Could GM Ted Thompson learn a few things from the New England Patriots?
By Brian E Murphy, Packers Insider senior editor
~Since his Patriots lost at Denver in final seconds in the AFC Championship game, Bill Belichick hasn’t waited until the draft rolls around to make improvements to his football team.
In the past few weeks, the Patriots have utilized a thing called free agency, as well as another legal method called trading.
They’ve added former top-two overall pick, Chris Long to the defensive line. That was the same draft with Jordy Nelson, by the way. So it’s not like Long is ancient.
They’ve added a recent top-ten pick, 26- year old Jonathan Cooper, to the offensive line.
They’ve added a former starting running back, and a good receiving back, Donald Brown.
They’ve added another wide receiver, Chris Hogan, from Buffalo. This has the looks of another Wes Welker, Julian Edelman type of move for them.
They also just signed former first round linebacker Shea McClellin. He was the guy a lot of people believed the Packers were going to draft four years ago, but the Bears unexpectedly took him earlier even though they played the wrong scheme for his talents. The Patriots, and Packers, play the right one.
Again, despite adding that talent to the roster this off-season, they also will draft. Yes that’s right, you are allowed to do both. Adding some good talent, proven in the NFL, doesn’t mean you forfeit your right to draft players.
Remember, the Patriots were the Super Bowl Champions last season (2014-2015), and finished a two-point conversion from potentially going back to the Super Bowl this February.
They’ve also been to five other Super Bowls in the Tom Brady era, winning three of them and losing two thrillers to the New York Giants. Each time the Giants won the Super Bowl, they knocked off the Packers along the way, and at Lambeau Field.
In the past couple of years, the Patriots have fielded the following players who were obtained by the Patriots via free agency or a trade:
- CB Darrelle Revis (FA 2014), Superstar
- CB Brandon Browner (FA 2014)
- CB Malcolm Butler (FA 2014), Won Super Bowl with Int
- CB Kyle Arrington (FA 2009)
- SS Patrick Chung (FA 2014), former high pick, by NE, re-acquired cheaply
- RB LeGarrette Blounte (FA 2014), talented RB
- RB Jonas Gray (FA 2014)
- DT Alan Branch (FA 2014), another former high draft pick, gotten cheap
- WR Brandon LaFell (FA 2014)
- DE/OLB Jabaal Sheard (FA 2015), former top-40 pick, acquired for about the same $ as Nick Perry
- WR Danny Amendola (FA 2013), became Brady’s top WR target when Edelman was out
- LB Akeem Ayers (Trade 2014), another former high pick
- LB Rob Ninkovich (FA 2009)
- LB Jonathan Casillas (Trade 2014)
- RB Steven Jackson (FA 2015), former first round pick, gotten cheaply, no risk.
Veteran free agent role players have been a huge part of New England’s roster-building since 2001.
Sheard was another somewhat quiet signing, but the former #37 overall pick in the 2011 draft made an impact on the Patriots, getting four sacks in his first four games. He finished the season with eight, and forced four fumbles.
This is a smart strategy taking good, but still young enough, talent off poor teams like Cleveland. He’s still only 26. Now watch McClellin turn into a solid player for the next few years, with the Patriots basically stealing the former first rounder, from another sub-par team, the Bears.
Last season’s championship team, Alan Branch, LeGarrette Blount, Sealver Siliga and Brandon LaFell were among the crucial acquisitions, in addition to the big ticket stars like Revis.
Almost their whole defensive backfield was comprised of new additions from other clubs; Revis, Browner, Chung, and Super Bowl hero Butler.
Belichick never stops looking for a place to upgrade; Akeem Ayers and Jonathan Casillas were two role players picked up in midseason trades that have helped along the way.
From 2011 until 2014, (the recent two seasons New England made the Super Bowl) just a three year span, the roster turned over an incredible amount. Only 16 Patriots who suited up on Super Bowl Sunday 2015 were on the team that lost to the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLVI just three years earlier.
As long as they have Tom Brady and Robb Gronkowski, they have a chance. It’s much the same in Green Bay with their #12 & #87 combo. And each of the four guys were original draft picks. Only Rodgers was a first rounder, incidentally. Both of the #87 targets, Nelson and Gronkowski, were second round picks. Brady, of course, was the best sixth round pick ever back in 2000.
Those similarities of the key guys, #12 and #87 are pretty much the only parallels.
Whereas Belichick is not afraid to turnover his roster frequently, and add veteran players from other teams, Thompson seems almost afraid to bring in anyone else, aside from street castoffs.
Thompson-defenders have a lot of evidence that his system works:
- One Super Bowl Championship. Don’t take that for granted. Nobody has more than two titles in the last 10 seasons, and some franchises have ZERO in their history. Isn’t that right Grape Apes to the west, Minnesota?
