Putting Ted Thompson's draft fortunes on the line
Third in a four-part NFL draft data series.
GREEN BAY - With his first pick as Green Bay Packers general manager, Ted Thompson ensured his franchise would contend for more than a decade.
Aaron Rodgers’ descent to the late first round was the gift many NFL executives wait their entire careers to find, if it ever comes. The Packers already had Brett Favre. Rodgers gave them life after a Hall of Fame quarterback’s career.
With few exceptions, a franchise quarterback is the singular ingredient to the Super Bowl puzzle. Teams with franchise quarterbacks win. Teams without struggle until they find one. But Thompson’s work was not done April 23, 2005.
As important as franchise quarterbacks are, general managers are judged on how well they build around them.
With a franchise quarterback’s salary-cap demands, the NFL draft is an economical, preferred method to add other roster pieces. Each general manager has a draft fingerprint, a history of finding more production at certain positions than others. To better understand Thompson’s, USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin studied each pick the Packers general manager made in his 12 drafts.
The study measured two crucial points of production — sustainability and impact — while compiling the number of games and starts, the number of Pro Bowlers and All-Pros, and the number of second contracts and washouts at each position. A washout is a draft pick who never appeared in a game for the Packers.
The study reveals Thompson’s successes and struggles building a roster around two franchise quarterbacks. Specialists Mason Crosby and Clark Harris, and fullbacks Korey Hall, Quinn Johnson and Aaron Ripkowski were excluded because of their position’s limited impact on a 53-man roster.
RELATED: Complete Packers draft coverage
Top players: G Josh Sitton (2008, fourth round), T.J. Lang (2009, fourth), David Bakhtiari (2013, fourth)
Washouts: T Jamon Meredith (2009, fifth), G Caleb Schlauderaff (2011, sixth), T Andrew Datko (2012, seventh)
Protecting a pair of franchise quarterbacks, it’s fitting Thompson has been most successful drafting offensive linemen. With five starting spots to fill, it’s no surprise the 19 offensive linemen Thompson drafted since 2005 are more than any other position. Offensive linemen amassed a team-high 555 starts and 740 games played. The Packers retained eight offensive linemen four years, and six started at least two seasons, both the most among any position. Thompson also signed five offensive linemen to second contracts, tied with defensive line for most of any position.
Most impressive is Thompson’s ability to find quality starters in middle rounds. Offensive linemen provided the most All-Pro selections through the draft, with three from Sitton and one from Bakhtiari. Sitton was selected to the Pro Bowl three times, while Lang was voted to the Pro Bowl last season.
Thompson hasn’t hit on every pick. Meredith, Schlauderaff and Datko never played a game for the Packers, though Meredith became a starting guard for Tampa Bay and Schlauderaff played three seasons with the New York Jets.
Top players: Greg Jennings (2006, second), Jordy Nelson (2008, second), Randall Cobb (2011, second)
Washouts: Craig Bragg (2005, sixth), Cory Rodgers (2006, fourth), David Clowney (2007, fifth), Charles Johnson (2013, seventh)
Thompson never let a receiver sign with another team in free agency after their rookie contract expired. Only four of 17 receivers Thompson drafted stayed on the roster four seasons: Jennings, James Jones (2007, third), Nelson and Cobb. Each signed a second contract with the Packers. Thompson drafted more Pro Bowl receivers than any position. Jennings leads the way with two, but Nelson is the lone All-Pro. Bragg and Rodgers are the only two drafted receivers never to play a game for the Packers.
Top player: Jermichael Finley (2008, third)
The premature end to Finley’s career put a major dent into this position. If not for Finley’s neck injury in 2013, he might’ve been a difference maker in the middle of the field for a decade. Instead, Thompson struggled for two years to find a suitable replacement, ultimately resorting to free agency this offseason, signing Martellus Bennett and Lance Kendricks.
It’s interesting Thompson’s success finding pass catchers on the field’s perimeter hasn’t translated to tight end. It's is the only position that hasn’t produced a Pro Bowler in Thompson’s tenure. Of six tight ends Thompson drafted, only Finley and Andrew Quarless (2010, fifth) signed second contracts. At a thrifty price, Richard Rodgers (2014, third) could become a third when his rookie deal expires next spring. Not a single washout at this position, but Kennard Backman (2015, sixth) comes close. After seven games as a rookie, Backman was released last training camp.
Top players: James Starks (2010, sixth), Eddie Lacy (2013, second)
There was a time Lacy seemed destined to become the best running back Thompson ever drafted. In terms of talent, he might be. But Starks is the only drafted running back Thompson signed to a second contract.
