On April 28, the Green Bay Packers selected defensive tackle Justin Harrell with their first round draft pick (16th overall). The pick drew a hostile response from fans.
Since that day, Internet forums have been buzzing with fans criticizing the Packers’ draft; one that did not see a receiver chosen until round three and did not include a rumored trade for Randy Moss.
Some of those posting are quick to compare current general manager Ted Thompson to former GM Ron Wolf and criticize the former for not doing the same things Wolf did to build a Super Bowl Champion team (the Packers won Super Bowl XXXI under Wolf’s leadership).
What those fans don’t realize is, at least when it comes to draft philosophies, Thompson isn’t doing anything different than his former mentor did in his time with the team.
The biggest criticism of Thompson is his seemingly lack of effort to find offensive playmakers to help quarterback Brett Favre. In his first three drafts with the team, Thompson has used two of his first round picks on defensive players (Harrell and linebacker A.J. Hawk) and the other one on quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who is currently serving as Favre’s backup and possible heir.
In fact, at least as far as the first day of the draft is concerned, Thompson has focused almost solely on improving the teams’ defense; using five of his 12 first day picks on defensive players and only 4 on a receiver or running back. Two others were used on offensive linemen.
This, however, is actually a better average than Wolf had with his first day picks.
In 9 drafts (I’m not counting 2001 because there is some debate about whether Wolf or Mike Sherman made the final call on picks), Wolf drafted 29 total first day players and traded a first round pick to the Atlanta Falcons for Favre.
Counting Favre, Wolf used just 6 of his first day draft picks on offensive skill players. One was used on a kicker and the remaining 22, including 8 of his 10 first round picks, were either defensive players or offensive linemen.
In those 9 drafts (1992-2000) he only picked one receiver higher than the third round (Derrick Mayes, his second round pick in 1996) and his third round pick on fullback William Henderson (66th overall) was the earliest he drafted a back. With the exception of Favre, Wolf never used a first day pick on a quarterback.
The one thing Wolf did in his first two seasons with the team that Thompson didn’t was make the playoffs. The reason for this, as most fans will point out, is Wolf wasn’t afraid to sign free agents; something Thompson is reluctant to do.
I agree with this, but will also be quick to point out that free agency and the salary cap that goes with it were new concepts when Wolf was GM. When players were granted the ability to negotiate with other teams, including Wolf’s top signing, defensive end Reggie White, players were cut by teams simply because the team couldn’t afford them any more. So, it was possible to turn a team around quickly by signing a couple of big names.
Today, when Thompson is GM, you still will have the occasional star released because of cap reasons but, because teams have gotten better at keeping their top players, most of those available are there because of their age, injuries, attitude problems or simply because they can’t play.
Proof of this can be seen during Wolf’s time with the team itself. Early in his tenure, he signed players like White (1993), Frank Winters (1992) and Sean Jones (1994). Later on, he didn’t have as much success with free agents; signing guys like Qadry Ismail (1997), Raymont Harris and Eric Curry (both in 1998).
There are two other things fans tend to overlook when comparing the two men.
First, Wolf made a coaching change immediately after being hired (replacing Linde Infante with Mike Holmgren). Thompson, in contrast, waited until his second season with the team to make a coaching change. While, on the surface, that might not mean much, new head coach Mike McCarthy’s philosophy is different than his predecessor Sherman and does require different players. For example, Henderson was a perfect fit at fullback for Sherman’s offense but is too slow to be a good fit for McCarthy’s offense (he was released this off season). So, in essence, even though he made the right move keeping Sherman for a year (Sherman had previously taken the team to three straight divisional titles and deserved a chance to keep his job), he did set himself back a year by doing so.
The other thing fans overlook is the level of competition in the division.
The other thing that should be noted is, when Wolf traded for Favre, he had a quarterback to build around long-term. He could sign a free agent with the knowledge that he would compliment Favre and his abilities. Favre is still with the team and is still a capable starter. But, he’s 37 and nobody, including Favre, knows how much longer he’ll play. Unlike Wolf, Thompson can’t sign players to compliment Favre because sooner, rather than later, he’s going to have a new quarterback under center. That means he has to juggle trying to win now with building the team for the future. That means passing up on aging veterans and focusing, instead, on players who will develop into stars later while hopefully being able to contribute now.
I’m not saying Thompson is as good as Wolf or will be able to build the team into a contender. I’m not saying that because it’s just too early to judge; just like it’s too early to call him a failure at general manager too. But, as far as comparing him to Wolf, the two men aren’t that far off in their philosophies and, with some time, he may just prove to be just as good as, if not better than his mentor ever was.