Thompson should stick with usual draft plan
The clock is ticking for Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers.
Though Rodgers isn't old by NFL quarterback standards, he's now on the back half of his career at age 31. The multiple championships that looked likely after Packers' 2010 title season haven't materialized in the four years since, and time isn't the ally it once was.
So what do the Packers have to do after coming oh-so-close to returning to the Super Bowl last year? How do they surpass their rival for supremacy in the NFC, especially after the Seattle Seahawks — along with losing three starters in free agency — traded for the best receiving tight end in the league in Jimmy Graham?
Well, they won't do it in free agency, where general manager Ted Thompson kept his offense in tact by re-signing Randall Cobb and Bryan Bulaga but has refrained from adding a player from another team.
The best chance is the draft, where Thompson faces the question that title contenders sometimes face. Does he target positions of immediate, great need (inside linebacker, cornerback), and maneuver as he must to draft the rookies he thinks can help right away? Or should he stay true to his M.O. and if anything trade back and accrue more picks for extra bites at the draft apple?
Well, if we know anything about Thompson by now, it's that he's not going to change. He didn't get more aggressive in free agency this year even though his team was close to a championship. And even if he were tempted by a more go-for-it-now draft strategy, he should resist. The history of the draft says it doesn't pay off.
The truth is, luck is as big a factor as any in draft success, regardless of whether front-office executives for NFL teams want to admit it. And the rule of thumb for GMs should be this: trade back for extra picks a lot more often than you spend extra picks for trades up.
The best evidence is a study that's well known in sports analytics circles by economists Richard Thaler of the University of Chicago and Cade Massey at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Thaler and Massey concluded that there's not much difference in drafting ability among NFL teams, and that chance accounts for most of that difference. So the smartest strategy is to collect extra picks to increase the odds of hitting on good players.
This week I re-read the study, which first was released as a working paper in 2005 and published in 2012 as an article titled "The Loser's Curse." It looked at the drafts from 1983 through 2008 and determined the quality of each pick by the player's career starts and Pro Bowls.
The study has weaknesses, it's not the be-all and end-all on the subject, and I'd argue against some of Thaler's and Massey's conclusions. For instance, I think they undervalue top 10 picks even though they're correct about the extremely high bust rates and contract costs (this was before the CBA reduced first-round picks' pay). But they don't take into account the difference a great player can make on a team's record, and that while the odds for hitting a home run aren't great in the top 10 or top five or even with the first pick, they're better than the odds of doing so later.
Regardless, Thaler's and Massey's core point is persuasive.
"It's not that (the smartest teams) are never trading (up) or that they're never placing a bet on a high pick, it's that they do that infrequently," Massey told the Daily Pennsylvanian in 2013. "Mostly they're going to trade down, mostly they're going to stockpile these picks, then every now and then they're going to say, 'We've got to have that guy.' And they'll use some of those extra picks they've stockpiled in order to go out and get that guy."
The problem with trading up is that if the pick busts — and most players tend toward the bust end of the spectrum — then you've missed on not just one pick, but in effect two.
It makes me think back to Mike Sherman's three drafts as Packers GM. In 2003, Sherman traded up four times at the cost of four extra picks for defensive tackle Kenny Peterson in the third round; defensive tackle James Lee and linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer in the fifth; and tackle Brennan Curtin in the sixth.
At the time, I thought Sherman was bold and showing the courage of his convictions. He wasn't. In fact, he either was overly confident in his ability to identify talent, or he panicked when a position of need got thin of players he liked.
All four players busted, so Sherman got nothing out of eight picks. He'd have been better off keeping the four he'd traded, even if it meant picking a little later, and working the odds in his favor.
This year, Thompson has nine picks (his own in each round plus two sixth-round compensatories) and two huge needs, at inside linebacker and cornerback.
He should resist temptation to trade up for either position unless he's absolutely blown away by a prospect. If there's not an inside linebacker or corner he values at No. 30, he has enough positions of need a year or two down the road that a player of value should be worth taking there. That includes tight end, where he could use help now; outside linebacker, where three players (Julius Peppers, Mike Neal and Nick Perry) could be in their final year with the team; and defensive line, where B.J. Raji and Letroy Guion are decent bets to re-sign but on one-year deals.
Thompson also could trade back into the early second round and gain an extra pick, as he did in 2008. That year he backpedaled from No. 30 to No. 36, selected receiver Jordy Nelson and picked up a fourth-round selection.
Having a premier quarterback offers Thompson and the Packers the rare opportunity to contend for the title almost every year. If Rodgers stays healthy into his later 30s, the franchise should be greatly disappointed if it doesn't win a couple more Super Bowls, hard as that is to do.
But even with Rodgers' clock ticking, there's nothing in Thompson's history to suggest he'll be seduced by the go-for-it-all-now mentality on draft day, and he shouldn't. Thinking short term with the draft usually is self-defeating.
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty