Packers’ GM Thompson’s pick of Harrell stands as GM’s biggest folly : Packers Insider

Packers’ GM Thompson’s pick of Harrell stands as GM’s biggest folly

October 10, 2010 by  
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Oct 10, 2010 ~ by Bob McGinn

~If Ted Thompson could have one day back in his 69 months running the football fortunes of the Green Bay Packers it would have to be April 28, 2007.

That’s when Justin Harrell became a Packer and Thompson showed a glaring lack of vision that continues to call into question whether he has what it takes to bring the Lombardi Trophy back to Green Bay.

Justin Harrell has had trouble staying on the field in his short tenure with the Packers.

Drafting Harrell, a defensive tackle with a history of major injury, was bad enough. His decision to turn down repeated trade overtures from the Cleveland Browns and acquire a first-round draft choice in 2008 was even worse.

On that afternoon 3½ year ago, Thompson found himself in a jam. Cornerback Darrelle Revis, the player whom the general manager really wanted for the Packers at the 16th spot in the first round, had been whisked away by the New York Jets at 14 in a trade with the Carolina Panthers.

Just two years later, Thompson would prove capable of engineering one of the most aggressive and brilliant moves in Packers draft history. That was his decision to trade up into the first round for linebacker Clay Matthews. He followed it up in April, dealing up into the third round for starting safety Morgan Burnett.

Back then, all Thompson had ever done for almost a decade in Seattle and Green Bay was sit on his haunches and 1) draft a player or 2) trade down for additional choices.

The Jets shot all the way up from the 25th slot for Revis, who now is regarded by some as the best cover cornerback in the National Football League.

Given their location just two slots behind Carolina, the Packers seemed to be a more attractive trading partner than the Jets. Thompson’s scouts made some calls on his behalf looking for a chance to move up, but their efforts appeared half-hearted, nothing fell into their laps and Revis, who would have been a perfect fit behind Charles Woodson and Al Harris, went off the board.

Earlier in the round, running back Marshawn Lynch was drafted by Buffalo at 12. Only Thompson can say for certain if Lynch would have been his choice at 16, and he almost always is loathe to look back.

Shortly after the selection of Harrell, Thompson said of Lynch, “I would have considered him, yeah. But it wasn’t a deadlock cinch like everybody thinks it was.”

That’s probably because there was sentiment within the organization about Lynch’s character and whether he would fit in Green Bay.

When Pittsburgh picked linebacker Lawrence Timmons at 15, the Packers had 15 minutes to decide their move.

Green Bay really needed a running back. They also needed a No. 3 wide receiver, a No. 3 cornerback and a tight end.

Thompson had high grades on Harrell, the strapping run stopper from Tennessee; wide receiver Robert Meachem, the deep threat at Tennessee; Miami inside linebacker Jon Beason, a run-and-hit specialist from the modern-day “Linebacker U”; and cornerback Leon Hall of Michigan.

Hall, a highly effective player in the Big Ten and now for Cincinnati, didn’t suit the in-your-face style of coverage the Packers employed under coordinator Bob Sanders. Nick Barnett and A.J. Hawk were up-and-coming starters in the 4-3 defense so Beason really wasn’t needed.

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Thompson knew better than anyone just how much of an injury risk that Harrell represented.

The back problems and shin splints in high school. The leg surgery and broken ankle as a freshman at Tennessee. More ankle problems as a sophomore. The torn biceps as a senior.

But Harrell also had that intoxicating carriage and size. He came from a strong, supportive family. He had played hurt. He was bright. And people said he had a big heart.

Thompson deliberated, finally told coach Mike McCarthy he was choosing Harrell and, with only a minute left on the 15-minute clock, turned in the fateful card of a player who would go down as one of the worst busts in franchise history.

During that time, personnel assistant and designated phone guy John Schneider was on the line with his old friend from Cleveland, general manager Phil Savage. Since the decision by Miami not to select quarterback Brady Quinn at 9, the Browns had been canvassing every team other than AFC North brethren Pittsburgh and Cincinnati between 10 and 25 desperately trying to move up.