- Made the playoffs for seven straight years, tied with Patriots for longest active streak in NFL. Some teams have made it zero times in these seven seasons.
- Appeared poised for possible Super Bowl last year (2014) before losing Nelson for the season in a meaningless preseason game in August (Patriots offense was also in shambles when they lost their #87 to an ACL three years ago).
- Beat the Patriots in 2014 and outplayed Seattle in the NFC Championship game for 95% of the game, and would have won if Brandon Bostick either could follow instructions, or catch. That was the best team assembled in the NFL, despite the choke-job the final five minutes. You cannot pin any of that on Thompson.
- Despite losing Nelson, and struggling on offense for most of 2015, still came one two-point conversion on the last play from making it to another NFC Championship game. Instead, lost in overtime.
But defenders of the Patriots way, and critics of the Thompson “Draft only” way, also have some evidence that he is wasting the precious Aaron Rodgers Era:
- 2011 team should have repeated, but he let Cullen Jenkins go in free agency, and expected his shoes to be filled by an unknown. The first defensive lineman he took that draft was in the seventh round, Lawrence Guy with the 233rd pick. Jenkins did very good that year in Philadelphia, and missing him and the big fella Howard Green proved to be crucial in the end.
- Always is two or three years behind filling obvious holes; safety after losing safety Nick Collins in week two of the 2011 season, and at Inside Linebacker after losing Desmond Bishop in the 2012 preseason opener. He waited until 2014 to add a legitimate talent at safety, and he still hasn’t added a true talent at LB now four years later.
- Has had chances to obtain difference-makers, on a silver platter. Oakland tried to send Randy Moss to Green Bay in 2007 (year before Rodgers Era began), and Buffalo tried to send Marshawn Lynch to Green Bay in 2010. New England was willing to give just a little bit more to get Moss. Same thing with Seattle for Lynch. Think about those 2007 Patriots without Moss. And imagine Seattle the past five-six seasons without Marshawn. Thompson valued his picks just a little bit too much. And for those who think Moss was too old at that time, he was the same age then as Jordy Nelson is now. Moss broke the all-time TD record for a season that year with Brady throwing him bombs.
- Other than the magical 2010 Super Bowl run, the team has not won more than one playoff game in a season. Their lone playoff wins came against a Vikings third string QB who later was moved to a different position, vs the Redskins who never beat a team with a winning record all year, and the Dallas Cowboys in that 2014 NFC Divisional that Dez Bryant didn’t make that catch. They are 3-5 in the playoffs in the five years since the magical 2010 Super Bowl run.
- Aaron Rodgers masks a lot of ills on this team.
When he was out with the broken collar bone in 2013, the team looked horrible. The players that fans thought were talented, appeared to be scrubs. The Lions outgained the Packers about 550 yards to 90 at one point on that 2013 Thanksgiving game. And that was with a healthy Nelson, Cobb, Jones, Lacy, Offensive line, Matthews, etc.
- The 2008 Patriots lost Brady in week one to a torn ACL, and their backup QB Matt Cassell, who had not even started a game since high school (was a college backup at USC his whole time there), went 10-5 in his 15 starts.
Ted Thompson is one of the better drafters in the NFL, there’s no doubt about that. But he’s not the best. And he’s surely not great enough at it to compensate for not adding talent in the manner that the Patriots do. Or that the Seahawks do. Besides trading for Lynch (which was paramount; without him they don’t sniff a Super Bowl), they also added defensive linemen Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril, from poor teams.
Yes, Thompson added the great, but old, Julius Peppers in the 2014 off-season, and he’s played well for two years since, justifying the addition. But at the same time, the Broncos also added an almost-as-old pass rusher of their own, Demarcus Ware. They also added defensive backs Aqib Talib, TJ Ward, and WR Emmanuel Sanders. Oh, this in addition to adding QB Peyton Manning via free agency back in 2012.
Drafting is very important. But no matter how good Thompson drafts, he’s always going to have misses. He’s misfired with first round picks like Justin Harrell. He’s whiffed on second rounders like Jerel Worthy. Nick Perry and Datone Jones have been so-so as first round picks.
He traded up to select inside linebacker Terrell Manning, who was a flop.
He also thought that Maine’s Jerron McMillian was the answer at safety, using a fourth round pick on him in 2012, the first draft after losing Collins.
In that same 2012 draft, many Packer fans were clamoring for Notre Dame’s safety Harrison Smith to be the choice. He was available at #28 when the Packers picked. Instead, Thompson chose defensive lineman Nick Perry, and made him a stand-up outside linebacker. Smith went the next pick at #29, and he’s solidified that back end of the Vikings defense. Thompson used his next pick, round two, on Jerel Worthy.
Reggie Nelson, at age 28, was a talented but affordable option as a free agent at that time. He’s played great since then.
