23

February

Ted Thompson’s NFL Draft Strategy: Best Value Available

Is "BPA" really Ted Thompson's draft philosophy?

As the 2012 NFL Draft season gets into swing, you are going to hear a lot about Ted Thompson and his draft strategy. One of the primary acronyms you’ll run across in these articles and discussions is “BPA,” short for “Best Player Available.” It’s an approach to draft selections that is not specific to the Green Bay Packers or even the NFL, as you’ll hear it spoken in the context of other professional sports like the NBA.

This “strategy” has been inextricably linked to Ted Thompson, yet I maintain that it is misleading and in many ways inaccurate.

Let’s approach this first from a general perspective before looking at how Thompson really makes his draft selections. There are essentially two schools of thought (at least for fans) when it comes to drafting players: by need and by ranking (BPA). And in our simple worlds, we tend to think that if you don’t subscribe to one theory, then you subscribe to the other.

But just like most things in this world, going to an extreme in any direction is a recipe for failure. Drafting “by need” is the easy strategy to poke holes in, because it can put you in a lot of positions to reach for players (take them above their draft value) and/or sell the farm to fill that one gaping hole in your roster.

The way the Atlanta Falcons’ “traded away their future” for wide receiver Julio Jones in the 2011 NFL Draft could be used as a prime example of trying to draft by need rather than going BPA. In an attempt to grab a hot wide receiver in the first round, they traded away five draft picks to the Cleveland Browns. Their attempt to strike a deal with the Cincinnati Bengals to move up for A.J. Green fell through, and so they wound up going for the next best thing.

As you can see, though, it was a hefty price to pay just to fill one position. And some would even argue it was the wrong position to target in the first place.

In the same vein, the Minnesota Vikings drafted quarterback Christian Ponder with the 12th overall pick, which many people considered a reach. The Vikings, however, were pressing to get a quarterback with Brett Favre gone and Joe Webb as their best option left on the roster. So they drafted by need and arguably lost some value on their top pick.

Let’s look now at the BPA strategy for drafting.

In it’s simplest form and in direct contrast with drafting for need, the BPA approach looks like the wisest path to follow. You’re not going to end up reaching for players and you can conserve picks for a bigger rookie class to work with.  After all, the more selections you have, the better chance you’re going to hit that “hidden gem” in the later rounds. Not to mention the fact that you can conceivably fill up more roster holes in the process.

For the sensible, conservative types, BPA is the obvious choice. Of course, it’s not without its flaws.

The most obvious concern is not being able to fill that gaping hole on your team. If your offensive line is in shambles, but no linemen ever make it to the “best player” mark on each pick, then there could be some serious issues for your offense.

The other problem is that, in its simplest form, the BPA approach doesn’t lend itself to trading up or down in the draft. If you are truly selecting the best player at that moment in the draft, then why trade down to select someone of inferior ability? Additionally, trading up to grab a player is out of the question, since that would require the decision to be based on something outside of the BPA strategy, such as need.

Now, right away we can see that Ted Thompson doesn’t really stick to the BPA approach, because in the past we have seen him trade up for players, as well as trade down for more picks. No, he must be taking other things into consideration when he makes these decisions. The needs of the team are a possibility, but even beyond that, there is one thing he is always looking for:

Value.

Ted Thompson’s approach to the draft fits more into the “BPA” category than the “by need” category. That is obvious. But if I were to quantify his overarching philosophy into a simple phrase or acronym, it would instead be “BVA,” or “Best Value Available.” Because if there is one thing we know about Ted Thompson, it is that he is always looking to get the most bang for his buck. It’s why he’ll drop the aging (and costly) veteran in favor of young (and cheaper) talent on the rise.

What exactly is meant by “value,” though, when it comes to the draft?

For starters, it means the talent of a selected player should meet or, preferably, exceed the worth of his draft position. As a simple example, a player with second round potential brings a negative overall value if drafted in the first round.

