By Jim Weidner. Growing up in Minnesota, fishing the state’s “10,000 Lakes” is a big deal. A lot of the older fishermen (think ‘Grumpy Old Men’) believe in the “Catch and Release” philosophy. This means if they caught one of the bigger, older, and larger sized fish, they would release it. Some did it out of respect for the elder fish, others did it hoping the fish would go back into the water and produce larger sized fish. For the sport of fishing, that’s great. But, if you are an NFL team that builds its roster on the “draft and develop” theory, it really gives little hope of having a successful team.
Since Ted Thompson took over as the Green Bay Packers general manager in 2005, he has built the Packers roster on the theory of “draft and develop.” Rarely has Thompson dipped into free agency. When he has dipped into free agency, however, he has succeeded signing players such as defensive tackle Ryan Pickett, cornerback Charles Woodson, outside linebacker Julius Peppers, and most recently, tight end Jared Cook. Thompson’s core belief though has been drafting players or even signing undrafted free agents to be developed into the backbone of the Packers roster.
This belief succeeded for Thompson and the Packers by drafting players such as quarterback Aaron Rodgers, wide receivers Randall Cobb, Jordy Nelson, and Davante Adams, outside linebacker Clay Matthews, safeties Ha Ha Clinton Dix and Morgan Burnett, defensive tackle Mike Daniels, and offensive tackles David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga. Thompson also hit big on signing former cornerback Sam Shields as an undrafted free agent. A few of these players helped the Packers win the 2011 Super Bowl and some have helped the Packers become one of most successful franchises in the NFL. But recently, Thompson’s ‘Midas touch’ for drafting and signing undrafted free agents to develop into stars of the future has disappeared. Instead of a draft and develop team, the Packers have become more of a catch and release team.
Sure, the Packers have won five out of the last six NFC North titles, been to the playoffs the past eight seasons, been to the NFC championship three times since 2010, and won the 2010 Super Bowl while Thompson has been in charge of the Packers. This isn’t as impressive as it seems, however, especially with Aaron Rodgers the Packers starting quarterback. Arguably, Aaron Rodgers is the best quarterback in the NFL, which in a league driven by the quarterback, gives the Packers a head start on other teams vying for a Super Bowl victory. But unlike the New England Patriots, who have taken advantage of their supremely talented quarterback’s skills to win three Super Bowls since 2011, the Packers haven’t.
There has been other factors, besides the lack of talent on the Packers roster, that have hindered their chances. Injuries have been a big part, but all NFL teams battle injuries and still have success in the playoffs. For the Packers, the problems run deeper and it is obvious a big part of their lack of playoff success is due to the lack of talent mostly on the Packers defense.
With Thompson shunning free agency and using trades to better the Packers roster, he has stubbornly stuck with his draft and develop mantra. If a team will solely rely on developing young talent, they must hit not just on some but most their draft picks. That is something the Packers haven’t done in recent history.
If you need proof of Thompson’s failure, just look at his draft classes from 2011 to 2013. As Jason Wilde of ESPNWisconsin.com tweeted out recently, only five players from those draft classes are still on the Packers roster. It should be noted, defensive end/outside linebacker Datone Jones signed with the Minnesota Vikings after this tweet was sent out and cornerback Davon House, who was originally drafted by the Packers but left as a free agent after the 2014 season and signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars, recently just signed a one year deal to return to the Packers. To have only five players from those recent draft classes is very alarming and puts into question Thompson’s ability to draft talented football players.
Just look at the recent departures for the Packers. Guard TJ Lang (signed by the Detroit Lions), running back Eddie Lacy (signed by the Seattle Seahawks), safety/cornerback Micah Hyde (signed by the Buffalo Bills), Jones, and offensive lineman JC Tretter (signed by the Cleveland Browns) all were former Packers draft picks and all signed with other teams this offseason. Only Peppers (signed by the Carolina Panthers) and presumably tight end Jared Cook (who hasn’t signed with anyone yet) are the only players who have signed with new teams that weren’t drafted by the Packers. That would lead you to believe that either the Packers coaching staff aren’t developing the talent Thompson drafts or that Thompson is failing at recognizing talent in the draft to help better the Packers roster. The latter is the most likely scenario.
Thompson hasn’t been silent during this off season’s free agent period. Along with House, he signed tight ends Martellus Bennett and Lance Kendricks to bolster the Packers passing attack. House will help with depth on a Packers secondary that was downright awful last season and Bennett and Kendricks will provide even more firepower for Rodgers and the rest of the Packers passing game. But House will not turn around the defense all by himself. Thompson must bring in more experienced defenders, and not just hope that a rookie can step in and contribute right away. Re-signing outside linebacker Nick Perry helps, but Perry has battled injuries throughout his career and has only had one productive season, which was last season when he was on a one year prove it deal.
The offense has also taken a hit. Last season, Thompson and his front office staff cut All Pro guard Josh Sitton right before the start of the regular season. Luckily, former undrafted free agent Lane Taylor stepped in and did a nice job replacing Sitton. But unlike when Taylor replaced Sitton, the Packers have no backup plan to replace the recently departed Lang at the other guard position. They did re-sign often criticized offensive lineman Don Barclay this offseason, but if they are hoping Barclay can replace Lang, it might put Rodgers health in jeopardy. Barclay at best has been a warm body at best and shouldn’t be expected to be a starter. With not much else to choose from in this off season’s free agency, and nobody on their roster to replace Lang, Thompson will be forced to look at the draft for Lang’s replacement. Starting a rookie guard to help protect the Packers franchise quarterback is a dangerous bet and might backfire on the Packers.
This isn’t a piece to give fuel to the Thompson “trolls,” people whose daily lives are dedicated to getting on Packers chat boards and talking about how everything Thompson is or is not doing to ruin the franchise. But instead, we need to bring attention to how Thompson’s lack of free agent moves and lack of trades, along with not hitting on most his draft picks, is hindering the Packers chance getting back to the Super Bowl. It should be noted, Thompson has succeeded and got the Packers back to being a contender after taking over for former head coach/general manager Mike Sherman, who struggled to build the Packers roster. But Thompson’s stubbornness of late is hurting the progress of the Packers.
Fans aren’t the only ones noticing, even Aaron Rodgers himself alluded to it in his press conference after the Packers were demolished by the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship game. At the press conference, Rodgers stated that the Packers must be “all in” when it comes to their offseason, making many believe he was talking to Thompson about making moves to improve the franchise. If that didn’t get Thompson’s attention, Rodgers might be forced in making bigger statements, which is something the Packers and its fans don’t want to see.