Blue 58, #26: Predicting the Packers Draft

Blue 58, #26: Predicting the Packers Draft

After the furor of free agency dies down, the full attention of the offseason turns to one question: who will the Packers pick in the NFL Draft?

Floods of mock drafts, prognostication, and predictions of all kind try to give fans the best possible look at who the Packers could be taking, but they all seem to ignore one crucial aspect: what the Packers have actually done in the past.

Every personnel manager has tendencies. This is not a criticism as much as it is evidence of a concrete philosophy. If a general manager has been with a team long enough for his tendencies to become apparent, he must be doing something well enough to stick around for some time.

That’s the case with Ted Thompson, who will be running his 13th draft with the Packers this spring.

We believe that by analyzing what Thompson and the Packers have done in the past, we can predict what they will do in this year’s draft. We’ll do that by examining four key questions:

  • What kind of players do the Packers target at each position?
  • Which picks are the most valuable?
  • What have the Packers done with their draft picks in the past?
  • Which players fit with the Packers’ past draft strategy?

Who do the Packers think is the ideal player at each position?

Every personnel manager has tendencies. This is not a criticism as much as it is evidence of a concrete philosophy. If a general manager has been with a team long enough for his tendencies to become apparent, he must be doing something well enough to stick around for some time.

That’s the case with Ted Thompson, who will be running his 13th draft with the Packers this spring. At every position, Thompson has certain attributes that he’s tended to target more often, and analyzing those attributes will be instructive for predicting his future picks.

Our data shows that Green Bay prefers quarterbacks that are about the same size as the league average, but superior athletically.

The average quarterback drafted by the Packers tends to be a little bit faster in the 40-yard dash, a little bit more explosive in the broad jump, and a little bit quicker in the 20-yard shuttle.

It’s a little counterintuitive, but the Packers have an established tendency to draft bigger backs. The average height and weight of a back drafted by the Packers is significantly larger than the league average. Only two backs drafted by the Packers weighed less than 218 pounds at the combine.

The Packers also expect their backs to be able to move their mass quickly, as evidenced by their average 40, three cone, and shuttle times.

The Packers have drafted three fullbacks in the Ted Thompson era, and they basically reflect the league average.

However, it’s important to note that out of the three, only Quinn Johnson weighed more than 240 pounds at the Combine. Both Korey Hall and Aaron Ripkowski were in the 230s.

The Packers, like the rest of the NFL, tend to like wide receivers who are around 6-1, weigh just over 200 pounds, and can run the 40-yard dash between about 4.45 and 4.55.

In fact, out of the fifteen wide receivers selected by the Packers since 2005, only two have run worse than a 4.55 in the 40-yard dash: Davante Adams in 2014 (4.56) and Cory Rodgers in 2006 (4.58).

Tight ends drafted by the Packers generally match the physical profile of the average tight end drafted in the NFL.

The key difference is that the players drafted high have deviated from the physical average (Richard Rodgers), and the players who do match the profile generally haven’t been any good (Kennard Backman, Andrew Quarless, Ryan Taylor).

We grouped all the offensive linemen together because generally the Packers don’t seem to care about what position a guy played in college. They prefer tackles, generally speaking, but they haven’t hesitated to line up anyone at any position.

Green Bay prefers linemen that are a little lighter, a little faster, and a little more explosive athletically.

Given how the Packers deploy their linemen, we’ve again chosen to blur the line between tackles and ends. The Packers like linemen who are around 6-3 and 295 pounds and they have to be able to move.

Green Bay doesn’t waste much time with elephantine plodders: only one Packers defensive lineman has run a 40-yard dash in more than 5.14 seconds: Johnny Jolly plodded through a positively glacial 5.41 sprint in 2006.

Although “EDGE” is the preferred nomenclature for pass rushing outside linebackers in today’s draft parlance, the NFL Combine still refers to these players as outside linebackers, so that’s what we’ll go with.

In Green Bay, these types of players tend to be a little smaller and a little faster than the league average. The Packers also prefer their outside linebackers to perform well in the 20-yard shuttle.

Surprising no one who has seen the Packers’ inside linebackers play over the last few seasons, this position is basically in line with the league average.

The similarity between what the Packers have drafted and an average linebacker league-wide should show you exactly how little priority Green Bay gives to this position.

Here’s something you may not have expected: the Packers tend to draft defensive backs that are actually slightly faster than the league average.

