There was a time, Ted Thompson will confess, when he thought he had the NFL Draft thing figured out. Then Aaron Rodgers fell into his lap.
And so, as Thompson and his personnel staff prepped for the 2013 NFL Draft – beginning Thursday night with the first round, followed by the second and third rounds on Friday night and the fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh rounds on Saturday – the Green Bay Packers general manager freely admitted that while he'd like to say he knows who'll be available when his team goes on the clock at No. 26, he wouldn't be telling the truth.
"I don't know that yet. And I'm not going to know that," Thompson said. "Probably when I first came back here in 2005, I was a little cockier that. ‘Yeah, I know what's going to happen' and all that. But as you get older, you start to lose that edge a little bit. Or you fool yourself into so much that you realize you're making mistakes and you didn't know. So I try not to predict. I try to just make sure that these guys on our board are in a position to pick."
Eight years ago, on his first draft as Packers GM in 2005, Thompson didn't think Rodgers would still be on the board when the Packers picked at No. 24. He and his staff had done their due diligence on him – even though the University of California quarterback had been in the conversation to be the No. 1 overall pick that year – and even used one of their allotted 15-minute interviews at the annual NFL Scouting Combine
"I think we both thought on either side that there wasn't a good chance that I would slide down to 24," Rodgers recalled of the Combine interview. "But at the same time I remember telling them ‘Trade up. I'd love to play for you guys.' And they were saying, ‘Well, you probably won't be available when we want to get you.' But like I said, some things are meant to be."
After picking Rodgers, Thompson said he had started hearing rumblings a few days earlier that Rodgers might fall – "A couple of, I don't know, websites or ESPN's or something that said maybe he might get there, so I went back and did a little more work (on him) just to make sure," Thompson said – and certainly that scenario could unfold again Thursday night with another player.
But just as he did with Rodgers, Thompson will base his decision largely on game tape – and not the workout numbers from players' pro days or NFL Scouting Combine performances. In two years at Cal, Rodgers went 17-5 as a starter and threw for 5,469 yards and 43 touchdowns, completing 66.1 percent of his passes and setting a Pac-10 record with a 1.95 career interception percentage (13 interceptions in 665 attempts).
While Thompson said there's value to the workouts, the film usually has the final say. In fact, Thompson said that more often than not, the changes he and the personnel staff make to the draft board after the Combine and pro days are undone when the staff goes back to the film room.
"We have our meetings prior to the Combine and we kind of set the board initially. (Then) we come back from the combine and we move guys all around. (Then) we go to the pro days, we move guys all around again." Thompson explained. "We come back in, and we wind up moving guys back to where they were when we first watched film in January. It doesn't happen in all cases, but it's shocking how many times it works out like that.
"At the end of the day, our mantra is to ‘Know what we know.' If we don't know something, admit we don't know it, and there's going to be this gap of information that we don't know about this player. But what we do know, that's what we're going to trade on."
While Thompson's draft-and-develop philosophy demands that he hit on a high percentage of his picks, he certainly hasn't been infallible. The early returns haven't been positive on injured 2011 first-round pick Derek Sherrod, injury-prone 2007 first-round pick Justin Harrell was a disaster and 2008 second-round pick Brian Brohm was a wasted selection. But many of his high picks have panned out, and in eight drafts, Thompson has taken seven Pro Bowl players: Rodgers, safety Nick Collins, inside linebacker A.J. Hawk, wide receiver Greg Jennings, guard Josh Sitton, outside linebacker Clay Matthews and defensive tackle B.J. Raji. Those seven players have been selected to a combined 15 Pro Bowls.
At 26, Thompson should have some interesting options if he chooses to make the selection, from a host of safeties (only Texas' Kenny Vaccaro appears to be a lock to be gone), to a handful of defensive linemen (UCLA's Datone Jones, North Carolina's Sylvester Williams and Florida State's Tank Carradine could all be there), to Alabama running back Eddie Lacy (despite Thompson historically avoiding running backs in the first round). Then again, there could be a team looking to move up and draft a falling quarterback, which could prompt a move backward.
"It's the risk-reward ratio that you work with at any time during the draft. Do we take this guy here or do we take a chance on him being there a little bit later? Do you take this guy now that's really talented but maybe a knucklehead? You're weighing that risk-reward," Thompson said. "It's all a matter of that and you don't know how it's going to work."
Adding to the uncertainty is that this draft appears to have a large group of relatively equal players from the mid-to-late first round to the early second round. Minnesota Vikings general manager Rick Spielman said in his team's draft meetings, their selections at Nos. 23 and 25 have varied from mock draft to mock draft.
"It was kind of like putting a Rubik's cube together. I can literally say, there were two to three, sometimes four, players that we've hammered through," Spielman said. "The phone has been -- whether you believe me or not -- but I'm telling you, it's been the most active it's been in a while, because of where we're picking. And I don't know the reason why, but there are a lot of teams that potentially are jockeying from the top of that second round. There are some teams jockeying potentially in the bottom of the first round to come up to one of our picks at 23 or 25, and that's something we're going to be very open to."
Thompson could be open to such a deal, too, but he was quick to caution that the first-round pick, despite getting most of the attention, is only one selection.
"When you're picking as late as we are … everybody focuses on the first round. You guys know I'm just as keen on all the other rounds," Thompson said. "But you don't know how it's going to go. So you don't want to gnash your teeth over that first pick too much. You just do what you do."
PACKERS 2013 NFL DRAFT SELECTIONS
First round; No. 26
Second round: No. 55
Third round: No. 88
Fourth round: No. 122
Fifth round: No. 159
Fifth round: No. 167*
Sixth round: No. 193
Seventh round: No. 232
* - No. 167 is the compensatory pick the Packers were awarded at the NFL Meetings earlier this week following last year's free agency period (losing C Scott Wells and backup QB Matt Flynn while signing C Jeff Saturday). Per NFL rules, that pick cannot be traded.
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