The Packerscreed, by David Benjamin
Plumbing Ted’s psyche
MADISON, Wis. — The best NFL Draft analyst ever was the late, great, supergeek Joel Buchsbaum, who assembled Pro Football Weekly’s exhaustive annual draft guidebook and who died at a tragically young age. Buchsbaum was so good, so thorough and such a fanatic student of film that NFL general managers called him for advice on prospective players.
There will never be another Buchsbaum. By comparison, even the most conscientious and obsessive of draft analysts today are amateurs. While the numbers of “mock drafts” have proliferated beyond all standards of human sanity, they remain sheer guesswork. For example, in a few idle hours last month, I looked up 100 different mock drafts, to see — according to students of the game — whom the Packers might select with the 29th choice on 27 April. I ended up with a list of 37 different predictions. No player got more than six votes. The successful guess rate in this exercise — six percent — pretty much defines the art of the mock draft.
After doing that research, I didn’t feel as though I’d wasted my time. I knew I’d wasted my time.
This week, in the same spirit of pissing away precious hours, I tackled the task of piercing the brain of Packers GM Ted Thompson, a challenge that might even frustrate Joel Buchsbaum. One analyst, Justin Mosqueda at Cheesehead TV, has tackled the mysterious mind of Ted with gusto, and he’s fun to read. Mosqueda appears to have at least a tenuous grip on Thompson’s psyche, except…
Well, Mosqueda forecast that Thompson’s top choice this year would be a linebacker from Houston named Tyus Bowser. This is a pick that would be a smash hit with all the Sha Na Na fans in Wisconsin, but c’mon, man. Bowser is nobody’s idea of Round One material.
Like Mosqueda — and Bob McGinn, Pete Doughery and the hovering ghost of Joel Buchsbaum — I’ve studied my Ted, and I think I have an idea of what might happen when the Packers pick on Draft Weekend.
For instance, I admit that I want desperately for Thompson to choose a cornerback in the first round. Why? Because I’m still traumatized by the epic ineptitude of the Packers’ secondary in their humiliating defeat by the Atlanta Falcons in this year’s NFC Championship game.
Clearly — any fan will tell you — the Packers need more and better cornerbacks. They’re available in the draft. But Ted Thompson will not draft one, at least not in Round One. Why? Two reasons.
First, unlike you and me, Ted Thompson doesn’t think his current CBs are all that bad. Ted, a cockeyed optimist, expects Damarious Randall, Quentin Rollins, LaDarius Gunter and their fellow defenders to bounce back from a crummy season and do better in 2017.
There’s another, better, reason. In this rare talent-rich class, there will be cornerbacks available in Rounds 2-6 who, in another year, would have been snatched up much quicker. My list of blue-chip cornerbacks likely to be available after Round One includes the injured but superb Sidney Jones (Washington), Tre’Davious White (LSU), Cordrea Tankersley (Clemson), Rasul Douglas (West Virginia), Akhello Witherspoon (Colorado), Shaquill Griffin (Central Florida), Teez Tabor (Florida), Jourdan Lewis (Michigan), Cornelius Elder (Miami), Nate Hairston (Temple) and Marquez White (Florida State).
(In my heart, I’m hoping for Adorée Jackson, the lightning-fast glamour-puss from Southern Cal, but I think he’ll be gone before No. 29.)
So, if not cornerback, where will Ted go in Round One?
First, he might just go straight to Round Two, trading spot No. 29 for two or three spots a little later in the Draft.
But if he does choose, I’m giving odds that he’ll seek out one of the more dependable “edge rusher” types in the draft, players variously described as either defensive end or outside linebacker. I’m more and more convinced that Thompson assigned much of the blame for the NFC Championship fiasco not so much to his secondary, but to the Packers’ pass rush. Falcons’ quarterback Matt Ryan has no mobility. Packer edge rushers were attacking, essentially, a statue, and they couldn’t get to him. The secondary had to chase Atlanta’s receivers for extra seconds on every dropback. The Packers’ pass rushers were so sluggish and butterfingered that Ryan actually ran for a touchdown, an event less frequent that the passage of Halley’s comet.
So, let’ say “edge rusher.” The consensus among the experts is that the best DE/OLB still available to the Packers at No. 29 will be Takkarist McKinley from UCLA (a school for which Thompson has a soft spot in his heart — remember Datone Jones?). I’m secretly hoping, however, that McKinley gets snatched earlier by, say, Detroit or Oakland, opening the door for Ted to select the favorite-son candidate from Wisconsin, T.J. Watt.
