Thompson takes center stage at combine

Michael Cohen
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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INDIANAPOLIS - Six months ago, Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson held his final news conference of training camp Aug. 30, four days before submitting the 53-man roster that began the regular season.

Packers general manager Ted Thompson speaks to the media during the 2016 NFL scouting combine at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

He stood behind a lectern for approximately 15 minutes, and during that time his cell phone rang not once, but twice. A reporter in the audience made a sarcastic remark about Thompson missing his chance for a huge trade by silencing the calls.

Though made in jest, the comment was veiled in the singular criticism most often ascribed to Thompson, who at age 64 is preparing for his 13th season atop the personnel department. For all of his success as an executive — from drafting quarterback Aaron Rodgers to deftly constructing a perennial contender — Thompson’s lack of aggression on the open market is an irritant both inside and out of the organization.

“I would classify us as not very aggressive, and it’s probably my fault because I’m a builder,” Thompson said in August when asked about making trades. “I like to gather the chicks all into the barn and keep them all to myself. I’d rather work with the guys that we have and try to make them better than trading one of them to some other team to get somebody else’s guy, if you know what I mean.”

LIVE COVERAGE: Thompson, McCarthy news conferences Wednesday

But after a season in which the Packers started poorly, roared to life late and were demolished in the NFC championship game, spotting deficiencies proved a juvenile exercise. There are gaping holes at running back, cornerback, inside linebacker and, depending on how free agency unravels, outside linebacker.

This week, Thompson and the entire Packers contingent — scouts, executives, coaches and medical staff — are all in Indianapolis for the annual scouting combine, where evaluating prospects and discussions about free agency share importance. In addition to monitoring potential draft picks, the Packers and vice president of football administration/player finance Russ Ball will lay the groundwork for contract negotiations to come.

Thompson’s annual news conference is scheduled for Wednesday in Indianapolis, where he will make his first comments since late August when the Packers were considered Super Bowl favorites.

Much has changed since then. Like always, there will be plenty to discuss.

The schedule

Both Thompson and coach Mike McCarthy have their news conferences Wednesday in the Indiana Convention Center.

Thompson is scheduled for 10 a.m. CST; McCarthy will talk at noon.

Draft prospects are made available to the media in waves from Thursday through Sunday. Here’s the breakdown by position:

* Thursday: running backs, offensive linemen

* Friday: quarterbacks, wide receivers, tight ends, kickers

* Saturday: defensive linemen, linebackers

* Sunday: defensive backs

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The storylines

Running back revival:In the last two years, only three running backs were drafted in the first round. They were, in chronological order, Todd Gurley of the St. Louis Rams, Melvin Gordon of the San Diego Chargers and Ezekiel Elliott of the Dallas Cowboys. Zero running backs were taken in the first rounds of the 2013 and 2014 drafts. But the devaluation of the position will come to a screeching halt this year due to a draft class with plenty of top-end talent. Dalvin Cook of Florida State and Leonard Fournette of Louisiana State are bona-fide first-round picks, and there’s a good chance both are taken in the first 10 selections. Christian McCaffrey of Stanford and Alvin Kamara of Tennessee have opportunities to sneak into the first round as well.

Quarterback quandary: Just as they dominate the ball on Sundays, quarterbacks tend to dominate the discussion at the NFL scouting combine as well. Remember last year’s incessant debate of Jared Goff versus Carson Wentz? This year, though, the combine is without a legitimate star at the quarterback position. The top prospects are Mitch Trubisky of North Carolina (one-year college starter), DeShone Kizer of Notre Dame (skipping two years of eligibility) and Deshaun Watson of Clemson (reigning national champion). Though all three may finish as first-round picks, the general consensus among evaluators is that none of them are ready to start right away.

Noticeable absence: The aforementioned running back revival would have been even more robust had Oklahoma’s Joe Mixon not punched a woman in the face in 2014. The altercation was caught on video, and as with the Ray Rice tape of several years ago, such an image is not easy to stomach both personally and professionally. Mixon was kicked off the team at Oklahoma and later returned to have a terrific 2016 season. He carried 187 times for 1,274 yards (6.8 yards per carry) and 10 touchdowns. He also caught 37 passes for 538 yards and five more scores. He added a kick-return touchdown as well. Mixon, who was banned from the scouting combine, is likely to be taken in the middle rounds despite his first-round talent. He will be in the NFL next season; the only question is where.