But beyond that, value is determined by the player’s ability to be an asset to the team. The scouting teams, of course, measure each prospect during the college football season, postseason games, combine, and pro days. The science is far from exact, and in many ways it is a complete gamble. Still, teams will rank their options according to these measurements and determine their relative value for drafting and signing purposes.

Pure talent and skill, however, is not the only value attached to a player.

Now, let me preface this by saying that I have no clue how draft boards are put together for professional NFL teams. I’ve never been in a war room on draft day, and the only thing close to a draft board that I’ve seen was the leaked photograph from the Dallas Cowboys in 2010.

Nonetheless, observing the actual draft and reading draft articles from personnel with first-hand experience have provided enough case studies to formulate some theories. And one conjecture I am confident in is that teams will give more value to those positions for which they have the most need. The degree of said value will vary from position to position and player to player, but I firmly believe it makes a difference in their overall rankings.

After looking at the past four drafts by Ted Thompson (from 2008-2011), it is clear he makes his picks on more than just the “best player available.”

The biggest indicator of his emphasis on “value” is how much Thompson has traded his way through the draft. Since 2008, he has made at least one trade during each draft, totaling nine trades across four years. JSOnline.com has a nice summary of each at the links below:

In 2008, Thompson traded out of the first round for extra picks in the 2nd and 4th (the “Brett Favre” trade).  He would finish with 7 picks traded away for 5 picks, a 2009 pick, and Ryan Grant. Thompson also traded DT Corey Williams for an extra pick in the 2nd round, which he used on Brian Brohm.

The only trade that occurred in 2009 was for a second pick in the first round that would net them Clay Matthews. It cost them their 2nd and 3rd round picks, which left them out of the race until round four.

The 2010 draft also saw Thompson make just one trade, this time to grab Morgan Burnett in the 3rd round. This move cost them their 3rd and 4th round picks, again leaving them without a selection until the fifth round.

And this past year, in the midst of a lockout, Thompson wound up making a total of three trades, giving up five picks for six in return (and some movement in draft order). The most interesting thing about this year was that each trade was essentially a “downward” move. While each move down was offset by a move up in a later round, Ted Thompson never made a definitive move up the board for a specific player.

So why go into such detail about this? Because it directly undermines the fundamental theory of “best player available.”

I realize that most people use that term with a grain of salt and not so much in its literal sense, but it’s still misleading. If you are going to draft the best player to land in your lap at each pick, then what’s the impetus for trading, up or down? When Ted Thompson traded away the 129th pick in 2011 to the Broncos, it’s in part because he was sitting on the 131st pick and felt confident he was going to get his player. Instead of taking Davon House at number 129, he took him 2 picks later and moved a 7th round pick into the 6th round.

There was more value to be had by trading down, and so Thompson pulled the trigger. The picture was similar in 2008 when the Packers’ 1st round pick (30th overall) was traded away for pick number 36 and an extra 4th round selection. Whether Jordy Nelson was the intended target or not, he was part of a move for increased value.

Drafting for value, or “BVA,” makes the entire picture clearer. It takes into consideration the player rankings, the options at each draft position, and the needs of the team. Of course, with this philosophy, moving down in the draft is easier than moving up.

Now, despite what people generally believe, it may surprise you to know that Thompson has moved up in the draft three of the past four years. In 2008 he moved up to grab Jeremy Thompson in the 4th round. As we mentioned earlier Clay Matthews was traded up for in 2009 and Morgan Burnett in 2010. (Interestingly, these are all defensive players.)

A move up the draft board could indicate a number of things. First, it could indicate a fear that a desired player might not fall to the next available pick. Second, it could mean a high-ranked player has already fallen markedly beyond their draft value. And third, that player could simply fill an important need for the team. It could also be a combination of these.

Either way, it’s the value of that player that is important, whether it be based on skill, need, or (more often) both.

Finally, there are players like Randall Cobb, Derek Sherrod, Mike Neal, and Brian Brohm, whose drafting seem to lean towards the “need” side of the process. They obviously were ranked high enough to be selected by Ted Thompson at their given pick, but can it be disputed that they also looked to fill some necessary holes or depth on the roster?

