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Should Packers Draft and Develop or Draft and Play?

Back on March 12 I posted an article headlined “The Upside to Trading Up for Draft Choices.” The gist was that, especially this year, the Green Bay Packers need to draft players who are ready to play in the NFL coming out of college.

One compelling theory for drafting ready-to-play guys is that a team can get a tremendous bargain if they get maximum play in the four years that rookies are subject to contracts that vastly underpay them. I promised another installment, which I’ve finally gotten to.

Someone thought that “Rob’s Theory” wasn’t original. I have seldom heard anyone talk about the extreme inequality that NFL draftees are subject to for their first four years – about half of their career for many players. And I have never heard anyone else encourage drafting players who could contribute immediately as a strategy for staying under the salary cap. At any rate, that idea came solely out of my steadily deteriorating cranium.

Here are a few more facts that lend support to the draft-and-play approach.

Lots of football experts act like there is an enormous chasm between college and pro football. You read about how much bigger and faster the pro players are. You hear things like it takes years to learn how to run an out pattern or a stop-and-go route. And of course you hear that the pros have more sophisticated and complex operations and systems.

Maybe that was true once, but not so much anymore – and particularly for the schools in the top five college football conferences. Many of the players coming out of these conferences play in much bigger stadiums than the NFL features. I’d also say that the crowd frenzy and support is greater for many of these teams that you see in the NFL.

I’ve seen photos of college training facilities that dwarf what most NFL teams offer. The powerhouse college teams offer exercise training, nutritional advice, and counseling that surpasses what is available to many NFL players.

Many college coaching staffs are pretty comparable to those in the NFL and the pay at some college powerhouses is similar to what NFL teams pays. Alabama’s Nick Saban, for example, makes more per season than any NFL coach and that includes Jon Gruden and his new $10 million per year deal.

And who are the Big Five college football conferences? They would be the SEC, ACC, Big Ten, Pac-12, and Big 12. I’ll let you know after the draft how many players taken by the Packers and how many first round choices, came from schools in these conferences. I believe such college players are the most likely to be ready to play at the NFL level.

Colleges even have a procedure for developing players who are not quite ready to excel at that level: it’s called redshirting. Maybe the NFL should copy their lead.

As an aside, a couple of new professional football leagues plan to start up in the next year or two. They might serve as finishing schools to further prepare players who are not yet ready to make the jump to the NFL.

Even before college, most current NFL players have been playing football competitively since around the fifth grade – so most of these guys are 10-to-12-year veterans of the game by the time they are drafted.

I don’t believe that NFL playbooks are greatly advanced over what college players are now being taught. In fact, it’s the NFL that is adopting some of the formations and plays that have proved popular at the college level, not the other way around. College football is much more creative and experimental than the pro version.

Ready to Play in the Pros

The Cowboys’ Ezekiel Elliott led the league in rushing as a rookie in 2016. He was supplanted by the Chiefs’ Kareem Hunt in 2017 – yes, another rookie.

Dak Prescott wasn’t even a top draft choice in 2016, yet as a rookie he improved the Cowboys’ record from 4-12 to 13-3. In 2017, Quarterbacks Carson Wentz and Jared Goff emerged as stars in just their second professional seasons.

Antonio Brown, a sixth-rounder from unheralded Central Michigan, had over 1,100 yards through the air by season two and he had 1,499 yards by season four. Mike Evans has been in the league for four years and he has four 1,000-yard seasons to show for it.

Vic Beasley, Jr. topped the NFL in sacks in 2016, just his second year in the league. J.J. Watt had 20.5 sacks in just his second season.

For the Packers, Casey Hayward had six interceptions in his first season. Clay Matthews had 10 sacks in his first year and 13.5 in his second. The Packers’ Blake Martinez just tied for first in in the league in tackles in his second year in the NFL. Eddie Lacy made second-team All-Pro and the Pro Bowl in his first year, and rushed for over 1,100 yards in each of his first two years. Packers’ rookie Aaron Jones just recorded the second-best rushing average (among those with over 30 carries) in the league and this was despite going to UTEP, a second-tier college.

