Over the next three days, all kinds of utterly unexpected things will happen during the NFL Draft.
And when they do, in the Green Bay Packers’ draft room at Lambeau Field, it’ll be up to general manager Ted Thompson to respond accordingly – and respond better than his friend and mentor, retired Packers GM Ron Wolf, did during the 1996 draft, when University of Miami linebacker Ray Lewis slipped through their fingers.
“We were talking to him on the phone,” Thompson, who was Wolf’s right-hand personnel man at the time, recalled wistfully last week.
Indeed, they were. Picking 27th after reaching the NFC Championship Game the year before, the Packers were sure they’d be selecting Lewis.
Then the Baltimore Ravens went and ruined everything by taking him 26th. And then …
“We got caught with our pants down, really,” Wolf confessed. "Quite frankly, we weren't ready at that point. We were so busy congratulating ourselves on getting Lewis, and then we didn't get Lewis.
“That's who we thought we were going to get. Then, I remember we 'jumped the board,’ and that was my fault. The board told us to take (Texas defensive end) Tony Brackens and we didn't, we took (Southern California left tackle) John Michels.”
Lewis, of course, went on to a 17-year career with the Ravens, winning two Super Bowls making 13 Pro Bowls and 10 All-Pro teams. Brackens, who ended up going 33rd overall to Jacksonville, went to the Pro Bowl in his fourth season and played eight years in the NFL, playing in 107 career games and recording 55 sacks.
And Michels? He started nine games for the Super Bowl XXXI-champion Packers – although he was benched in favor of journeyman Bruce Wilkerson for the team’s playoff run – and was traded before the 1999 season. He never played another regular-season snap and was out of the league after just 24 games.
The lesson: Be prepared if your guy is gone, and don't compound the problem by straying from what the board tells you to do.
“If you believe in what you do to prepare yourself for the draft, then that board should tell you whom to pick when your time comes up,” Wolf explained. “But invariably, when you jump it and don't do what the board tells you to do – it sounds like there's voodoo in here or something – but that's when you get in trouble. And that's a perfect example.”
Now, 18 years later, Thompson enters his 10th draft calling the shots in Green Bay with plenty of needs.
The team’s safety play has been somewhere between unacceptable and atrocious since three-time Pro Bowler Nick Collins’ career ended prematurely with a neck injury, so Alabama’s Ha Ha Clinton-Dix or Louisville’s Calvin Pryor make sense. Tight end Jermichael Finley’s future remains cloudy because of his own career-threatening neck injury, so if top-rated tight end Eric Ebron falls, or second-tier tight ends Jace Amaro or Austin Sefarian-Jenkins is deemed worthy of the 21st pick, Thompson could go that way. After multiple years of uneven play at inside linebacker, Alabama’s C.J. Mosley or Ohio State’s Ryan Shazier would be good fits. And if the best player available on the board is an offensive tackle or a cornerback, well, even though those positions don’t appear to be immediate needs, both positions will be in flux after the 2014 season.
And there’s always the possibility that any and all of the guys Thompson really likes will come off the board before he goes on the clock.
“I try to stay open to the possibility of anything happening. And you go through the ideal circumstances, and you go through the more less-than-ideal circumstances, and you come to grips with it. And there you are,” Thompson said. “Ron was marvelous with this in terms of projecting leadership. I think you have to understand the chair you sit in. In terms of my chair, I’m the leader in there. I have to project a certain confidence and a certain understanding and a certain amount of wisdom to try to do the right thing and I pray every day that I have that wisdom.”
Of Thompson’s first-round picks – California quarterback Aaron Rodgers (2005), Ohio State linebacker A.J. Hawk (2006), Tennessee defensive tackle Justin Harrell (2007), Boston College nose tackle B.J. Raji (2009), USC linebacker Clay Matthews (2009), Iowa tackle Bryan Bulaga (2010), Mississippi State tackle Derek Sherrod (2011), USC outside linebacker Nick Perry (2012) and UCLA defensive end Datone Jones (2013) – only the oft-injured Harrell is no longer with the team.
But while Rodgers’ career arc has him on the same Pro Football Hall of Fame path that his predecessor, Brett Favre, followed, and Matthews has been a field-tilting pass-rusher when healthy, his other selections have been a mixed bag. Picking at No. 21, Thompson knows he’ll have some talented players to choose from, and it’s incumbent upon him to pick the right one.
“From a draft standpoint, you just do the best you can. If you’re picking at 32 [after winning the Super Bowl] – bless my heart, I wish we were – you’re still picking. You’re still trying to find guys who are going to help your team not only now but certainly in the future. If you keep your eye on the ball, there’s players to be had.
“There’s always college free agents that make teams and wind up being good players. [even though] nobody drafts those guys. And there’s always the fifth-, sixth- and seventh-round guys that wind up contributing. So keep your eye on the ball, take good players, make sure they’re good people in the locker room and you give yourself a chance. It doesn’t always work out.”
After winning Super Bowl XLV with a strong draft class – of the seven players taken in the 2010 class, only tackle Marshall Newhouse and defensive end C.J. Wilson are no longer with the team, having departed as unrestricted free agents this spring – Thompson’s last three classes have been hit-or-miss.
Of the 10 players he drafted in 2011, Sherrod, wide receiver Randall Cobb (second round), cornerback Davon House (fourth round) and tight end Ryan Taylor (seventh round) remain. From that class, only Cobb has been an impact player, with Sherrod’s 2011 leg injury sidelining him for nearly two years.
In 2012, Thompson used his first six picks on defensive players, and the jury is still out on the four that remain after sixth-round pick Terrell Manning was cut at the end of camp last year and fourth-round pick Jerron McMillian was cut at midseason. First-round pick Nick Perry, second-round pick Jerel Worthy and second-round pick Casey Hayward have all had at least one of their two seasons end on injured reserve, while only fourth-round defensive lineman Mike Daniels has consistently improved and produced.
The 2013 class saw second-round running back Eddie Lacy earn NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year honors, fourth-round pick David Bakhtiari save the season by stepping in at left tackle after Bulaga’s season-ending knee injury in camp, and fifth-round cornerback Micah Hyde contribute in sub defensive packages and as a returner. First-round pick Datone Jones will be counted on to make a big jump on the defensive line in Year 2, while fourth-round pick JC Tretter is the odds-on favorite to start at center despite not playing a snap as a rookie last year because of an offseason ankle injury.
True to form, if there are players Thompson likes more than others in this draft, he has kept it quiet. While rumors fly in the weeks leading up to every draft with talk of teams being interested in various players or looking to trade up or down, there hasn’t been a peep about the Packers’ plans – just as Thompson likes it.
“I know for a fact that they don’t have any inside information because for the most part, sometimes I’m the only inside information. And I’m not telling anybody,” Thompson said. “[But] if you end up sitting in the draft room and you decide to pick a guy because you think you’re going to get a loud ovation from the fans, that’s poor thinking in my judgment. Not that the fans can’t be right, but you have to pick it because it’s a football decision, it’s an organizational decision and a long-term decision.”
Entering Thursday night, Thompson is slated to have nine such decisions to make, including four in the first 98 selections on the first two nights of the draft. Through nine drafts as the Packers’ GM, Thompson has made 30 draft-day trades – and 24, including 13 of his first 14 deals and all four of his trades last year, have been backward to accumulate more selections, so don’t be surprised if the draft class ends up being larger than nine.