So the next time you hear someone talk about Ted Thompson and his adherence to the “BPA” philosophy, pause and think to yourself how accurate that really is. As we’ve seen, taking the highest ranked player at a given position falls far short of what happens in the Green Bay Packers war room. Thompson and his crew are looking for value as defined by a player’s skill set, where they are at in the draft, and whether they can fill some gaps in the roster.

If you’re looking for a quick catch phrase to keep your conversations simple, then try “BVA”  (“Best Value Available”) instead. Because in the world of Packers GM Ted Thompson, value is the bottom line.

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Chad Toporski, a Wisconsin native and current Pittsburgh resident, is a writer for AllGreenBayPackers.com. You can follow Chad on twitter at @ChadToporski

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35 Responses to “Ted Thompson’s NFL Draft Strategy: Best Value Available”

  1. Zack says:

    Really Good article. Perhaps not concise enough for the general public but if you stick it out it’s worth it. Agree with what was said about “BPA” and “By Need” being watered down explanations of what goes into draft strategy and I think that your “BVA” catch phrase is much more accurate… probably still a little bit watered down but I think most GM’s strategies can be explained using a combination of the 3.

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    • Chad Toporski Chad Toporski says:

      Thanks, Zack. I knew it would be a longer article, but I wanted to be thorough. Glad you stuck it out!

      And yes, any quick phrase will inherently be watered down, especially when it comes to something as complicated as the NFL draft.

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  2. Ron LC says:

    Wow! Great stuff Chad. This will take me a while to absorb. On the surface, I agree that TT is a “Value” guy. In this year when the defense collapsed, he is likely going to go for need.

    Thanks for putting the time and thought into a truely superior article on TT and his trends.

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    • Chad Toporski Chad Toporski says:

      Thanks, Ron! It always kind of rubbed me the wrong way how people would insist TT drafted “best player available,” since the evidence doesn’t really prove that to be the case.

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  3. Steve says:

    Good article. It’s also safe to assume that every year, certain positions can be ruled out during the early rounds. For example, there is no way TT will draft a TE, QB, WR, FB, P, or K withing the first couple rounds. It becomes more BPA after eliminating certain positions from consideration.

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    • Chad Toporski Chad Toporski says:

      I agree. Had the article not been so long already, I would have mentioned the differences between drafting in the earlier vs. mid and even later rounds.

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  4. Steve says:

    Also, I had forgotten about the Corey Williams trade. What a great trade to get a 2nd round pick for that guy. As it turned out, what a great shame to draft Brian Brohm using that pick.

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  5. Mark says:

    So, where’s the value this year for GB if the top picks shake out like they “should” (and never do)?

    Is the value in trading up to grab a pass rusher? Stand pat and take a need/value type of guy (which really depends on whether they resign Wells IMO)? Or is it to take the gamble and franchise Flynn and hope to trade him for about 1000 points according to the draft trade chart and then make a decision?

    I sure would like to see that late 1st round/early 2nd round pick that Flynn should be worth, given the compensation paid for Schaub, Kolb and Cassel. Let’s not forget too, that Al Davis deemed Carson Palmer’s blown-out elbow worth a 1st round pick in compensation. But Al Davis’ value gauge is another matter altogether . . .

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    • Chad Toporski Chad Toporski says:

      I have to think OLB/DE are the most valuable positions right now. Of course, that’s not saying anything about the players available. As you’ve noted, there’s a lot of questions to figure out before the draft that can and probably will change things.

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  6. Adam says:

    Great read, I cant wait for this years draft. It looks like the Packers could end up with upward of a dozwn picks,can you imagine the moving and shaking Thompson can do with that number of picks. Should be a great draft.

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  7. Chad Toporski Chad Toporski says:

    Thanks, Adam! I fully expect Thompson to trade up at some point this draft.

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  8. Bubbaloo says:

    Great article! I just hope TT finds some really good “Value” at DE or OLB this year, even if it means trading up!

