How the Green Bay Packers Won the Draft by Building for the Future

Justis Mosqueda@justisfootballFeatured ColumnistMay 6, 2016

UCLA defensive lineman Kenny Clark (97) during the Foster Farms Bowl NCAA college football game against Nebraska Saturday, Dec. 26, 2015, in Santa Clara, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

Green Bay Packers fans have an interesting relationship with the people who run their franchise. Despite a 77-34-1 record while the combination of general manager Ted Thompson, head coach Mike McCarthy and defensive coordinator Dom Capers have been the staple architects of the team, the demand for change ramps up with every season.

It has almost reached a point where fans truly believe that every year of Aaron Rodgers' prime that doesn't end in a new Lombardi Trophy is a failure. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel once published a poll that drew over 12,000 votes on the topic of the potential firing of Capers. Seventy-four percent of the angry mob voted him off the island.

In 2015, per Pro-Football-Reference.com's Defensive Simple Rating System, the Packers performed the best they have on that side of the ball since the 2010 season, when the team won the Super Bowl.

If it wasn't Capers' fault on an individual Sunday, then it was McCarthy's. Even out-of-market talking heads, such as Jared Stillman of ESPN Nashville, demanded change last season:

If I were the Packers, I would fire Mike McCarthy. He's simply living off of his Hall of Fame QB's ability to make plays.

— Jared Stillman (@JaredStillman) January 17, 2016

Never mind the health of the offensive line as a unit, the lost year of receiver Jordy Nelson and running back Eddie Lacy's weight issues holding back the offense more than McCarthy, who wasn't even calling plays until December, per NFL Media's Albert Breer.

The Packers eventually lost an overtime divisional-round game to the Arizona Cardinals, the same squad Green Bay lost to by 30 points a month earlier. This was all while 145 of the Packers' 261 receiving yards came from Jeff Janis, a then-second-year, seventh-round receiver from Division II Saginaw Valley State.

In many ways, 2015 was a disastrous recipe for the team, which was only one play away from the NFC Championship Game, showed improvement on both sides of the ball and finished with a 10-win year. So why is there such a thirst for adjustments in the franchise from outsiders?

The only time this leadership wasn't able to notch double-digit wins was a 8-7-1 campaign that featured seven starts from quarterbacks Matt Flynn, Scott Tolzien and Seneca Wallace and still ended with an NFC North title and a one-score playoff game against a team that entered the Wild Card Round with four more regular-season wins, the San Francisco 49ers.

In the offseason, it's Thompson's yearly turn to have fingers pointed at him. March is for claiming he's sitting on his hands as he glosses over free agents who are rarely worth their price tags. April is for fan posts calling for his firing, juxtaposing his career with former Packers quarterback Brett Favre, like Thompson is going to lose some arm strength as he approaches his mid-60s.

Then there is May, when his draft classes are picked apart as we quickly forget the "Why did Ted take Clay Matthews when Everette Brown was on the board?" conversations were had mere years ago.

The scary truth Green Bay is building their team for the long term. It's a process that has developed the Packers football team into a football program, and with the job security the staff has, it's the right move.

The only head coaches with a longer tenure than McCarthy, whom Thompson hired, are the New England PatriotsBill Belichick, who is also the franchise's general manager, and the Cincinnati Bengals' Marvin Lewis, whose owner is his general manager. No solely head coach-general manager combo has outlived the pair in Green Bay.

The explanation as to why this was the right move from the staff is two-pronged: why and how. Both are equally important for a frame of reference.

Like it or not, in the salary cap era of NFL football, there is more value in contracts than talent. It's why you see teams such as the Philadelphia Eagles trading away the likes of running back DeMarco Murray, linebacker Kiko Alonso and cornerback Byron Maxwell.

You can't build a 10-year run in the NFL anymore. You can do your best to keep a team competitive, but every three years or so, there will be enough turnover—through aging and free agency—that teams look completely different, even if they're under the same leadership.