New England and Denver have filled holes via free agency, gambling on guys who have shown in the NFL that they can play at this level. All college players are unknowns.
Projecting any collegiate kid, whether he’s from Western Michigan like Greg Jennings was, Maine like Jerron McMillian was, Saginaw valley State like Jeff Janis is, or Alabama like Trent Richardson, Eddie Lacy, Mark Baron, and Dee Milliner are more guesswork than signing a player already at the NFL level.
The Packers have had an obvious hole at tight end and inside linebacker for a few years now. Since Jermichael Finley‘s career was unfortunately ended early, there hasn’t been a Packers tight end run past anyone, whether he’s a linebacker or a safety.
This year, there were some very talented, and still young (30 or under) tight ends available on the free agent or trade market. Guess who added them? New England added Martellus Bennett, New Orleans added Coby Fleener, and Pittsburgh added the gem of the group, Ladarius Green.
They are NFL-proven players, not college guesses. You think Brady, Brees, and Roethlisberger are a little more excited over those new toys than Rodgers is about his tight ends? Ah, what do those teams know about tight ends in the NFL anyway. Oh wait, they turned Gronk, Jimmy Graham, and Heath Miller into perennial Pro-Bowlers.
Last year, most Packer fans were expecting, and wanted, one of the inside linebackers to be the Packer first round pick when the Packers were on the clock. They had their choice of any of them. Denzel Perryman from Miami, Eric Kendricks from UCLA, Stephone Anthony from Clemson all were guys rated among the top-twenty by many analysts. Many predraft mocks from the experts like Kiper, McShay, Mayock, and others at NFL.com, CBSsports, etc. had the Packers taking Anthony and Kendricks. Many mocks had Perryman already gone by the Packers pick.
However, they were all still available when the Packers pick was up.
Instead, the Packers took a solid defensive back, Damarious Randall, from Arizona State. Randall looks like a good pick, a good player. You can’t fault that pick.
However, Kendricks looks like a force for years to come inside the Vikings defense (right in front of Harrison Smith).
Perryman and Anthony appear to be fixtures in San Diego and New Orleans, respectively, going forward.
Meanwhile, the Packers still need an inside linebacker, or two, a year later, and this draft crop doesn’t appear to have anyone nearly as good as those mentioned from last year. This crop of tight ends appears weak as well. The free agent crop of tight ends was above average. This includes Bennett, who wasn’t a free agent, but was made available. New England was happy to reel him in, even though they already have the best in Gronk.
So did Thompson add a proven NFL inside linebacker this spring in free agency, like Danny Treyvathon? Nope, he went to the Bears, and he said the Packers never contacted him.
The Bears also added another ILB in Jerrell Freeman. Those two were rated number two and three among all ILBs last year in the NFL, per Pro Football Focus’ grading system. Only All Pro Luke Kuechly graded higher. Now the Bears don’t have any hole at ILB to spend draft picks on, and they can use their picks at other positions.
Thompson, instead, will rely on the same cast as last year, with a possible rookie added.
However, aside from Reggie Ragland, there doesn’t appear to be any inside linebackers in this draft who can be day-one starters, upgrades. Raglend, unfortunately, will most likely be gone before the Packers pick.
In 2010, John Schneider was Ted Thompson’s right-hand man, in Green Bay.
Then Seattle signed him away to be their GM starting with that 2010 off-season.
In 2010, Schneider completed 284 roster transactions, including adding Marshawn Lynch to be their bell-cow.
On February 2, 2014, the Seahawks won Super Bowl XLVIII, their first championship in their existence.
Of those on the championship roster, only four players, Max Unger, Red Bryant, Jon Ryan and Brandon Mebane were Seahawks prior to Schneider’s arrival in Seattle. Think about that. He built that in four years in today’s NFL.
Schneider and Seattle followed their Super Bowl win with another Super Bowl appearance, but lost to New England in Super Bowl XLIX on a last-second error by the playcaller, and great play by the Patriots cornerback.
Look, Ted Thompson hit a grand slam in his first ever draft, first pick, in 2005 when Rodgers was “supposed to” be the top overall pick, and he somehow slid all the way down to the Packers at #24.
I actually believe his trade for Matthews in the 2009 draft was a more brilliant move. Clay is a superstar, very much under-appreciated by many. Many Packer fans take Matthews for granted, and probably will until he suffers an injury that ends his season, like so many other Packers have had.
But overall, I think the results and evidence show that New England has clearly out-performed the Packers in terms of building a team. They’ve drafted well but they’ve really utilized free agency and the trade wire well. Seattle has also.
While the Patriots and Steelers have just helped themselves this off-season in free agency and trades, the Packers have done nothing but lose Heyward and Raji, and add nobody.
Don’t worry though: Thompson has nine selections in next month’s draft.
The problem is Seattle and New England also will be drafting.
They also will have young guys improve from last year.