Packers still reeling from damage done in disastrous 2015 draft
GREEN BAY – For all the hours spent studying film, grading prospects and diagnosing scenarios in boardroom meetings, no NFL team enters this week’s draft expecting to fail.
And yet the draft remains one of the ultimate crapshoots in sports. Invariably, some teams are about to strike out this week. Others will find all-pros, essential building blocks they’ll use to become Super Bowl contenders.
That was the Green Bay Packers’ expectation in 2015. They entered that draft on the cusp of a championship, three months removed from collapsing in the NFC Championship game. One player, perhaps two, was all the Packers needed to push them to the summit: their fifth Lombardi Trophy.
Ted Thompson, then the Packers' general manager, sure held that hope at the weekend’s conclusion.
“On a big-picture thing,” Thompson said then, “I thought it went pretty good. You always kind of walk away and wondered if you did the right thing, but I do a lot of praying, so I hope that helps.”
He was reflecting on a draft class that featured eight players: defensive back Damarious Randall, corner Quinten Rollins, receiver Ty Montgomery, linebacker Jake Ryan, quarterback Brett Hundley, fullback Aaron Ripkowski, defensive lineman Christian Ringo and tight end Kennard Backman. If Thompson’s extensive history in the draft was any indication, the group would include one Pro Bowl-caliber player, and at least a couple longtime starters.
Four years later, it’s clear no amount of prayers could prevent the 2015 class’ disintegration. It crumbled slowly at first, then collapsed all at once, cascading into ruins that reverberated not only this past season, but also this spring.
How brutal was its downfall? Of the eight players the Packers drafted, none made it to the end of their rookie contract on the team’s active roster. The Packers were the only team in the NFL to not retain at least one player drafted that spring for four full seasons, according to data compiled by PackersNews. All but seven other teams retained at least two drafted players through their rookie deal.
Montgomery was the last from that draft class to play for the Packers. A third-round pick, he was traded to Baltimore in October. His 150 snaps last season were the entirety of the playing time from the Packers' 2015 draft class, the fewest fourth-year snaps for any team in the league. The Cleveland Browns (459) were the only other team with fewer than 500.
Even as Thompson’s draft production diminished in the second half of his tenure, 2015 stands out as especially fruitless. The Packers found gems from 2012, 2013 and 2014 in defensive tackle Mike Daniels, left tackle David Bakhtiari and receiver Davante Adams. Each class retained at least three players for four full seasons and had at least 1,900 snaps from fourth-year players, with 2013 and '14 providing more than 3,000 fourth-year snaps.
In context, 2015 appears to be a line of demarcation. The year Thompson, perhaps the league’s best drafting general manager, finally saw his hit streak end.
Rise before the fall
Take a snapshot after their rookie season, and the Packers’ 2015 draft class appears to have some potential.
Randall, especially, had a promising first year. The first-round pick, Randall played safety at Arizona State. There were split opinions among scouts on whether he fit best as a safety or cornerback.
The Packers, having lost veteran Tramon Williams and Davon House in free agency, and knowing Casey Hayward was set to be a free agent the following year, believed Randall’s natural ability to play the football would translate well at corner.
“He’s got really good ball skills,” Thompson said on the night Randall was drafted. “He’s got kind of a knack for catching the ball.”
Randall flashed that ability almost immediately. He had at least one defended pass in nine of his first 10 games, finishing with 14 on the season. He also had three interceptions, including one he returned 43 yards for a touchdown late in the season at Oakland.
So confident were the Packers in Randall’s future at cornerback, Thompson and chief contract negotiator Russ Ball let Hayward walk in free agency. Hayward signed a three-year, $15.3 million contract with the then-San Diego Chargers, a steal of a deal.
After struggling with injuries early in his career, Hayward not only stayed healthy but also produced. He earned Pro Bowl and second-team All-Pro selections in 2016 and 2017, leading the league with seven interceptions in his first season away from the Packers.
The absence of a contract offer did not sit well.
“I’m like, ‘Wow. They really think I’m a s--tty player,” Hayward told Bleacher Report in a 2017 article. “They didn’t offer me at all. I felt like I was the best player at the position when I was there. I kind of was like, ‘Dang.’”