Draft and Develop

How and when did Green Bay come to promote and practice the “draft and develop” strategy? It appears all the credit goes to Ted Thompson, who presumably cultivated his belief in the approach while climbing his way up the player personnel ladder from 1992 to 1999 with the Packers.

When he returned from Seattle to become Green Bay’s general manager in 2005, he was finally in a position to implement the plan. Thompson and his pet strategy reached a high point in 2007, when the team had a 13-3 record – and when Thompson was voted Sporting News NFL Executive of the Year. The tagline has since spread around the league.

In the final 10 years of Thompson’s tenure, however, draft and develop came under increasing criticism. Some media people began disparaging Ted’s philosophy as “draft and replace” or “discard and replace.”

Thompson had barely cleaned his desk out when our own Mordecai started out the new year with this: “Packers Players Think Draft-and-Develop Can Suck It.” He cited Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Davante Adams as being critical of Thomson’s philosophy and he penned this nugget: draft and develop only works if you draft well.

Maybe it was Thompson’s slavish adherence to the idea that led to the decline in the Packers’ success since 2010. When Thompson had a string of drafts that weren’t productive, most guys in his shoes would have tried to plug those holes through free agency or trades. But that wasn’t Ted’s style.

It isn’t that draft and develop is a bad strategy. It just becomes bad when it’s used as the nearly exclusive player acquisition strategy and when opportunities by way of trades and free agent pickups are shunned. Ted Thompson became a one-trick pony and the Packers suffered greatly as a result.

I don’t know whether CEO Mark Murphy was thinking about draft and develop when he shook up his front office personnel and structure following the 2017 season. Regardless, the team’s new player personnel people have said they are all in with using all the tools available to them to fill out the roster. And Gutekunst and his charges have been backing up those intentions with actions.

Barring trading away some of the team’s 12 draft selections and aided by being in the 14th draft position, I expect that from seven to nine draftees will wind up on the 2018 team roster.

More than any other time in more than a decade, this year’s draft looms as a make-it-or-break-it proposition for the Green Bay Packers.

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Rob Born

Someone else said it first but I popularized it: “Athleticism is important in athletic pursuits.” It took three years, but the Packers finally listened. My new mantra: “Trading down is fine, but never trade up.”

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4 Comments

  1. cz March 22, 2018

    Good article and good topic.

    My feedback remains that McCarthy has no idea how to develop. Ted drafts and time and time again, our highest picks do not develop under McCarthy. In fact, great college players like Ha Ha and Lacy seemed to show less effort. Players from UCLA like 1st roundet Datone Jones and Brett Hundley were as good or better when they arrived than after 3 yrs learning nothing from Capers and McCarthy.
    So, till McCarthy is gone bye bye, Gute cannot expect Draft and Dev to work.
    Some even go elsewhere and thrive under better coaches like Hyde and Hayward.
    What sucks is there is a Mike McCarthy street for winning one Chamnship in more than a decade, and the games without Rodgers in that span shows winning is not common to McCarthy but to Rodgers

    Finally, Rodgers was either already great or developed a lot under Favre. Favre did sweep Rodgers first chance he had.
    2nd Hundley under Rodgers, unlike Rodgers under Favre, seems to have not improved whatsoever.
    Time for a coach that can motivate and get more than what was hoped for rather than less 90pct of the time.

  2. PF4L March 22, 2018

    SHOULD PACKERS DRAFT AND DEVELOP OR DRAFT AND PLAY?

    Is this a trick question?

    I didn’t know they had a choice.

  3. cz March 22, 2018

    is it possible to build a team entirely through free agency.. and trade away all draft picks for free agents

    1. r.duke March 24, 2018

      yes