Thompson usually drafts to fill Packers’ needs

Today is the 13th day of two weeks of Green Bay Packers coverage leading up to the April 25 beginning of the NFL draft.

April 12: Five best draft moments in the past 25 years
April 13: Five worst draft moments in the past 25 years
April 14: Quarterbacks position preview
April 15: Running backs/fullbacks position preview
April 16: Offensive tackles position preview
April 17: Guards/centers position preview
April 18: Tight ends position preview
April 19: Wide receivers position preview
April 20: Defensive linemen position preview
April 21: Linebackers position preview
April 22: Cornerbacks position preview
April 23: Safeties position preview
Today: Ted Thompson’s draft strategy
April 25: Forecasting the first-round pick

GREEN BAY, Wis. —
At least Ted Thompson is consistent. The Green Bay Packers’ secretive general manager insists every year that he’s simply drafting the best player available, even when the evidence suggests a much more calculated approach.

Last year, upon using the Packers’ first six draft picks to select defensive players for a team that sorely needed help on that side of the ball, Thompson claimed it was “just the way it worked out.” It’s difficult to tell whether Thompson actually thinks anyone is buying it or if he just knows it’s what he’s supposed to say, but don’t believe it for a moment.

Thompson has drafted — and will continue to draft — players at a position of great need. That is the way Green Bay actually conducts its business during the draft. That was proven again in 2012 when Thompson selected outside linebacker Nick Perry in the first round and followed that up with two defensive linemen (Jerel Worthy and Mike Daniels), cornerback Casey Hayward, safety Jerron McMillian and inside linebacker Terrell Manning.

Ten months removed from making those picks, Thompson was asked to finally admit that it wasn’t pure coincidence that he stocked up on defensive players. But, Thompson still wouldn’t budge.

“We drafted guys that we thought were good players and would come in and make an impact for us,” Thompson said at the Scouting Combine. “And that’s what we hope to do this year.”

That’s the company line. It’s not the complete and honest truth, but Thompson clearly isn’t going to be changing the way he conducts himself publicly in interviews any time soon.

Sifting through that and into reality, though, the Packers will once again be targeting several key areas this year to help shore up the weaknesses on the roster.

Six top draft picks on defense a year ago hasn’t fixed everything. The loss of safety Nick Collins to a career-ending neck injury in 2011 still looms large. Thompson thought he had the safety position set for years to come with Collins and Morgan Burnett. If Collins’ injury had just been minor, he and Burnett would be one of the NFL’s best duos. But, with Collins’ career ending far too soon, Thompson is fortunate to be in need of a safety in a draft class that features several great prospects at that position. Kenny Vaccaro of Texas is the top safety, but Matt Elam (Florida), Jonathan Cyprien (Florida International) and Eric Reid (LSU) all appear to be capable of becoming immediate starters as rookies.

Thompson, of course, said again last week that positional need isn’t much of a factor when drafting players.

“We try not to,” he said. “We certainly have those conversations, in terms of how does a particular player fit in our scheme, or whether it be offense, defense, special teams, whatever, but at the end of the day I do separate it. You know, when we make that call we’re trying our best to draft the best player.”

Defensive line is another area of need for Green Bay. Ryan Pickett, 33, is the oldest player on the roster and maybe has one good year left in him. Worthy, a second-round pick last year, will be out a significant amount of time after undergoing offseason knee surgery. C.J. Wilson is a relatively one-dimensional run stopper, much like Mike Neal is a relatively one-dimensional pass rusher. Thompson could address this position given the deep group of players in this year’s draft, with names such as UCLA’s Datone Jones, Southern Methodist University’s Margus Hunt and Texas A&M’s Damontre Moore.

Thompson could trade up in the first round, as he did in 2009 to select Clay Matthews, but it’s only in unique circumstances that he’s willing to do so.

“I think it’s when you think you see value,” he said. “And that’s the reason sometimes we’ll go backwards, when we see value later in the draft, at positions where we think there’s value. And it’s a tradeoff. You know you’re giving up something if you trade up, and you know that you’re giving up something in terms of an opportunity to maybe take a particular player, if you go backwards.”

Thompson, as his history has shown in Green Bay, much prefers trading back in the draft to acquire additional picks to trading up and surrendering picks.

“I think it’s kind of like baseball; you’re not going to get a hit every time you go to the plate, but if you have more swings you have a better chance of getting a hit,” Thompson said. “So, I think, in general philosophy, I’d rather have more than less. But, at the end of the day, I’d rather have more quality than any value.”

Thompson’s draft strategy has been not to pick running backs high very often. However, this may be the year Thompson has little choice but to go against that philosophy. Brandon Jackson was a second-round pick in 2007 and Alex Green was a third-round selection in 2010, but the Packers are in need of a star running back to help balance the offense. Though this draft class lacks a top-10 star, there are several players who could be in play for Green Bay late in the first or second round. Alabama’s Eddie Lacy will likely be the first running back selected, but he could still be on the board when it’s the Packers’ turn at No. 26. Wisconsin’s Montee Ball profiles as the best every-down running back, which is a quality coach Mike McCarthy has said he desires. Giovani Bernard (North Carolina) and UCLA’s Johnathan Franklin would also be quality options.

Green Bay also needs help on the offensive line, but it’s a tricky spot for multiple reasons. First, Thompson recently spent consecutive first-round picks on offensive tackles Bryan Bulaga (2010) and Derek Sherrod (2011). Sherrod’s broken leg from his rookie season kept him out all of last year, but his health status — whether good or bad – will drastically change how much the Packers need another offensive tackle in the early rounds. At center, deciding whether Evan Dietrich-Smith is a long-term answer will determine if Green Bay targets Wisconsin’s Travis Frederick in the first round.

Green Bay could also use a wide receiver to replace Greg Jennings. That’s a position at which Thompson has proven very capable of finding very good players. Following the departure of Erik Walden and Frank Zombo in free agency, the Packers need depth at outside linebacker behind Perry and Dezman Moses. Though inside linebacker isn’t an area of strength for Green Bay right now, there are so many bodies at that position (seven) that it complicates the matter.

Thompson has the difficult task of making sure he finds players in the draft who can contribute early in their careers, especially considering his stance against spending money on veteran free agents. With quarterback Aaron Rodgers in his prime, the Packers need to get back to the Super Bowl in the next year or two.

While Thompson continues his quest to convince the team’s fans he’ll draft the best player available regardless of position, Green Bay will be a better team by this weekend after the Packers address their areas of need.

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