In truth, the decision to let him walk had much more to do with how the Packers viewed their young cornerbacks than what they thought of Hayward.
Randall wasn’t the only promising rookie. In all, the Packers got 1,605 snaps from their draft rookies in 2015, ranking 23rd in the NFL. That number would have been higher had Montgomery’s season not ended with a high-ankle sprain against the Chargers in October.
Though his first season was less remarkable, Rollins turned heads with a pair of interceptions in an October home game against the then-St. Louis Rams, returning one for a 45-yard touchdown. They were supposed to be the future at corner, Randall and Rollins. The Packers were betting on it.
Their gamble went broke.
Ideally, a draft class hits its stride in Year 3. Coaches often speak of the second-year jump, a player’s ability to improve in his first, full offseason as a pro. That improvement should continue through their second season, into their second full offseason.
By Year 3, general managers usually know what a player can do.
The 2015 draft class progressed accordingly. After spiking to 14th in the league with 2,534 second-year snaps, the Packers ranked 10th with 2,441 snaps from third-year drafted players in 2017. From Hundley starting nine games that season after Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone, to Randall leading the team in interceptions, they formed the foundation of the 2017 Packers.
That team fell flat on its face. The Packers finished 7-9 in 2017, their first losing record in almost a decade. It snapped a streak of eight straight playoffs, one of the NFL’s longest in the Super Bowl era.
At year’s end, Thompson was promptly reassigned within the front office, fired from his general manager duties.
“Obviously we’re disappointed with the season this year,” Murphy said on the day he announced Thompson’s new role.
Fissures in the 2015 draft class’ foundation became more pronounced through the 2017 season. After two full years to sit, study and learn behind Rodgers, Hundley was outmatched when his opportunity to be a starter arrived. Unable to keep the season afloat, the Packers were 3-7 in games Hundley played most of the snaps.
Randall’s issues were more subtle. By the end of 2017, he had established himself as the top playmaker in the Packers’ secondary. Among his four interceptions, he returned one for a 21-yard touchdown in Dallas. But the week before, Randall had been sent to the locker room during the second half against Chicago after pouting on the sideline following a touchdown he allowed.
Randall became more disruptive in the locker room throughout that fall, and after the season his frustrations spilled over. He criticized coaches for not holding players accountable, comments that irked former head coach Mike McCarthy given the inconsistencies in Randall’s own play.
“I’ll tell you what I told Damarious,” McCarthy said after the 2017 season. “He needs to focus on himself. He’s got to clean his own house. That’s what I look for him to do in the offseason.”
It’s said the greatest mistake a general manager can make is not recognizing his errors. Brian Gutekunst, a longtime fixture in the Packers' front office, was heavily involved in drafting the 2015 class. As director of college scouting, these were his players almost as much as they were Thompson’s.
The allure to remain patient, to ride out the status quo, could have been overwhelming. To demolish the 2015 draft class would have been to admit defeat, forfeiting a lost year in an extreme, draft-and-develop structure not designed to lose any.
On the day he was hired to replace Thompson, Gutekunst didn’t sound like a general manager who held any prior commitments. Instead, in laying out his vision, he spoke of creating discomfort on the roster through job competition.
In hindsight, it’s easy to see his remarks were directed specifically at the underwhelming 2015 draft class.
New sheriff in town
Sitting in a third-floor board room last year, the memories of their disappointing 2017 season still fresh, Gutekunst used his first day on the job to put underperforming players on notice.
“There became opportunities for guys,” Gutekunst said that day, “and they didn’t (step up). Now there will be new opportunities, and there will probably be new faces and things like that to take on those opportunities. You never really know. We build from the draft, and sometimes you get young players that don’t particularly step up and do their end of it. There was some of that this year.
“… You always want to create competition, and once you kind of realize a player isn’t good enough, you need to move on. Even if the player you bring in you’re not quite sure is good enough either, it’s better to move on and bring another player in and see if he can do it rather than stick with the player you know can’t.”
