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Grantland Channel: Beyond Sight

The Tree of Thompson

Packers GM Ted Thompson has designed the blueprint for how to rebuild an NFL franchise, and now his protégés are doing the same

There’s a new tree sprouting within the NFL. You’re likely familiar with the league’s coaching trees. The Bill Walsh tree begat the likes of Mike Holmgren, George Seifert, and Andy Reid. Bill Parcells’s tree produced Bill Belichick, whose own tree extends to Eric Mangini and Josh McDaniels, among others. The trees associated with general managers and personnel men are discussed less frequently, but they’re equally as notable. The tree generated by Rich McKay, for one, counts no fewer than seven current general managers in its branches. And in this decade, we’ve begun to see the first products of a new tree, one that’s likely to continue spreading throughout the NFL for years to come.

The Ted Thompson tree has just begun. So far, it has sprung two major branches, with general managers Reggie McKenzie (Oakland) and John Schneider (Seattle) emanating from the same Green Bay scouting department that birthed Thompson. That department, under the auspices of legendary personnel man Ron Wolf, built the 1996 Super Bowl-winning team. Thompson matched that total with Green Bay’s 2010 victory, followed that with a 15-1 season, and his Packers seem set to compete at the very top of the league for the next several seasons. Along with the Ravens, Steelers, and Patriots, the Packers are among the most admired and most imitated front offices in football.

So, what’s Ted Thompson’s secret? Well, like any good artist, he steals. Many of the same principles of Thompson’s Packers organization are similar to the ideas that come up in other smart, frequently successful NFL locales. Of course, those organizations stole many of those same principles from the smart guys before them, too. Thompson synthesizes a lot of really smart concepts and executes them without desperation or fear, season after season, with great success. He also adds a personal flourish or two on the way. And when it came to his two most important decisions, well, Thompson came up with choices that would have made even the bravest general manager think twice. In both cases, Thompson was correct.

That all starts with Aaron Rodgers, but not in the way that you think. It’s easy for the naysayer to look at Rodgers and suggest that anybody could have built a great team around the league’s best quarterback, but the fact that the Packers ended up with Rodgers reveals a lot about Thompson’s drafting philosophy, his patience, and his faith in taking the Best Player Available at his spot in the draft.

Nobody really expected Aaron Rodgers to fall to the Packers with the 24th overall pick of the first round, and the Packers weren’t really in the market for a quarterback, anyway. Green Bay had gone 10-6, but its success had been driven by a fifth-ranked offense; they were 23rd in scoring defense, with few impact players on that side of the football beyond Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila and Al Harris. Brett Favre had just posted a banner year, completing 64.1 percent of his passes while throwing 30 touchdowns against 17 picks. Favre was 35, but the need to find Favre’s replacement wasn’t anywhere near as pressing as the issues on defense. Thompson waited as the likes of Travis Johnson, Alex Barron, and Matt Jones came off the board, and despite the presence of Favre on the roster, he went with Rodgers. Thompson had drafted the guy who was going to take over for his franchise player. Now he needed somebody to develop him.

A year later, the Packers went 4-12,1 which made it high time for Thompson to fire Mike Sherman2 and pick a head coach of his choosing. The guy he chose, Mike McCarthy, didn’t exactly hand in the hottest of résumés. McCarthy spent the 2005 season in San Francisco as the offensive coordinator helping to develop Alex Smith, who threw one touchdown against 11 interceptions in an offense that averaged 14.9 points per game. Before that, he had been the offensive coordinator for the 2000-04 Saints, led by the legendary Aaron Brooks. He had worked with Favre as the Green Bay quarterbacks coach in 1999, but it was a downright shocking hire that was treated with now-comical disrespect by a nascent Internet community.3 The move upset defensive coordinator Jim Bates so much that Bates, who coveted the head job himself, quit. McCarthy’s not exactly a brilliant in-game strategist, but he’s an excellent head coach in terms of developing young talent (especially on offense) and integrating them into an already-successful attack.

And oh, did the Packers ever need a coach who could develop young talent, because Ted Thompson was about to flood Wisconsin with rookies. Beyond the stunning, counterintuitive decisions to draft Rodgers and hire McCarthy, Thompson worked off of a very clear blueprint that was designed to rebuild the Packers with young, hungry talent. From 2005 through 2008, the season in which Rodgers took over for a retiring Favreing Favre, Thompson kept himself remarkably busy with these rules to success:

Worry about talent over need at the top of the draft. As predicted by the Rodgers pick, Thompson continued a strategy of pursuing the best possible players over the ones that might fit what appeared to be a hole on his roster. In 2006, despite the presence of promising middle linebacker Nick Barnett on the roster, the Packers took A.J. Hawk with the fifth pick and played him on the outside before eventually transitioning him to the interior. Future first-round picks on players like Justin Harrell, Bryan Bulaga, and Derek Sherrod were either in places where the Packers were not hurting for talent or unlikely to need immediate relief for a year or two. Despite the presence of Donald Driver, Javon Walker (at first), and a history of receivers thrown open by Favre, Thompson used second-round picks in his first two drafts on wideouts Terrence Murphy (who suffered a spinal injury that revealed career-ending spinal stenosis during his rookie season) and Greg Jennings. That second-round wideout well would eventually yield Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb, with James Jones coming in the third round of the 2007 draft. The only notable need pick for the Packers in the first round was when they took B.J. Raji as part of their move into the 3-4.