No franchise will ever look like the 1980s San Francisco 49ers or the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers again. That's reality. The Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos won Super Bowls with rookie-contract-heavy production on the defensive side of the ball and immediately began hemorrhaging talent. Under this collective bargaining agreement, this is the status of professional football in the United States of America.

Now, why does Green Bay need to look toward the future?

In 2017, that team may have a new haircut and a nose job. Slated free agents include Julius Peppers, a future Hall of Fame pass-rusher; Nick Perry, a former first-round pass-rusher; Datone Jones, a former first-round pass-rusher; Josh Sitton, a starting guard; T.J. Lang, a starting guard; David Bakhtiari, the team's starting left tackle; J.C. Tretter, the team's sixth offensive lineman who was once named the starting center; Sam Barrington, a possible starting inside linebacker, and Lacy, the only long-term running back on the roster.

There is also tight end Jared Cook, a high upside player many hope takes over as the starter. If he does, the team has another mouth to feed big money in 2017. If not, they have another hole on the roster, a bit of a catch-22.

Quietly, they also have a need at receiver, as Jordy Nelson's cap hits in 2017 and 2018 rank among the highest at the position in the NFL, and no one who warrants that type of money elsewhere in the league is older than Nelson. In fact, the 30-year-old Nelson, who is coming off a season-ending knee injury, is at least three years older than anyone in his ballpark, per Spotrac.

On top of that, second-round receiver Davante Adams will be in the last year of his deal with the team, and his resume simply reads "once beat out undrafted wideout Jarrett Boykin."

Though cap space can be manipulated, Thompson's risk-averse approach to free agency means the biggest, and only, gambles he has taken have been on a few proven first-round picks such as Peppers, Charles Woodson and Ryan Pickett. Assuming he changes his approach drastically in his 13th year as a general manager, with his track record, seems unlikely.

Going into this draft, the team was faced with a question: How important is winning it all in 2016? Franchises will answer a lot of questions with their actions. Green Bay's response was simple: Not enough to mortgage what the team looks like three years down the line.

According to Aaron Nagler of Sports Illustrated and Cheesehead TV, the Packers were tempted to bring in UCLA linebacker Myles Jack on draft night. Jack was a known elite talent at a position of need for Green Bay, but his health concerns leading up to the draft led some to question his second-contract potential, a Packers-centric problem.

In a Twitter poll taken after the draft, Cheesehead TV's audience seemed relatively split on the potential of Jack, with 49 percent saying he should have been Green Bay's first pick with the 27th overall selection.

Instead, the Packers took Kenny Clark, one of Jack's former teammates. Clark is a 20-year-old defensive lineman who is relatively explosive for his size. If you followed Thompson's history since bringing on Capers to run the defense, this should have been no surprise. Big, young and explosive has been his mantra for years.

With only Mike Daniels as a long-term answer on the defensive line, Clark can play both the left defensive end or nose tackle role in Green Bay's 3-4 defense for the next decade, talent willing. It was a move Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel predicted in his draft week mock draft.

Still, some fans were surprised when the front office passed up names such as Alabama's Jarran Reed and A'Shawn Robinson, Baylor's Andrew Billings and Louisiana Tech's Vernon Butler at the position.

They shouldn't have been. Why? You can make a shortlist of potential future Packers by simply looking at Thompson's tendencies.

Pre-draft, I used filters to turn NFLDraftScout.com's first- through fourth-round big board into a 57-man watch list, which included 15 names of players drafted before the Packers went on the clock for the first time.

Of the 42 players remaining, four of the Packers' first six picks, down to selection 163, were identified. After running this board through five different mock drafts a week before the draft, Clark was selected in four of them. Based on Thompson's tendencies and the reported value of prospects by the media, Clark should have been viewed as the leading candidate to land in Green Bay, not a sleeper selection.

The two names who didn't make the early cut on the board were Blake Martinez, the fourth-round inside linebacker from Stanford whom CBS Sports' scouting service didn't list as at least an outright fourth-round talent, and Kyler Fackrell, who sticks out like a sore thumb in terms of this draft class and Thompson's overall regime.

