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?
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.
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.
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.