Aside from that, the Packers stick pretty closely to their preference of cornerbacks and safeties who measure 5-11 or taller, while also exhibiting a tendency towards good three cone times.

What's the best round to select a player at each position?

To answer this question, we need to expand our scope to the entire league and all draft picks, not just the ones by Green Bay.

Using Pro Football Focus’ grade data from 2016, we connected the individual grades to the round of the draft the players was chosen.

The data indicates something most people would believe to intuitively be true: if you’re going to draft a quarterback, you’d better do so early.

Once the top tier of quarterbacks have been selected in the first and second rounds, there’s almost no chance of acquiring a top prospect. Mid-round successes like Dak Prescott, Russell Wilson and Kirk Cousins are the exception, not the rule.

The lone exception is the sixth round, but that data is affected by the presence of one very notable player: Tom Brady. Don’t bank you draft strategy around finding Tom Brady in the sixth round.

2016 Pro Football Focus grades by round selected - QB

Running back is the near polar opposite of quarterback: there’s basically no reason to ever draft one in the first round. Stars like Ezekiel Elliot and Todd Gurley are exceptions, but on average, the performance of a fourth or even fifth round running back is not all that different from that of a first round running back.

The Packers’ strategy with free agents comes into play here as well, as they tend to avoid drafting running backs late and instead choose to bring in volume via undrafted free agents.

2016 Pro Football Focus grades by round selected - RB

Receivers align well with what we’ve seen from the Packers in the past: top tier performers can be had with a second round pick. The Packers have embraced this idea fully: Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, and Davante Adams were all second round picks.

While there’s a steep drop-off in the later rounds, wide receiver remains a safe place to spend a sixth or seventh round pick. The data suggests the position is one of the most valuable in the late rounds of the draft.

2016 Pro Football Focus grades by round selected - WR

wide receivers.png

The offensive line is a complicated organism, but the draft strategy for getting linemen is pretty easy to understand: get your tackles and guards early and don’t worry about center until late.

2016 Pro Football Focus grades by round selected - OT

2016 Pro Football Focus grades by round selected - OG

2016 Pro Football Focus grades by round selected - C

Defensive linemen are the defense’s version of wide receivers: you need a bunch of them, and there’s a steep drop-off after the first and second rounds.

2016 Pro Football Focus grades by round selected - DL

Draft analyst Justis Mosqueda says that outside linebackers (specifically edge rushers) are the defensive equivalent of quarterbacks. Their performance shows why. If you need one, get him in the first round or you’re going to have a bad time.

2016 Pro Football Focus grades by round selected - OLB

Inside linebackers are the defensive counterpart of the running back on offense: you can find a pretty good one anywhere in the first five rounds or so, and if you choose not to draft one at all, you’re still basically getting a mid-round value.

2016 Pro Football Focus grades by round selected - ILB

Our data produces one hard and fast rule for defense: draft a cornerback early or don’t draft one at all. According to our research, undrafted cornerbacks produce generally about as well as someone drafted between rounds five and seven.

Safeties are similar, but the rule is a little less well-defined. Early picks produce better with a sharp drop-off starting in the fourth round. Picks from rounds four through seven and undrafted players are generally about the same.

2016 Pro Football Focus grades by round selected - CB

2016 Pro Football Focus grades by round selected - S

Where have the Packers drafted each position?

The Packers have used trades and compensatory picks to hoard draft selections over the years. After examining what rounds of the draft produce the most talented players, let’s take a look at where in the draft the Packers have selected each position.

Highest pick: Aaron Rodgers, 2005
Ted Thompson’s first pick was also his best. Rodgers is a future Hall of Fame quarterback.

Biggest disappointment: Brian Brohm, 2008
After Brett Favre retired, the Packers selected Brohm in the second round as protection for Rodgers, who at the time was an unknown commodity. Green Bay demoted him to the practice squad after his rookie season.

Best value: Matt Flynn, 2008
Green Bay got tremendous value from Flynn in the seventh round. He served as a stop-gap quarterback when Rodgers was injured and helped the team make the 2013 playoffs.

Highest pick: Eddie Lacy, 2013
The Packers took Lacy with the 61st pick in the 2013 NFL draft, the highest selection of a running back in the Ted Thompson era.

Biggest disappointment: Johnathan Franklin, 2013
Franklin was supposed to be the slashing counterpart to Lacy, but his career ended after just one season due to a neck injury.