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  9. Mojo says:

    Important differences between BPA and BVA. Really good article. An example might be if the Pack resign Wells and Konz, who is projected as high as a midteen talent, falls to GB at 28. Very unlikely they draft him, even though he may be BPA.

    I wonder how we view A-Rod. At the time was he just the BPA, with Farve having a number of years left, or BVA? I do remember quite a few clamoring for Pack to get a good back-up because Brent was getting older and hinting retirement every year. So based on that I’d put him in the BVA category.

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    • Chad Toporski Chad Toporski says:

      Thanks, Mojo.

      I think Rodgers was one of those talents that fell so far it was near impossible to resist the pick. If I remember correctly, I’ve heard that the Packers were open to trading away the pick, but there were no real bites. Of course, I’m sure they were also thinking in the back of their mind that Favre was nearing the end of his career. Better to get a guy early than end up as a team having to start a rookie QB.

      In hindsight, I’d definitely say they got the best player AND the best value.

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  10. brauny says:

    I think you have a few misconception about the draft and Ted Thompson’s draft strategy.
    Misconception #1. Teams rank the players from #1 to #250.
    Although they may write them down in an order, they are actually in tiers. The reality is that there is no difference in a guard at #72 and the CB at #73. How can you possibly compare to players that are very close that play at different positions? Where do you put a guy who is #20ish talent wise, yet has been injured the last few years? You have to downgrade him due to injury risk, but what formula do you use?
    Trading down still has everything to do with BPA. If you have 10 guys who are even at BPA, why wouldn’t you trade back 8 picks? You are still going to get the BPA and now you get another swing at the plate. Additionally, you may appear to be under the assumption that all GMs value all players identically. An effective GM rates players on how they fit into how they would use them. A player who would make a great DT in a 4-3 may only be a good DE in a 3-4. A GM may value speed over power. A GM may want more run stoppers than pass rushers. Then there is the matter of opinion and one GM may see a higher quality than another.
    TT traded back up into the first to grab Clay. It was hinted that if Raji wasn’t there at #9, Clay would have been the pick. And yet TT got him much later. By the way, this shoots holes in the entire ‘trade value chart’. Was the pick worth the #23 pick or the #9 where Clay was actually ranked by the Packers? Posters blasted TT at the time for not getting the ‘value’ with the pick.
    How is trading up not BPA? You are saying, this guy is so valuable, he won’t last to our pick. We need to trade up to get him. Obviously if he was going to last because he wasn’t BPA, they wouldn’t need to trade up.
    Misconception #2
    TT is drafting the player that will add the most value this next season. It is clear to me, that TT is not looking for the player that will add the most value now, but that will add the most value over his entire career. He is constantly looking several years down the road.

    Sorry, but I don’t think you proved anything in your article.

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    • Zack says:

      “Now, let me preface this by saying that I have no clue how draft boards are put together for professional NFL teams. I’ve never been in a war room on draft day, and the only thing close to a draft board that I’ve seen was the leaked photograph from the Dallas Cowboys in 2010….” -Chad Toporski
      “And one conjecture I am confident in is that teams will give more value to those positions for which they have the most need. The degree of said value will vary from position to position and player to player, but I firmly believe it makes a difference in their overall rankings.” -Chad Toporski
      I think that these quotes properly address the issue that you bring up in your first point. Plus regardless of whether the teams put players in tiers, there will be a choice to be made based on need after placing those players in that tier so effectively and as far as fans are concerned since we won’t really see the draft board, the process can be looked at as a list rather than tiers… So since it doesn’t change the end product of what happens, who cares if we look at it as a list or as tiers. Basically you’re arguing simantics to try to disprove the big picture item.

      As for your second point, I didn’t see ANYWHERE in Chad’s article that he implied that TT only looks to “add value for the next season.” Can you explain to me how you came to this conclusion citing specific things that Chad said instead of throwing out a vague statement about an in depth and well thought article? It seems like you’re putting words in his mouth to me.

      I’ve got your back Chad.

