From 2005 through 2017, the Green Bay Packers were run by Ted Thompson. Widely considered one of the best general managers in football for the majority of that tenure, Thompson became known in and around the league for adhering closely to a few distinct tendencies.
First, he almost never made major forays into free agency, preferring instead to replenish Green Bay's talent base through the draft. During Thompson's 13 years at the helm, the Packers signed exactly four players from opposing teams to multi-year free-agent deals worth double-digit million dollars in aggregate. (Ryan Pickett and Charles Woodson in 2006, Julius Peppers in 2014, and Martellus Bennett in 2017.)
Second, when it came to the draft, Thompson loved to make trades. More specifically, he loved to trade down in order to acquire extra selections and accumulate value. Thanks to the invaluable ProSportsTransactions.com logs, we were able to review every single trade Thompson made involving a draft pick during his tenure as general manager. There were 46 in all. Thompson traded a pick for a player three times. He traded a player for a pick 10 times. He traded up in the draft nine times. And he traded down in the draft 21 times in 13 years.
Through all of his wheeling and dealing, Thompson acquired 15 extra draft picks over the years, while also accumulating excess value in the picks he actually made, generating an additional fourth-round selection out of mid-air. And on the rare occasions where Thompson did trade up, he was right only about half the time. But he was, at least, right in a big way with Clay Matthews, Morgan Burnett, and Casey Hayward. That's how you're able to sustain building a team almost entirely through the draft for over a decade. Well, that and using your first-ever draft pick on Aaron Rodgers. (And none of this analysis even accounts for all the compensatory picks the Packers received by letting high-priced free agents walk and almost never signing any of their own. He added 21 picks that way over the years, yielding the equivalent of an extra No. 33 overall pick.)
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When Thompson actually used his picks, he loved to take superior athletes, especially in recent years. There are three Thompson drafts for which we have available SPARQ athleticism data, thanks to Three Sigma Athlete. The Packers made 24 picks during those three drafts, and we have SPARQ data on 22 of them; 15 rated as above-average athletes at their position, while nine rated in the 80th percentile or better, including five of 10 during Thompson's final draft in charge.
Thompson was removed as general manager in early 2018 and replaced by former director of player personnel Brian Gutekunst, who began his tenure with the Packers as their director of college scouting back in 2012. Gutekunst differentiated himself from Thompson in free agency by making a couple of splashy signings (Jimmy Graham, Muhammad Wilkerson), so ahead of the draft I was very interested to see how the Packers' philosophy would change, if at all. As it turns out, the strategy just underwent a slight shift rather than any dramatic changes.
Gutekunst and the Packers made three draft-day trades. They moved down once and up twice, though one of the moves up the board involved a pick they received from the move back. Green Bay picked up the Saints' No. 27 selection and their first-round pick in next year's draft in exchange for the No. 14 pick, which New Orleans used on pass-rusher Marcus Davenport. A few picks later, Gutekunst used the No. 27 pick he had just received, as well as Nos. 76 and 186, to move up to No. 18 and draft Louisville cornerback Jaire Alexander, receiving the No. 248 pick in the deal as well. Later, the Packers jumped from the top of the fourth round (No. 101) to the back end of the third (No. 88), sacrificing a fifth-rounder (No. 147) to do so.
In all, the Packers traded Nos. 14, 76, 147, and 186 for Nos. 18, 88, and 248, plus the Saints' first-round pick next year. They took a slight loss in draft value this season (309.8 points on the Jimmy Johnson chart, the equivalent of the No. 59 pick; and 6.6 points on the Chase Stuart chart at Football Perspective, the equivalent of the No. 81 pick) but considering the latest the Saints' first-round pick next year can be is No. 32, it's difficult not to think they came out ahead on draft value overall -- and they still got the guy they would've taken at No. 14 in Alexander. That's pretty good!
Also like Thompson, Gutekunst clearly placed a premium on high-value athletes. Of the 11 picks made by the Packers, there is SPARQ data available for eight of them. (Two of the remaining three are punter J.K. Scott and long-snapper Hunter Bradley, for whom athleticism was probably not a priority. The other is seventh-round linebacker Kendall Donnerson.) Of those eight players, SPARQ grades seven of them as above-average NFL athletes. Four of them rank in the 90th percentile or better for players at their position, including each of Green Bay's first three picks.
|Equanimeous St. Brown||WR||62.6|
In addition to prioritizing elite-level athleticism, Gutekunst borrowed a strategy from last year's version of the Eagles. (They were obviously not the first team to employ the strategy I'm about to describe. They're just a recent and notable example. They did win the Super Bowl.) Last offseason, the Eagles had two areas of their team they badly needed to upgrade: their pass-catching corps and their secondary. Roseman attacked those areas with gusto in both free agency and the draft, adding Alshon Jeffery, Torrey Smith, Corey Graham and Patrick Robinson in free agency, and Mack Hollins, Donnel Pumphrey, Shelton Gibson, Sidney Jones, Rasul Douglas, and Nathan Gerry in the draft. Not all of those guys worked out, but because the Eagles flooded the market with multiple rolls of the dice at each position, they hit on a few of them, and got major contributors to their Super Bowl run out of it.
This year, the Packers happened to have the exact same needs coming into the offseason. Green Bay's pass offense fell apart for much of last season, as Rodgers' absence exposed just how few playmakers the team had outside of Davante Adams. This offseason, Green Bay cut ties with longtime wideout Jordy Nelson. Next year, they'll likely say goodbye to Randall Cobb. They've been working without a top tight end for most of Rodgers' career. Gutekunst clearly made it a priority to add depth and upside to that group. Graham is the best tight end Rodgers has ever had, and figures to replace Nelson as a top option inside the red zone. By adding Moore, Valdez-Scantling and St. Brown, the Packers gave themselves multiple chances to unearth a mid-round receiver that turns into a major part of their core. St. Brown, in particular, represents great value, as it was thought that he might go as high as the second round. The Packers got him near the end of the sixth, after 24 other receivers had already been drafted.
The Packers attacked their secondary issues with similar gusto. Green Bay ranked 23rd in passing yards allowed last season, as well as 29th in passing touchdowns allowed, 30th in yards per attempt, 31st in opponent's passer rating, and 26th in Football Outsiders' pass defense DVOA. Green Bay struggled against No. 1 receivers (32nd), No. 2 receivers (26th), tight ends (21st), and running backs (29th).
Thompson had spent several draft picks on corners and safeties over the last few years, but not enough of them worked out as well as expected. To help rectify the issues, Gutekunst came out of this draft with two of the top four corners, and grabbed both of them somewhat later than they were expected to come off the board. There were some draftniks who had Alexander as the draft's top corner -- ahead of even No. 4 overall pick Denzel Ward -- while Jackson was considered a potential first-rounder, and he fell to the middle of the second. Burks, meanwhile, is a linebacker who excels in coverage and should help the team with its issues against tight ends and linebackers. He's not necessarily much of a run-defender, but he's a top-notch athlete who knows how to make plays in space. That's something Green Bay badly needed.
Whether these bets work out for the Packers will depend in large part on the work ethic of the players themselves and the work the Packers put into developing them. But the process Gutekunst used is clearly sound. He appears to value the right kind of things when it comes to approaching the draft itself (trading down to accumulate value and additional selections) and he's taken his predecessor's favoring of athleticism to heart. He also clearly knows how to attack a need. If the Packers stay along this path throughout the rest of his tenure, betting on continued success is likely the smart play.