GREEN BAY — Aaron Rodgers is the shining example of the draft-and-develop philosophy general manager Ted Thompson has used to build the Green Bay Packers.
Eight years ago this week, Thompson rescued Rodgers from his green-room agony at the NFL draft, ending the quarterback’s first-round freefall even though he already had a pretty fair quarterback in Brett Favre. But Thompson stayed true to his principles even in his first draft in Green Bay, selecting the best player still on his draft board regardless of position.
Rodgers has made Thompson look like a genius for that decision many times over, and he was justly rewarded Friday when Thompson made him the highest-paid player in the NFL. It was fitting, however, that Rodgers’ five-year, $110 million contract extension was consummated while the Packers were in the middle of the draft.
That’s because the draft is the Packers’ lifeblood under Thompson and Rodgers’ huge contract — along with the five-year, $66 million extension signed last week by linebacker Clay Matthews — has put the onus for the team’s success on the general manager even more than in the past. The Packers have their two superstars locked up through 2018 (2019 in Rodgers’ case), but the size of those contracts will limit Thompson’s options while he tries to maintain a competitive team around them.
Of course, Thompson’s single-minded approach to team-building seldom uses trades and free agency anyway, but it is now fair to wonder whether those avenues are even open to him anymore. The Packers insisted Friday they won’t be handcuffed, but the dual contracts did ensure Thompson’s drafting acumen will be needed more than ever if the Packers hope to keep the talent pipeline flowing.
After taking a badly needed defensive end — UCLA’s Datone Jones — in the draft’s first round Thursday, Thompson was up to his old tricks Friday. He traded down three times, landing Alabama running back Eddie Lacy in the second round and trading out of the third round entirely. That left him with 10 picks in rounds four through seven today, not a bad total in a deep draft.
Now it’s Thompson’s job to use those picks on players who can help the team. The selection of Lacy, who was expected to go in the first round but did a Rogers-like plunge, is the type of boom-or-bust decision he’ll be facing regularly.
Thompson could have taken University of Wisconsin running back Montee Ball with his second-round pick but the Packers traded down six spots when a number of players they liked were still on their draft board. By the time their new second-round pick came up, Ball had been taken by Denver.
No one knows which back the Packers liked more, though the 230-pound Lacy seems like a better fit for a team that has gone 43 consecutive games without a 100-yard rusher and is trying to adopt a more physical style. Still, the episode shows how critical Thompson’s decision-making is now that Rodgers and Matthews are hogging the lion’s share of the team’s salary cap. At this point, he simply can’t afford to be wrong in his evaluation of players and his manipulation of the draft board.
Not that Thompson had a lot of choice in signing Rodgers, who is only 29 and the best quarterback in a quarterback-driven league. But after Rodgers’ agent and Packers negotiator Russ Ball finalized the agreement, the Packers were confident they wouldn’t find themselves in fiscal vise.
“I think we structured it in a way where we’ll continue to be in a position where we can compete on the field,” team president Mark Murphy said. “But every team faces it. It’s a challenge, but he’s been such a great player and represents the Packers so well. I think everybody in the organization is really happy for him but happy for the organization, too, because it’s good for both sides.”
Other teams might deal with cap woes, but most other teams aren’t shelling out $22 million a year to one player, which the Packers will be doing once Rodgers’ extension kicks in in 2015. Murphy hopes the new television deals that will start about that time will alleviate the cap hit.
Meanwhile, Rodgers is confident the Packers will continue to put a competitive team around him. And that was before Thompson finally gave him the franchise running back he’s never had.
“I think the deal is one that we’re both happy with and I trust Ted and Russ and their ability to bring in players and make this team very competitive,” Rodgers said. “Obviously, that whole personnel department believes in (coach) Mike (McCarthy) and his staff and their ability to coach and teach and demand and get the most out of their players. There’s an expectation that guys like myself and Clay are going to continue to take advantage of leadership opportunities that we have. I like where we’re at. Obviously, there were some discussions about not doing a lot in free agency. Like I said, this seems to be the Packer way where you draft a guy into your system and you pay them.”
More than ever, Aaron. More than ever.
Contact Tom Oates at firstname.lastname@example.org or 608-252-6172.