Second in a four-part NFL draft data series.
Four years ago, Ted Thompson entered the NFL draft determined to rebuild a defense that allowed more yards than any NFL team in the 2011 season.
The Green Bay Packers general manager was relentless. From the first to fifth rounds, his first six picks were spent on defensive players. He was aggressive. In the draft’s final two days, Thompson traded six picks.
Those moves allowed the Packers to move up eight slots in the second round, then move into the second round again. What the trades didn’t do was help Thompson rebuild the Packers' defense.
Only two players from the 2012 draft class remain on the Packers' roster, including underwhelming first-round selection Nick Perry. Only three players — barely a third of the eight-member class — stayed with the organization through the end of their rookie contract.
Related: Complete Packers draft coverage
It is hard to find any area of the draft where Thompson hasn’t excelled. Extensive data suggests he has been the NFL’s best general manager when it comes to maximizing the draft’s power to build championship-contending rosters. His draft success is vital, given Thompson’s disdain for free agency.
Thompson’s 2012 class is a rare exception.
With rookie contracts lasting four seasons, an NFL draft class can be best evaluated four years after their careers start. On the surface, it’s easy to consider the Packers' 2012 draft class as disappointing. But it wasn’t disastrous, and that’s better than what some NFL teams can say about their 2012 draft.
While Thompson certainly didn’t accomplish his goal, a USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin study revealed the Packers could have fared much, much worse. The study analyzed all 32 teams based on seven key categories from the 2012 draft: games started, games played, two-year starters, four-year players, fourth-season snaps, Pro Bowl players and All-Pros (as voted by the Associated Press).
It revealed 2012 as the most polarized draft the league has seen since at least 2004, if not longer.
No, the Packers were not immune to the challenges. Their 2012 class ranks among the league’s bottom half of in all seven categories. If not for Mike Daniels, a fourth-round defensive end who has developed into a potential Pro Bowl talent, the class would be futile.
Still, there is a significant gap between the Packers and the 2012 draft’s bottom dwellers. How severe? For four teams, the 2012 draft was a failure of historic proportions.
Swings and misses
From 2004 to 2011, only one team — in one year — had a draft class fail to produce any fourth-season snaps. That would be the 2008 Jacksonville Jaguars, statistically one of the least-successful drafting teams over the past decade.
How rare was the Jaguars’ 2008 draft class? In those nine years, the 2006 Miami Dolphins were the only other draft class that failed to produce 100 fourth-season snaps.
In reality, producing 100 fourth-season snaps should be a team’s minimum expectation for its draft class. With four to 13 picks, the odds are very high one player will have at least a part-time role in the final season of their rookie contract. Failing to retain a single draft pick in four seasons puts significant pressure on teams to fill vacancies through free agency, a more expensive and riskier way to build rosters.
The 2012 NFL draft was an aberration. Not only did one class fail to produce a fourth-season snap, it happened to three teams: the San Francisco 49ers, Atlanta Falcons and Oakland Raiders. Each had at least six picks in 2012.
The New Orleans Saints produced only 98 fourth-season snaps from their class. So something that happened twice in almost a decade doubled in 2012.
In comparison, the Packers' 2012 class was much better. Daniels, Perry and cornerback Casey Hayward combined to record 2,013 snaps in their fourth season, according to Pro Football Focus. The Packers' class ranked 16th in the league, 29 snaps fewer than average.
Beyond raw metrics, talent and accomplishment is the most important consideration for any draft class. When the Packers look back at their 2012 draft, Daniels is a positive. He has become the player they hoped Worthy would be, developing into one of the NFL’s best interior rushers with 16 sacks over the past three seasons.
In December, the Packers re-signed Daniels to a second contract worth $42 million over four years. With the silly money spent in the first week of free agency last month, Daniels’ contract was terrific value for the Packers.
While the Packers’ fourth-season snap production was average, other areas were not. The Packers ranked 27th in the league with 75 accumulated starts, 26th with 198 games. So far, the Packers have not produced a Pro Bowler from their 2012 class, though they have good company. Neither have the New England Patriots or Denver Broncos, two teams that won Super Bowls titles since 2012.
It would be easy to classify the 2012 draft as historically fruitless, but also inaccurate. There was talent for teams to grab. It was just hard to find.
Paving a Super Bowl path
In the past decade, the best value any team has reaped from a draft pick might be Russell Wilson. Franchise quarterbacks are hard to find, even with a draft’s first overall selection. In the third round? Almost impossible.
The Seahawks got their Pro Bowl quarterback when they drafted Wilson with the 75th overall pick. He was the highlight of a 2012 class that also brought Seattle an All-Pro linebacker in Bobby Wagner (second round), a productive edge rusher in Bruce Irvin (first) and a starting right guard in J.R. Sweezy (seventh).
It’s no surprise the Seahawks ranked second with 4,018 fourth-season snaps, third with four two-year starters, and third with five four-year players among 2012 draft classes.
The Seahawks are one of three Super Bowl teams who likely fail to reach the NFL’s biggest stage without the 2012 draft. The other two competed against each other in Super Bowl 50.
With a 15-1 record, the Carolina Panthers were the NFC’s best team last season. The biggest reason was MVP quarterback Cam Newton, drafted first overall in 2011. But the Panthers defensive pillars were two All-Pro players: linebacker Luke Keuchly and cornerback Josh Norman.
Keuchly was a first-round pick in 2012, Norman a fifth rounder. The Panthers were one of two NFL teams to draft to All-Pro players in 2012. They also tied for fifth with 201 starts.
Then there are the Broncos.
Last season’s Super Bowl championship was won on the strength of key free-agent acquisitions, including edge rusher DeMarcus Ware and cornerback Aqib Talib. But the Broncos also ranked fourth among 2012 draft classes with 3,375 fourth-season snaps, and their six four-year players tied for most in the league.
The Broncos didn’t have a first-round pick in 2012, but it’s hard to envision them reaching the Super Bowl without defensive end Derek Wolfe (second round), quarterback Brock Osweiler (second), defensive tackle Malik Jackson (fifth) or linebacker Danny Trevathan (sixth).
Jackson developed into a rare pass-rushing defensive lineman. He had 5.5 sacks last season and recovered Newton’s fumble in the end zone for the defining touchdown of Super Bowl 50. This offseason, Jackson signed a six-year, $90 million contract with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
His contract more than doubled the value of Daniels’ team-friendly deal. Jackson also will receive $42 million guaranteed with $15 annually, much more than the $12 million Daniels is guaranteed ($10.25 million annually).
Without Daniels, the Packers 2012 draft class barely would be more than a remnant. Perry can’t be considered a bust, not after signing a second contract worth $5 million, but his 12.5 sacks in four seasons are the fewest among six first-round edge rushers from that draft. Hayward was third in defensive rookie of the year voting and developed into a versatile, starting corner, but the Packers made no serious effort to re-sign him.
If Daniels continues to develop as expected, his career could change how the Packers' 2012 draft class is remembered. It didn’t rebuild the Packers defense, but a fourth-round pick did provide one of the unit’s best players.
There are plenty of other teams across the league who only wish they could claim the same.
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