Thompson: Team needs won’t be ignored in draft

Packers sign first-round pick

One of the great misconceptions about Ted Thompson’s approach to the NFL Draft – much like the belief that the wry, close-to-the-vest Green Bay Packers general manager never says anything important or interesting during his annual pre-draft Q&A sessions – is that need doesn’t factor into his decisions.

It does. The proverbial best player available might be Thompson’s ideal, but need won’t be completely ignored in the Packers’ draft room during next week’s 2015 NFL Draft, which will be Thompson’s 11th as the Packers’ decision-maker.

“You factor everything in. But [need] doesn’t carry as much weight as it might with other organizations,” Thompson said during his annual pre-draft news conference Wednesday. “There’s a certain amount of weighting in terms of need, but I am adamant that that’s not the way to draft. The way to draft is to take the best player.”

That’s because, Thompson has long argued, you never know when a position of strength can morph into a position of need.

“This isn’t play time or anything like that. This is real life. People get banged up, injuries happen. Life happens,” Thompson continued. “What you think you’re strong at, you’re not necessarily strong at. If you take good, solid players that you know can contribute – albeit at a position that’s maybe a little bit heavier – as long as you’re taking good, solid players you’re getting some value there.

“If you reach and take something that’s not quite as good, then you may not be getting the same value. I know you don’t believe that, but it’s true. That’s what we do.”

That said, Thompson hasn’t been above reaching – or being more influenced by need than he’d care to admit – in the past. Sometimes, it’s worked out. Others, it has not.

During his press briefing before the 2009 draft, Thompson conducted something of a guided tour of the setup of his board – explaining how each position is listed across the top of the grid to create vertical columns, and the seven rounds are listed along the left-hand side of the grid to create horizontal rows.

“Should I do that again?” Thompson jokingly asked Wednesday.

That wasn’t necessary, but because he sets his board up that way, need is factored into his decisions. When the Packers go on the clock on April 30 for their first-round pick at No. 30, Thompson should have multiple players still left on his board with first-round grades. (If he doesn’t, he and his staff will likely be working the phones, looking to trade back into the second round and accumulate more selections.)

If one of those remaining players with a first-round grade happens to play a position of need – say, inside linebacker – Thompson will be able to factor that in, even though he insisted Wednesday that he feels no added pressure to fill obvious roster holes with draft picks.

Nevertheless, with some clear needs on his team – not that Thompson would ever publicly acknowledge them – this year’s draft class will have to deliver some immediate contributors to a team that was minutes away from a berth in Super Bowl XLIX.

“There’s no more pressure on our part,” Thompson said. “The pressure, in my view, is making sure we take good players.”

That’s something Thompson has certainly done the past two years, having added seven players who’ve either started or logged vital snaps the last two seasons: Running back Eddie Lacy, left tackle David Bakhtiari and safety/nickel defensive back Micah Hyde from the 2013 draft, and safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, wide receiver Davante Adams, right end Richard Rodgers and center Corey Linsley from last year’s class.

Of those seven players, only one – Clinton-Dix – was a first-round pick, which speaks to Thompson’s selection savvy the last two years.

“The beauty of this particular business is the uncertainty,” said Thompson, who holds nine picks – one in each round, plus two additional sixth-round compensatory selections – but has frequently added additional picks through trades. “Because there’s always that gasp when a name is called and they go, ‘He picked who?’ And you hope that you don’t do that, [where] other teams go, “Who’d Thompson pick?’ You don’t want that kind of criticism.”

In retrospect, Thompson’s 2011 and 2012 drafts merit such criticism. He has long said that it takes three years to properly evaluate a draft – a belief he reiterated yet again Wednesday – and the Packers have little to show for those two drafts at this point.

From the 2011 draft, only Pro Bowl wide receiver Randall Cobb, a second-round pick, remains on the roster, as first-round pick Derek Sherrod’s career was derailed by a gruesome leg injury and poor play, and cornerback Davon House, a fourth-round pick who was the only other player from that draft to play a snap for the team last season, departed for Jacksonville as a free agent.

Meanwhile, only three of the eight players Thompson drafted in 2012 remain with the team: Outside linebacker Nick Perry, the team’s first-round pick; cornerback Casey Hayward, a second-round pick; and defensive end Mike Daniels, a fourth-round pick.

While Daniels has emerged as one of the team’s top players on defense, Perry was a part-time player last season and Hayward saw only limited action in sub packages, although he’s in line to start this season following the free-agent departure of veteran cornerback Tramon Williams.

“Quite frankly, sometimes it just doesn’t work out. As much as you’d like to have some sort of magic pill to take before I pick up the phone and draft somebody, we don’t have that,” Thompson said. “We just have to depend on our work and what we thinks going to happen in the future with [each] young man in this organization. Sometimes it doesn’t work out.”

With his team coming off a spectacular late meltdown in their 28-22 overtime loss to the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC title game, Thompson will need picks at a few positions to work out this year. The team severed ties with three inside linebackers who started for them last season – 2006 first-round pick A.J. Hawk, Brad Jones and Jamari Lattimore – and as a result the position is the team’s most glaring area of need. The Packers are also thin at cornerback and tight end, and could use quality depth on the defensive line and at running back.

“You don’t hit on all of your decisions you make in the draft,” Thompson admitted. “Sometimes, those decisions are who we’re picking. Sometimes, those decisions are, ‘Should we trade out?’ Sometimes, those decisions are, ‘Should we trade up?’ You never know how it’s going to turn out.”

What got Thompson in trouble in 2012, though, was drafting for need – even though he would deny such a charge – because his defense finished the 2011 season ranked dead last in the 32-team NFL, as the offense carried Green Bay to a franchise-best 15-1 regular-season record before the top-seeded Packers lost at home in the NFC Divisional round to eventual the Super Bowl-champion New York Giants.

In that 2012 draft, not only did Thompson use his first six selections on defensive players, he made three trades up. How out of character was that? Having not executed a single trade last year, Thompson enters his 11th draft in Green Bay having made 27 draft-day trades – with 20 of them having been backwards to accumulate more selections.

After those three trades up in 2012, Thompson even joked at one point, “I’m not my father’s son anymore.” The next year, he made four draft-day trades, three of which were backwards.

Thompson’s trades upward were to take defensive end Jerel Worthy and Hayward in the second round and to take inside linebacker Terrell Manning in the fifth round. Worthy, Manning and fourth-round pick Jerron McMillian, a safety from Maine, were all washouts; last season, they played a combined one – one! – regular-season defensive snap: Manning’s one play for the Giants.

Unlike 2009, when the Packers switched to Dom Capers’ 3-4 defense and Thompson went after two critical positions for the scheme in the draft – he took nose tackle B.J. Raji at No. 9 overall and traded back into the first round to take outside linebacker Clay Matthews at No. 26 – trading up proved to be a mistake in 2012.

Whether he keeps that draft in mind next week will be interesting to see. The proof will be in his approach.

“Certainly, you go over and you examine history,” Thompson said. “So you do that self-examination stuff. You don’t sit around and waste a whole lot of time on this, but you do a self-examination of how we got to there, how could we do more, that sort of thing. Yeah, we do that.

“You may throw in a ‘darn it,’ too. A ‘dadgum.’ [But] what are you going to do? But you examine, and you say, ‘That’s not anybody else’s fault. That’s my fault.'”

Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.