Sources in the Browns’ draft room said Savage never spoke directly to Thompson, but his conversations with Schneider had been going back and forth for almost two hours.

Having already taken tackle Joe Thomas with the third pick, the Browns didn’t have another choice until the fourth spot in the second round (36). Savage’s carrot for obtaining Quinn was offering Cleveland’s first-round choice in 2008.

Eventually, the Browns found a taker in Dallas, which traded away its 22nd selection for that 36th pick and next year’s No. 1. Considering the Browns had gone 4-12 in ’06, Jerry Jones expected to be getting a top-10 pick.

Several days after the draft, Savage indicated that Green Bay seemed to be the only semi-receptive team before Jones stepped up. Maybe that was due to Schneider’s cheerful demeanor, because Thompson certainly gave no indication he ever even considered it.

“There were a couple people in our room who were kind of for it,” Thompson said three days after the draft. “I didn’t dismiss it out of hand, but I was never keen to do it. Quite frankly, I’d rather help us now rather than help us a year from now.”

Because the Packers were six slots higher than Dallas, a trade with Cleveland probably would have given them an extra fourth- or fifth-round choice as well as the second-round pick (36) and next year’s No. 1.

Turning the deal down was a horrendous miscalculation.

Revis was long gone, leaving the Packers high and dry looking at a beat-up player from a position of little need and an underclassman wide receiver who had started for just one year.

What could have been

Just two months earlier, Thompson in an interview had cited a study commissioned by Wolf in the mid-to-late 1990s that revealed players selected 18 to 42 turned out to be remarkably similar in longevity and production.

He also should have been aware just how much teams had profited by obtaining a future No. 1. In the previous 15 years a total of 13 future No. 1s had changed hands, and nine players then were drafted in the following year as the result of those trades.

Among the players selected with those picks were such greats as linebacker Ray Lewis and running back Jamal Lewis, who led Baltimore to a championship, and nose tackle Vince Wilfork, who won a Super Bowl ring in New England.

The Browns won 10 games in 2007, which gave the 22nd pick to the Cowboys. So Jerry Jones selected running back Felix Jones just before the Steelers took running back Rashard Mendenhall at 23 and the Titans chose running back Chris Johnson at 24.

Avid Packers fans might want to bypass the next three paragraphs.

You know that little-bitty need the Packers have at running back these days? The Packers wouldn’t have it now because they, like the Titans, were among the minority of teams that were extremely high on East Carolina’s Johnson.

Giants castoff Ryan Grant had done surprisingly well down the stretch in 2007, but the Packers weren’t wedded to him as the featured back. They still wanted a big-play man, and even though they were high on Jones, indications are they would have taken Johnson over him.

Can you even imagine a backfield with Chris Johnson behind Aaron Rodgers? Right now, the Packers might be shooting for their second straight Super Bowl.

Had the Packers been armed with Cleveland’s 36th pick, it is known they really liked both defensive end-linebacker LaMarr Woodley and wide receiver Sidney Rice. But by the time they picked, Rice (44) had just gone to Minnesota and Woodley (46) had just gone to Pittsburgh.

Caught with an unappetizing pool of players for a second time, Thompson traded down from 47 with the Jets and, drafting strictly for need, made the uninspiring choice of Brandon Jackson at 63. Then, after hitting with James Jones at 78, they found themselves with a thin board again and blew it with Aaron Rouse at 89, which was the extra third from the Jets.

Thompson was booed in the Lambeau Field atrium late that afternoon when he brought Harrell’s name to the faithful.

At season’s end, Harrell will have played in 14 of a possible 80 games because of a sprained ankle, two back operations and a blown knee. Other than 37 tackles (2½ for loss), his stat line for 268 snaps shows nary a sack, nary a knockdown and nary a hurry.

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