Ted Thompson's legacy can be traced to his first Packers draft pick
GREEN BAY – In the long history of the Green Bay Packers, it’s select company for men inducted into the franchise’s Hall of Fame as team builders.
There is Ron Wolf, the general manager who resurrected the Packers from the doldrums when he traded for Brett Favre in 1992. There is Vince Lombardi, who is enshrined as a head coach and general manager.
After Saturday, there will be a third: Ted Thompson.
Less than two years after his 13-season tenure ended, Thompson will join Wolf as only the second person inducted into the Packers Hall of Fame exclusively as a general manager during a ceremony Saturday night in the Lambeau Field Atrium.
Thompson famously drafted quarterback Aaron Rodgers with his first pick as GM in the first round of the 2005 NFL draft, giving the Packers life after Favre. The decision was controversial at the time with Favre implanted as the starting quarterback, culminating in the tumultuous summer of 2008. From the beginning, Thompson never wavered in his commitment to the Packers’ future.
“I just think when you look back five years from now,” Thompson said, “you’ll say, ‘This was a hell of a pick.’”
Those words proved prescient when Rodgers led the Packers to a Super Bowl XLV championship in his sixth NFL season, his third as a starter. Rodgers wasn’t supposed to be available at the 24th overall pick, and history has painted Thompson’s decision as an obvious call. But it was far from certain at the time, and not just because 36-year-old Favre figured to have more quality football left on his odometer.
The Packers were led by coach Mike Sherman, who’d just lost his general managership and desperately needed to win the following season. Thompson, as the new guy in Green Bay, could have placated his head coach by drafting a player who would have more immediate impact. With Favre, it was clear Rodgers’ chances of playing early in his career were slim.
Instead, Thompson took the long view.
“I think we tried to put the interests of the Green Bay Packers first,” Thompson said after drafting Rodgers. “It wasn’t necessarily that comfortable taking that position maybe as some other things we’d like to have done, but you make draft choices and draft-day decisions based on the long-term best interests of your organization. I think that’s what we did today.”
Thompson, whose front-office career began as a Packers executive under Wolf, was hired as GM on Jan. 14, 2005, after five years as vice president of football operations with the Seattle Seahawks. With him at the helm, the Packers advanced to a franchise-record eight consecutive playoffs. They played in four NFC championship games, losing three. Two were especially painful defeats: the 2007 overtime home loss to the New York Giants, and the 2014 collapse in Seattle.
The Packers had a 125-82-1 record in Thompson’s tenure, a .600 win percentage that ranked fourth in the NFL. Only the New England Patriots (.774), Pittsburgh Steelers (.649) and Indianapolis Colts (.605) had a better win percentage in that time.
Rodgers, a two-time MVP, was the biggest factor in getting the Packers their fourth Super Bowl title. But from 2005 to 2010, Thompson executed a series of championship-building draft choices. Six offensive starters and six defensive starters on the Super Bowl team, along with kicker Mason Crosby, were either drafted by Thompson or acquired as an undrafted rookie. Thompson also signed key defensive back Charles Woodson in free agency.
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In his first six years, Thompson drafted nine players who would make at least one Pro Bowl roster. Five would be selected to at least one first- or second-team All-Pro list, including Thompson’s second-ever pick as Packers GM, safety Nick Collins.
“Stellar,” was how Pro Football Hall of Fame general manager Bill Polian once described Thompson’s ability to identify talent in the draft. “He’s outstanding, and he’s outstanding not only in terms of judging talent, but of managing the draft.”
Thompson’s extreme draft-and-develop philosophy helped ensure the Packers were never in cap trouble, despite having a franchise quarterback’s salary on their books. His reluctancy to dip into free agency also drew the ire of fans — as well as coaches and front-office executives — who interpreted his approach as too passive.
Starting in 2012, Thompson went five years without signing an unrestricted free agent. His only meaningful free-agent signing during that period was tight end Jared Cook, a “street” free agent who didn’t count against the Packers’ compensatory draft formula because he was released by the Los Angeles Rams. When Thompson finally broke that drought with the signing of tight end Martellus Bennett, the decision backfired. Bennett was released midway through his first season.
Thompson’s inactivity in the free-agent market was compounded by poor drafting in the second half of his tenure. Since 2011, just six of Thompson’s draftees made a Pro Bowl roster while playing for the Packers. Only two received an All-Pro selection.
There have been midround gems, such as left tackle David Bakhtiari (fourth round), defensive tackle Mike Daniels (fourth), defensive back Micah Hyde (fifth) and center Corey Linsley (fifth), but the Packers have gotten little production from their first-round picks over the past several years. Of the five eligible players Thompson drafted since 2011, only Nick Perry received a second contract from the team — and he was released midway through that deal.
Thompson also whiffed completely on his 2015 draft class. None of the eight players drafted that year received a second contract.
Over 13 seasons, Thompson was not without his warts. He was eventually fired as general manager, reassigned to a senior adviser position to replacement Brian Gutekunst in the front office. However, Thompson’s legacy is strong. Before him, the only men to guide Green Bay to a Super Bowl title were named Lombardi and Wolf.
Many teams see their fortunes plummet immediately after a Hall of Fame quarterback retires. Because of Thompson, the Packers remained as annual Super Bowl contenders.
“He’s had an awful lot of success,” Wolf once said. “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 he’s exceptional.”