Data reveals Ted Thompson's draft success
A month before the 2013 season, Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson was in trouble. He needed someone to protect his quarterback's blind side.
Bryan Bulaga, a former first-round pick, was poised to safeguard Aaron Rodgers. But Bulaga tore his ACL during the Packers' Family Night scrimmage. One week into training camp, his season was done.
Thompson turned to David Bakhtiari, a rookie drafted in the fourth round three months earlier. Before the draft, analysts predicted Bakhtiari eventually would move inside to guard. Now he was an MVP quarterback's most important blocker.
Franchise left tackles never are expected to be found in the fourth round. Bakhtiari has started all 32 games in his career, 35 counting playoffs. At a premier position, where salaries soar past $10 million, the man protecting Rodgers' back is the NFL's 83rd-highest paid offensive tackle.
It's the kind of draft magic Thompson routinely conjures. Need a running back? Trade back into the second round, take Eddie Lacy. Out of options at inside linebacker? Insert Sam Barrington, a former seventh-rounder.
Since 2005, Thompson has built the Packers' infrastructure through the NFL draft. He's gained respect across the league, former Cleveland Browns general manager Phil Savage said, for his ability to find gems who competitors overlook.
"I think of all 32 teams," Savage said, "they're the ones that are the most devoted to the NFL draft."
A request to speak with Thompson about his draft production was met with swift skepticism from a team spokesman, then declined. Thompson and Packers coach Mike McCarthy regard draft data as internal, strategic information, the spokesman said.
An imprint of Thompson's draft success is available. It just takes some digging. In more than 50 research hours, Press-Gazette Media gauged 33 draft data categories for all 32 NFL teams. The data covers total games and starts from drafted players, snap counts from each of their first four seasons, retention of draft picks, their transition to starting roles and much more.
The study includes every drafted player since 2005, when Thompson opened his tenure by selecting Rodgers. It reveals Thompson as the NFL's standard for building a roster through the draft, helping the Packers maintain success on the field and a sturdy salary cap structure.
'Stellar' draft management
Each year, the NFL draft promises 32 teams the closest thing possible to an equal playing field.
Players don't get to choose which NFL city they'll call home; they're picked. Teams don't stress over cap space; each player is handed a slotted salary. There is no negotiating. On the clock, a general manager simply must choose which player fits his team best.
"After the CBA change," Savage said, "the draft is an attractive option for every team because you can draft good players at lower prices."
Thompson has consistently maximized the draft's impact.
He's a volume shooter, ruthlessly hording an arsenal of picks. Thompson made more than 30 draft-day trades over the past decade, at least one every year except 2014. Those trades netted 10 extra picks, significant considering a draft has seven rounds.
Thompson doesn't necessarily show more patience with his drafted players compared to the rest of the league, but his extra picks give him more chances to succeed. Thompson has drafted 104 players since 2005, more than any team. The Packers lead the NFL with 1,860 starts and 3,267 games played from drafted players.
They have 119 more starts and 106 more games played by drafted players than any NFL team.
"Stellar," was how longtime NFL executive Bill Polian described Thompson's draft record. "He's outstanding, and he's outstanding not only in terms of judging talent, but of managing the draft. Those are two completely different things."
Even the best talent evaluators fail almost as often as they succeed. It's inevitable to miss on draft picks, Polian said. Teams limit the damage with good draft management, ensuring they get production from their picks.
"Draft management is something that people simply do not focus on," Polian said. "Nobody understands it — nobody understands it exists — because all we talk about in the media is, 'This guy is an absolute first-rounder, and this guy belongs in the second round, and this guy is a third-rounder, and you can't possibly draft Russell Wilson any higher than this round, and blah, blah, blah.' That's not true at all."
Polian and former Packers GM Ron Wolf will become the first executives inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame next month. In more than three decades, Polian built the Super Bowl-champion Indianapolis Colts and four-time AFC-champion Buffalo Bills. Over time, he said, his front office developed measurements to track draft production.
The most successful NFL teams get significant contributions from roughly 58 percent of drafted players, Polian said. Struggling teams have a "hit rate" of 50 percent or below.
It's impossible to know where the Packers' internal data places them on that scale. Polian said the "hit rate" was simple, but arbitrary. Each team measures differently, but they follow the same concept. If a player helps the team win in any capacity, Polian said, they're a successful draft pick.
"If you hit on five," Polian said, "you've had a phenomenal draft whether you're the Packers or you're us. Those are the teams that are traditionally strong drafting teams, to hit on five."
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'Keep your own players'
With long NFL careers being the exception, rosters are a revolving door. Free agency and the salary cap keep players coming and going. A general manager is tasked with retaining the right players and growing them in the system.
"You want to draft a guy, develop a guy and have that guy replace the declining vet," Pittsburgh Steelers GM Kevin Colbert said. "You're probably not going to replace the vet as long as he's still performing at a functional level, but if he's starting to decline, you want to keep the cycle working where you've got the replacements right there. They can step in, and then you're hopefully drafting the next one."
Among teams with the 10 best winning percentages since 2005, six rank in the top 10 of drafted players retained four full seasons. The five teams retaining the fewest draftees rank among the league's 10 worst winning percentages.
In the past decade, 38.9 percent of the league's drafted players stayed with their original team four seasons. Only two teams — the New York Giants and San Diego Chargers — retained more than half their draft picks that long.
In seven years of applicable data — between 2005 and 2011 — the Packers kept 32 drafted players four seasons (42.1 percent), second to the Tennessee Titans (35 players). They have 739 games played by drafted players after their first four seasons, second to the San Francisco 49ers (755).
Thompson maintains a young roster, but not too young. The Packers got 18,839 fourth-year snaps from drafted players, according to Pro Football Focus. Only the Titans (19,110) got more.
Which means the Packers not only have more players experienced in pro football, but also specialized in their system.
"I think the draft is more unique to our game," Colbert said, "because you have to have 11 guys on each side of the ball that can play cohesively. It's not like other sports where maybe they're not as much systematically driven, and you can sign a free agent, plug them in. You can probably sign players from other teams in free agency and plug them in a lot easier in the other three major sports more so than football."
Wolf, more than Thompson, had a reputation for dipping into free agency.
The Packers made waves around the league when Wolf signed defensive end Reggie White in 1993. Wolf also added center Frank Winters, defensive end Sean Jones and return specialist/Super Bowl XXXI MVP Desmond Howard through free agency, and traded a first-round pick for quarterback Brett Favre.
Thompson has made a free-agency splash or two. He signed cornerback Charles Woodson in 2006, and outside linebacker Julius Peppers last offseason, but Wolf was more active on the open market. That doesn't mean he disagrees with Thompson's extreme draft approach.
"In the long run," Wolf said, "it's better to keep your own players. So I guess you could say that, in my opinion, it's better to build through the draft. When I was here, I used trades and the waiver wire quite a bit. Once we kind of got it settled, we did everything in our power to keep our own."
Rookies need 'incubation time'
Savage and Thompson became general managers the same year, but they entered very different situations.
Starting with Wolf in 1992, the Packers have been a model of continuity. They've had three general managers in the past 23 years. In the same time, the Browns have had nine.
Thompson had a better opportunity to succeed, Savage said, because the pieces he inherited fit the same football philosophy. Savage did not have that luxury. When he took over the Browns, Savage said, personnel was fragmented into the remnants of old systems.
"That's probably the biggest issue for the Browns over the years," he said. "There's never a stick-to-itiveness for any regime longer than a few years. With all the changing of coaches and personnel staffs, everybody has a vision of the world and what they think can make them successful. You end up with bits and pieces of different regimes, and people see the game one way, somebody else sees it another way. It really was very confusing and difficult to get everyone rowing in the same direction."
Savage said losing teams follow a circular trend.
A new front office replaces the outgoing staff. With thin patience in today's NFL, the pressure to turn around a franchise starts immediately. Teams with poor records pick high in the draft. Those players are expected to contribute as rookies, often before they're ready. With underdeveloped players filling big roles, Savage said, teams keep losing.
The seven teams with the most rookie snaps since 2007 — the first year data is available — rank among the league's 10 worst winning percentages. Winning teams, Savage said, are able to have more patience developing their draft players. That's what he sees in Green Bay.
The Packers lead the NFL with 844 games played by rookies, but they usually occupy minor roles. Green Bay ranks near the league's middle with 16,045 rookie snaps, and its 14 rookies crossing the 400-snap mark are tied for 11th fewest. The Packers had only 10 rookies crossing the 400-snap mark before last season.