Best value: Eddie Lacy, 2013
Lacy was projected as a possible first round pick, and for the Packers to snag him late in the second round proved to be a great value, despite his departure from Green Bay after just four seasons.

Aaron Ripkowski, Quinn Johnson, and Korey Hall are the Packers’ three selections at fullback. All were taken in the sixth round. None have been particularly valuable or disappointing.

Highest pick: Jordy Nelson, 2008
Ted Thompson traded down into the top of the second round in 2008 and plucked Jordy Nelson with the 36th overall pick.

Biggest disappointment: Terrance Murphy, 2005
Murphy could have been the first of Thompson’s many great second round wide receiver selections, but a neck injury ended his career after part of just one season.

Best value: Jordy Nelson, 2008
Nelson has been one of the most productive receivers in the NFL since he joined the Packers, and it’s a huge credit to the Packers that they were able to get him in the second round.

Highest pick: Jermichael Finley, 2008
The Packers selected Finley with the 91st overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft, seven picks ahead of where Richard Rodgers would be selected in 2014.

Biggest disappointment: D.J. Williams, 2011
A Mackey Award winner in college, Williams proved to be too small for the NFL. He caught just nine passes in his short NFL career.

Best value: Jermichael Finley, 2008
Though he also had his career cut short by injury, Finley proved to be a devastating weapon for the Packers when healthy, providing tremendous value out of the third round.

Highest pick: Bryan Bulaga, 2010
Bulaga was the 23rd overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft, despite being projected by some as a top ten pick.

Biggest disappointment: Derek Sherrod, 2011
A year after Green Bay took Bulaga in the first round, the Packers selected what they thought would be their second bookend tackle. It didn’t work out that way. Even before a career altering leg injury, Sherrod was hardly a dominant force.

Best value: Josh Sitton, 2008
David Bakhtiari may one day take this spot from him one day, but not yet. Sitton was a late fourth round pick and continues to be one of the NFL’s top guards nearly a decade later.

defensive-line-bj-raji.jpg

Highest pick: B.J. Raji, 2009
To play a 3-4 defense, a team needs a space eating nose tackle. Ted Thompson made sure the Packers had one when he drafted Raji ninth overall in 2009.

Biggest disappointment: Justin Harrell, 2007
Thompson tried to fortify the Packers’ defense to give Brett Favre one last chance in 2007 when he picked Harrell. Instead, Harrell spent more time on injured reserve.

Best value: Mike Daniels, 2012
Mike Daniels plays every snap like he’s been personally offended by the player across from him, and he’s parlayed that attitude into great success; once a fourth round pick, he’s now one of the NFL’s top defensive linemen.

Highest pick: Clay Matthews, 2009
Matthews was the result of one of Ted Thompson’s rarest moves: trading back into the first round to snag Matthews 26th overall.

Biggest disappointment: Carl Bradford, 2014
An undersized wrecking ball in college, Bradford never gained much traction in the NFL. He switched from outside linebacker to inside linebacker to unemployed linebacker over his three years with the Packers.

Best value: Clay Matthews, 2009
It was expensive to trade up to select Matthews, but he’s been worth every penny. He’s been a bit injury plagued over the last few seasons, but the balance of his career has been excellent.

Highest pick: A.J. Hawk, 2006
The highest pick of the Ted Thompson era, Hawk was the fifth overall selection in the 2006 draft.

Biggest disappointment: A.J. Hawk, 2006
Hawk was a fine player, but he was doomed by the expectations that come with being such a high draft pick. He never lived up to his pre-draft hype.

Best value: Desmond Bishop, 2007
It took him three years to crack the starting lineup, but when he did it paid off big for Green Bay. Bishop was a key player during the Packers’ 2010 Super Bowl run, more than paying off the price of the sixth round pick used to bring him to Green Bay.

Highest pick: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, 2014
Originally projected much higher, Clinton-Dix fell right into the Packers lap with the 21st pick in 2014.

Biggest disappointment: Pat Lee, 2008
Taken one pick ahead of future Packers tight end Martellus Bennett, Lee never did anything to justify his selection in the second round.

Best value: Nick Collins, 2005
Aaron Rodgers gets the headlines, but Nick Collins was a sneaky great pick in 2005. He might have been on his way to a Hall of Fame career when an unfortunate injury brought things to a halt all too soon.

Who might the Packers draft?

So what does all this data actually do for us?

First, it lets us narrow the pool of available players that the Packers could be interested in. The list below gives a quick look at some of the players who match the Packers’ preferred physical profiles.

