GREEN BAY, Wis. — The dream scenario for Green Bay Packers fans played out slowly — as all things do on draft day — in front of their eyes.
The local hero from State U with the NFL bloodlines would be there for the taking.
Yes, it seemed destined that the Wisconsin native, Badgers star and younger brother of an All-Pro would become the 29th pick of the 2017 NFL draft.
In the moment when T.J. Watt could have stayed home and played for the Packers, then-general manager Ted Thompson instead traded the pick to the Cleveland Browns to move back to No. 33 and grab an extra fourth-round pick. Watt came off the board at No. 30 to the Pittsburgh Steelers, and Thompson took cornerback Kevin King three picks later.
The move will be remembered as one of Thompson’s last major acts as general manager; he was demoted from GM to consultant after the 2017 season. That move served as a microcosm for Thompson’s last three drafts.
Those three drafts should serve as the heart of the team in 2018. Instead, there’s only four full-time starters: King, defensive tackle Kenny Clark, linebacker Blake Martinez and whichever running back (Jamaal Williams, Aaron Jones or Ty Montgomery) opens a given game.
Only two teams have fewer starters combined from the 2015, 2016 and 2017 drafts. The Raiders, who have gutted their team since Jon Gruden’s arrival, have two. The Titans have three.
Meanwhile, six teams have 10 starters from those three drafts: the Cowboys, Buccaneers, Falcons, Jaguars, Seahawks and Texans. The Packers opponent on Sunday, the unbeaten Rams, have nine. So do two of the Packers’ NFC North rivals: the Bears and Vikings.
For a program that, under Thompson, predicated itself on drafting and development with only minimal add-on through free agency, those three drafts might best explain why the Packers sit at 3-2-1 heading into the most difficult stretch of their season, with road games against the Rams, Patriots, Seahawks and Vikings paired around the lone home game against the Dolphins.
“Ted was one of the best in football at running a draft,” one longtime NFL personnel executive said. “But he wasn’t in the same mindset those last few years.”
‘On board with Watt’
Passing on Watt and trading down meant the Packers picked up an extra fourth-round pick from the Browns.
But it wasn’t just any pick. It was the first pick of the third day of the draft — a coveted spot because teams might want to jump up and trade into that spot for a surprise player who was still available.
Instead, Thompson used that pick on Watt’s college teammate and fellow Wisconsin pass-rusher Vince Biegel.
New Packers GM Brian Gutekunst, a longtime Thompson underling, saw so little in Biegel that he cut him at the end of his second pro training camp this past summer, even though he played just 121 snaps as a rookie after a foot injury delayed his start. Biegel, who is now with the Saints, has yet to record an NFL sack.
“Just about everyone was on board with Watt,” one source familiar with the Packers’ draft-room discussions said. “The only reservation was some people thought he was a one-year player [in college].”
The source did not know why Thompson couldn’t be swayed by those in the room. After failing to acquire starting-caliber cornerbacks in previous drafts, Thompson went with King, whose history of shoulder problems did not scare off Thompson.
King has the makings of a long-term starter if he can stay healthy. His rookie season ended in November of last year because he needed another surgery on his shoulder, and he already has missed two games this season because of a groin injury. His first major impact play came in the fourth quarter of the Packers’ game against the 49ers, when King snagged his first career interception to set up the game-winning drive.
Meanwhile, in Pittsburgh, Watt has totaled 6.0 sacks in six games this season and 13.0 in 21 career games.
To make matters worse, the Packers have gotten nothing out of their second- and third-round picks from 2017, either. Safety Josh Jones (No. 61 overall) has played four defensive snaps this season and can’t supplant former undrafted free agent Kentrell Brice. Defensive tackle Montravius Adams (No. 93 overall) lost most of his rookie year to a foot injury, and despite being healthy and active for every game this season, he has been on the field for only 21 defensive snaps.
One pick after Jones, the Steelers took productive receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, and five picks after that, the Saints grabbed running back Alvin Kamara, the NFL’s offensive rookie of the year last season.
Other than King, the contributors from the rest of the class include only two third-day picks: running backs Williams (fourth round) and Jones (fifth).
