Packers general manager Ted Thompson has a reputation as a shrewd draft expert, but even he knows that the draft is an inexact science. Some picks that look great on draft day end up to be long term busts, and hidden gems sometimes don’t emerge until years after the draft is in the books. In fact, it usually takes at least 3 years to truly get perspective on any particular draft class.
While Thompson has had more hits than misses, each year has a life of its own, and with one small difference near the top of the draft, the entire draft could move a different direction. Here’s a look at Thompson’s drafts since taking over in Green Bay, and the biggest hits each year, as well as the best pick, the hidden gem that may have emerged down the line, but became important to the Packers success.
2005: Draft highlight- QB Aaron Rodgers (1st round, 24th overall)
Hidden gem- S Nick Collins (2nd round, 51st overall)
Tough to argue about a player who has been the league and Super Bowl MVP in his career, but this was one that Thompson never expected. The Packers did their “due diligence” on the quarterbacks at the top of the draft, but they didn’t realistically think Rodgers or Alex Smith (taken first overall by the 49ers) would still be there. When he was, Thompson jumped, and set the Packers up for years of offensive excellence and leadership. The drafting of little known Nick Collins in the second round would have done the same for the defense, had Collins career not been cut short by injury. Still, it helped lead to a Super Bowl title, as Collins INT TD in SB 45 can attest.
2006: Draft highlight- LB A.J. Hawk (1st round, 5th overall)
Hidden gem- DT Johnny Jolly (6th round, 183 overall)
The choice between Hawk and tight end Vernon Davis was a tough one at number five overall, but Thompson, being an old linebacker himself, didn’t surprise when he took Hawk. However, it really took until the last two seasons to appreciate Hawk’s work ethic, durability and performance. He has become a defensive leader and changed his game to fit the defense, emerging as a steady force. The drafting of Johnny Jolly in the sixth round gave the defense toughness that helped put them over the edge. The off-the-field problems for Jolly are well documented, but allowing him to come back and help the defense in 2013 showed that Thompson knows talent and is just trying to put the best team on the field.
2007: Draft highlight- WR James Jones (3rd round, 78th overall)
Hidden gems- LB Desmond Bishop (6th round, 192 overall)
- K Mason Crosby (6th round, 193 overall)
In the year of Thompson’s worst ever pick (Justin Harrell, 1st round., 16 overall), you have to go to the third round to find a success story. James Jones will see this year if he can be a number one receiver in the league, though he showed the possibilities by leading the league in touchdowns in the 2012 season. Taken in the third round, he has been a bargain, as he has often played hurt and been productive, drops issues aside. With the top pick this year a total bust, the lower rounds were much more productive, with Desmond Bishop and Mason Crosby both coming in the sixth round. After a few years of special teams greatness, Bishop was poised to become a dominant starter before getting injured in the preseason in 2012 and never playing for the team again. Crosby, who turned his career around this year, is poised to break Packers scoring records, second only to Ryan Longwell.
2008: Draft highlight- WR Jordy Nelson (2nd round, 36 overall)
Hidden gem- OG Josh Sitton (4th round, 135 overall)
Jordy Nelson is now the unquestioned leader among the wide receivers, and was the Packers first pick that year, after trading away their first rounder to the Jets. Nelson has performed like a first rounder the last few years, making the deep catches and becoming known for his spectacular catches along the sideline and his timing with Aaron Rodgers. Josh Sitton was a starter from day one, and has been a pro bowler, the best offensive lineman every year since he’s been on the team. Getting a long term pro bowler in the fourth round is a great pick-up and is something every GM would love to do.
2009: Draft highlight- OLB Clay Matthews (1st round, 26 overall)
Hidden Gem- LB Brad Jones (7th round, 218 overall)
The second of two first round picks (DL B.J. Raji was the 9th pick overall), Matthews is one of the top players in the NFL and an unquestioned leader for the defense. Thompson surprised many when he bundled three picks to move up to get Matthews. That trade included the pick they got from the Jets for Brett Favre the year before, meaning no player had to be “that pick”. As for a gem, Brad Jones has managed to stay on the team as a serviceable linebacker, moving outside and inside, and has shown the versatility to do it without a beat. An intelligent player, getting the sometime starter in the seventh round was a nice bonus.
2010: Draft highlight- S Morgan Burnett (3rd round, 71 overall)
Hidden gem- RB James Starks (6th round, 193 overall)
The temptation here is to have OT Bryan Bulaga as the highlight, but he has not been able to stay healthy enough to make a difference, and his transition to left tackle just hasn’t happened, and probably won’t. Burnett has been steady, though unspectacular, so far in his career, and still has steps to take if he is going to fulfill his promise. Starks likewise has had trouble staying healthy, but in the run to Super Bowl 45, his play was a key in getting the Packers over the top. He has developed into a dependable back who will never be an every down player, but has improved every year.
2011: Draft highlight- WR Randall Cobb (2nd round, 64 overall)
Hidden gem- TE Ryan Taylor (7th round, 218 overall)
Cobb broke out in his very first game with a kickoff return for a touchdown and a reception for a touchdown against the Saints at home in the NFL opener, and has proven to be one of the most dynamic players the Packers have had in years. An injury derailed his year in 2013, but he is a natural leader, and will be back to continue his assault on defenses in 2014. This draft did not have many hits in it, but Ryan Taylor in the seventh round has been very good value, particularly on special teams. He is one of the emotional leaders on special teams, though the team would like a little more from him offensively to really be a force.
2012: Draft highlight and gem- DT Mike Daniels (4th round, 132 overall)
This draft had lots of promise, with six straight defensive picks to start it, but the best of the bunch so far has been Mike Daniels, who has become a force to be reckoned with in the middle of the line. He has improved in a big way from year one to year two, with the expectation he will continue to move up. For others in this class, including top pick OLB Nick Perry (1st round, 28 overall) and CB Casey Hayward (2nd round, 62 overall), while they may have a higher ceiling, they have not been healthy enough to develop fully. Expect both those players, along with 2nd rounder DE Jerel Worthy (51 overall) to use this off-season to put themselves in a position to help the team and show they belong.
2013: Draft highlight- RB Eddie Lacy (2nd round, 61 overall)
Hidden gem- CB Micah Hyde (5th round, 159 overall)
While it is early to make a call on a draft class with just one year under its belt, the top player has been obvious, with Lacy now a pro bowler and the offensive Rookie of the Year in the NFL. Lacy did it even missing time with a concussion, and brought some spark to the running back position that hasn’t been there for many years. If he stays healthy, he should be able to be a force for a number of years to come. Micah Hyde showed great promise in his rookie season, and will be learning the safety position for the upcoming season, so has his work cut out for him. LT David Bakhtiari (4th round, 109 overall) shined in his rookie season, being thrust into the starting line-up with Bryan Bulaga’s injury, and may have secured that spot even with a healthy Bulaga next year.
The draft is sometimes just a high stakes poker game, trying to figure out what other teams want, and how to get the guys you like before they can be snapped up by other teams. For Thompson, he says he’s just looking for football players, and in 2014 he’s hoping to once again replenish the cupboard with players few may have on their radar, but could become household names in Packers history.