Last in a four-part NFL draft data series.
To grasp how wildly fickle a player’s reputation can become, consider the curious case of A.J. Hawk.
You remember him as the former No. 5 overall pick in 2006 who never lived up to his draft stature. Hawk was the highest-drafted player Ted Thompson has selected in his 11 years as the Green Bay Packers general manager, and there are significant expectations attached to a player with that pedigree. Multiple Pro Bowl trips. An All-Pro selection or two. Maybe the Hall of Fame.
No, Hawk never was that kind of difference-maker. His lone Pro Bowl season came as an alternate in 2010, when Hawk didn’t even finish among the NFL’s top 20 tacklers. For almost a decade, Hawk averaged only two forced turnovers per season.
It might seem reasonable to consider Hawk a first-round bust. It would be grossly inaccurate. Talent is the most important aspect of the draft-management equation, but it isn’t the only factor. For NFL general managers, a more basic goal is to draft players who will become reliable starters, preferably contributing to a winning team.
Related: Complete Packers draft coverage
In that regard, Hawk not only was the most successful linebacker from his draft class. He was one of the most successful of his era. Over nine seasons with the Packers, Hawk started 136 games and played in 142. It’s worth noting where his durability, reliability and consistency rank among peers.
Of the 96 linebackers drafted in 2005, 2006 and 2007 combined, only the Philadelphia Eagles’ Trent Cole (145 starts/155 games) and Kansas City Chiefs’ Derrick Johnson (141/154) had more games started and games played for their original team than Hawk. Cole was a different player than Hawk, predominantly a pass rusher. He didn’t have to withstand the rigors playing in traffic – the middle of an NFL field – can take on the body.
Now, Hawk was not the same caliber player as Johnson, a four-time Pro Bowler and two-time All-Pro. That doesn’t mean he was a bad pick. In fact, had Thompson peered through a crystal ball before the 2006 draft and known Hawk would play almost 150 games and never be worse than average, though rarely better than average, it would have been hard for him to pass.
Hawk’s career illustrates an often overlooked part of draft management. Quality matters, but so does quantity. Few players will become Pro Bowlers, even among first-round picks. The most important factor for general managers may be efficiency, maximizing the picks to fill key roles on a roster.
With that in mind, USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin conducted a study to rank Thompson’s draft classes with the Packers. The study examined nine key data criteria from Thompson’s first draft to present: rookie games started, rookie games played, total games started, total games played, fourth-season snaps, number of two-year starters, number of four-year players, Pro Bowl selections and All-Pro selections.
A compilation ranking of those nine criteria sorted the order of which draft classes have excelled, and which have been poor (the lower the compilation points total, the better the draft). The compilation ranking does not include Thompson’s past three draft classes: 2013, 2014 or 2015. With rookie contracts lasting four seasons, a draft class needs four years to receive a comprehensive evaluation.
Naturally, draft classes with more picks stand a greater chance of having better results. To gauge efficiency, compilation rankings sorted draft classes by the average per pick in each of the nine categories. Here are the rankings for Thompson’s first eight draft classes (from best to worst), followed by some thoughts on his past three that were unranked.
1. 2009 (22 compilation points): While data suggests Thompson might benefit from trading out of the first round more often, his best draft might be the one time he has made an aggressive move in the first round. Thompson drafted defensive tackle B.J. Raji with the ninth overall pick, and he played solid to good football for most of his career before prematurely retiring this offseason. He then traded a second-round pick and a couple of third rounders to move back into the first round and draft Clay Matthews. The 2009 draft has it all. Talent with two Pro Bowlers, including an All-Pro pass rusher. Depth with fourth-round guard T.J. Lang becoming a borderline Pro Bowl-caliber starter, and linebacker Brad Jones becoming the rare seventh-round pick to spend multiple seasons as a starter. The eight-player class also ranks first with 12.8 rookie games per pick (103 total) and 37.6 total starts per pick (301 total), and second in four more categories.
2. 2010 (26): The first surprise on these rankings comes early. It would seem unlikely for the 2010 class to be ranked ahead of 2005, which produced a future Hall of Fame quarterback and All-Pro defensive back. So how did the 2010 class upset Aaron Rodgers? What the 2010 class lacks in top-end quality (no Pro Bowlers), it more than compensates with quantity. Since Thompson has been general manager, the seven-member 2010 class is the only one to have each player remain with the Packers through the end of their rookie contract. It is also the only class to lead four of the nine criteria, averaging 61.57 games played (431 total), 415 fourth-season snaps (2,905), .71 two-year starters (five) and 1 four-year player (seven) per pick.
3. 2005 (27): If this were a ranking of Thompson’s most important draft classes, there is no debate over which would top the list. The 2005 draft class might be the most important in Packers history, if only because it set the franchise’s course for two decades of contention with Rodgers being taken 24th overall. What shouldn’t be forgotten is Thompson’s second pick, when he drafted three-time All-Pro safety Nick Collins one round after Rodgers. There’s no telling how many times Collins might have been selected as an All-Pro if not for a career-ending neck injury in 2011. The 2005 class is Thompson’s most talented, leading all others with eight Pro Bowl and five All-Pro selections. A lack of depth limited its place in the rankings. Behind Rodgers and Collins, no other player from this class hit the 150-snap mark in their fourth season. Still, those two players represent a remarkable way for Thompson to start his tenure. It’s like a major leaguer hitting grand slams in his first two at-bats.