A ‘Pro Bowl player’
Thompson’s last draft gem might be Clark, the 27th pick of the 2016 draft.
But despite what coach Mike McCarthy says, the reliable defensive tackle has not reached Pro Bowl status yet.
“Kenny Clark is a Pro Bowl player,” McCarthy said this week. “I mean, I don’t know how else to define what else he’s done. I think you saw it last year. He’s now stacking it each and every week. He’s obviously a focal point of the offense — you can see that as the game plans unfold. Kenny’s playing at a very high level.”
Clark also might be the only player from the 2015-17 drafts to warrant a big-money extension, similar to what Thompson gave fellow defensive tackle Mike Daniels ($10.25 million per year in 2015). That is, if the Packers don’t wear him down. He has played 321 of 381 defensive snaps, or 84.3 percent, an unheard-of total for a Packers defensive lineman.
Just like in 2017, the biggest issues in the 2016 draft came in rounds two and three. Thompson traded up in the second round — giving up a fourth-round pick — to take tackle Jason Spriggs, who has yet to show that he is an eventual replacement for aging right tackle Bryan Bulaga. In the third round, Thompson took Kyler Fackrell, a pass-rush specialist who besides one big quarter (three fourth-quarter sacks against the Bills) has been a nonfactor.
Martinez has been solid for a fourth-round pick, while another fourth-rounder, Dean Lowry, opened the year as a backup on the defensive line and is now a part-time starter after the injury to Muhammad Wilkerson.
All seven players from the 2016 draft remain property of the Packers in some capacity. Receiver Trevor Davis (fifth round) and tackle Kyle Murphy (sixth) are on injured reserve, but neither would be a starter even if healthy.
And then there was one
Montgomery is the only player on the Packers’ roster remaining from the 2015 draft, and there’s a chance that this will be his last season. His move from running back to receiver didn’t result in a full-time starting job.
But at least the Packers will have gotten four years out of their third-round pick. They can’t say that of anyone else in this draft, including first-round pick Damarious Randall or second-rounder Quinten Rollins.
Thompson doubled up on cornerbacks, with Randall at No. 30 and Rollins at No. 62. The problem was neither was a natural outside cover man. Randall played mostly safety at Arizona State, and Rollins was a former basketball player at Miami (Ohio) who played just one season of college football. A torn Achilles ended his 2017, and he was released with an injury settlement last month following a preseason hamstring injury. He is out of the league.
Randall, a divisive figure in the locker room, didn’t even make it that far.
Gutekunst traded him in March to the Browns for a backup quarterback, DeShone Kizer, giving up on a first-round pick after three seasons. Randall rejuvenated his career in Cleveland after the Browns moved him back to safety — a move the Packers were unwilling to try, despite their shaky play at safety.
To be sure, the 2015 draft wasn’t loaded with can’t-miss prospects in the late first and early second round. However, one player the Packers had their eyes on, linebacker Eric Kendricks, was available at No. 30. He went at No. 45 to the Vikings, for whom he has been a solid starter.
It’s hard to say that a team with Aaron Rodgers at quarterback is in a rebuilding mode, but the lack of talent from the 2015-17 drafts put the Packers in that mold.
Team president Mark Murphy bears as much responsibility for that as Thompson. Only Murphy knows why he didn’t force Thompson out sooner after it was obvious to those around the GM that he not only had lost his edge but also was in declining health.
Thompson will go into the Packers’ Hall of Fame at some point soon, largely because of the work he did with his early drafts — from Rodgers in 2005 to Greg Jennings in 2006 to James Jones in 2007 to Jordy Nelson in 2008 to B.J. Raji and Clay Matthews in 2009 to Bulaga in 2010 to Randall Cobb in 2011 to Daniels in 2012 to David Bakhtiari in 2013 to Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Davante Adams and Corey Linsley in 2014.
But that’s largely where it ended.
Gutekunst’s first draft appears to have taken a solid step toward rebuilding the roster. The first-time GM tried the cornerback-one-two combination again and might have gotten it right with Jaire Alexander in the first round and Josh Jackson in the second. He drafted three receivers on the third day, and two of them — Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Equanimeous St. Brown — already have contributed.