Defensive depth: The silver lining for a season in which the Packers’ defense was shredded by opposing quarterbacks is the talent-rich draft class waiting to enter the league. Should Thompson decide to reinforce his cornerbacks with more draft picks, it won’t take him long to find someone he likes. There are as many as a dozen cornerbacks with first- or second-round grades in this year’s draft, headlined by Marshon Lattimore of Ohio State, a first-team All-Big Ten honoree. Pass rushers are plentiful as well, and that’s another area that should tempt Thompson after the pedestrian seasons of outside linebackers Clay Matthews and, at times, Julius Peppers. As many as seven outside linebackers and eight defensive ends could be drafted in the first two rounds alone.

The Badgers

There are six former Wisconsin players scheduled to attend the scouting combine in Indianapolis. Here’s a look at who is involved:

Ryan Ramczyk, OT: Ramczyk’s winding path to the scouting combine included stops at a technical college with no athletic program and a Division III state school in Wisconsin. Two months from now he is likely to be the first offensive lineman taken in the NFL draft. After redshirting the 2015 season in Madison, Ramczyk became the starter in 2016 and emerged as a star. He earned first-team All-Big Ten honors and was a consensus All-American selection by the media. Ramczyk underwent hip surgery on Jan. 5 and will not participate in any drills at the combine. His medical evaluations with team doctors will be paramount in determining his draft value. Projection: First-round pick.

T.J. Watt, OLB: Watt decided to leave school early to enter the draft after his lone season as a starter. He made 63 tackles in 2016 and recorded a team-high 11½  sacks to earn first-team All-Big Ten honors. Watt has been compared to outside linebacker Clay Matthews because of his quickness and burst off the line of scrimmage. His effort is tremendous. Projection: First- or second-round pick.

Vince Biegel, OLB: Biegel is a former Wisconsin Gatorade Player of the Year who became a three-year starter in Madison. He finished his career with 28½ tackles for loss and 15 sacks. Like Watt, he plays with noticeable intensity. Lack of size will bump him down on draft boards. Should be a great special teams player from day one. Projection: Fourth- or fifth-round pick.

Corey Clement, RB: The heir apparent to Melvin Gordon endured a roller-coaster career for the Badgers. He ran for 949 yards and nine touchdowns as Gordon’s backup in 2014 but could not stay on the field one year later. He overcame a sports hernia and hand injury as a junior — the hand injury stemmed from a punch during an altercation — to compile a very productive senior season. Clement carried 314 times for 1,375 yards and 15 touchdowns en route second-team All-Big Ten honors. Projection: Third or fourth-round pick.

Dare Ogunbowale, RB: Though he played second fiddle for the majority of his career, Ogunbowale found ways to produce whenever he touched the ball. He never averaged less than 4.2 yards per carry and twice he was over 5.5 yards per carry. Ogunbowale also caught 60 passes over the last two seasons and averaged better than 8 yards per catch. Lack of explosiveness and predictability will hurt him at the next level. Projection: Undrafted free agent.

Sojourn Shelton, CB: Shelton was a significant contributor during all four seasons in Madison. He book-ended his career with four interceptions as a freshman and four more as a senior, when he was named first-team All-Big Ten by the media. He finished with 129 tackles and 30 passes defensed. Projection: Seventh-round pick or undrafted free agent.

All-Name Team

These players take home the awards for best names in Indianapolis:

Pharaoh Brown, TE, Oregon

Jessamen Dunker, OT, Tennessee State

Davon Godchaux, DE, Louisiana State

Jonathan (Bug) Howard, WR, North Carolina

Raekwon McMillan, ILB, Ohio State

Bradley Northnagel, LS, California

John (JuJu) Smith-Schuster, WR, Southern California

Tarik Cohen, RB, North Carolina A&T State

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