Here is what every 2016 Packers draft choice brings to the table:

  • No. 27. Kenny Clark, DL, UCLA: At 20 years old, he may have been the second-most talented defensive lineman on the roster on Day 1. At his age, the team may be able to stretch three long-term contracts out of him.
  • No. 48. Jason Spriggs, OT, Indiana: A 21-year-old. With four of Green Bay's top six offensive linemen from 2015 slated to hit the open market in 2017, the Packers needed an option in case Bakhtiari doesn't return to the team, as the line under McCarthy has taken an almost exclusively draft and develop approach, with the exception of the Jeff Saturday experiment. The conversation goes from "Who is the starting left tackle in 2017?" to the Packers having four options for two guard openings in 2017.
  • No. 88. Kyler Fackrell, EDGE, Utah State: Fackrell is the only draftee over the age of 22, and he's not the athlete Matthews or Perry, Thompson's previous high draft picks at the outside linebacker position, have been in the past. For years, Packers fans have complained about the lack of coverage linebackers on the team, and Fackrell, a former high school safety, may be the short-term answer to that role. Fackrell is also part of a recent mid-round trend that Thompson has been riding the past two years: the aged reclamation project. Like receiver Ty Montgomery and inside linebacker Jake Ryan, two 2015 draftees, the 24-year-old Fackrell was viewed as a much better prospect early on in his college career before suffering a season-ending knee injury.
  • No. 131. Blake Martinez, LB, Stanford: Barrington and Ryan are the leaders for the inside linebacker jobs as the team heads into the 2016 season, since Nate Palmer, an outside linebacker convert, was cut this offseason. With that being said, Martinez should compete with the duo, and Barrington is a pending free agent after the year.
  • No. 137. Dean Lowry, DL, Northwestern: A 21-year-old senior, Lowry is a freak athlete who compares to Henry Anderson, one of the more effective rookies of the 2015 draft class. He is the biggest investment at the left defensive end position by the team in some time, but he's going to take some elbow grease to develop.
  • No. 163. Trevor Davis, WR, California: Despite spending fives years at two colleges, Davis is only 22 years old. When the Packers' wideouts, without Nelson, couldn't separate against both the San Diego Chargers and Rams early on in last regular season, teams just outright didn't respect the deep game of the offense, which caused the entire team to sputter at times. With Nelson and Adams potentially gone by 2017, Davis and Janis look set to compete to be the team's future vertical option.
  • No. 200. Kyle Murphy, OT, Stanford: The 22-year-old looks to battle for the fourth offensive tackle spot with Don Barclay, one of Pro Football Focus' lowest-rated offensive linemen in the league. Barclay is on a one-year contract.

So Thompson brought in six young players who are long-term alternatives to players they have on the roster, and five of them have starting potential as early as 2017. With the number of impact players, or players who were presumed to be impact players at the time of being drafted, reaching in double digits, Thompson made the right moves.

This may infuriate those fans who want to strike while the iron is hot, but Green Bay has stuck to a plan as an organization. It's a process that has developed the Packers football team into a football program.

The 2016 draft can be taken two ways. You could view it as a declaration that Green Bay will always keep its identity under this administration, which is bad because of the devaluing of positions such as defensive run-stoppers and the need for individuals "getting hot" early on in their careers to piggy back into a Super Bowl appearance, such as in 2010.

Or you could view it as a declaration that Green Bay will always keep its identity under this administration, which is good because of the consistent baseline of competitiveness the talent on the roster is on track for.

Packers football is going to be a program with the same strengths and flaws on a continuous loop until there's a major change at the top of the team or someone such as Rodgers eventually leaves. There are over two dozen franchises who would love to accept that reality. If a 77-34-1 record and a Super Bowl ring over seven seasons isn't enough for Green Bay fans, it's their issue with personal expectations with the team they need to come to grips with.

Thinking from the shoes of the Packers' front office and coaching staff, this is why the franchise's 2016 draft is the most underrated, if not the best, class this offseason.