The Green Bay Packers didn’t need no stinkin’ Badgers.
Or so Ted Thompson’s reputation had been before Saturday’s final day of the 2014 NFL Draft, when the Packers general manager did something he’d never done in his previous nine drafts: He selected a player from the University of Wisconsin: Wide receiver Jared Abbrederis, whom Thompson selected with the final pick of the fifth round, No. 176 overall.
Evidently, there were some in the red-sweater crowd in Madison who were starting to wonder if Thompson had something against picking players from UW.
Asked by longtime Wisconsin State Journal sports columnist Tom Oates after the draft ended Saturday whether he’d put that ridiculous notion to rest by picking the Cheesehead through-and-through Abbrederis, a small smile came to Thompson’s face.
“I hope so,” Thompson replied. “[Because] it’s not true.”
“It's just the way it's worked out. There have been a number of times where we were anxious to take a Badger and they get taken in front of you or something like that.”
There have also been times when the Packers have passed on Badgers over the years, and some have turned out to be enormous mistakes. But more often than not, it wasn’t a matter of a bias against the in-state institution as much as it was a simple error in judgment.
After all, of the 38 Badgers drafted by the Packers in club history, only eight were selected after the 1970 NFL-AFL merger: During that same time frame, 153 total UW players have been selected.
“I'm happy. It's nice to come up here and say, ‘About time, we finally drafted one,’” Packers coach Mike McCarthy joked. “There's been a number (of UW players) over the years we felt we were going to draft. It's great. I just want him to be treated like everybody else, not feel the feel the pressure obviously in this state. He definitely adds to the competition in the receiver room.”
Wisconsin had five players drafted last weekend: Safety Dezmen Southward by Atlanta (third round, No. 68 overall); linebacker Chris Borland by San Francisco (third round, No. 77); running back James White by New England (fourth round, No. 130); Abbrederis; and defensive tackle Beau Allen by Philadelphia (seventh round, No. 224).
It could be argued that the Packers, given their pedestrian play at inside linebacker in recent years, should have seriously considered Borland, who left UW at No. 6 on the school’s career tackles list and with 15 forced fumbles in his career, most in Big Ten history and second-most in Football Bowl Subdivision history.
And perhaps the Packers would have used one of their third-round picks on him – at No. 85 or No. 98 – on Friday night had he still been on the board. But passing on him at No. 53 – where they took Fresno State wide receiver Davante Adams to fill another obvious need – likely had more to do with Borland’s troublesome shoulder and short arms (29 1/4 inches) or their affinity for Adams than any bias.
A day later, Abbrederis became the first UW player drafted by the Packers since 2001, when Ron Wolf – or, more accurately, GM-in-waiting Mike Sherman, who most believe made the final calls during that draft – took Badgers guard Bill Ferrario in the fourth round.
In that same draft, though, Wolf (or Sherman) made what turned out to be an egregious mistake in the second round. With UW’s Chris Chambers on the board when the Packers went on the clock at No. 41, they opted for Texas A&M’s Robert Ferguson. Chambers had been a four-year starter for the Badgers; Ferguson, a JUCO transfer, played only one season for the Aggies. When asked after the pick why he took Ferguson over Chambers, Wolf replied simply, “Height.”
While the 6-foot-1 1/2 Ferguson did have almost two inches on Chambers, Chambers’ 45-inch vertical leap certainly should have leveled that playing field. Most believe Sherman’s close connections to the Texas A&M staff – he had been an assistant there under R.C. Slocum and later became the Aggies head coach after his firing in Green Bay – was a factor.
Ferguson ended up playing 60 games in Green Bay over six seasons (26 starts), catching 116 passes for 1,577 yards and 12 touchdowns. (He had 35 more receptions with the Minnesota Vikings in 2007 and 2008). Chambers, meanwhile, played in 100 games (90 starts) in seven seasons with the Dolphins, catching 405 passes for 5,688 yards and 43 touchdowns. He retired following the 2010 season having played 153 games for Miami, San Diego and Kansas City, registering 540 receptions for 7,648 yards and 58 TDs.
Wolf was definitely to blame in 1992, when in his first draft as Packers GM, he held the No. 5 overall pick and wanted a cornerback. He opted for Florida State’s Terrell Buckley, passing on Wisconsin’s Troy Vincent, who went two picks later to the Dolphins.
Buckley did end up carving out a 13-year NFL career in which he intercepted 50 passes, but in three seasons with the Packers, he played in 46 games and recorded 10 interceptions. Vincent, meanwhile, played 15 years with Miami, Philadelphia and Buffalo, intercepting 47 passes and going to five Pro Bowls.
And just last year, Thompson and the Packers were on the clock at the 55th pick with Badgers running back Montee Ball still on the board. Thompson opted to trade back to No. 61 in a deal with the San Francisco 49ers, and Ball went to Denver at No. 58.
The Packers then took Eddie Lacy, who ran for an NFL-rookie best 1,178 yards and 11 touchdowns on his way to NFL offensive rookie of the year honors. Ball reached the Super Bowl as a rookie and carried 120 times for 559 yards and four touchdowns while sharing time with Knowshon Moreno.
None of this, of course, matters to Abbrederis, who’ll compete with two other draftees – Adams, and seventh-round pick Jeff Janis of Saginaw Valley State – at receiver and will “definitely” be in the mix in the return game, McCarthy said. He becomes the second Badger on the roster, joining No. 3 quarterback Scott Tolzien, UW’s starter in 2009 and 2010.
If growing up in Wautoma and playing at UW adds any pressure for him, he wasn’t showing it Saturday.
“I don’t really have too much pressure,” said Abbrederis, who hadn’t been to Lambeau Field before this week’s rookie orientation since his sophomore year of high school as a fan. “I just kind of have always said I play to glorify God. For me, that kind of takes a lot of stress out of the game. I’ll do my best and let God do the rest.”
From Madtown to Titletown