4. 2008 (38): After 2005, there’s a significant drop off. While 2008 had its share of misses (you remember Brian Brohm), it will be remembered for Thompson drafting All-Pro receiver Jordy Nelson – not with a first-round pick, but 35th overall. The 2008 class leads none of the nine categories, and its only second-place finish is with .55 four-year players per pick (five total). But there’s something to be said for drafting an elite receiver outside the top 10 picks, let alone in the second round. Nelson isn’t the only highlight. If not for tight end Jermichael Finley’s career-ending neck injury in 2013, the 2008 class might be much closer to the three before it. It’s also one of three draft classes to produce two All-Pro players, with Nelson joining fourth-round guard Josh Sitton. One of the NFL’s best guards, Sitton has become the leader along the Packers' offensive line.
5. 2006 (39): If efficiency didn’t matter, Thompson’s second draft class would rank much higher. Thanks to Hawk, 2006 leads all Thompson draft classes with 73 rookie starts, 411 total starts, 538 total games, and ties 2010 with five two-year starters. There’s something else it leads: most draft picks with 12. Busted picks like third-round linebacker Abdul Hodge and fourth-round receiver Cory Rodgers dropped the 2006 class’ efficiency. There were no mid- to late-round gems. None of Thompson’s final seven picks that year registered a single fourth-season snap, but the first two rounds produced Hawk and two-time Pro Bowl receiver Greg Jennings. So 2006 could’ve been worse.
6. 2012 (57): For a moment, think about where the 2012 class would be without defensive end Mike Daniels. Better yet, don’t. While the Packers certainly could have done much worse in 2012 – a handful of teams around the league had devastating results – this clearly is one of Thompson’s worst draft classes. Only three players recorded a fourth-season snap. After second-round corner Casey Hayward signed with the San Diego Chargers this offseason, only two players from this eight-member class remain on the roster. One of those players, first-round outside linebacker Nick Perry, has been forced to play through injuries most of his career. Even when healthy, Perry hasn’t been the pass rusher the Packers hoped they were drafting. The 2012 class doesn’t rank last in any criteria, but it only ranks in the top half with rookie games and fourth-season snaps. With that said, this class has a chance to improve as Daniels continues to develop.
7. 2007 (58): While 2007 wasn’t a failed year, thanks mostly to third-round receiver James Jones and sixth-round linebacker Desmond Bishop, it doesn’t hold up in terms of top-end talent or depth. The 2007 draft had an awful start with defensive tackle Justin Harrell, Thompson’s worst draft pick in 11 years. Harrell only made two starts and played in 14 games over barely three seasons before tearing his ACL, ending a career that was already on its way to being over. There were plenty of busts after Harrell. Six of 10 players failed to register a fourth-season snap. This is the only class to average fewer than 200 fourth-season snaps per pick (199.7).
8. 2011 (68): You may be surprised just how bad this class was, but the benefit of hindsight makes it clear. The 2011 class produced only one serviceable NFL player: second-round receiver Randall Cobb. The class ranks last in every criteria except two, and one of those criteria (fourth-season snaps) ranks next to last. Cobb, of course, is the saving grace for this year. He was a Pro Bowl alternate with 12 touchdowns and almost 1,300 yards in 2014, though he struggled without Nelson’s presence last season. It’s fitting Thompson’s two worst first-round picks started his two worst draft classes. Derek Sherrod, drafted 32nd overall, started one game at tackle before the Packers released him in 2014. To be fair, a broken right leg against the Kansas City Chiefs near the end of his rookie season had a devastating impact on his career. Overall, the 2011 draft class is not how a team builds for the future after winning a Super Bowl title.
2013: It’s an important upcoming season for the 2013 class, especially for the lone Pro Bowler from this group. Running back Eddie Lacy arrives at a crossroads after being overweight and under-productive last season. Left tackle David Bakhtiari, a fourth-round steal, is playing for big money in a contract year. And first-round defensive end Datone Jones might have found his home as an elephant rusher after a dismal start to his career. The 2013 class also has depth in fifth-round defensive back Micah Hyde and seventh-round inside linebacker Sam Barrington, two players who could have big roles in 2016. Even with a neck injury ending fourth-round running back Jonathan Franklin’s career and linebacker Nate Palmer’s release earlier this month, the 2013 class has seven members on the roster. If all seven players are on the roster in a year, it would tie 2010 for most in the Thompson era.
2014: From top to bottom, the 2014 class has a chance to be a good class. It ranked third with 4.66 rookie starts per pick (42 total). It also was Thompson’s only class to have four rookies hit the 400-snap mark. Thompson used first-round safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix to help remake the Packers' secondary. Second-round receiver Davante Adams and third-round tight end Richard Rodgers have played major roles early in their career, and fifth-round center Corey Linsley has been a starter since his first game. If fifth-round receiver Jared Abbrederis and seventh-round receiver Jeff Janis can further develop, the 2014 class will have depth to match its top-of-the-order talent.
2015: While 2015 doesn’t quite match the depth Thompson found in 2014, the top of its class could be one of the most important the Packers GM has drafted. Considering the necessity of cornerbacks in today’s pass-happy NFL, hitting on first-round pick Damarious Randall and second-round pick Quinten Rollins was imperative. Third-round receiver Ty Montgomery looked like a promising youngster, his role increasing before an ankle injury ended his season after six games. Fourth-round inside linebacker Jake Ryan looks like the type of active, run-stuffing “plugger” who could start a lot of games for the Packers. While the bottom of the class remains a mystery, fifth-round quarterback Brett Hundley could develop into an important trade chip down the road, and sixth-round fullback Aaron Ripkowski is John Kuhn’s heir apparent.