In March of 2013, the Green Bay Packers and Atlanta Falcons were the final teams trying to sign running back Steven Jackson in free agency.
Both clubs had a huge need for the three-time Pro Bowler. The Packers were desperate for a runner who could make defenses pay for the two-deep safety look that quarterback Aaron Rodgers faced on a weekly basis. The Falcons, coming off a trip to the NFC championship game, needed a power back to replace Michael Turner, who in 2012 had hit the wall.
In the end, it turned out like it usually does for the Packers in free agency during the Ted Thompson era. The general manager drew his financial line on a player who was four months shy of 30 years old and wouldn't budge when it was time to make a deal. Another team's GM, in this case the Falcons' Thomas Dimitroff, was willing to go higher, and Atlanta signed Jackson to a three-year contract that included $4 million fully guaranteed and averages $4 million a season.
Then forward six weeks later, to the 2013 NFL draft. When the Falcons' second-round pick came up at No. 60 overall, they felt no need for a running back and selected cornerback Robert Alford. The Packers picked next, and Thompson took running back Eddie Lacy.
Less than two years later, the Packers and Falcons are set to meet Monday night at Lambeau Field. And though the outcome of those moves isn't the only factor, it has played a significant role in each team's fortunes since.
In Lacy, the Packers have one of the NFL's best young backs at age 24. His 1,435 yards in total offense as a rookie were a primary reason the Packers won the NFC North Division last year even though Rodgers missed half the season because of a broken collarbone. This year with Rodgers and Lacy playing together the Packers have the NFL's No. 2 scoring offense and at 9-3 are tied for the best record in the NFL.
The 31-year-old Jackson, on the other hand, has proven to be a fast-descending player. Last season he missed four games because of hamstring and toe injuries and rushed for only 543 yards and a 3.5-yard average. This year through 12 games he's done only slightly better (602 yards, 3.8-yard average). The Falcons, one of the NFC's best teams from 2009-12, went 4-12 in 2013 and are 5-7 this season.
Just something to keep in mind next spring if Thompson, as usual, remains mostly on the sidelines during free agency. He is draft and develop to the hilt, and while I've recently argued there's room for him to be more active in free agency without being reckless, it's outcomes like this that remind why he operates the way he does.
"I think we've got the right approach, the right plan," said Dom Capers, the Packers' defensive coordinator, when asked about working for a team at the far end of the NFL's draft-and-develop spectrum.
As the Jackson-Lacy case illustrates, Dimitroff and Thompson have quite different approaches to building their teams. Dimitroff is much like and really even more aggressive than his mentor, New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, in moving around in the draft and especially trading up for targeted players. He dabbles regularly in free agency.
Thompson, on the other hand, has methodically built his team almost exclusively via the draft, with the most recent exception the helpful signings of Julius Peppers and Letroy Guion last offseason. But even those free-agent deals were relatively low risk – Peppers' guaranteed pay was $7.5 million, which gave the Packers an easy out if Peppers had hit the wall, which he clearly hasn't. And Guion at age 27 is making only $985,000 on a one-year deal.
Both approaches have worked, but the Packers' success is more consistent. Thompson is uncommonly disciplined in sticking with his extreme draft and develop philosophy, and he not only is willing but seems to aspire to being one of the NFL's youngest teams every year.
"It's a young man's game," Capers said this week.
Since hiring Dimitroff from the Patriots in 2008, the Falcons have the NFL's seventh-best record (65-43-1), their GM has won the The Sporting News' NFL executive of the year award twice. But in the last two seasons, Dimitroff's team is 9-19 even though it's stayed stable at quarterback with Matt Ryan.
In that same time, the Packers have the NFL's second-best record (70-37-1), have won a Super Bowl, and Thompson has been named executive of the year once. The Packers are one of only two teams — New England is the other — that have been to the playoffs each of the last five years, and it's all but a given they're going again this season.
Though all NFL teams have to be draft-and-develop to a significant degree because of the salary cap and free agency, the draft numbers alone illustrate the difference between Thompson and Dimitroff. Since becoming the Falcons' GM, Dimitroff has twice traded away multiple picks to move up in the first round, and in his seven drafts he's selected 55 players total. In that same time Thompson, whose M.O. is to trade down and acquire extra picks, has drafted 62 players.
