NFL fans generally judge their team’s first-round draft picks based on two criteria: 1) Have I ever heard of the guy? 2) Does his position fill a need?
If your team satisfies one of these two tests, you will generally be pretty happy. If the pick satisfies both of the criteria, you’re on the phone trying to get your name in the Super Bowl ticket lottery. Neither criteria: “BOOOOOOOOOOOOO!”
In Green Bay, there’s actually a third test: “Is the player a ‘throwback Packer?’” (If you are a Green Bay draft pick and are considered an “old school” Packer, congratulations: you are a Caucasian. See: Hawk, A. J.; Matthews, Clay; and Bulaga, Bryan.) When the Pack drafts a player that hits the trifecta, their first trip to Green Bay involves making a cast of their head for the bronze bust in Canton.
But these cases are rare in Green Bay under the Ted Thompson regime. Thompson drafts as if he’s the smartest guy in the league — and a lot of the time, he is.
Take, for example, his 2005 decision to use the 24th pick to end the draft freefall of Cal quarterback Aaron Rodgers (whom some had projected the 49ers to take with the first pick) even when he had a Hall of Fame quarterback still playing close to his prime. Witness Thompson parlaying the pick he stole from the Jets for an older Brett Favre into still-developing USC linebacker Clay Matthews. Wonder at Thompson drafting Super Bowl stalwarts in the mid-rounds: Greg Jennings, Nick Collins, James Jones, James Starks, Josh Sitton, Jason Spitz, Daryn Colledge, T. J. Lang, Desmond Bishop — the list goes on. Their two most promising cover corners, Tramon Williams and Sam Shields, were undrafted free agents.
Not that there haven’t been missteps. Despite his big-time reputation coming out of college (and his vocal conservatism), fifth overall pick in the 2006 draft A. J. Hawk has been merely an average NFL linebacker. (Thirteen of the players drafted in the first round in 2006 have gone to the Pro Bowl; Hawk is not one of them.) He gets torched by fast tight ends, which is why he was released early this offseason and re-signed to a much less lucrative deal to stay with the team.
The next year, Thompson used the 16th overall pick on Tennessee defensive lineman Justin Harrell, who has played a grand total of 13 games in his career with the Packers. The same year, the Packers used their second-round pick on Nebraska running back Brandon Jackson, whose name translated means, “run three yards and fall down.”
So what does this all mean for the Packers’ 2011 draft? Who knows? But let’s start with where they need help the most:
Left tackle Chad Clifton began playing in the leather-helmet era. Right tackle Mark Tauscher, after 12 years in the league, has actually turned into a giant donut. Starting guard (and Sarah Palin enthusiast) Daryn Colledge is probably leaving via free agency. Bryan Bulaga, the Packers’ 2010 first round pick, struggled at times during his rookie year, but appears to be the heir apparent when Clifton calls it quits.
The experts say Wisconsin tackle Gabe Carimi, Mississippi State tackle Derek Sherrod, and Baylor guard/tackle Danny Watkins might be available at the end of the first round. Carimi will most likely be gone, and if you’ve ever heard of Sherrod and Watkins, it might be time for you to relearn the names of your children.
Ryan Grant missed all but a few plays of the 2010 season. James Starks, who carried the team through the playoffs and Super Bowl, is loaded with talent but rumored to be a headcase. Brandon Jackson will likely be gone after setting the league record for rushing attempts by a mummy.
The real crowd pleaser here would be Mark Ingram, the bruising Heisman winner from Alabama. But the chances of his falling to No. 32 are slim, and as we see in draft after draft, there’s always a lot of running back talent in the middle rounds — and this draft is said to be heavy on running back talent (Ryan Williams, Mikel Leshoure, Daniel Thomas, Shane Vereen, DeMarco Murray, Bilal Powell, Kendall Hunter, Stevan Ridley, Taiwan Jones, etc.) It would be out of character for Thompson to reach for a RB — which means it’s probably what he’s going to do.
As this last season proved, you can never have enough bodies on the D-line. At the end of the year, the Packers were filling in spots with guys they had signed off the street. The spelling-challenged B. J. Raji developed into a force, Ryan Pickett got healthy, and the no-names played over their heads.
Yet there don’t appear to be a lot of sure things on the draft board at the end of the first round. The Packers are said to like Iowa’s Adrian Clayborn, but the words “birth-related nerve condition” tend to send up a red flag. Others likely on the board will be Temple’s Muhammad Wilkerson and Ohio State’s Cameron Heyward — son of the late Craig “Ironhead” Heyward, former NFL running back.
Of course, this is all dependent on there actually being a season in 2011. If there is, the Packers should once again be one of the league’s strongest teams — barring injuries, or the public-employee unions burning the state of Wisconsin to the ground.
— Christian Schneider is a senior fellow at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute.