trade-up to keep him away from the Lions at pick 53.  But Thompson doesn’t believe a second-round pick is too high a price for the right back.  He’s paid it before, for Lacy and Brandon Jackson.

As for the more low-key role of Montgomery’s all-purpose backup, there’s a bigger selection in stock:

AARON JONES, Texas-El Paso.  Jones is a little small, but he can do two of the three things McCarthy needs him to do:  catch the ball out of the backfield, and squirt through open holes for six yards before the defense knows what hit ‘em.  (The third, pass blocking, will be a work in progress.)  Jones was UTEP’s entire offense last year, so he can handle a playbook, and he’s a worker who fought back from injury early in his career.  Jones will last until late because of his size, injury history, and a 2015 DUI.  As he did with Micah Hyde (see Part I), Thompson will need to satisfy himself that it was isolated stupidity and not an indicator of bigger problems.

OTHER OPTIONS:  If Montgomery’s position-switching epiphany puts Thompson in a pluckier mood, he could roll the dice on Houston’s Brandon Wilson, one of the best athletes in the draft.  Wilson only played running back on special occasions in college—he was a full-time cornerback for the Cougars—but scouts liked what they saw.  They don’t seem to like him as much at corner, but CB coach Joe Whitt could check him out if the conversion doesn’t stick.  Lord knows Whitt could sure use a few people with Wilson’s wheels.

But if Thompson doesn’t land Foreman, then we can throw out Wilson and Jones.  They’re too light for full-time work, and without Foreman, Thompson needs someone who can carry the load if Montgomery goes down.  In that case, Mountain West rivals Jeremy McNichols of Boise State and Brian Hill of Wyoming are good athletes who can do everything Jones can do, but they’re heavier and have cleaner medical histories.  That means they’ll cost more than Jones, likely a mid-round pick.

WIDE RECEIVERS

Phew.  Jordy came back, and he looked pretty good.  The scent of more winnable matchups roused Davante Adams and Randall Cobb from their 2015 nightmares.  Slowly but surely, the passing offense started to act like itself again.  But the annual tidal wave of injuries came roaring through again, and by playoff time McCarthy was left with a brave but ragged crew.

Thompson sent him a couple skilled sailors in Bennett and Kendricks.  Their pass-catching powers should help wean the offense off its unhealthy dependence on the starting receivers.  They can both line up in the slot, and so can Randall Cobb (and most of the crew).

It’s a different story at outside receiver, where the big, feisty press cornerbacks lurk.  Nelson knows how to escape their clutches, and Adams finally learned last year.  After that, it’s slim pickings.  Cobb’s always been too small to make it out clean.  Geronimo Allison’s big enough to escape, but too slow to outrun the hounds on his tail.  Designated burner Trevor Davis can spook a defense into shifting a safety his way, but he’s almost 30 pounds lighter than the starters.  Until he gets bigger or picks up some niftier dance moves against press corners, he’s just a decoy.

Thompson needs another outside receiver who’s actually suited for the role:  strong enough to escape the sentinels, fast enough to make a clean getaway, and big enough to throw a block.  He doesn’t need any of the luxury models who’ll go in the first 80 picks.  The Packers have no starting vacancies for a while, unless Thompson’s ready to give up on re-signing Adams next year.  Thompson just needs someone who can provide more dangerous depth than Allison come playoff time—when fresh legs are likely to be needed. 

This isn’t the roster’s most pressing need, but the draft has candidates to fill it.  And two of them are right next door:

AMARA DARBOH and JEHU CHESSON, Michigan.  Darboh and Chesson are nothing fancy.  They don’t break anyone’s ankles with sharp, sudden cuts.  They’ll have some drops.  And they aren’t going to take any slants for 80 yards.  But they’re big targets with good speed who’ve already learned the basics of playing NFL receiver for an NFL coach.  The buzzing of coverage gnats doesn’t bother them.  They seem to prefer catching passes in rush-hour traffic, and that’s all the receivers have seen lately in Green Bay.  Darboh can block, and Chesson will scrap.  Both can get better, too, if they spend more quality time with the JUGS machine.  The stronger Darboh is the more highly rated of the two.  The more slithery Chesson will be available later on.

CHAD HANSEN, California.  We’ve heard this story before.  Undersized California kid is spurned by major-college programs, has a late growth spurt, toils hard at a small school, and transfers to Cal—where he blossoms, and still talks about the coaches who turned him down along the way. 

No, Hansen will not be the Aaron Rodgers of receivers.  He’s 15 pounds lighter than Nelson and Adams, and beating press coverage will always be harder for him than it is for them.  But Hansen has some of their other traits:  he’s tough, he’s pretty fast, and he can pad Rodgers’ stats with yards on WR screens.  Hansen only started for one year in college and didn’t play for Jim Harbaugh, so he’ll need some time.  But he might be ready for full-service duty when the Injury Grinch makes his annual November visit.

