Are the Packers Just Better Than Other Teams at Drafting?

Green Bay general manager Ted Thompson has a reputation for draft day wizardry; does it hold up?

Before this year’s NFL Draft, Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson was looking exhausted and worn down. Perhaps after running the show for one of the NFL’s flagship franchises for the past decade, he was beginning to feel the wear-and-tear of it. One couldn’t blame him, as he put in a great deal of work to bring the Packers organization from a 4-12 team in his first year at the helm to a run of five consecutive playoff appearances and three straight NFC North titles. He showed no signs of this fatigue the Saturday of the Draft, though, claiming proudly, “I’m just getting started…I’m feeling good and I’m ready to go.”

There has been speculation that Thompson would step down in the near future, or simply finish out his contract as general manager. This got me thinking about Thompson’s legacy as a GM, a scouting director, and talent evaluator. Many have hailed the Packers organization as one of the best in finding talent cheaply and late in the draft, and much of this reputation is attributed to Thompson. So I decided to look a little deeper and find out just how effective the Packers’ late round picks under the Ted Thompson regime have been.

Some folks at other sites have taken a swing at this idea, but nobody else has the in-depth Net Expected Points (NEP) data that we at numberFire do. NEP is a measure of exactly how effective players are at advancing their teams’ chances of scoring: the higher the NEP, the more they did to put their team in a position to net points. By looking a few different ways at how the Packers used the value of their late round draft picks, and how those late-round picks produced, we can gauge their success, Ted Thompson’s legacy, and even suss out the future for this 2014 late-round Packer class.

The Value of a Late-Rounder

There have been many studies about the success rates of players relating to their draft position, most notably this one by Tony Villiotti of Mr. Villiotti questions most specifically the idea that winning teams find more success late in the drafts, and this fact contributes to them winning.

For our purposes, though, he lays out the breakdown of the 6,577 games started in the 2012 season by the players’ draft round. As we’re interested in players from the fourth to seventh rounds, let’s see how many made an impact in the game that year.

RoundGames Started

One thing to note is that players drafted in early rounds (understandably) start more games than late-round players, by a wide margin. This doesn’t seem to bode well for the average chances of a late round player to succeed in the league. While it’s tough to draw a direct connection between games started and NEP, it’s a fair idea to assume that if fewer late-round draftees are starting games, they will accrue lower per-season NEP totals as well. The question we seek to address here is how well do the Packers – and specifically Ted Thompson’s regime – draft these late rounders?

Leading the Pack?

Over the last nine drafts (excluding the 2014 class), Ted Thompson has made 57 selections between the fourth and seventh rounds, tied with Philadelphia for the most in that span of time. Of those 57 players, only 18 have never started a game for the Packers, and one of those is kicker Mason Crosby, who doesn't get credited with starts as a specialist. There were a total of 3,040 possible games started for these late rounders between 2005 and 2013, and they started 601 games for a start rate of 19.77%. This would seem to be below the average of the league indicated in the above graph (28.2%), but the graph below shows a breakdown of the Packers' success per round for late round selections.

RoundGames Started

On a per-round basis, the Packers do blow the league average out of the water. In every round, Green Bay's start rate nearly triples the league average, indicating that perhaps they are better at finding diamonds in the rough than other teams. Again, however, we at numberFire are first and foremost concerned with output on the field. So, how effective were these players at contributing to the Packers?

Bargain Cost, Bargain Production

Unfortunately for us, the Packers tend to draft a lot of their defensive pieces and offensive linemen in the late rounds, and our metrics are mostly offensive focused. However, Thompson has a great reputation for identifying late-round receiving options, and through NEP, we can see how they and the other offensive skill position players have performed.

In this span of time, the Packers have drafted three quarterbacks (all backups to franchise player Aaron Rodgers), four running backs, six wide receivers, and four tight ends with a pick from the fourth to seventh rounds. Sadly, the grand total of NEP that Packers’ late round offensive selections have accumulated for their original team between 2005 and 2013 is 107.14. Divided 17 ways, that means each player was responsible for adding 6.30 Total NEP to the Packers. If we remove the players who never played a game for the Packers, that average is still only 8.93 Total NEP - a little over a touchdown.

So while the Packers late-round drafting on average is well below average, it’s clear that general manager Ted Thompson’s skills separate him from the rest of the pack in identifying cheaper offensive line and defensive players. These players have accumulated a 23.58% start rate in the past nine years, while the offensive players selected have only brought in a 7.50% start rate. In addition, on the offensive line and the defensive side of the ball, there have been 10 Pro Bowl selections between the 39 players Thompson has drafted.

It is important to note, as well, that there is historically relatively little turnover on the Green Bay roster, making it tougher for rookies (especially lower value ones) to break through the starting lineup. We should therefore note that the late rounders’ contribution rate – that is, the percentage of possible games that they’ve played in at all – is 63.29%, or more than triple their start rate.

It seems that Green Bay is better at identifying starters in the late rounds than other teams, but even more so they do well to find players who will stick on their roster and become somewhat valuable contributors somehow. Ted Thompson and the Green Bay staff may be heralded for their draft day savvy in building a dynamo for Aaron Rodgers, but this simply doesn't hold up when we look at the Pack's offensive drafting.