Get as many picks as possible. Thompson isn’t some sage who gets every pick right. Just look at that list above: Hawk never developed into a cheese curd Urlacher, Harrell and Murphy were perpetually hurt, and Sherrod appears in danger of falling into that trap. It’s reasonable to at least wonder whether NFL teams are significantly better or worse than one another on draft day. It’s reminiscent of that old Baseball Prospectus acronym, TINSTAAPP: There Is No Such Thing as a Pitching Prospect. The follow-up to TINSTAAPP was simple. What’s the best way to get a pitching prospect? Start with 10 pitching prospects.

Thompson wasn’t looking for pitching prospects, but it’s clear he had a plan to accrue as many draft picks as possible. During his first four drafts at the helm, the Packers were involved in 21 different trades4 that saw a draft pick change hands. In exactly two of those 20 trades, the Packers gave up more draft picks than they received. In the 19 other trades, the Packers either traded down or traded a veteran for one or more draft picks. Green Bay ended up with 42 picks over that four-year stretch, three more than anybody else in football.5 In Thompson’s first draft alone, he turned the 89th pick into picks 115, 167, 195, 245, and 246.

That trade didn’t yield any stars, but eventually, Thompson would use picks acquired from trade-downs over this four-year stretch to find Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, Daryn Colledge, Johnny Jolly, Desmond Bishop, and Matt Flynn. He’d pull heists like dealing the 237th pick of the seventh round for a future sixth-rounder that would eventually become the 187th pick, moving up 50 spots so that the Saints could take Adrian Arrington. He used his patience, even with a team that wasn’t perfect and a job that wasn’t solidified in the way that Bill Belichick’s job is in New England, to take advantage of desperate, short-sighted teams.

Put it this way: Let’s combine all of Thompson’s trades from these four years into one mammoth deal. In that trade, he dealt away a first-round pick (the 30th selection), two second-round picks, one third-round pick, two fourth-round picks, a fifth-rounder, a sixth-rounder, two seventh-round picks, and two disgruntled players, Corey Williams and Javon Walker. In return for those nine picks and two players, Thompson received 26 selections: six second-rounders, two third-rounders, four fourth-rounders, four fifth-rounders, six sixth-rounders, four seventh-rounders, running back Ryan Grant, and a partridge brat. It’s easier to see in table form:

In terms of expected value, getting all those extra picks really adds up. Chase Stuart has used historical analysis of draft returns and the pro-football-reference.com stat “Approximate Value” to estimate the expected return from each draft pick, just as the traditional draft value chart popularized by Jimmy Johnson attempts to measure a pick’s trade value. Using Stuart’s figures, it’s possible to estimate how much value Thompson created for his team with those trades. (I’ll use the actual AV returned by the veterans who were traded over the subsequent five years of the study for their return.)

This is about to get very nerdy, but the conclusion’s worth it. The picks and players Thompson acquired would be expected to (or, in the players’ case, actually did) produce about 56.9 more Approximate Value points over their first five years than the ones he let go. To put that into context, the expected return of a player taken with the first overall pick, according to Stuart’s study, is 34.6 Approximate Value points. In other words — and this is crazy — what Thompson did for his team with trades involving draft picks over this four-year stretch was like generating a first-overall pick and a seventh-overall pick out of nothing. Imagine if the league just handed the Packers two top-seven picks in next year’s draft for free. That’s what Thompson pulled off. Magic. That’s some One red paperclip shit right there.

Went all Scorpion on other teams’ undrafted free agents. To tell you the truth, Thompson didn’t really do great work with undrafted free agents on draft day over that four-year stretch. He found Jarrett Bush in 2006 and Daniel Muir in 2007. It wasn’t really better until 2010, when he went fishing and came out with Frank Zombo and Sam Shields, each of whom were key contributors on the Super Bowl–winning team as rookies.

When it came to plucking talent off the bottom of other teams’ rosters, Thompson was unparalleled. He acquired the aforementioned Grant from the Giants for a future sixth-round pick and got a back who ran for 3,412 yards and 23 touchdowns during his first three seasons with the team. When the Texans gave up on undrafted free agent Tramon Williams after three months, the Packers snatched him up, put him on their practice squad, and eventually turned him into a Pro Bowl cornerback. Other undrafted free agents that made their way into a steady role with the Packers after a short stint with another team or two include Atari Bigby, Samkon Gado, and John Kuhn.

