NFL Draft: The Packers, The North, The Badgers

I’m a much better father than I am a husband. Although I believe that on many levels the roles are intertwined, my kids are the major benefactors of whatever generosity and kindness I can manage to scrounge together.

So when the timing hit for my wife to be invited to a party on Saturday afternoon on the same weekendthat my parents would be in town to watch our kids, there was really no way out for me. I had to put on my husband pants and accompany my wife to the party. Only it wasn’t really a party. It was a co-ed baby shower, the social equivalent for most males to getting their scrotum caught in a paper shredder. Right in the middle of the opening day of the NFL Draft, which is, after MLB’s opening day, the best sports day of the spring.

But I reasoned that I wouldn’t be the only male at the party more interested in following the NFL draft than in playing “name the baby animal.” I figured that the host of the party, whom I admittedly didn’t know well, would greet all men at the door with an “I’m sorry, this was the only day that we could do this” pat on the back, a barley pop, and directions to a widescreen HDTV tuned to ESPN.

I was wrong. I didn’t hear the draft mentioned once. There was no TV tuned to ESPN or NFL Network or anything else. (I found out towards the end of the party that the hosts don’t have cable or satellite and the only television I saw was one that most self-respecting TV lovers like myself would confine to a bathroom, garage, or shed.) There was no barley pops; only a lukewarm 2-liter of Coke. I quickly accepted my fate and resisted the urge to get draft updates via the iPhone that my wife kept in her front jeans pocket so as to avoid an argument later. (That strategy didn’t work — I still had the argument, for reasons too convoluted to get into here.) 

So I missed live coverage of the 2009 NFL Draft. But if I were superstitious, I would make it a point to miss it every year. Because the Green Bay Packers avoided the head-scratching moves of the last two drafts and actually had a stellar opening day. GM Ted Thompson successfully fought his tendency to draft the so-called “best player available” and went with Boston College nose tackle B.J. Raji instead of Texas Tech standout wide receiver Michael Crabtree, who was then immediately snapped up by the San Francisco 49ers with the very next pick. While Crabtree should fulfill 49ers head coach Mike Singletary’s oft-repeated cry for “winners,” Raji, at 6′ 11″ and 323 pounds, should fulfill the Packers’ need for run stoppers (105 tackles at BC) in Dom Capers’s new 3-4 scheme. Raji has also provento be an effective pass rusher, with 12.5 sacks in his college career, eight of those coming in 2008 alone.

Thompson then did something even more out-of-character: he traded up to get USC linebacker Clay Matthews in the second round with the 26th overall pick. It was the first time since 1993 the Packers had two first-round picks and the first time in five years that Thompson has not traded down to get more picks. While there are some concerns that Matthews lacks experience — he started only 10 games in his USC career — Matthews was a key piece in the nation’s best scoring defense (9.0 points per game) in 2008. And Matthews, the son of former NFL linebacker Clay Matthews Jr. and nephew of Hall of Fame offensive lineman Bruce Matthews, has football in his blood. Like Raji, Matthews could see significant playing time in his rookie season.

So who is this “Ted Thompson impersonator,” as Wisconsin State Journal columnist Tom Oates so accurately labeled him after Saturday’s sensible need-based picks? Well, it’s pretty simple — he’s a man who, perhaps for the first time, realizes that he is in charge of a team that has real problems, and not a team that can sleepwalk its way to the top of the improving NFC North. When told that his Saturday picks were not met with boos by fans attending the draft party at Lambeau Field, Thompson joked that Packer Nation was getting “soft.” No, Ted, you’re getting smart. You’ve taken a lot of blame lately for questionable decisions. Feel free to take credit for what appears to be two very sound draft picks.

Whereas the Packers had the most solid first day of any NFC North team, they clearly did not make the biggest splash in the division.  The Bears, by virtue of the Jay Cutler trade, and the Lions, by virtue of having the first overall pick, made sure of that. But it is a much surer bet that — assuming they sign — the Packers will get their money’s worth from Raji and Matthews than the Bears or particularly the Lions will get their money’s worth from their new very expensive franchise quarterbacks.

The Vikings raised many eyebrows by drafting Florida wide receiver Percy Harvin with the 22nd overall pick. While I join others in questioning Harvin’s maturity level (testing positive for drugs at the NFL combine is beyond stupidity, since players know in advance they will be tested), my main issue withthe Vikings’ first-round pick relates to their quarterback situation. Harvin could well be the finest receiver of this year’s draft class, but if a team doesn’t have a dependable quarterback — and the Vikings don’t — then using a first-round pick on a receiver seems as sound an investment as a high school kid buying a gross of condoms when he has no girlfriend and no prospects. As long as the Vikings have Tavaris Jackson and Sage Rosenfels as their quarterbacks, they will never see Harvin reach his potential.

It will be interesting to see which if any of the four Badgers drafted will be able to reach their potential in the NFL. While offensive lineman Kriag Urbik is clearly going to the best team — Pittsburgh — I look for Travis Beckum, if he can stay healthy — to fit in very well with the Giants. Poor Matt Shaughnessy (Raiders) and DeAndre Levy (Lions), though: Hopefully they can ride out their time with the NFL bottom-feeders and get traded along the line to better teams. Ain’t nobody in the NFL reaching their potential in Oakland and Detroit.


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