OTHER OPTIONS:  Penn State’s Chris Godwin is made for the Rodgers scramble drill.  He’s savvy, he makes acrobatic catches in tight quarters, and he bails out quarterbacks by snagging off-target passes.  His polish has a price, and Godwin’s probably gone by the time Thompson’s ready to think about a backup receiver.  But if he tumbles into the middle rounds, Rodgers will be tugging at Thompson’s sleeve.

In the latter half of the draft, Thompson’s always had a weakness for WR scratch-offs.  None of them has paid out, and Jeff Janis is the only one he didn’t crumple up and toss out within a year or two.  But if Thompson has an extra pick to spare, this draft offers some blank canvases for eager young WR coach Luke Getsy to show what he can do. 

North Carolina’s Mack Hollins was a walk-on with Jordy Nelson’s size and early-career speed.  He won’t be drafted early, because the only pattern he’s so far mastered is “go long.”  But he was North Carolina’s special teams captain for three years, so he can make himself useful while he learns how to play.  Marian (Indiana) College’s Krishawn Hogan has Jordy size without Jordy speed; Hogan’s more the pace of Davante Adams.  But Hogan treated lower-level competition the way an NFL prospect should, scoring 56 touchdowns the last two years. 

TIGHT ENDS

Aaron Rodgers is not chatty, at least when talking to the media.  But since the early days of Jermichael Finley, he’s made one exception:  he’s always willing to talk someone’s ear off about the value of mismatch-weapon tight ends.  Thompson got the hint.  The power-forward sized Bennett is signed for three years and the sleeker Kendricks for two, while the ever-ordinary Richard Rodgers has a year left on his rookie deal. 

Unless disaster strikes, no rookie is going to see a snap this year at tight end, and there are no open starting positions on the horizon for at least two years.  There’s no need to draft anyone who profiles as a near-term starter, and Thompson won’t spend a pick on a TE who profiles as a career backup.  He finds those players in undrafted free agency, where they are free and plentiful.  Draft picks are for players with traits Thompson can’t find among the undrafted masses.

Washington’s Darrell Daniels has them.  He’s about the same size and speed as Kendricks in his Madison days, before he added NFL bulk.  Daniels didn’t catch many passes in college, and he isn’t the overall athlete that Kendricks is.  But he has longer arms more useful for blocking, and if all goes well he could be ready to assume Kendricks’ role after a two-year apprenticeship.  If Thompson prefers an apprentice for Richard Rodgers instead, then French Canadian Antony Auclair has similar tools.  He’s a slow but smooth athlete, just like Rodgers, but he’s bigger and he likes to knock people around.  Thompson probably won’t consider a TE project until the sixth or seventh round, where Auclair and Daniels are expected to go.

OFFENSIVE LINE

We’ll soon find out how much confidence Thompson has in 2016 second-round left tackle Jason Spriggs.  As we noted in Part I of this series, Spriggs wasn’t drafted for insurance; he’s destined for a starting role as soon as he’s strong enough to play.  If Spriggs comes to camp 15 pounds stronger and ready for duty, then the Packers will have five starting-caliber linemen on the roster:  Spriggs; right tackle Brian Bulaga; center Corey Linsley; left guard Lane Taylor; and David Bakhtiari, an All-Pro left tackle with the traits and newfound bulk to be a Hall of Fame guard.

But Thompson doesn’t know for sure that Spriggs will be ready to go, and he has depth problems along the line as it is.  Tackle isn’t the problem:  Kyle Murphy and Don Barclay can help out there.  But the interior line is a skeleton crew.  Linsley and Taylor are free agents after the season, and there’s no proven depth behind them if one goes down.  Steady but unspectacular interior linemen are normally pretty cheap parts to acquire.  Thompson doesn’t want his new, expensive offensive machine to break down because he neglected to pick up a couple 10-cent screws.

Unfortunately, there’s a shortage of those kinds of parts this year—at least ones with the traits needed for the Packers offense.  Pass blocking for Aaron Rodgers is not a job for stiffs.  Pockets form, move, disintegrate, and re-form throughout the Rodgers Extended Scramble Show, and the offense needs linemen with the smarts, mobility, and tenacity to keep up.  He can get a deluxe model like Western Kentucky’s Forrest Lamp, Western Michigan’s Taylor Moton, Indiana’s Dan Feeney, or LSU’s Ethan Pocic, but they offer more horsepower (at a higher price) than Thompson really needs.  He just needs an interior lineman or two who is ready to play from day one, with the strength and feet to keep Rodgers reasonably safe and McCarthy’s new Death Star offense fully operational. 

