“By the time you get to the draft, those names go back to the original place they were before we came to the combine, I swear it happens.” – Ted Thompson 2010
The reason why the Packers are the reigning Super Bowl Champions is undoubtedly because of the draft; Ted Thompson is notorious for ignoring “big name” free agency and instead focusing basically all of his efforts on (and after) the draft, So it only stands to reason that if you understand the draft a little better you will understand the Packers a little better.
With that in mind, the quote above stands out as a little odd; if Thompson was gonna marry the draft like we all think he would, why does he put so little emphasis on the first date so to speak? Why is he basically saying that the combine is useless? Personally I think he’s not actually talking about the value of the combine itself but rather the hype that the combine generates. I’ve written about the effects of hype during the combine and during the draft here (http://bleacherreport.com/articles/381271-is-packers-gm-ted-thompson-right-after-all-part-two), and the potential disasters it can cause a team.
My initial impression was that outside of the physical, most of the numbers generated by the combine were basically irrelevant. But if that were true, why does the NFL bother setting up the combine in the first place and why do all the teams show up? Obviously there has to be some merit in drills or else all the teams would just show up for the physicals and the interviews and have lunch while the drills were being run.
I decided to look at the combine results from a different perspective, not as a place where to distinguish yourself as an elite player but as a place to show that you are suited to the Packer’s scheme. For example in 2008 the Packers selected Jordy Nelson in the 2nd round while Desean Jackson was still on the board. During the draft, Jackson was considered a better talent than Nelson and that’s probably only more true now than before as Jackson has become one of the premier burners in the league with the stats to match.
However, if you look at the rest of the wide receiver corps, you will notice that the Packers prefer their wide receivers to be tall and big, run crisp routes and to not talk that much (for wide receivers anyways). There really isn’t a vertical threat or burner type receiver on the roster. While Jackson is undoubtedly more talented than Nelson, Nelson fit the scheme that the Packers employed better. Interestingly, this has been a huge advantage, since the Packers don’t have any one player best suited for playing in the slot for instance, all Packers receivers have to be able to play the slot which has caused many a headache for opposing defenses as the Packers can dictate mismatches in the secondary.
Simply put, the Packers like to draft a very specific type of player; for instance the current trend in the NFL is to have an every down running back and a change of pace running back with the assumption that defense would have issues accounting for two different playing styles. Ted Thompson did exactly the opposite last year when he drafted James Starks in the 6th round; he physically resembles starter Ryan Grant and has the basically the same running style. While its debatable whether or not having two running backs with different styles is harder for defenses to cope with, it does help in terms of injuries since the player replacing the injured player is likely to have the same set of measurables, which perhaps might be why the Packers were able to be so successful this season with the “next man up” mentality.
What does all this mean for the combine? It means that players the Packers are interested in should have similar combine numbers to the players who they’ve drafted previously. For instance every quarterback that Ted Thompson has drafted has been 6’2”, weighed about 225 pounds and run around a 4.75 second 40-yard dash without much variation. To go even further, Graham Harrell, the Packers 3rd quarterback who was picked up as a free agent fits the bill at 6’2” and 215 pounds (his 40-yard time is a bit off at 5.07, but maybe that explains why the Packers didn’t draft him). It can then be assumed that if a quarterback is drafted this year his measurables should be fairly similar (Sorry Cam Newton fans).
An even more interesting idea is that you can take the combine results for each position and see the standard deviation between all players drafted and then determine which drills the Packers deem important to that position. For instance, the 40-yard dash is basically irrelevant for offensive and defensive linemen, since how many opportunities are they going to get running 40 yards unhindered? And the data corroborates with this, offensive and defensive linemen have the highest standard deviation for 40-yard dash times of all positions. Conversely the two of the lowest standard deviations are from the 40-yard dash and shuttle times of cornerbacks, who naturally must have top end speed and good agility.
My theory is that the combine is used as an initial screening for the Packers, while exceptional talent will always trump combine numbers, if you don’t fit the Packers scheme you are likely to be bumped down on the Packers big board to a point where your relative value in talent exceeds the value of the Packers draft pick by a sizable amount (in other words your value is so good that the Packers will pick you despite the fact that you don’t fit their scheme)
In the next series of articles I will be going over every position and showing what kind of players the Packers are most likely looking for by the numbers. I’ve compiled the numbers for the height, weight and the 6 workout drills that all positions perform (positional drills are much more subjective hence I will not be going into that). There are a couple of caveats:
1. Statistical significance: Thompson has never selected a punter in the draft and only one dedicated special teams player (kicker Mason Crosby) hence this method will not say anything about those players. Also some positions only have a small number of draftees, such nose tackles, so the statistics are less robust than say cornerbacks and wide recievers.
2. 4-3 to 3-4 conversion: Obviously the switch to the Dom Capers zone blitz 3-4 system meant that a different type of player was required, hence there has been a shift in the type of defensive players that Thompson has picked, most notably in the outside linebackers and the defensive ends. I’ll split the groups in question in 4-3 and 3-4 categories.
3. Lack of combine numbers: While I was able to get most of the combine numbers off the internet, players who were drafted longer ago were harder to find and probably less accurate. Also some players who were drafted late also did not have combine numbers available on the internet (such as the much maligned Tony Moll)
Even with those caveats I think this is an interesting analysis that might shed light into the dark room that is the Packers war room.——————
Thomas Hobbes is a staff writer for Jersey Al’s AllGreenBayPackers.com.