Thompson targets passing game playmakers
If there's one conclusion we can draw from the Green Bay Packers' 2015 draft through three rounds, it's that general manager Ted Thompson thinks you have to be deep with cover men and receivers to win in today's NFL.
Thompson lost two cornerbacks from his deepest position group last season when Tramon Williams and Davon House left in free agency, and he used his first two picks this weekend to replace them: Damarious Randall of Arizona State in the first round Thursday night, and Quinten Rollins of Miami (Ohio) with the No. 62 pick overall in the second round.
He also drafted a receiver, Stanford's Ty Montgomery, in the third round even though that was far less of a need.
There surely were other players with high enough grades for Thompson to draft with any of those picks to help his defense. And as noteworthy as anything he did the first two days is what he didn't do: Select an inside linebacker in the first three rounds as a possible starter.
There still are four rounds to go, but it really is shocking that Thompson didn't use a prime pick and even maneuver if he had to for an inside linebacker, considering it has ranked high on the Packers' needs list for two years now. Looks like Clay Matthews will have to play an awful lot of inside linebacker again this season.
Regardless, even if Thompson didn't come into the weekend planning on drafting corners with his first two picks — only he knows if that was his hope — he had no qualms about doing so.
So now the Packers have five players to battle it out for the three cornerback spots who will make up their nickel personnel, which they use on about two-thirds of their defensive snaps: Sam Shields, Casey Hayward, Micah Hyde (slot corner only), Randall and Rollins.
Pass rushers still offer the best way to defend the pass, and good ones can cover up all sorts of defensive shortcomings. But cornerbacks can change games too by taking the ball away, and Thompson's draft clearly is a stab at finding playmakers at that position. The quality he, college scouting director Brian Gutekunst and cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt kept coming back to when talking about Randall and Rollins was their ball skills.
"This is a passing league now, and interceptions, turnovers, is a way you can really change the game," Whitt said. "So I value (interceptions). I think we're very good at it. The six years we've been here we're No. 1 in the league by a good margin. I believe both these guys have the skill set to get the ball. Added to what Sam and Casey can do, and Micah, that's very exciting."
Now, just because Thompson has drafted cornerbacks with his first two picks doesn't mean either or both will be any good. In 1999, former GM Ron Wolf had an open starting spot at cornerback and drafted a corner with each of his first three picks: Antuan Edwards in the first round, Fred Vinson in the second and Mike McKenzie in the third.
Edwards never panned out at cornerback or in his move to safety. Vinson had a bad foot and was a total bust. McKenzie was the best of the group, started as a rookie and played some good football before a contract dispute led to his departure.
So who knows how these two will turn out? Randall is making the move from safety to cornerback, even if the Packers are high on his athletic talent. Rollins' inexperience suggests he has ground to make up, though he was the Mid-American Conference's defensive player of the year. He was a four-year starter in basketball as a point guard at Miami and hadn't played football since high school before returning to it last year.
The one NFL scout I asked about Rollins last week said he was one of the more interesting cornerbacks in what he considered a weak class. He liked Rollins as a late second-round to third-round prospect.
"He's a real intriguing guy," the scout said. "He has the basketball (background), and you can see the quickness. The thing that got me really excited about him right from Jump Street is that for a guy who hadn't played football for four years, there was no fear whatsoever. When there was a play to be made or a tackle he was go get it. He's going to play, because he has the ability, he likes contact and he has the athletic ability to do something. I really liked him."
Thompson obviously liked him too with the surprise pick. The smart money had him taking a defensive player at another position, and among those available at No. 62 were TCU's P.J. Dawson, an inside linebacker; Iowa defensive tackle Carl Davis, who was a favorite of one scout I talked to last week; and UCLA's Owa Odighizuwa, a raw outside pass rusher.
Thompson also either resisted the urge or couldn't find a palatable deal to trade up for any of the other inside linebackers who were picked in the run at that position in the middle of the second round. Mississiippi State's Benardrick McKinney went to Houston at pick No. 43; UCLA's Eric Kendricks to Minnesota at No. 45; and Miami's Denzel Perryman to San Diego at No. 48.
And he passed on Dawson again at No. 94 overall to take Montgomery, a receiver and return man from Stanford. Receiver wasn't much of an immediate need, but return man was, and like the selection of the two cornerbacks, this pick acknowledged that the NFL is only becoming more pass oriented by the year.
"The game is that sort of game," Thompson said. "Since I've been here we've had Brett Favre playing quarterback or Aaron Rodgers, so you like to get them as many people to throw to as you can."