Ted Thompson Raymond T. Rivard photograph

Ted Thompson: Packers' draft guru can't hit it in rounds 4-7

Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson (left) talks with head coach Mike McCarthy during last year’s training camp at Ray Nitschke Field.
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Pocket aces. A second helping of Hamburger Helper. A Brewers twin bill on a lazy Sunday afternoon. The Wrigley Doublemint twins.

Besides having the distinction of being the only prime number, two has a certain intriguing appeal. Like the Green Bay Packers back-to-back Super Bowl I and II titles, as in life, good things do come in pairs.

However, for Ted Thompson, the number two represents the only middling blemish on his otherwise spotless record as general manager of the Packers. It’s the number of draft picks that can reasonably be considered in the top half of the league in terms of their skillset, role on the team and impact, relative to where they were selected.

Thompson has an ironclad reputation as both a player and personnel executive with a track record for hitting the jackpot on a number of early round draft picks as well as undrafted free agents during his tenure in Green Bay to this point. So what’s the explanation for his seemingly poor reputation between the fourth and seventh rounds of the NFL’s annual three-day talent infusion each April? What gives Thompson an edge as he transitions from typically anti-climatic closing stanzas in the warroom at 1265 Lombardi Ave. each April to sifting through the post-draft detritus to unearth productive, starter-caliber contributors on a regular basis?

Ted Thompson, the linebacker.

Thompson was a solid, if unspectacular, collegiate linebacker for Southern Methodist University. In a fitting twist of irony he went undrafted in 1975 and may know a thing or two about the post-draft mindset and experience for a lower-tier player that is forced to wander the streets of free agency before catching a break in the NFL. Thompson eventually signed with the Houston Oilers and his onetime coach at SMU, Bum Philips. He spent nearly a decade toiling in relative obscurity as a backup linebacker and on special teams from 1975 to 1984. He was durable, playing in 146 of a possible 147 games with eight total starts during his career. Some would say it was the model of consistency where he began to develop his evaluation skills that would later translate to his success as an NFL general manager.

Following his playing career and long before he hoisted the Super Bowl XLV trophy as the most powerful man in Titletown, Thompson was hired (in the same coaching coup that brought Mike Holmgren aboard) for his first-ever front office job in 1992 by Green Bay General Manager Ron Wolf. He was present in the early 1990s for the rebirth of a once proud Packers organization, operating in various scouting roles for seven years. During this period, Green Bay was a perennial playoff participant, ultimately winning the Super Bowl XXXI championship in 1996.

After helping spearhead the resurgence of the Packers, Thompson was lured to the Pacific Northwest by Holmgren, who was coaching the Seahawks. Thompson’s impact as GM in Seattle was significant. He oversaw the drafting of several standout players during his tenure, such as running back Shaun Alexander, receiver Darrell Jackson and even specialist Josh Brown. The formerly downtrodden Seahawks advanced to the playoffs twice, eventually making it all the way to Super Bowl XL.

In 2005, Thompson made his return to Green Bay as general manager and the dividends were nearly immediate. He demonstrated poise during his inaugural draft presiding over football operations by selecting Aaron Rodgers and Nick Collins. He also displayed fiscal responsibility, extricating the team from a volatile salary cap nightmare by releasing safety Darren Sharper and guard Mike Wahle.

Samkon Gado

Rodgers and Collins would ultimately help the franchise transition from and succeed following the post-Favre and Sharper era. At midseason, to replace an injured Ahman Green, Thompson procured his first notable street free agent in October, signing the diminutive Samkon Gado who played at Liberty University and was a relative unknown. Gado burst onto the scene, instantly becoming a fan favorite that season and stabilizing a running back unit that was decimated by injuries. The native of Nigeria was named NFL Offensive Rookie of the Week multiple times while setting the Green Bay rookie record for most rushing yards (171) in a single game against the Lions in week 14.

The Packers never got rolling and finished a disappointing 4-12.

In 2006, Thompson fired head coach Mike Sherman and quickly hired ex-49er offensive coordinator Mike McCarthy to right the ship. That year’s draft produced linebacker A.J. Hawk and receiver Greg Jennings in round one and two, respectively. Thompson also inked fullback John Kuhn from the Steelers and signed castoff defensive back Charles Woodson from the Oakland Raiders. Woodson, who initially balked at the idea of playing for Green Bay, quickly became one of the most electric defenders in the NFL, intercepting 28 passes and scoring nine touchdowns. Next to Reggie White, Woodson is arguably the biggest free agent acquistion in franchise history and like White, during the twilight of his career, he was a focal point in a historic run to a world championship.

Thompson calmly presided over the messy Brett Favre divorce in 2007 after the future Hall of Famer infamously retired during a tearful press conference and then unretired in a span of three months. Along with McCarthy he made the decision to stick with newly-annointed starting quarterback Aaron Rodgers and maintained that commitment to the future by trading Favre to the Jets for a slew of draft picks.

In 2008, he drafted receiver Jordy Nelson. However, that was overshadowed when he erroneously waived standout punter Jon Ryan after his excellent 2007 season. Green Bay subsequently went through a stable of mediocre specialists which, along with the hangover from the Favre separation, contributed to a 6-10 season.

Clay Matthews
Raymond T. Rivard photograph

Some of the compensatory draft picks from the Favre trade were used as ammunition to move up in a successful bid to acquire elite linebacker prospect Clay Matthews in the 2009 draft. Defensive tackle B.J. Raji, linebacker Brad Jones and guard T.J. Lang were among the crop of early picks that year that have blossomed into integral performers for Green Bay.

In 2010, Thompson netted tackle Bryan Bulaga who has been dominant on the right side. He recently was penciled in to start at left tackle. During the undrafted process that year he had arguably his biggest haul in terms of finding undrafted talent. Cornerback Sam Shields, punter Tim Masthay, tight end Tom Crabtree, linebacker Frank Zombo and center Evan Dietrich-Smith were all signed off the street. The year was capped with six consecutive wins (including four road playoff games) that culminated in a Super Bowl XLV title. The following seasons in 2011 and 2012, Green Bay was eliminated consecutively in the playoffs and are left searching for some answers on defense in order to return to prominence in an NFL that is rife with parity.

Thompson’s success limited after third round

However, for all of his accomplishments as an NFL GM, Thompson has had comparatively limited success targeting viable prospects in the draft after the third round. Collectively, of the 47 players he’s chosen between rounds four and seven during his eight seasons with Green Bay, exactly two have become relevant in some capacity. Sitton is a stalwart on the offensive line and was recognized as the NFL’s Offensive Lineman Of The Year in 2010. Bishop was arguably the best defender for Green Bay at the close of 2010 and through 2011, racking up 218 tackles and eight sacks. He spent the entire 2012 season on injured reserve and the jury is still out as to whether he’ll be the same explosive leader and tackling machine in Dom Capers’ 3-4 alignment. With a dearth of linebacker talent on the roster, it’s possible the California-Berkeley alum may find himself on the trading block this summer.

Thompson absolutely has a knack for finding talent amidst the pool of free agent and undrafted castoffs after the draft. The afore-mentioned Gado and tight end Donald Lee were discovered in 2005. In 2006, defensive tackle Ryan Pickett was claimed from the Rams. In September 2007, Thompson shelled out a sixth round draft choice to the Giants for the rights to running back Ryan Grant. We all know how the Ryan Grant experiment turned out. Recently, in 2012, linebacker D.J. Smith was signed out of Appalachian State. He made the final 53-man roster and was generally productive.

Perhaps Thompson is so adept at identifying and signing undrafted and street free agents because he himself was one after his playing days at Southern Methodist. The talent pool, or lack thereof, each April likely is a major factor in Thompson’s ability to procure just two players who have had solid production in the Green Bay system. Ultimately, Thompson puts a high premium on players who demonstrate character and who are willing to be role players.

