How Ted Thompson Can Win the 2014 NFL Draft for Green Bay Packers

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How Ted Thompson Can Win the 2014 NFL Draft for Green Bay Packers
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Can Ted Thompson build a Super Bowl-bound team in 2014?

While no team truly wins the NFL draft, some selections pan out as more of a bust than a boon—a situation Ted Thompson can't afford after a relatively quiet free agency for the Green Bay Packers.

Aside from the high-profile Julius Peppers signing, Thompson chose to use free agency to retain the Packers' own players, which filled some areas of needB.J. Raji moving to nose tackle, Sam Shields returning at cornerback and Matt Flynn providing depth at quarterback—while others remain very much open.

Green Bay lost starting center Evan Dietrich-Smith and wideout James Jones in free agency, and it still needs a ball-hawk safety, an agile and athletic linebacker and a pass-catching tight end to be a threat in the red zone and compete with Andrew Quarless. To consider this draft a win for the Packers, Thompson will need to adequately address each of those positions in the 2014 NFL draft.

A former Packers scout, Thompson's talent evaluation skills are superb, and though he often drafts players for positions other than what they played in college—sometimes necessitated by a 3-4 schemehis high-round selections usually pan out. 

Since Thompson took over as general manager in 2005, the Packers have drafted 86 players. Nine were first-round picks, and since 2005, eight of those nine first-rounders remain on the team: Aaron Rodgers, A.J. Hawk, Clay Matthews, Raji, Bryan Bulaga, Derek Sherrod, Nick Perry and Datone Jones. 

Thompson is also skilled at finding talent in lower rounds. Running back James Starks was a sixth-round pick in 2010. Though he has been criticized for his inconsistency in coverage, 2013 starting inside linebacker Brad Jones was a seventh-round selection. And defensive back Micah Hyde, an emerging star who could see a shift from cornerback to safety in his future, was a fifth-round pick. 

The Packers have drafted primary starters at multiple positions from Round 1 through Round 7, as the table below shows. 

Packers Primary Starters in Drafts Under Ted Thompson, 2005-13
Draft Round Number of Primary Starters Selected
1 6
2 8
3 5
4 6
5 4
6 5
7 2

Pro-Football-Reference.com

What this illustrates is what anyone who follows the Packers already knows: Any player taken by Thompson in any round of the draft, save perhaps the seventh, can become the primary starter at his position. It's the way Green Bay's system is built, and it's why Thompson doesn't necessarily have to make splashy free-agency moves every offseason for the Packers to remain dominant. 

Of course, the system only works so long as Thompson continues to execute it effectively. Let's look at what he'll need to do in 2014 to keep the Packers in contention for Super Bowl XLIX

 

Draft a Starting-Caliber Safety 

Safety remains Green Bay's most pressing need on defense. While it's possible that Green Bay either moves cornerback Hyde to safety or elects to use him there part of the time in addition to playing him at the slot corner spot, Thompson has to pick up a safety in the early rounds.

Many think the Packers need to select a free safety no matter what, but it's hard to imagine Thompson passing up on a high-value pick at strong safety when the positions have become so fluid.  Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Ed Reynolds would be the choice picks at free safety, while Calvin Pryor and Deone Bucannon's skill sets at strong safety would still be compatible with the Packers' needs. 

What the Packers need more than anything is a true ball hawk, but Morgan Burnett isn't locked into playing every snap at strong safety. He could play at free safety if the Packers were to land Bucannon, who could be the solution to the Packers' lack of turnovers in 2013.

The highest-ranked strong safety in the draft, Bucannon could be available for Green Bay in Round 2.

At 215 pounds Bucannon is a hard-hitter, but he can also create turnovers for the secondary. He tied for the lead in interceptions in the Pac-12 in 2013 with six and he led the conference in total tackles with 114.

That versatility is just what Green Bay needs to assist a struggling safety group that failed to record a single interception in 2013.

In taking free safety Reynolds, the Packers could do even more to help create takeaways. Reynolds recorded six interceptions in his 2012 season, three of which he brought back for touchdowns. He amassed 301 yards after interceptions that year. His production dipped in 2013, but he's shown a nose for the ball. 

Would Thompson trade up to go after Clinton-Dix in the first round? It's looking less and less likely. Starting-caliber safety talent can be found well into the third round in this year's draft, and Thompson has some other needs he could address in the first if he chooses to take a safety in the second or third. 

 

Target Elite Pass-Catchers 

After losing James Jones, who signed with the Oakland Raiders in free agency, the Packers will likely move Jarrett Boykin to the No. 3 receiver spot and draft someone to be their fourth wideout. Similarly, though the Packers re-signed Quarless, it's not clear if he's the best replacement for Jermichael Finley.

How high will Thompson target these two offensive positions? NFL.com's Daniel Jeremiah's latest mock has the Packers taking tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins with the No. 21 pick, while his colleague Charles Davis projects they'll select wide receiver Brandin Cooks out of Oregon State. 

Under Thompson, the Packers have never taken a wide receiver or tight end in the first round. Some may argue that they haven't needed to until this year, but it feels like a move decidedly ill-befitting Thompson.

Moreover, would the Packers even need to pounce on Seferian-Jenkins in the first? If Eric Ebron and Jace Amaro's projections keep them in the first round, perhaps the Packers could maneuver to select Seferian-Jenkins in the second. He has excellent size at 6'6" and 276 pounds, which allows him to be a skilled blocker and makes him difficult to cover. 

He'll leave Washington with quite a few school records under his belt, including career receptions by a tight end (110), career receiving yards by a tight end (1,388) and career touchdown receptions by a tight end (13), as well as single-season records. 

His agility and technique despite his size make him a sure-handed target, and his height and physicality can make him a go-to red-zone target, which is exactly what Rodgers needs. 

BYU's Cody Hoffman could be a nice pick in the later rounds if the Packers choose not to take a wide receiver early. At 6'4" and 210 pounds, Hoffman is difficult to cover. He's also remarkably consistent.  He has exceeded or almost exceeded 1,000 yards in his last three seasons. In 2012, he had 100 receptions for 1,248 yards.

 

Value Defense in the First Round

Choosing not to take a wide receiver, tight end or safety in the first round would leave the Packers open to selecting defensive playmakers like linebackers C.J. Mosley or Ryan Shazier. It's highly likely that Clinton-Dix, Ebron and Pryor will be off the board by No. 21, and Thompson's strategy of going defense in the first roundwith the exceptions of Rodgers, Sherrod and Bulagahas paid off. 

Mosley is the athletic addition on the inside the Packers may want to bring in to compete with Brad Jones opposite Hawk—a three-down linebacker who has fantastic speed in pursuit and who can cover. That speed is what Green Bay is missing most in the middle. 

Shazier is a production machine, finishing his three years at Ohio State with 317 tackles, 15 sacks and an interception, per Sports-Reference.com. With Peppers and Mike Neal likely to play at the elephant position in a hybrid outside linebacker/defensive end role, Thompson may want to select a lighter, quicker player like Shazier who can keep up in pursuit and cover a wide range. 

Green Bay's run defense began the 2013 season an elite, top-three unit, and finished near the bottom of the league. Mosley or Shazier could chase down running backs and drop into coverage, beefing up the Packers' front seven and nudging that run defense back toward elite status in 2014.

If Thompson's draft strategy remains consistent—prioritizing value over need, but fit in the system over everything—and if he addresses the safety, linebacker, tight end and receiver positions adequately, the Packers will be able to call the 2014 draft a win.

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