Thompson won’t admit it, but he drafts for need

Today is the 13th day of two weeks of Green Bay Packers coverage leading up to the April 26 beginning of the NFL draft.

April 12: Five best first-rounders in the past 25 years
April 13: Five worst first-rounders 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

It’s never easy to get an understanding of what Packers general manager Ted Thompson is thinking heading into the NFL draft, at least if you base that understanding on his public comments.

While most teams will at least have discussions in the media about which positions are the deepest in the draft, Thompson won’t go there.

“Those are the kinds of questions I don’t answer,” Thompson said in a press conference last week.

Thompson likes to insist that he will draft the best player available, but it sure has been convenient in recent years that he has happened to make a first-round selection at a position of need for Green Bay. In each of the past two drafts, the Packers have added an offensive tackle in the first round. First, Thompson selected Bryan Bulaga in 2010. A year later, Derek Sherrod was the pick. Though these players certainly could have been the best on Thompson’s draft board, the fact veteran tackles Mark Tauscher and Chad Clifton would soon be on their way out of the NFL sure seemed to line up with the position of the best player available.

The same was true in the 2009 draft, when Thompson selected defensive lineman B.J. Raji early in the first round and then traded up to get linebacker Clay Matthews 17 picks later. The necessity then was that Green Bay’s defense in 2008 ranked 26th in the league against the run and was 25th in total sacks.

So, Thompson has a trend. He knows where the Packers are lacking, and, best player or not, he addresses it in the first round.

Given the incredible need on defense for Green Bay heading into this draft, it’s safe to assume that Thompson will once again recognize that area of weakness and add top-tier talent with his first pick or two. After all, despite a 15-1 record last season and an historic year by quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the offense, the Packers’ defense struggled mightily as Green Bay was worst in the NFL in passing yards allowed. Plus, the Packers went from second-best in the league in sacks in their 2010 Super Bowl-winning season to 27th in 2011.

But Thompson won’t publicly admit that he’s zeroed in on defense with his early draft picks.

“We won’t do it intentionally; maybe subconsciously,” Thompson said. “We don’t draft that way. You draft for the long-term investment for your team. We don’t draft for the immediate need or perceived immediate need.”

Perception was reality this past season, and it didn’t take long to notice. The Packers were stacked at wide receiver and had the NFL’s Most Valuable Player firing them the ball. Even without a good running game (27th in the NFL), a strong passing offense is worth 10 wins by itself, no matter what the quality of the defense is.

If Thompson doesn’t draft for immediate need this time around, as he claims he won’t, Green Bay will have done little to improve its defense this offseason. Plus, with the uncertainty surrounding the future of safety Nick Collins, it could be another long season on the defensive side of the ball if the Packers don’t take a serious look at pass rushers in the first two days of the draft.

As Thompson’s history has proven, though, regardless of his public posturing, he will add the much-needed pass-rushing outside linebacker or a defensive end for the team’s 3-4 scheme under coordinator Dom Capers. It’s that important for the 2012 Packers that it be addressed.

And Thompson isn’t shy about trading up if he sees a player he likes, as was the case with Matthews.

“We thought it was an opportunity to get a pretty special player,” Thompson said of the Matthews pick in 2009. “We were fortunate and lucky that he was still available. That’s just the way it worked out. It was a little bit of a surprise that he was still there.”

With a player like Alabama defensive stud Courtney Upshaw potentially being selected before the Packers are up, this could be the year that Thompson once again trades up. After all, with 12 picks at his disposal, Thompson wouldn’t be hurt too badly if he traded three of them away in order to move up 10 spots.

Thompson has done it before, so don’t be surprised if he does it again.

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