GREEN BAY—There’s a school of thought in some NFL circles that certain positions on a football team are not worth a first-round draft pick.
Running back has definitely become one, which recent draft statistics show. Safety, tight end and center might be others.
Packers GM Ted Thompson doesn’t attend that school, however, and on Thursday – one week before the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft – Thompson essentially said that any and all positions are fair game for Green Bay’s first pick.
Recalling the start of free agency in the mid-1990s, Thompson said conventional wisdom directed the most money toward quarterbacks, pass rushers and pass protectors. But that doesn’t mean other players aren’t valuable enough to be picked in the first round and given the contract that goes with it.
“Certainly if you find a player with skill and the ability to make a statement at a position, whether it be one of those spots or not, you take the best player,” Thompson said.
As usual, Thompson repeated the “best player” mantra often during his annual pre-draft press conference, and the Packers have a prime opportunity to match value and need come next Thursday if positions like safety, tight end and center are indeed in play in the first round.
No need has been discussed externally more than safety, after the Packers got no interceptions from the position in 2013 and the two players who got the most playing time alongside Morgan Burnett (M.D. Jennings and Jerron McMillian) are no longer here. Promising second-year pro Micah Hyde could move to safety, but that alone won’t solve things.
Also, with Jermichael Finley’s uncertain future and Evan Dietrich-Smith’s departure in free agency, tight end and center have roster holes as well. Veteran Andrew Quarless was re-signed as the No. 1 tight end for now, and JC Tretter, a fourth-round pick last year, is an obvious candidate to start at center, but neither position is close to set.
With the 21st overall pick, the Packers might find the top player in the draft at any one of those three positions there for the taking. Safeties Ha Ha Clinton-Dix of Alabama and Calvin Pryor of Louisville could be gone, but might not be. Same goes for North Carolina tight end Eric Ebron or Colorado State center Weston Richburg.
But Thompson stressed that whomever the Packers select in that spot, it won’t be because of the position he plays.
“We feel like the draft is a long-term investment, and we don’t get too carried away with what our perceived needs are at the moment,” he said. “We think that’s poor business. If you can marry those things up, that’s fine, but if you stretch to try to fill a quote-unquote need somewhere, then you wind up messing up a couple spots.
“When you’re picking in the 20s, you kind of let it come to you.”
The Packers addressed one significant need during free agency this year, signing Julius Peppers as a pass-rushing complement to Clay Matthews. The move was a surprise, not only because the Packers had added only one unrestricted free agent of note in the past four years (center Jeff Saturday in 2012), but also because no news of the Packers’ interest in Peppers had leaked in advance of the signing.
“This happened fast. It happened very quietly,” Thompson said, explaining that the Packers have often “dabbled” in free agency, whether or not signings result or the activity is publicized.
“There’s no evidence of any decline in his play, in our opinion. He still has the same athletic traits he had coming out. He’s had a remarkable history in the NFL in terms of durability, so we’re looking forward to it. I think he is, too.”
The acquisition of Peppers won’t preclude the Packers from adding more pass rushers in the draft, and with nine picks in all – one in each of the seven rounds, plus compensatory picks at the end of the third and fifth rounds – Green Bay will have ample opportunity to fortify multiple spots.
Last year, Thompson went in armed with eight picks and, via a number of trades, turned them into 11 selections.
The three-day draft will finish with rounds 4-7 on Saturday, May 10, and Thompson has regularly found key contributors on that final day. In 2013, two of the three most productive rookies on the Packers’ roster in left tackle David Bakhtiari and Hyde were drafted on the third day.
“If you keep your eye on the ball, there are players to be had,” Thompson said. “There are always college free agents that make teams and wind up being good players. Nobody drafts those guys.”
And therein lies part of the beauty of the draft, that it’s inexact and unpredictable. In recent years, the Packers have traded both up and down, working their board and adjusting on the fly to whatever the other 31 teams might do.
Thompson calls it “fun,” but it’s fun with a great deal of responsibility.
“You have to understand the chair you sit in,” he said. “In terms of my chair, I’m the leader in there. I have to project a certain confidence, a certain understanding, and a certain amount of wisdom to try to do the right thing, and I pray every day that I have that wisdom.”