INDIANAPOLIS -- The scouting combine is all about assessing draft-eligible talent, and there are few NFL executives who have displayed the magic touch when it comes to team-building through the draft process in recent years better than Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson. The Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers are often held up as the primary examples of the importance of using free agency as the frosting on the cake, while setting the foundation through the draft is key. It's no coincidence that those two teams faced off in Super Bowl XLV.
Aaron Rodgers(notes) is the most famous draft choice under Thompson, but a quick trip up and down the roster reveals several later-pick success stories. Guard Josh Sitton(notes), categorized by Ndamukong Suh(notes) as the most challenging offensive lineman he's faced, was taken in the fourth round of the 2008 draft. Running back James Starks(notes), who set the team's running game right in the nick of time for the playoff run that ended in the ultimate victory, was picked up in the sixth round last year.
That's always been the way for Thompson, and he learned it a long time ago when he worked under the legendary Ron Wolf in Green Bay in the early 1990s. Thompson later followed Mike Holmgren to Seattle and helped build the team that went to Super Bowl XL, but the Packers got him back in the subsequent regime change. "He's who I went to work for in '92, and he was a strong believer that you build the core of your team around the draft," Thompson said of Wolf on Friday at the scouting combine. "Certainly free agency is another avenue, but you do that a little bit more selectively. That's just the way we were taught."
According to Thompson, one of the secrets is to avoid getting caught up in which position groups look the strongest in any particular year -- stick to your board and your beliefs on a "no-matter-what" basis.
"I never, never go down that route," Thompson said. "I think at the end of the day, this draft will be like all the other drafts. There will be some areas that they'll be some strength, there will be some other areas that are not quite as strong. But at the end of the day, there's going to be 'X' number of players that come into the league that are going to play. Sometimes there are going to be college free agents like a couple we had this year. Sometimes there are going to be first-round picks."
Another key, as we found out when Thompson took Rodgers in 2005 despite the fact that Brett Favre(notes) was still going strong, is to make sure that you're built up at key positions before the need makes you do silly things. That's why young players like cornerback Sam Shields(notes) and guard Marshall Newhouse(notes) are being groomed now, behind starters in positions that are still relative strengths.
"With offensive linemen, we very much like to have young people on our team, but they have to be prepared to play, just like a lot of guys on our team this year," Thompson said. "But certainly, we think we have some capability, as most teams do, of developing offensive linemen. Sometimes it's a smaller school, sometimes guys that maybe got a late start in college, that sort of thing.
"Sam stepped in and did a very fine job for us. And there are a number of guys I can say this about, it's almost to a man, we wouldn't have gotten [to the Super Bowl] without almost every one of the contributions we had this year."
Even when you don't draft a player, you keep your evaluation database together. That way, a gift from the gods can fall in your lap, as elite cornerback Tramon Williams(notes) did when he was signed as an undrafted free agent in 2007. Cut at one time by the Houston Texans, Williams eventually flourished in Green Bay's pressure-heavy scheme. Former Houston Oilers running back Alonzo Highsmith, who discovered Williams and talked him up enough for Thompson to pull the trigger, won the NFL Scout of the Year award as a result of that and many other discoveries.
"Well, we watched some tape and we'd been at a workout at Louisiana Tech," Thompson said of the process. "He had pretty good numbers on the original workout, signed with Houston, and then was released. I think he was out there on the streets for two months. Then there was a time we brought in some cornerbacks to work out, and he ran really fast, even better than he did at his pro day, and we put him on our practice squad. At the end of the season we signed him as a reserve/future guy. There's nothing unusual about that, but the fact he's a Pro Bowl caliber corner is unusual. He's worked very hard, he's been coached well -- he thinks he's a player and he is a player."
The draft is the very definition of an inexact science, but success starts with the fundamentals -- you have to know what your ideals are, and you have to know that they work well enough to stake your reputation on them.
"We feel very strongly that our best policy is to try and draft the best player, because you never know," Thompson concluded. "This whole drafting for need, this isn't fantasy football. As you can tell from our team this year, what you think you have at a position could go away with one sprained ankle or one bad knee or something like that. You think you're all set, but you lose them all in one play in the first quarter of a game. So it just makes more sense to us if we stick with the best possible player we can put on our team, regardless of the position, that's the best policy."
That's what the Packers have done over time, and that's why the title is back in Titletown.