If you’re looking for reasons behind the Green Bay Packers’ sudden fall from the NFL’s elite, start with their lifeblood: the draft.
Ted Thompson is the ultimate draft-and-develop general manager. No GM in the league relies more heavily on his draft acumen to build his team.
There are a lot of ways to group Thompson’s drafts and classify their quality, but let’s start here: comparing his first six drafts, which ended with a Super Bowl title in the 2010 season, with his last six.
There’s an inherent unfairness there, because it’s too early to make a lasting judgment about Thompson’s two most recent classes. Still, his 2009 and ’10 drafts made key contributions to that Super Bowl title, so we at minimum can judge his last two classes on immediate impact.
Let’s start, though, with the 30,000-foot view.
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In Thompson’s first six drafts, from 2005 through 2010, he selected three outstanding players: Aaron Rodgers (first round, 2005), Nick Collins (second round, ’05) and Clay Matthews (first round, ’09).
In the last six, he has landed one: Mike Daniels (fourth round, ’12).
Zooming in more, in his first six drafts, Thompson picked up eight other players who became either difference makers at play-making positions or quality offensive linemen: Greg Jennings (second round, ’06), Jordy Nelson (second round, ’08), Jermichael Finley (third round, ’08), Josh Sitton (fourth round, ’08), B.J. Raji (first round, ’09), T.J. Lang (fourth round, ’09), Bryan Bulaga (first-round, 10) and Sam Shields (undrafted rookie, ’10).
In the last six, he landed three: Randall Cobb (second round, ’11), Eddie Lacy (second round, ’13) and David Bakhtiari (fourth round, ’13). To be fair, Nick Perry (first round, 2012) has played well enough this season to become a close call, and Corey Linsley (fifth round, ’14) probably will end up on this list by next year.
There’s also time for more recent classes to add to it as well. Maybe Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Damarious Randall, Kenny Clark or Jason Spriggs will join them. But maybe isn't is, and they're not there now.
Put another way, of Thompson’s 12 drafts, the first six produced the best pass rusher (Matthews), the two best receivers (Jennings and Nelson), the best safety (Collins), the best cornerback (Shields) and three of the four best offensive linemen (Sitton, Lang and Bulaga) that the GM has drafted.
The last six produced the best at only one position, defensive line (Daniels).
Any way you look at it, the difference is stark.
But what matters most is the 30,000-foot view. Thompson hit huge with the Rodgers, Collins and Matthews picks. Those guys changed games. Jennings was close to that level as well. And during that time (in 2006), Thompson ventured onto the open market and signed Charles Woodson, another game changer who won the NFL’s defensive player of the year award in 2009.
Rodgers still is here and at age 32 remains in his prime for his position. But Collins, Woodson and Jennings are now retired, and Matthews is starting to show the wear of age (30) and injuries.
The only elite player Thompson has drafted in the last six years is Daniels. That’s one of several reasons why this team is 4-6 and has lost four straight games. The Packers don’t have enough players who tilt the field their way.
Time could change that, depending on how much Thompson’s last three classes grow. Remember, it took until Daniels’ third season to see just how good he might be.
So maybe Clinton-Dix still makes the jump, though we’re more than halfway through his third year. Or perhaps Randall, the ’15 first-rounder who has flashed skills playing the ball, blossoms at cornerback on his imminent return from groin surgery. Or maybe Clark, the first-round pick this year, will be a breakout star on the defensive line in 2017.
Still, his rookie class this year has done nothing out of the ordinary — it has produced one starter (inside linebacker Blake Martinez) and one rotational player (Clark) — and so far there are no stars from the previous two drafts.
What stands out in the here and now is the talent gap on the field. Injuries hit all teams, but they’re affecting the Packers more than most. That finally became clear the last two weeks: Tennessee and Washington simply had more good players.
So if you want to know why the Packers are 8-12 in their last 20 regular-season games, start with the lifeblood of the team. Ted Thompson’s drafts haven’t been what they were.