This isn’t entirely a matter of hometown sentiment. People who follow the Draft see three virtues in Watt. First, he’s big, fast and tenacious. Second, last year, his first full season on the edge of the Badger defense was one of the best in history. This suggests that his best football is still ahead of him. Third, he’s got bloodlines. His brother is J.J. Watt, unquestionably one of the NFL’s best defensive players.
Plus, T.J.’s measurables are the same as Clay Matthews’.
But, what if neither Watt nor McKinley is still on the board at No. 29? The next-best edge rushers would be Charles Harris (Missouri) or Taco Charlton Michigan). Given that choice, Ted might decide to draft a DB, after all, especially if Marlon Humphrey (Ala.), Kevin King (Wash.) or Jackson slips down that far.
Any GM who has to draft way down at No. 29, however, has to keep an open mind. He’s especially alert for higher-rated players who “slip” down the board and find themselves languishing in the dread ESPN Green Room. When that happens, a smart GM forgets team needs and grabs the Best Available Player (BAP). As Aaron Rodgers, Bryan Bulaga and Matthews will attest, Ted is a master at exploiting slippage.
In that case, I’ve composed a list of BAPs upon whom Thompson might pounce, regardless of position, if they fall into his lap. This is a Ted-friendly group whose biggest names are Budda Baker (safety, Washington), Ryan Ramczyk (tackle, Wisconsin), Dalvin Cook (tailback, Fla. State), Derek Barnett (DE, Tennessee), Zach Cunningham (LB, Vanderbilt) and Tim Williams (DE, Alabama). If you were hoping that Ted might choose Jabrill Peppers, the positionless phenom from Michigan, fuggedaboudit.
I’m tempted to add a wide receiver to this list, but the most Thompson-likely receiver in this draft is a second-day talent (but I love him) named Cooper Kupp, from Eastern Washington. Think of Lambeau Field echoing with the cry, “Cooop!” If not Kupp, Thompson will draft another wideout — he always does — but who knows when? An oft-mentioned candidate is Malachi Dupre of LSU. And if USC’s JuJu Smith-Schuster slips out of Round One, Thompson will be salivating.
The free-agent departure of T.J. Lang made the guard position very shaky for the Packers. Another GM might use Round One to fill that hole. Not Ted. Besides, there are plenty of bodies, especially when you factor in college tackles and centers destined to play guard in the NFL. My favorite — and a guy who plays with the sort of mad abandon Thompson loves— is Isaac Asiata of Utah, who’ll still be around in the third round. Thompson, I know, also likes Pat Elflein, the Ohio State center. If they last ’til the second round, Ted might be tempted by the two top guard prospects, Forrest Lamp (W. Kentucky) and Dan Feeney (Indiana). But he’ll probably wait at least one more round, where Pitt’s Dorian Johnson will be available. If not Asiata or Johnson, the guards I like are two convertible tackles, Dion Dawkins (Temple) and Taylor Moton (Pitt). Later on, the most interesting project would be USC’s gigantic Zach Banner. The titanic Trojan has played at 400 pounds but he recently vowed to reduce to a ballerina-like 350, or less.
I know, you want a running back. Strangely enough, the one I tend to grade the highest is runner/receiver/returner Christian McCaffrey from Stanford, who’s seems like the second coming of Ty Montgomery. Why have two of those?
I suspect Thompson will lean toward a more conventional two-tool back. Don’t be surprised by Joe (troubled but talented) Mixon from Oklahoma, or Texas’ D’Onta Foreman, Wyoming’s Brian Hill or even Corey Clement from Wisconsin. If Thompson waits, two of the “sleepers” in this draft, destined for Rounds 6 or 7, are Elijah McGuire of La.-Lafayette and gadget back Tarik Cohen of North Carolina A&T.
And then, the surprises!
Thompson always picks a few head-scratchers, like free-agent wideout Geronimo Allison last year. This year, I’ll be delighted if Ted chooses — high in the draft — Ohio State’s Swiss Army knife Curtis Samuel. Ted’ll be tempted, also, by Texas A&M safety Justin Evans (Round 3), Florida Atlantic edge rusher Trey Hendrickson (Round 3), USC nose tackle Stevie Tu’Ikolovatu (Round 4), Villanova DE Tanoh Kpassagnon (Round 4), Clemson linebacker Ben Boulware (Round 5), and, of course, around the fifth round, Vince Biegel.