So who would fill the Packers’ needs at a price Thompson can stomach?  There are fewer candidates than usual, but they’re out there:

CHASE ROULLIER, Wyoming.  Roullier is Lane Taylor, if Lane Taylor also played center.  They aren’t ballerinas, and they’ll never find themselves in the middle of a free-agency bidding war.  But they’re both big enough not to get pushed around, smart enough not to be fooled, and tenacious enough to stick with their man come hell or high water.  Thompson would rather have a lineman with those qualities plus great athleticism, like T.J. Lang does, but he won’t find any after the second round who’s ready to play immediately.  Roullier is.  He was a team captain and starter for three years at guard and center, which also makes him a candidate to replace Linsley if he doesn’t re-sign. 

Thompson put his reputation (and Rodgers’ life and limb) in Taylor’s hands last fall, after throwing Josh Sitton overboard.  This year, if he’s going to put Rodgers’ safety in the hands of a mid-round rookie, he’ll be looking for someone cut from the same dependable denim.  No prospect fits that description better than Roullier.

OTHER OPTIONS:  Miami’s Danny Isidora is prettier on the dance floor than Roullier, and for a 6’3”, 303-pound guard, he can move:  he was one of the five fastest linemen at the scouting combine.  He also spent the last three years playing right guard, so he’ll feel right at home competing for that vacant job in training camp.  He won’t win it, though, until he figures out how to handle powerful bull rushers.  Reports say it may be as simple as adjusting his stance.  If OL coach James Campen thinks it’s a quick fix, then Isidora has everything else he needs to keep Rodgers clean.  Tennessee-Chattanooga’s Corey Levin comes with the usual small-school doubts, but they won’t keep Thompson up at night.  He’s drafted linemen from Cornell (J.C. Tretter), Eastern Michigan (T.J. Lang), Central Florida (Josh Sitton), and Missouri Southern State (Allen Barbre).  Levin’s not as highly regarded as they were, but he meets the specs for an NFL guard in a passing offense.  Like Isidora, he’ll have to spend some quality time with Campen in training camp.

Once Thompson douses the flames along the interior line, he might be ready to start some long-term rebuilding in the later rounds.  Michigan’s Ben Braden is a brawler who’s big (6’6”, 329) and tests like a great athlete, though he doesn’t move like it.  If Campen can lock him in the yoga studio this season, then Braden could become an upgrade over Taylor after his contract expires.  Texas Christian’s Aviante Collins moves like a tight end, but needs a year or two of eating and lifting before he’s ready to see the field.  That’s OK by Thompson, at least when he can afford to wait.  Scouts said the same thing last year about Spriggs.  Collins is about the same size as Bakhtiari when he came out of college (6’4”, just under 300 pounds), before Bakhtiari bulked up in the pros.  He’s nasty like Bakhtiari, too.

Come back tomorrow for Part III of “Seeing the Draft Through Ted Thompson’s Eyes.”  We’ll review the job openings on defense, and the leading candidates to fill them.

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Fan friendly comments only: off Comments (8) This filter will hide comments which have ratio of 5 to 1 down-vote to up-vote.

livelovepackers's picture

Thank You

Handsback's picture

Grambling and Georgia Southern have wideouts that fit the Thompson mode. Will be fun to see who he picks.

Matt Lynch's picture

Thanks for reading, Handsback. I liked Georgia State's Robert Davis, too - saw him make a great back-shoulder catch last fall at Camp Randall, and I had him on this list originally. But I read a report on PFF that he quit on routes when he wasn't expecting the ball, and that's something that seems to bug the Packers more than other teams. (Not the competitive nature they usually want to see.) Teams with "preacher" coaches like Pete Carroll and Ron Rivera are often better fits for guys who need a kick in the pants than teams with "process" coaches like McCarthy.

Dobber and LiveLove, many thanks for the encouragement.

Lphill's picture

I think Ted has a wish list for offense and defense , when it comes to pick 29 I think he goes with the highest rated player available so I would not be surprised if he takes a receiver with the first pick if someone is still available from his wish list. We will find out soon enough .

dobber's picture

Looking forward to tomorrow's post...and the draft, of course!

Turophile's picture

Lots of information. Opinions rather than waffle. Not afraid to name names, rather than generalise.

Good piece all round, Matt

(PS you don't have an ear in the 49ers camp, do you ? No.......maybe not a relation to THAT Lynch)

gr7070's picture

Matt has already written 5 of the best articles ever published on Cheesehead TV. Looking forward to #6.

Amazing stuff.

NitschkeFan's picture

Great article. Well done!

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