By the time Gutekunst assumed control, Ringo and Backman had washed out the way sixth- and seventh-round picks tend to. Six other players from the Packers’ 2015 draft class were on the roster.
None would remain 14 months later.
Randall’s time in Green Bay had run its course by last spring. In Gutekunst’s first major transaction, he traded Randall to the Cleveland Browns for backup quarterback DeShone Kizer and an exchange of draft picks. The trade’s primary objective was to extinguish Randall from the Packers’ locker room, but there were also football considerations.
The Packers expected Randall’s length, athleticism and ball skills would make for a seamless transition to cornerback, but he’d never played much on the field’s perimeter and never seemed entirely comfortable. Randall led the Browns' defense with 1,083 snaps last season, seeming much more at ease as a free safety in the middle of the field.
Meanwhile, Rollins’ two-interception game against the Rams was an aberration. The Packers drafted him knowing his 4.57 40 speed was suspect, but they believed his ball skills could help him become a playmaker. After starting his college career as a basketball player, Rollins was third in the nation with eight interceptions in his lone football season at Miami (Ohio). Big plays were much more fleeting at the next level.
In 28 games after playing the Rams, Rollins had just one interception. He tore his Achilles against the Vikings in 2017, robbing him of what little speed he had. The Packers released Rollins before their opener last season, and though he spent three weeks on the Arizona Cardinals' practice squad in 2018, he is a free agent.
Hundley was traded to Seattle for a sixth-round pick midway through 2018 training camp. Ripkowski, best known for fumbling in the 2016 NFC Championship game, was released at final cuts when the Packers decided to not carry a traditional fullback on their 53-man roster. He’s now with the Kansas City Chiefs.
Ryan, the fourth-round linebacker, likely would have had a role last season, but he tore his ACL in camp. Instead of re-signing with the Packers this spring, Ryan took a two-year deal with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
By last October, Montgomery was the last 2015 drafted pick standing. His roller-coaster three-and-a-half years featured some highs, such as 162 rushing yards and two touchdowns at Chicago in 2016, but also plenty of lows. After switching to running back to get more snaps, Montgomery found himself lost in the shuffle last season after the Packers drafted Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams. No longer seeing the same playing time, he fumed late in a game at the Los Angeles Rams.
With the Packers down two points with 2:05 left, Montgomery chose to ignore McCarthy’s instructions to stay in the end zone for a touchback, instead returning a kickoff. When he fumbled the football, he ensured victory for the Rams.
Montgomery dodged reporters that day leaving the visitors’ locker room at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Teammates anonymously ripped him in an NFL Network report. A day later, Montgomery lodged his own missiles.
“It’s tough for me to trust anyone now,” he said then. “Guys talking about how they can trust me, it’s tough for me to trust anyone now.”
That was the point of no return. Montgomery was traded to Baltimore the next day.
It’s easy to see the mistakes in hindsight.
Randall was drafted to play a position that wasn’t his best. So was Montgomery, whose best position was running back, and even still he would’ve been a reach in the third round. The Packers also reached for Hundley, trading a seventh-round pick to New England so they could move up in the fifth and draft him.
It must make the Packers sick to think of what might have been. After Randall, the next safety was drafted three picks later. His name was Landon Collins. Frank Clark, a rising pass rusher, was drafted one pick after Rollins. Seven picks after Green Bay got Montgomery, New England drafted edge rusher Trey Flowers.
Collins ($84 million) and Flowers ($90 million) signed lucrative contracts this offseason, while the Seattle Seahawks used a franchise tag on Clark ($17.128 million).
The Packers, meanwhile, spent this spring in damage control. Three of the four free agents Gutekunst signed were drafted in 2015: Preston Smith (second round), Za’Darius Smith (fourth) and Adrian Amos (fifth). Together, they combined for 2,552 snaps last season. They also cost deals worth a combined $154 million, including $48 million guaranteed.
That’s what happens when teams whiff in the draft. Lost production must be replaced somehow. It’s never cheap. On the day he announced his free-agent signings, Gutekunst mentioned he doesn’t plan on this type of spending spree each spring. There’s only one way to avoid it.
He’ll need to hit in this week’s draft.