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      • Chad Toporski Chad Toporski says:

        lol, thanks Zack. I guess saying I have “no clue” was a little hyperbolic. ;-)

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    • Chad Toporski Chad Toporski says:

      No need to apologize, I don’t expect everyone to agree, and I appreciate you taking the time to read and comment. Though I would like to respond to a couple items…

      1) I am well aware that they group players in tiers. I don’t see how that changes anything I’ve said.

      2) I think you misunderstand what I’ve written. All of these things (BPA, BVA, by need) are not mutually exclusive. As I’ve said, the draft is vast process. To say that all a GM is does is draft the “best player available” is grossly misleading. Your example of “10 guys at BPA” is a perfect example of that. But whether you have 10 guys or 3 guys left in your tier when you pick, you’ve still got to pull the trigger at some point. But I digress…

      3) Not sure where you get the idea that I think all players are valued identically. In fact, this is one line I wrote: “…value is determined by the player’s ability to be an asset to the team…” I thought it obvious that guys outside of the scheme would carry less value. Further, this is specifically aimed at Ted Thompson, and I don’t think I really included anything about other teams or GMs.

      4) “Obviously if he was going to last because he wasn’t BPA, they wouldn’t need to trade up.” Not sure I follow. Every team values players differently and make decisions based on different factors…

      5) As for your final misconception, I don’t believe I mentioned anything about a player needing to be picked solely for this season. I think it’s clear to everyone that most draft picks are expected to fill back-up and special teams roles until they are ready as starters. And usually that doesn’t happen for a year at the very least.

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    • Oppy says:

      I agree with your sentiments about trading up and trading down, I was about to post on those things myself.

      Moving up and down is not outside of BPA. It is all dependent on the talent in the draft- how many elite players? is there a point at which the talent suddenly takes a precipitous dive? Is there a particular glut of players at a certain talent level?

      The draft is not a line of players ranked sequentially- it a handful of elite players, followed by numbers of players grouped together by grades. Perhaps the top tier is 3-6 players who are one of a kind.. The next group may be 10 players who are great.. Followed by 17 players who are top notch.. Now, maybe there are 30 guys who are all interchangeable, solid players. then There’s a huge drop off in talent, and a large group of guys who are stop gap at best..

      Or it could be completely different. Where are your picks coming, and how does that fit in with the landscape of the talent available? Trading up and down is not at odds with BPA. I think this is a good article, but I do not think you are viewing the draft as personnel departments in the NFL do.

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      • Zack says:

        “The draft is not a line of players ranked sequentially- it a handful of elite players, followed by numbers of players grouped together by grades.Perhaps the top tier is 3-6 players who are one of a kind.. The next group may be 10 players who are great.. Followed by 17 players who are top notch.. Now, maybe there are 30 guys who are all interchangeable, solid players. then There’s a huge drop off in talent, and a large group of guys who are stop gap at best..” – Oppy

        The tiers vs list argument is silly to me and does not affect the point that this article is making. You are talking about the actual specific PROCESS that TT goes through durring draft time. This article is about the STRATEGY or PHILOSOPHY that TT uses durring draft time. The only way that what you’re saying would be relevant is if the strategy contradicts the process; which it doesn’t… and even if it could be twisted in a way to contradict the process I would argue that “BVA” can stand alone way better than “BPA” or “By Need”. Realistically to frame a GM’s full strategy into a simple phrase is impossible but people try to do it to relate a complicated process to something that the fan base can wrap their mind around so that they can have some basis for understanding why a GM makes the moves that he does. Perhaps a pie chart can be used to evaluate more accurately how much stock the GM places into each category but that would still have it’s flaws. Really each statement is not meant to be an all encompassing set in stone description… they’re simply generalizations of the GM’s TENEDENCIES… which every GM digresses from from time to time.

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        • Oppy says:

          Zack, I was just trying to illustrate how I think trading up or down in the draft falls into the BPA concept, as well as how there may be options at any given pick, not just one “best player” available.

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      • Zack says:

        As for the rest of what you’re saying, it’s hard to make sense of what you have a problem with in the article. I’m not saying that you don’t have a point but I am saying that whatever your point is got lost in translation. O.o

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        • Lucas says:

          There appear to be a lot of post-ers who disagree with you, Zack.

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          • Zack says:

            Along with a lot of posters who agree with me, Lucas.

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          • Zack says:

            You know illustrating that people disagree with me is not a very strong position and whatever point your trying to make wasn’t made. I expected more from you Lucas…

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            • Lucas says:

              Zack…I promised I would not post so late at night…but I did. My reply was meant for brauny. Hopefully I get cleared of all charges, too.

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      • Lucas says:

        Oppy, check out draftmetrics.com. As a mathematician, I really appreciate what the site shows about draft value. Tiers of value do NOT follow the traditional Trade Value Chart so easily found on the internet (c’mon really…it’s that easy to be a real GM).
        TT also has a talent for finding talent finders (scouts) and trainers (coaches). This cannot be overlooked when talking about draft success. Would CMIII be the success he is as a Bengal? Or Aaron as a Jaguar without WRs? We get coachable and we coach ‘em. Right Mr. Sitton, Bishop, and Williams?

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        • Lucas says:

          Oh…and as far as a drop off…just check out the site. I’m in favor of getting a few more 6th round picks instead of 5th rounders. The site explains that idea too.

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      • Zack says:

        To clearify when I say that your concept of whether or not a tier or list is used is “silly” and “not relevant”, what I meant to say is that it is not a valid argument against this article. sorry poor choice of words.

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  11. Chad Toporski Chad Toporski says:

    I’m really enjoying all of this good discussion. Part of my intent with this article was to get people to think beyond “Oh, TT just drafts BPA,” because the process is more involved than that.

    After giving it some thought and reflecting on what I wrote, I can see where a linear ranking was kind of implied in what I said. I also think that we all have a fundamental difference in opinion on what “BPA” actually means.

    In regards to tiering, I think that alone speaks to the misconception that BPA gives. Is there really a “best player” at any given pick? Perhaps in the earlier rounds it holds truer.

    I can see how moving up on the draft board can fit into the BPA window. Still, aren’t they targeting a specific player at the point? Why move up with no clear goal in mind otherwise? So the questions become, (a) why do they want that player, and (b) why do they feel they need to move up to get him?

    As for trading down, I still maintain that is more to do with value than BPA. You’re attempting to get more from your pick(s) than what you already had, and you feel that moving down won’t diminish your returns with a later pick. This clearly fits into the “tiering” of players, since it’s not really a loss by moving down within a tier.

    However, the one thing I will say to that is how often do you want other teams selecting your players for you? Yes, you can move down within a tier and still get a player of equal value, but your options become limited with each passing pick. At some point you’re going to want to be able to make that selectiong instead of taking whatever’s left.

    Thanks again for the good debate! I am learning more from this, and I hope everyone else is, too.

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  12. Don "Yoop" Christensen Yoop says:

    I think that is as a good an explanation on how TT works the draft as any.
    You got it quite right in my opinion with “Value”

    For me if you have multiple players ranked equally you draft need.

    One thing you did not ponder in the piece is where TT actually has these players ranked.
    In the rankings we as fans get to see, scheme rarely comes into how high or low a player is ranked.
    A player may be highly ranked in general but a poor fit for a teams system, this would drop a players value on a specific teams board or have the prospect ranked higher on others.

    Just like some teams will drop players completely from there boards for different problems and other don’t.

    A move down does not automatically mean he is drafting a player of lessor ranking.

    And you are very right on Value in picking up draft picks later in the draft, the more picks you have the better chance there is of finding a player.

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  13. Jason says:

    thats article was nice , Ihope thats well help me

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  14. aaronqb says:

    I believe BPA and BVA are the same. Thompson trades up and down to match the value of the player he covets with the position in the draft where he should be drafted.

    In some rare cases (Aaron Rodgers), the value of the player available is way out of whack with the position in the draft so he just goes ahead and drafts him.

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  15. [...] at Acme Packing Company tackles the issue of draft need vs value, a topic our own Chad Toporski waxed eloquently on back in [...]

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