The Samkon Gados, Charles Woodsons, Sam Shields and Frank Zombos of the world all fit the mold of “Packer People” and it’s these types of players that have helped Thompson continue to add to a rock solid organizational foundation as he utilizes his cornerstone “draft and develop” philosophy. Given the recent continued prominence of the Packers, it’s safe to say his strategy has been a success.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1649511981 Dan Dahlke

    You make a lot of great points, Travis. I always thought Thompson was good at finding talent in the later rounds of the draft, but your article has made me rethink my position. I guess I was thinking more about his affinity to find talent in unrestricted free agency. It would be interesting to compare Thompson’s late round success with other long standing GMs in league over the past 7-8 years.

    • http://www.facebook.com/ray.rivard.963 Ray Rivard

      Sounds like you’ve got a post to follow up on … hint, hint :)

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1649511981 Dan Dahlke

        I could give it a shot, Ray. It seems like quite the undertaking though. It may take me a while.

        • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1649511981 Dan Dahlke

          I’m up for the challenge : ) As long as Travis doesn’t mind I coattail off his post.

  • Leo

    I don’t agree with you, Ted has found some players in the later rounds. In the current roster you have SItton, Lang and Newhouse(even if he isn’t a legitimate LT it’s good value for a 5th rounder) James Starks(he was alright for a 6th). On Defense you have Bishop, D.J. Smith (recently cut but a 6th nonetheless) and Brad Jones (I don’t know about T Manning), Davon House & McMillian. In the DL you have Wilson (7th round I think) and Mike Daniels. Obviously there is no superstar in this group. I don’t know maybe I am a Homer, but I think you would be hard pressed to find a lot of teams with more and better players drafted in the 4th to 7th rounds.

    • http://www.facebook.com/travis.pipes.77 Travis Pipes


      I don’t disagree with you. Thompson *has* found players in those rounds. What he hasn’t done is found more than two who can “reasonably be considered top of of the league or elite” at their respective positions, given there relative draft position.

      I’m not arguing that Starks, Newhouse and House are all rotational bodies in the system. But nobody would say they are recognizable (outside Green Bay, anyways) or pro bowl caliber players like Sitton and Bishop.

      Fact is, none of that group will likely ever be more than a spot starter. Yes, Newhouse played all 16 last year. Were Sherrod not on IR and we had issues across the line he’d be a backup. He’d be a backup on most teams. Jones is a good LB but he’s no Bishop.

      Point of my article is to call out the fact Ted hasn’t unearthed a true diamond…the next Sitton or Bishop.. Perhaps Franklin is the next Terrel Davis type late round (for the purpose of my story, we’ll call 4th round late) gem. Perhaps. ;)

      Keep reading and Go Pack!

      • Kevin

        I’m curious. Since 2005 how many teams have found more than 2 players among the best at their position in the later rounds? I’m doubting it is that common for GM’s to often find great players on the third day. Sitton and Bishop are both excellent players. A player like House or McMillian could really explode onto the scene next year also.

        I agree Thompson hasn’t had the best success on the third day but he has been solid with players that can come in and contribute. I usually lump the third day and UDFA’s together anyway. In that regard Thompson has been much more successful. It is very possible Shields is considered a top 10 CB after this season.

        Overall it is safe to say Ted Thompson is a very good GM when it comes to the draft and simply one of the best. As long as he is leading the Packers during draft day they will be among the best in the NFC. We can’t complain about that. I’m just excited to see which player will be the next Rodgers/Matthews(Top 3 at their position for this comparison). Has that player already played a down in the NFL(Burnett, Hayward or some1 else), Drafted this year(Jones, Lacy, etc.), Or yet to be drafted(Hopefully one of the first 2 options).

  • Iconoclast17

    Mike Holmgren was the “GM” in Seattle, not Thompson (director of player personnel or some such title) and Mike had the final say player acquisition.

    Otherwise you really layer on the accolades and make it a puff piece on TT rather than get to your point. I know the TT crowd (and I’m a supporter of the Packers’ GM) are extremely protective. Despite burying your observation, they ferreted out the supposed criticism and disagreed.

    IMO, Thompson has a middling record in R1 and does well later in the draft and with UDFA’s. Hawk and Raji were top ten picks and neither is anything special. CM 3 and AR were spectacular picks and Sherrod and Harrell complete busts. The jury is still out on changing Perry from a DE to OLB.

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