It’s mock draft season! I remember being a young football fan (before the internet era) and always being excited for mocks. Sports Illustrated always had one, USA Today would publish one and you could find one in ESPN the Magazine. NFL Draft magazines were (and continue to be) very popular and you could find mocks in each one of those.
Draft coverage is much different now. Mock drafts from leading analysts often get 7, 8 or more versions. Player valuations (as far as the media and the public are concerned) change on a week to week basis. The combine, pro days, workouts, injuries, and character concerns continue to shape public perception of how teams view prospects.
Mock drafts aren’t quite as exciting anymore, because everyone’s got one, everyone has access to them and most guys come out with more than one. A quick Google search of the terms “NFL Mock Draft” is an easy way to kill two hours on the internet.
You get a lot of mocks that do a pretty good job of marrying team needs to the available players. Guys that are really connected or have a good head on their shoulders will also take into account the way that each team’s general managers run their operations.
The Packers’ Ted Thompson is a General Manager that operates on a very basic set of principles. One of those principles is not to overpay in free agency. No matter what excuses can be made, NFL free agents are available because their former teams didn’t make it work to have them brought back. The Lions chose Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson over Ndamokung Suh. The Cowboys chose Dez Bryant, Tony Romo (and maybe Adrian Peterson) over NFL rushing champ DeMarco Murray. The Packers chose Bryan Bulaga and Randall Cobb over Tramon Williams and Davon House.
One of the other principles is to draft and develop their own players. Of all the current Packers, only future hall of gamer Julius Peppers has started a game for a different NFL team. Thompson has often been accused of overpaying to keep his own players. More often than not, though, Thompon’s Packers buy in. Players like Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, and even Aaron Rodgers have taken much less than their open-market value to stay in Green Bay and allow for the cap space to re-sign and extend their teammates in the future.
The last principle that I’ll touch on is Thompson’s basic strategy of taking the best player available on draft day. More often than not, Ted Thompson has greatly valued talent over need during the draft process. He took Aaron Rodgers 5 seasons before Brett Favre eventually retired. He took Jordy Nelson with Greg Jennings, Donald Driver and James Jones already on the roster. He took Casey Hayward with Sam Shields, Tramon Williams, Charles Woodson and Davon House on the team. All of these selections were made in the top 60.
I’ve seen a lot of mock drafts that have the Packers taking care of the inside linebacker and cornerback position early. I’m not sure I agree with that. I’ve also seen people disregarding the defensive line as a possible need because of the re-signings of BJ Raji and Letroy Guion. I don’t think i agree with that either. I’ll address those one at a time.
For various reasons the Packers don’t really take inside linebackers or cornerbacks highly. AJ Hawk was taken as an outside linebacker and moved to the inside when the team went to a 3-4 alignment. As far as true inside linebackers go, Thompson took Abdul Hodge at the top of the 3rd round in 2006, took Desmond Bishop at the back end of the 6th round in 2007, DJ Smith in the 6th in 2011, Terrell Manning in the 5th in 2012 and finally Sam Barrington in the 7th round of the 2013 draft. Bishop, Barrington, and to some degree DJ Smith have worked out. Hodge and Terrell Manning did not. Regardless of their success rates, that’s not a lot of draft capital used on a position that has two players on the field during almost ever defensive play.
Cornerbacks haven’t been selected very highly by Ted Thompson either. As far as I’m concerned there have been 4 main cornerbacks of the Ted Thompson era: Charles Woodson, Al Harris, Tramon Williams and Sam Shields. Those have been the guys who have started outside, those have been the guys with the big contracts. Woodson was a cheap free agent signing, Al Harris came in a trade and Shields and Williams were undrafted free agents.
Pat Lee and Casey Hayward are the most highly selected cornerbacks in the time that Thompson has been with Green Bay. At no time has Thompson selected a cornerback OR an inside linebacker in the first round. Part of that has to do with the lack of emphasis on inside linebackers. Run stuffers become less useful as running the ball becomes less important. Inside linebackers continue to fall in value as running backs do.
Cornerbacks are a different story. Cornerbacks get taken in the first round all the time. Pass defenders are drafted highly and good ones are paid extremely well. The only real explanation for the Packers lack of investment in this area is cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt. Tramon Williams and Sam Shields both became excellent cornerbacks despite not being drafted. Both players spent a significant amount of time with the team as well. Whitt’s ability to make something out of guys like Williams and Shields, and 5th round picks like Micah Hyde is maybe why Thompson has used his high draft selections to take players at other positions.
I also don’t think that defensive lineman has now been removed from the list of needs. Both Letroy Guion and BJ Raji will be free agents again after next season. Mike Daniels (though almost certain to get an extension) is going into the last year of his deal. Datone Jones and Josh Boyd need to prove that they can be more than “just guys”. Julius Peppers and Mike Neal will also be gone, and those are interior pass rushers that give the big defensive linemen a break. Defensive Linemen (see Datone Jones) often take more than a year to be ready and so taking a player that they expect big things from in 2016 during this year’s draft might be prudent.
It’s mock drafts like this one from ESPN Milwaukee’s Bill Johnson that have inspired this week’s Football Friday. I’m not trying to make fun of or attack Bill. I listen to Green and Gold today almost every day and I appreciate his work I just don’t see his first-four-round configuration of CB-ILB-ILB-CB coming to fruition. It’s just not how Ted Thompson does it. He did for a short stretch in 2011 (all offense) and 2012 (all defense) and it really didn’t go well. As I outlined here, just 4 of the 18 players selected in 2011 and 2012 remain.
Don’t be surprised if Thompson takes Maxx Williams, a tight end, in round 1. Don’t be surprised if he takes a big talented defensive lineman in round 1. Don’t be surprised if he takes an edge defender some time in the top 2 rounds even though it doesn’t look like an immediate need. I’d certainly freak out if day 2 was over and the Packers didn’t have a new cornerback OR a new inside linebacker, but it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if they don’t have both.
Thompson’s renewed commitment to the best-player-available strategy has yielded fantastic results in 2013 and 2014. Not only that but players at need positions fell right into the Packers’ laps (Eddie Lacy, HaHa Clinton-Dix). I expect Thompson to improve the team during the draft. I expect him to take players that he will one day extend. What I don’t expect and what would legitimately shock me would be to see him take 2 corners and two inside linebackers in the first 4 rounds because we the fans and media believe that to be the Packers top needs.