Like tight end, Thompson has drafted six running backs in his tenure — and famously never one in the first round. Lacy is the only two-year starter among the group, and his Pro Bowl trip as a rookie is the position’s lone selection. But weight and conditioning issues prevented Lacy from reaching his potential, and Thompson let the 2013 offensive rookie of the year sign with the Seattle Seahawks this offseason. So Starks’ 76 games are most among running backs Thompson drafted, and 2007 second-round pick Brandon Jackson’s 52 games are also one more than Lacy played for the Packers.
Best player: B.J. Raji (2009, first)
Washouts: Dave Tollefson (2006, seventh) Lawrence Guy (2011, seventh), Khyri Thornton (2014, third)
Behind offensive line, defensive line is Thompson’s second-most-targeted position with 18 drafted since 2005. He hasn’t had the same success, with first-round busts Justin Harrell and Datone Jones. Seven defensive linemen stayed on the roster four years, with four becoming two-year starters. Both are fewer than the Packers’ offensive line production, though the five defensive linemen Thompson signed to second contracts are identical. If you’re looking for Thompson’s biggest weakness, this is the place to start. Raji is the only defensive lineman Thompson drafted to reach the Pro Bowl, selected in his third season.
Top player: Clay Matthews (2009, first)
Washout: Ricky Elmore (2011, sixth)
On his own, Matthews changes this position’s analysis. Of Thompson’s 111 picks, one of his best was trading into the 2009 first round to select Matthews out of USC. Matthews was once on a potential Hall of Fame trajectory, and at age 31 he will become the Packers’ all-time sacks leader this fall. His six Pro Bowls and three All-Pro selections dwarf the combined achievements of the five other outside linebackers Thompson drafted. Along with Matthews, Brady Poppinga (2005, fourth) and Nick Perry (2012, first) also received second contracts.
Top players: A.J. Hawk (2006, first), Desmond Bishop (2007, sixth)
Washout: Kurt Campbell (2005, seventh)
It isn’t quite fair to say Thompson doesn’t value inside linebacker. Yes, he’s drafted an inside linebacker higher than the fourth round only twice — and both came more than a decade ago in 2006. But the 11 inside linebackers Thompson drafted is fourth most behind offensive line, defensive line and receiver, positions that consume more spots on a 53-man roster. Hawk was a pillar at inside linebacker for almost a decade, starting 136 games and appearing in 142. He also had the position’s lone Pro Bowl appearance as an injury replacement, though Bishop was the better player in a shorter career. Perhaps because of Thompson’s reluctance to draft inside linebackers in early rounds, it’s a position the Packers struggled with over the years. It’s too early to know whether Jake Ryan (2015, fourth) and Blake Martinez (2016, fourth), the newest pair of youngsters in the center of the Packers’ defense, will change that.
Top players: Micah Hyde (2013, fifth), Casey Hayward (2012, second)
The Packers’ three best corners under Thompson were acquired outside the draft: Charles Woodson, Sam Shields and Tramon Williams. LaDarius Gunter, undrafted in 2015, has a chance to continue that trend. None of the 10 cornerbacks Thompson drafted signed a second contract with the Packers until Davon House (2011, fourth) this offseason. Even that wasn’t really a second contract — the Packers let House sign as a free agent with Jacksonville after his rookie deal expired in 2014. Because of their success outside the draft, the 73 starts from drafted cornerbacks is fewest among any position. Hyde, the only two-year starter Thompson drafted as a corner, had more success as a safety and slot nickel. Cornerback is a possibility for the Packers in the first round this year. Damarious Randall (2015, first) is the only cornerback Thompson drafted in the first round, and he played safety in college.
Top player: Nick Collins (2005, second)
Similar to Finley with tight ends, Nick Collins’ career-ending neck injury limited Thompson’s success at the safety position. The player added immediately after Aaron Rodgers might be the second-best Thompson ever drafted, starting his career on a potential Hall of Fame trajectory before its premature end. Collins’ absence left a void at safety that cratered during a dreadful 2013 season, but Thompson reached into the first round to find his second Pro Bowler at the position with Ha Ha Clinton-Dix in 2014.
Along with Morgan Burnett (2010, third), the Packers’ safety position is locked down with two longtime starters. It’s reflected in the 238 safety starts the Packers acquired through the draft, only 10 fewer than the defensive line total despite 10 fewer players drafted at the position.