Is Packers' GM Ted Thompson Right After All (Part One)?

Thomas HobbesContributor IApril 5, 2010

GREEN BAY, WI - JULY 28: General Manager Ted Thompson of the Green Bay Packers talks with Nick Barnett #56 during summer training camp on July 28, 2008 at the Hutson Center in Green Bay, Wisconsin. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Ironically, the most divisive person in the Packers' organization isn’t even a player: it's GM Ted Thompson. 

Fans are quick to take sides when it comes to Thompson; some hate him for running Brett Favre out of town, some love him for having the guts to let go of a future first ballot Hall of Famer and give Aaron Rodgers his chance. 

The other thing that fans are really divisive on is how Thompson drafts, namely to draft the best player available, trade down, and horde picks.  Fans argue that until the next Aaron Rodgers falls into the Packers’ lap, the team will be losing out on drafting “superstar” players since Thompson keeps trading down. A recent publication has just been published which shows that Ted Thompson maybe right after all.  

A publication entitled “The Loser’s Curse: Overconfidence vs. Market Efficiency in the National Football League Draft” (available here ) was recently published which analyzes the market value of draft picks in correlation to player statistics.  For the record, I am not an economist or statistician, so if I miss anything or don’t understand the finer points of this publication, then I do claim complete ignorance, but here are some of the points that were brought up in the paper:

•    The market value of draft picks, commonly referred to as a trade chart, is incorrect as it has not been updated to reflect current NFL salary trends where rookies make significantly more than they did before.

•    The order of which players are drafted is not an exact science.  The paper states that a player will only have a 52 percent chance of doing better than a player drafted after him who plays the same position.  

For example, Alex Smith had a 52 percent chance of being a better player than Aaron Rodgers, the next quarterback to be drafted. 

This is realistically no better than a coin flip, but the important issue is that Alex Smith, as the first overall draft pick (and a QB to boot), commanded a six-year, $45.9 million salary with $24 million guaranteed, as opposed to Rodgers’ rookie salary which was a five-year, $7.7 million with $5.4 million guaranteed deal. 

So in essence, Thompson managed to land a QB with a 48 percent chance of being better than the first overall pick for a fraction of the cost.  So even if Rodgers was a complete flop, Thompson would have no problem with discarding Rodgers since he was cheap to begin with. 

San Francisco, on the other hand, has had to keep Smith on their roster simply due to the amount of money they had guaranteed him (this might have paid off in the end as it looks like Smith is getting better, but still a costly move nevertheless). Of course, the other ramification of this is that while Rodgers sat around and did nothing for the first three years of his career, he wasn’t taking that much of the salary cap. 

On the other hand, Alex Smith did exactly the same thing for a lot of his starting years (due to injury and being replaced) in San Francisco but at a much higher price.

•    The salaries that rookies command is not directly proportional to the value of the rookie to his team in the top of the draft.  In other words, the ratio between salary to talent is better in the second round than it is in the first.  So in essence, the first overall pick is the worse pick for value since the salary of the first overall pick is abnormally high in comparison to all other picks.

•    Trading down actually has no effect on getting “superstars."  On average, teams that trade down for additional players have, on average, 3.87 more starts.  Also there is no statistical difference in the probability of these players appearing in the Pro Bowl.

With these two points, obviously trading down is by far the better option. Teams are still pretty bad at evaluating for “superstars”, but not for starters; meaning teams seem to be fairly able to draft players who are future starters, but not when it comes to finding a “superstar” player. 

Obviously there are some discrepancies. The Colts obviously got it right by drafting a superstar in Peyton Manning with the first overall selection in 1998 draft. But for all the times teams have gotten it right, there are plenty of times where they have gotten it wrong, such as with Tim Couch.  Not only that, but Tom Brady was the 199th pick in the 2000 NFL draft, and it could be argued that he is as good, if not better, than Peyton Manning.  

The take home message is pretty simple: At the moment, the only thing that NFL teams are assured of is the rookie salary. 

Since rookies typically are slotted (at least at the beginning of the draft, which is where most of the money is anyways), NFL teams typically know in what ballpark they will have to spend for any given pick. Talent, on the other hand, is basically a coin flip; NFL teams don't have player evaluation down to a point where the Ryan Leafs would not be picked high but the Tom Bradys would. 

There is some optimal balance, probably in the second and third rounds, where you get the absolutely best value, where the danger of picking a bust is balanced with the safety of a smaller contract.  

This, in essence, appears to be exactly what Ted Thompson likes to do. He likes to trade down or even completely out of the first round. 

He likes to horde picks and draft players in the second and third rounds. He tries to get value for his picks. Now, take for example the one occasion of recent memory where Ted Thompson did a full 180 and traded back up into the first round to pick Clay Matthews III at 26. 

Several factors had to happen to warrant this trade.  First, Clay Matthews was 12th on the Packers’ draft board, (link ) this is an extreme value and something was done to capitalize on Matthews III falling so far.  Second, the salary of a player in the bottom of the first round is significantly less than a player at the top, so trading up to the bottom of the first round is a calculated risk, but not that dangerous. 

Add in his pedigree, good tape and combine results, and the fact that the Brett Favre pick was included in the package and you can see why it was such an attractive option for the Packers.  

There is one more factor, while not mentioned in the publication, that I think has great importance where Ted Thompson has it right as well.  Trading down and getting value is the only way to consistently build a team, like he did after taking over in 2005. 

Teams can sign players in free agency, but the reason players are in free agency is because they are no longer good enough for teams to consider re-signing them or their salaries are too high for the team to manage. 

In either situation, the relative salary to talent ratio is very weak.  Re-signing players is a good method of keeping a team at status quo, but rarely does a free agent player get significantly better after being resigned. 

So, drafting and avoiding risky picks like the top of the first round, is really the only way to consistently build a team. 

On one hand you can draft Nick Collins, a Pro-Bowler and a starter for years to come, or you can draft Brian Brohm, who was a complete bust for Green Bay and a waste of a second round pick, but can be cut without too much loss of money. 

On the other side of the coin, it would appear as if the situation in Oakland has snowballed out of control. With early draft picks, teams have been forced to spend more money on less talent than they would have as late drafters. 

This forces the team to spend less money on other players, which makes the team worse overall.  A worse overall team loses more games, and thus lands them back at the top of the draft where they can repeat the process. 

If high draft picks end up succeeding, then you can perhaps warrant the excessive cost of pick so high and build a team around them (such as in the case of Matt Ryan, who is a good player but was also great PR after Michael Vick). 

But in the case of JaMarcus Russell, your team ends up getting buried in his contract and the money you spent on him can’t be used to sign free agents, trade for players (who usually demand a new contract), or re-sign your own players; you can’t cut him because of his enormous guaranteed salary and you lose a roster spot as well.     

Given the current environment of the NFL, I believe that Ted Thompson has it right after all, and has the most efficient and progressive approach to the draft. 

As this article is getting a bit long, I hope to add a part II, where I will address the psychological aspects of Ted Thompson’s approach to the draft.