Quarterbacks

Obviously, the Packers probably won’t be thinking quarterback early, but Mitchell Trubisky does fit well with what the Packers have done in the past.

Beyond that, though, Nathan Peterman of Pittsburgh hits almost all of the Packers’ average physical attributes, and if the Packers aren’t satisfied with Joe Callahan, he could be an intriguing option.

High-end quarterbacks

  • QB Mitchell Trubisky, North Carolina

Mid-round quarterbacks

  • QB Nathan Peterman, Pittsburgh
  • QB Jerod Evans, Virginia Tech

Late-round or undrafted quarterbacks

  • QB Mitch Leidner, Minnesota
  • QB Cooper Rush, Central Michigan

Running backs

At running back, the Packers should have options through the middle of the draft if they choose to go that route. Early on, Dalvin Cook fits what they like from running backs a little bit better than Christian McCaffrey, but he’s not expected to be available. Both Marlon Mack and Brian Hill exhibit the exact tendencies we’d expect from a Packers draft pick. Chris Carson could be worth a flier as a late round pick.

High-end running backs

  • RB Dalvin Cook, Florida State
  • RB Christian McCaffrey, Stanford

Mid-round running backs

  • RB Marlon Mack, South Florida
  • RB Brian Hill, Wyoming

Late-round or undrafted running backs

  • RB Chris Carson, Oklahoma State
  • RB De’Veon Smith, Michigan

Fullbacks

With Aaron Ripkowski and Joe Kerridge on the roster, it would be surprising to see the Packers pick a fullback, but if they do, Freddie Stevenson of Florida State is an experienced, traditional fullback who matches what the Packers look for at the position.

Late-round or undrafted fullbacks

  • FB Freddie Stevenson, Florida State

Wide receivers

Wide receiver could be a sneaky position of need in this year’s draft, and if the Packers want to go that route, Chris Godwin would be a near perfect fit with their physical attributes.

Middle round prospects Kenny Golladay and Mack Hollins are both taller and a bit less quick than the Packers like, but could end up getting a look.

Late in the draft Robert Davis of Georgia State could be the second coming of Jeff Janis, as his physical attributes could overcome a lack of big time experience.

High-end wide receivers

  • WR Chris Godwin, Penn State
  • WR JuJu Smith-Schuster, USC

Mid-round wide receivers

  • WR Kenny Golladay, Northern Illinois
  • WR Mack Hollins, North Carolina

Late-round or undrafted wide receivers

  • WR Amba Etta-Tawo, Syracuse
  • WR Robert Davis, Georgia State
  • WR Zac Pascal, Old Dominion

Tight ends

Take your pick here. This draft is loaded with prospects who match what the Packers are looking for from tight ends. Even down to the middle and late rounds, a tight end could be found who’s basically the physical specimen the Packers want.

High-end tight ends

  • TE O.J. Howard, Alabama
  • TE David Njoku, Miami
  • TE Adam Shaheen, Ashland

Mid-round tight ends

  • TE Jordan Leggett, Clemson
  • TE Bucky Hodges, Virginia Tech
  • TE George Kittle, Iowa
  • TE Jeremy Sprinkle, Arkansas

Late-round or undrafted tight ends

  • TE Billy Brown, Shepherd

Offensive linemen

One thing stands out when looking at the possible prospects who match the Packers’ preferences on the offensive line: they’re almost all tackles. Green Bay loves to draft left tackles and stick them all along the line. In fact, at one point in the 2016 season, the Packers started four players who had lined up at left tackle at some point in their career.

In short, the Packers have plenty of opportunities here if they decide to add depth along the offensive line.

High-end offensive linemen

  • OT Ryan Ramczyk, Wisconsin
  • OT Garett Bolles, Utah

Mid-round offensive linemen

  • OT Antonio Garcia, Troy
  • OT Conor McDermott, UCLA
  • C Ethan Pocic, LSU

Late-round or undrafted offensive linemen

  • OT Matt Diaz, Wagner
  • OT Nick Callender, Colorado State
  • OT Austin Albrecht, Utah State
  • OT Cole Gardner, Eastern Michigan
  • OT Robert Conyers, Ole Miss
  • OT Cole Croston, Iowa

Defensive linemen

The defensive line may not be a huge position of need, but the Packers have plenty of options if that’s the way they want to go. Eddie Vanderdoes in particular is of note, especially given the Packers’ proclivity for PAC-12 picks, and Nazair Jones also brings a lot to the table. In the late rounds, Charles Walker shows promise inside.