Avoid free agency, unless it’s a significantly undervalued asset. The only team in football that would be less active in unrestricted free agency over the past nine years than the Packers would be the Pittsburgh Steelers, and it might be a close battle. By my count, the Packers have signed exactly six veteran free agents since Thompson came to town, two of which were signings made last year: Jeff Saturday and Anthony Hargrove. They signed Brandon Chillar to a modest two-year deal before the 2008 season and ended up getting three years of solid play from him.6

Otherwise, Thompson’s work in unrestricted free agency is entirely limited to the 2006 offseason, after that disastrous 4-12 campaign. There, he signed three players. Marquand Manuel was a bust who was released after one dismal season at safety. Ryan Pickett became a valuable part of the defensive line. Both those players were signed out of the midmarket. The masterstroke was signing Charles Woodson at the ebb of his value, having missed most of the previous season with injuries. Woodson, then 29, was about to embark on a seven-year stretch with the team that would see him make a legitimate case as one of the best defensive players of his generation. He made four All-Pro teams, and went from being considered a borderline draft bust to a player who seems likely to receive a Canton bust. It’s one of the best signings in the history of free agency. If you’re going to sign a free agent, reach for the stars. Thompson found one in Woodson.

Since then, Thompson has added to his repertoire. He’s begun to sign his young talent to contract extensions with plenty of time to spare, creating valuable cap space in the process. Take his first extension with Rodgers, a deal that the Packers agreed to during the bye week of Rodgers’s first season as the team’s starter. A more timid general manager could have waited another year and a half before locking up Rodgers, but Thompson’s aggressiveness saved the Packers millions. That contract became a six-year, $65 million deal that was unquestionably the best veteran deal in football over the past five seasons. Jordy Nelson’s another player on a team-friendly extension. The Eagles really brought this sort of contract into football, but the Packers have had more success with it.

He has also reversed his draft tactics and begun to trade up a bit on draft day. Thompson has made moves in four of the last five drafts to trade up, including three separate such deals in 2012, but it’s hard to argue with the results. In 2009, Thompson dealt the 41st, 73rd, and 83rd picks to the Patriots for the 26th pick, which he used to take Clay Matthews. In 2012, the 59th, 90th, 123rd, and 163rd picks were dispatched to acquire Jerel Worthy and Casey Hayward. But in 2013, Thompson traded down three times (including twice with the 49ers) before eventually trading up to take Johnathan Franklin in the fourth round. With Franklin and second-round pick Eddie Lacy now expected to rule the roost at running back, is it possible that Thompson could have used the draft to — gasp — primarily address a need?7 In all likelihood, Thompson took Franklin and Lacy8 because he thought they were good football players. The fit will come.

The Thompson rebuild of the Packers is basically a blueprint for how to rebuild an NFL franchise, and it’s not lost on his disciples. John Schneider went to Seattle and promptly built a superfranchise in three drafts, eventually working his way through 28 selections and finding a number of starters in the middle rounds, including Kam Chancellor, John Moffitt, K.J. Wright, Richard Sherman, and eventually Russell Wilson.9 He traded down for multiple picks in the 2011 and 2012 drafts, but when his team began to turn the corner and emerged as a contender during 2012, he made an aggressive strike for a superstar in 2013 by sending his first-round pick to Minnesota for Percy Harvin. Of course, we know now that Harvin is about to undergo hip surgery that will cost him most of the season, but you can see the similarities to how Thompson changed his draft strategy once roster spots became scarcer properties.

And yes, you might also have seen the Raiders trade down from the third to the 12th spot in the 2013 draft, a move that earned them the 42nd pick, a second-rounder that comes in handy when you consider that the Bengals owned Oakland’s would-be second-rounder at 37 as part of the Carson Palmer trade. Reggie McKenzie would also trade down in the fourth and sixth rounds, continuing a rebuild that aims to remove the Raiders from years of shortsighted decisions.

There will be more. Thompson’s day in Green Bay is far from finished. Schneider might already have usurped him with his core in Seattle, and McKenzie’s going to build a good team that could emerge as the class of the post–Peyton Manning AFC West. Next, it’ll be college scouting director Brian Gutekunst or director of pro personnel Eliot Wolf, who just happens to be Ron Wolf’s son (maybe he should belong to the Wolf tree instead of the Thompson tree). In any case, Thompson has become one of the most respected and impressive personnel men in all of football. His legacy will be both in what he produces with the Packers and in how the people who learned alongside and underneath him enjoy success elsewhere. And if they follow the Thompson Way, well, success should come.

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Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell