Ted Thompson’s NFL Draft Strategy: Best Value Available
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:
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:
- 2008 Green Bay Packers Draft Picks
- 2009 Green Bay Packers Draft Picks
- 2010 Green Bay Packers Draft Picks
- 2011 Green Bay Packers Draft Picks
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.——————Follow @ChadToporski