High-end defensive linemen

  • DT Malik McDowell, Michigan State
  • DT Montravius Adams, Auburn
  • DT Caleb Brantley, Florida

Mid-round defensive linemen

  • DT Eddie Vanderdoes, UCLA
  • DT Vincent Taylor, Oklahoma State
  • DT Nazair Jones, North Carolina

Late-round or undrafted defensive linemen

  • DT Charles Walker, Oklahoma
  • DT Doug Webb, Harvard
  • DT Nick James, Mississippi State

Outside linebackers

The question on pass rushers is whether or not they’ll be available. Many prospects fit what the Packers are looking for, but could be off the board before they get a chance to pick in the first round. Takkarist McKinley is a little bit undersized at 6-2 and 250 pounds, but T.J. Watt is right in line with what the Packers like from pass rushers.

Near the middle of the draft, there’s still plenty of value to be had, but two names jump out: Vince Biegel of Wisconsin and Alex Anzalone of Florida. People have made a lot of to-do about T.J. Watt having similar measurables to Clay Matthews, but both Biegel and Anzalone are actually closer. In fact, they’re significantly closer than Watt.

The Packers like pass rushing types late in the draft and in undrafted free agency because they’re great on special teams. Think Jayrone Elliott and Andy Mulumba, for starters. Dylan Donahue of West Georgia fits into that kind of mold.

High-end outside linebackers

  • OLB Haason Reddick, Temple
  • OLB Zach Cunningham, Vanderbilt
  • OLB Takk McKinley, UCLA
  • OLB Tyus Bowser, Houston
  • OLB T.J. Watt, Wisconsin

Mid-round outside linebackers

  • OLB Vince Biegel, Wisconsin
  • OLB Carroll Phillipps, Illinois
  • OLB Alex Anzalone, Florida

Late-round or undrafted outside linebackers

  • OLB Dylan Donahue, West Georgia
  • OLB Pita Taumoepenu, Utah

Inside linebackers

The Packers probably like their inside linebackers a lot more than their fans, given how few resources they’ve devoted at the position. Still, there are intriguing options if they’d choose to go this route in the draft, particularly towards the middle rounds.

Kendell Beckwith of LSU is more or less a prototypical Packers inside linebacker and is expected to be available near the middle of the draft.

High-end inside linebackers

  • ILB Raekwon McMillian, Ohio State

Mid-round inside linebackers

  • ILB Anthony Walker Jr., Northwestern

  • ILB Ben Gedeon, Michigan

  • ILB Kendell Beckwith, LSU

Late-round or undrafted inside linebackers

  • ILB Brooks Ellis, Arkansas
  • ILB Harvey Langi, BYU

Defensive backs

The cornerback crop comes with a caveat: there are tons and tons of players who fit what the Packers want from cornerbacks. That said, Chidobe Awuzie from Colorado fits the size and speed projections really well.

We said earlier that the Packers should avoid drafting a corner if they don’t take one in the first couple rounds, and that’s still true, but if they do decide to draft someone towards the middle rounds, Shaquill Griffin fits the model. According to NFL.com, his NFL analogue is Ladarius Gunter, which is encouraging from a physical profile perspective but discouraging just about everywhere else.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Nate Hairston is a corner with decent size who played receiver for three years before moving to defense. He’s coming to Green  Bay, right?

High-end cornerbacks 

  • CB Gareon Conley, Ohio State
  • CB Quincy Wilson, Florida
  • CB Chidobe Awuzie, Colorado

Mid-round cornerbacks

  • CB Shaquill Griffin, UCF
  • CB Brian Allen, Utah

Late-round or undrafted cornerbacks

  • CB Nate Hairston, Temple

What about undrafted players?

It’s easy to see why Ted Thompson places so much value in undrafted free agents. These players take up a major part of every team’s 90 man roster heading into training camp, and very few end up making the final 53 man roster.

Because the investment in an undrafted player is minimal compared to a draft pick, only the undrafted players who deserve to play will stick around.

If a team’s scouting department can uncover a prospect and the coaching staff can develop him, it’s the equivalent of an extra fifth round draft pick.

Since Thompson arrived in Green Bay, the majority of the team’s 30 pre-draft visits have been spent on players who most likely will not be selected. They use those visits as sort of recruiting trips, since undrafted players get to select where to sign.

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Predicting the Packers Draft: Quarterback

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