The 2017 season showed the kind of GM Ted Thompson always could have been but chose not to be.
It also offered evidence to support why Thompson never wanted to be that GM.
And for most of his early career, it worked.
Thompson took big swings to begin his tenure with the Packers, drafting Aaron Rodgers and signing Charles Woodson and Ryan Pickett. That set the table for an unprecedented run of success in the history of the modern Green Bay franchise.
But then Woodson aged out of dominance and Clay Matthews saw his athleticism and burst robbed by a barrage of nagging injuries. Key misses in the draft gave way to team after team of close-but-not-quite-great.
Rodgers smoothed the edges and put the team in a position to succeed every year simply based on his preternatural ability to make plays where plays wouldn’t otherwise exist.
Fans clamored for changes, more aggression in free agency. Thompson hand-waved such concerns, preferring instead to draft and develop, and doing what he does best: find gems where others can’t.
Just look at these fourth-round picks going back to 2008
- Jeremy Thompson (OK, bad start)
- Josh Sitton
- T.J. Lang
- Davon House
- Mike Daniels
- David Bakhtiari
- J.C. Tretter
- Johnathan Franklin
- Carl Bradford
- Jake Ryan
- Blake Martinez
- Vince Biegel
- Jamaal Williams
That’s four Pro Bowl players, and Martinez probably should have been a fifth in 2017. Ryan and Tretter are also solid starters. We still don’t know about Biegel or Williams, but the latter showed serious flashes as a rookie.
Those are just the fourth rounders.
But the 2017 offseason featured Thompson signing not one but two starting tight ends, a starting but aging offensive guard, two defensive linemen, and a former starter at outside linebacker who was playing out of position in a 4-3.
The big swings didn’t pay off. Martellus Bennett struggled before forcing his way out of town in inglorious fashion. Lance Kendricks’ season can be summed up by his game against the Vikings that featured several ugly drops.
“See?” Thompson might say. Free agency is and always has been a crapshoot. Most of the contracts don’t work out. Even the New England Patriots, who are the obvious Super Bowl favorites and the most consistent franchise in the sport, gave out a huge offseason contract to Stephon Gilmore only to see their defense finish as one of the worst in football.
But they also signed James Harrison off the street for nothing. And that is the difference between the Patriots and the Packers.
Quinton Dial and Ahmad Brooks provided key rotational support for a defense that finished in the top-10 against the run. Jahri Evans started 14 games and admirably filled the gap left by T.J. Lang’s departure. Those were the moves Thompson always could have made, but didn’t. The ones on the margins.
Every season there was a Quinton Dial available in free agency, not a star but a rotation level player, who could come in and give a team quality snaps whether in relief or as a supplement to the starters.
These players don’t elevate the defense to elite levels, but they provide depth. This is precisely the problem HaHa Clinton-Dix attempted to illuminate in an interview earlier in the week (though in his criticism of “draft and develop” he named three players he wished the team still had, but who had been part of the draft and develop system).
Not every pick will be a home run. Clearly Thompson missed on a player like Kyler Fackrell, somewhat of a luxury pick at the time the Packers made it with Datone Jones, Nick Perry, Clay Matthews, and Julius Peppers on the roster.
But Fackrell had been so bad that not only did Thompson have to sign Ahmad Brooks, but he also used a fourth-round pick on Vince Biegel.
Signing veterans to come in and be rotational players doesn’t have to stunt the development of a team’s young players either. Davon House’s presence didn’t keep Kevin King from winning a starting role, one he’d essentially earned even before Quinten Rollins tore his Achilles.
Damarious Randall was in the doghouse and Rollins struggled, so King got his chance. These things tend to sort themselves out.
And not every draft will provide star players, which means even a draft and develop team should be supplementing its roster with veteran talent, even just at replacement-level value. Particularly as the salary cap takes a seemingly unending upward trajectory, there’s no incentive not to spend at least a little bit of money every year to bring in a player or two to provide depth.
This was always the flaw in Thompson’s team building strategy, and only had to be ratcheted up on the margins to prove effective. For example, Chris Hogan’s 3-year, $12 million deal looks much more impactful for the Patriots than Gilmore’s 5-year $65 million contract.
In a given year, these small contracts may not matter much, but the cumulative effect could be much bigger. If it seems like the Packers have been injured more than most teams, part of the reason is the guys replacing the starters have been either rookies or young players with little or no experience.
Over the course of 10+ years, those little flaws can add up. It’s not death by 1,000 cuts because Green Bay still had tremendous success, but to act like there was no injury at all would be foolish.
Whether it was hubris or dogma that prevented Thompson from dipping Green Bay’s toes further into the free agency pond (the only other option is ineptitude if he believed none of the players he could have signed would have helped the team), it was a blind spot for the Packers under his watchful eye.
What’s truly amazing is he still built a roster that went to three NFC Championship games, made eight straight playoff appearances, won a Super Bowl, and came within a botched onside kick of having a chance to win another.
Thompson is a no-brainer Packers Hall of Famer, one of the best GMs of his generation, and should be remembered fondly by Cheesehead Nation.
If the worst thing we can say about the guy is he could have signed more players as good as Quinton Dial, that’s enough to tell you how good his career was.