FOX Sports Wisconsin’s Paul Imig provides complete coverage of the Packers and the 2014 NFL Draft in his 14-part preview. You can find the entire series here.
GREEN BAY, Wis. — Over the past four years, general manager Ted Thompson has gotten used to drafting late in the first round. Ranging between picks No. 23-32 since 2010, the Green Bay Packers’ in-season success has meant missing out on the best of the best from each draft class.
But that’s more than fine with Thompson. In fact, Thompson would rather be on the clock at No. 32 in this year’s draft than 11 spots earlier at the Packers’ actual spot of No. 21. After all, it’s the current Super Bowl champions that have the privilege of picking last in the first round, and that spot belongs to the Seahawks and former Thompson assistant John Schneider — who is wearing a ring of his own after his fourth year as general manager in Seattle.
"If you’re picking at 32, bless my heart I wish we were, you’re still picking," Thompson said at his pre-draft press conference. "You’re still trying to find guys who are going to help your team, not only now, but certainly in the future. If you keep your eye on the ball, there’s players to be had."
Thompson had that luxury (of sorts) in the 2011 draft, when Green Bay had the No. 32 pick less than three months after winning Super Bowl XLV. Derek Sherrod was the choice, and that has not exactly worked out well for the Packers.
Since then, Green Bay has been going in the wrong direction. This is the third consecutive year now in which the Packers are inching closer to being in the front half of the draft. While the 2011, 2012 and 2013 seasons all concluded with NFC North division championships, Green Bay’s record has gotten worse each year, and its playoff exit this past season happened in the wild-card round. Still, all things considered, this is about as good as sustained success can be in today’s NFL.
"It’s remarkable this organization has been able to be (so) successful over a long period of time," Thompson said.
Perhaps some good will come from the Packers’ 8-7-1 record last season. Though picking at No. 32 means that team is Super Bowl champions, picking at No. 21 opens up a larger group of top prospects from which to choose. And Green Bay certainly has a couple pressing needs on its roster.
The Packers desperately need a top-tier safety, and this year’s draft features two first-round-caliber players at that position: Alabama’s Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Louisville’s Calvin Pryor. There are some football executives who don’t believe safety is important enough of a position to draft in the first round, but Thompson doesn’t "subscribe to that theory."
Considering Green Bay’s safeties failed to record an interception all of last season, it’s a good thing Thompson is open-minded about a player like Clinton-Dix or Pryor being the possible selection. At the same time, however, Thompson insisted that the poor safety play in 2013 was simply a result of "a few too many bumps and bruises as we went along."
Thompson likes to say that he simply chooses the best player available, regardless of need. Sometimes that’s true, as it was in 2005 when the Packers went with quarterback Aaron Rodgers at No. 24 despite already having durable legend Brett Favre on the team. Other times, such as in 2012 when Green Bay drafted six consecutive defensive players when that was clearly what the team needed to do, it’s easy to question Thompson’s sincerity.
Thompson isn’t the type to frequently give up multiple picks in order to move up. It’s not that he hasn’t done it, as Clay Matthews is a Packer only because of Thompson’s willingness to surrender several picks to get him at No. 26 in 2009. But as Thompson faces a decision Thursday night whether to move up in the first round, move back or stand pat, don’t be surprised if he lets the board fall as it will.
"For me, I think when you’re picking in the 20s, you kind of just let it come to you," Thompson said. "You can think of different scenarios and you can read the (various mock drafts) where they’ve got this team picking this (player), and none of those things are usually as accurate as you might think.
"I try to stay open to the possibility of anything happening. And you go through the ideal circumstances and you go through the more less-than-ideal circumstances, and you come to grips with it, and there you are."
Leading the list of "less-than-ideal circumstances" would be if it’s Green Bay’s turn to pick at No. 21 and the big board no longer has the names of Clinton-Dix, Pryor, Alabama inside linebacker C.J. Mosley or Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier on it. All four of those players deserve to be selected sometime around or before the 21st pick, and they would fit into the Packers’ two biggest positional needs. But there are scenarios that exist in which all four could be gone already before the Packers are on the clock.
"You have your dark moments during the draft when they call out names that you wish they didn’t call out," Thompson said. "It’s not difficult (to stick to the board) because it’s a saying we go by. Even in the draft, during the draft itself, sometimes if we need to pat ourselves on the back, we’ll repeat it: ‘Let’s just take the best player. Let’s just take the best player.’ I have people remind me and whisper in my ear."
If the Packers are going to re-enter the discussion of best NFC teams, Thompson is going to have to connect on this year’s draft picks. With recent first-round choices like Sherrod, Nick Perry and Datone Jones not yet panning out, it becomes even more important that whoever Green Bay selects at No. 21 is a player who can make an impact on the field from Day 1.