"The guys coming in from college to the NFL, they need some incubation time," Savage said. "I think your hope is that opening day you're going to get special teams contributions, and maybe a certain role in subpackages. Like for a defensive back, or a cover linebacker, or a slot receiver, or some kind of running back situation."
The Steelers kept 25 drafted players four seasons, tied for 14th in the league. They don't excel at retention, but Colbert found another way to ensure experienced players are on the field.
No team has been more frugal distributing snaps to first-year players. The Steelers had 10 rookies cross the 400-snap mark since 2005, tied for fewest in the league. Their 161 rookie starts and 9,615 rookie snaps are second-fewest in the NFL.
"I believe it's always going to be beneficial the longer you can delay that," Colbert said. "Not to a point where you find out about a guy in his fourth year, when he's going to be a free agent. It's too late because you probably want to sign him the year before. But the longer you can wait, the longer you can delay their play, I think the better a player's chances for long-term success."
Drafting with a franchise QB
Draft picks are Thompson's currency, but they don't necessarily buy rings.
In the past decade, no team had fewer picks than the New Orleans Saints (69), but that didn't prevent them from winning Super Bowl XLIV. The Giants have won two Super Bowls since 2005 despite only 77 draft picks, fourth fewest in the league.
A franchise quarterback is the one requisite for any Super Bowl contender. For the Saints and Giants, it's Drew Brees and Eli Manning. For the Packers, it's Rodgers.
"It's pretty simple," Wolf said. "If you don't have a quarterback, then you don't have a chance. If you have a quarterback, you have a chance."
At market value, a quarterback consumes the largest chunk of a team's salary cap. Polian said a good GM knows how to maximize the remaining cap, surrounding the quarterback with a quality supporting cast.
After the quarterback, Polian said, teams maintain their core with roughly 12 players averaging $6 million against the cap. The remaining members of a team's 53-man roster play at veteran-minimum salaries, one-year deals or rookie contracts, he said.
Rodgers, a two-time MVP, will have the Packers' highest cap hit at $18.25 million next season. The next 12 players — from outside linebacker Clay Matthews to defensive tackle Letroy Guion — average $6.3 million against the cap. The rest of the Packers' projected 53-man roster either play under rookie contracts or are entering the final year of their deal.
Teams need more than 13 players to contribute, of course. Which only increases the draft's importance. Colbert said he divides the draft into segments. Expectations change with the round.
"You want to hit on all of them," Colbert said, "but (rounds) one, two and three are critical. Because if you miss on one, two or three, you're probably going to have some salary cap problems down the road, because you're going to have to sign some free agents to make up for it. Then rounds four and five, if you can get some backups out of that, that's great. Six and seven, you're usually either getting a special-teamer or practice-squad guys."
Before Savage came to the Browns, he was a high-ranking executive with the Baltimore Ravens. He said the goal was to find three starters in every draft. Colbert said the chances of drafting a starter diminish with each round. The Steelers studied the breakdown of Pro Bowl rosters, he said, and roughly 70 percent of those players are drafted in the first three rounds.
Thompson breaks from the norm, finding starters at all levels of the draft. The Packers rank second in the league with 25 draft picks starting more than eight games in two years. They've had 10 two-year starters drafted later than the first three rounds.
Bakhtiari is just one example on the Packers' offensive line. Its foundation is the guard tandem of Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang, a pair of fourth-round picks. Next season, center Corey Linsley will likely become the next two-year starter drafted after the first three rounds. He started all 16 games as a rookie last fall after being drafted in the fifth round.
"Because of the salary cap," former Dallas Cowboys vice president of player personnel Gil Brandt said, "you have to be able to get players in the fifth round, sixth round, seventh round to come in and play for you. That's why Green Bay has done a good job of drafting. They've got some of those players."
If a team "hits" five draft picks, Polian said, it's likely two will become part of their core dozen. The rest are usually lost in free agency, or rookies replace them.
Wolf said free agency is a "shame" now. Teams lose a third of the roster every year, he said, and only get seven rounds in the draft. He thinks there should be more.
That's unlikely to happen, but here's something you know about Thompson — he'd be quite fine with extra picks.
"Obviously," Wolf said, "he's comfortable with doing it that way. He's had an awful lot of success. He's very good. I think all you have to do is see the career he's had. He left here and went to Seattle to build a team that went to the Super Bowl. He comes back here, and he's had a team that's won the Super Bowl. If you just look at what he did the last 10 years, I'd say it's exceptional."
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