In other words, over the last seven years, Thompson has added the equivalent of one more draft class than Dimitroff.
It's impossible to imagine Thompson doing what Dimitroff did in 2011, when the Falcons' GM traded five picks to move from No. 27 overall to No. 6 to select receiver Julio Jones. In the exchange of first-round picks with Cleveland, Dimitroff gave up his second- and fourth-round picks in that draft, plus his first- and fourth-rounders in 2012.
And really, Dimitroff's decision was understandable, even if Belichick advised against it because of the high price, as documented in Michael Holley's book "The War Room." The Falcons were coming off a 13-3 season, and a truly special player can be worth five picks. Jones from early in his career has been a premier receiver, perhaps the second-best in the game, behind only Calvin Johnson.
But for the move to have been worth it, Jones had to put the Falcons over the top. He hasn't because of declining talent elsewhere, especially on a defense that was shy of playmakers to begin with. And trading for Jones has contributed to the Falcons' talent pipeline running dry.
Still, Dimitroff has stayed aggressive. In 2013, he traded the No. 30 pick overall plus his 2014 third- and sixth-rounders to move up eight spots to select cornerback Desmond Trufant at No. 22. Dimitroff also received a conditional 2015 seventh-round pick in the deal.
The difference appears to be that Thompson generally won't go to great lengths to get players he especially likes in the draft. He's more likely to backpedal and take what the draft board gives him, hoping that quantity will increase his odds of finding good players. He did that even while landing Lacy. Thompson had a shot at the running back with pick No. 55 overall but traded back six spots on the assumption that either Lacy or Wisconsin's Montee Ball would be there. Thompson gained an extra sixth-round selection because he would have been fine with either.
Dimitroff, on the other hand, goes hard after players he targets high. After giving up a third-rounder to draft Trufant rather than hope the cornerback would be available eight picks later, Dimitroff revealed his thinking to reporters.
"We weren't going to run the chance of running the risk of not having a guy like this on our team," he said. "That's why we made our move."
The price the Falcons have paid for that aggressiveness has been primarily on defense, which has deteriorated to last-ranked in the NFL in yards allowed and No. 22 in points allowed. Trufant is their best defensive player but not a difference maker. And Dimitroff has tried to fill holes with free agency, but with only marginal success.
He signed cornerback Dunta Robinson in 2010 to a six-year deal that included $22.5 million guaranteed but cut him after three seasons, which contributed to the dire need for a cornerback in the 2013 draft. He signed defensive lineman Ray Edwards to a five-year deal in 2011 but cut him during the '12 season. And last year he signed defensive end Osi Umenyiora, who's now 33, to a two-year deal that averages $4.5 million. He has 10 sacks in 28 games.
This year, Dimitroff's free-agent signings included defensive lineman Tyson Jackson (five years, $5 million average, $9.5 million fully guaranteed) and nose tackle Paul Soliai (five years, $6.4 million average, $11 million guaranteed). And yet, the Falcons' defense still is among the league's worst.
Contrast that with Thompson's Packers, who despite having defensive issues of their own have built depth at key positions.
Last Sunday, for instance, Belichick had the best cornerback on the field in Darrelle Revis, a player he signed in the offseason. The Packers, though, had superior depth because of their home-grown talent at that position. It made a difference, especially after the Packers lost their best cover man, Sam Shields, to a concussion in the first half.
With Tramon Williams (acquired in 2006 after going undrafted), Davon House (fourth round pick in '11), Casey Hayward (second-round pick in '12) and Michah Hyde (fifth-round pick in '13) the Packers could match up with the Patriots' top three receivers just fine. The Patriots, with Logan Ryan, Kyle Arrington and Alfonzo Dennard sharing time as the No. 3 cornerback, couldn't handle the Packers' third receiver. And that's one of the edges that won the Packers that game.
This isn't to say Thompson shouldn't be a little more active in free agency than he's been historically, as Peppers and Guion have shown this year. Thompson also has had a huge edge on most GMs because he's always had an elite quarterback to build around.
But it bears repeating from time to time that draft-and-develop makes for the most consistent winning. It leads to uneventful offseasons. It takes patience. But it works.
"We bring guys in, we don't throw'em away," said Joe Whitt, the Packers' cornerbacks coach. "If they're not necessarily successful early we work with them if we see a skill set that's good for the Green Bay Packers. And we develop that skill set."
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