GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Packers general manager Ted Thompson says it each year at the NFL scouting combine. In fact, when he said it again this year, he even acknowledged just how predictable he is about saying it.
When it comes to the Packers and their draft-and-develop team-building approach, Thompson's goal each spring is to re-sign his own guys and allocate the Packers' salary-cap space to taking care of their own.
“That’s our intention, and it’s our intention every year,” Thompson told reporters inside the Indiana Convention Center on March 1. “I stand on this podium, I think, every year and say the same thing. Our best intention will be to sign as many of our own players as we can and keep it together.”
Except that didn’t happen this spring, and as they enter this week’s NFL draft, Thompson’s 13th as the team’s GM, the Packers have remarkably little to show for their 2011, 2012 and 2013 draft classes.
Of the 29 players Thompson selected in those three drafts, just five are on the roster today: wide receiver Randall Cobb (second round, 2011); cornerback Davon House (fourth round, 2011); outside linebacker Nick Perry (first round, 2012); defensive tackle Mike Daniels (fourth round, 2012) and left tackle David Bakhtiari (fourth round, 2013).
House’s inclusion on the list comes with an asterisk; he left following the 2014 season for a four-year, $24.5 million free-agent contract with Jacksonville and returned on a one-year deal this spring after the Jaguars cut him. Only Cobb, Perry, Daniels and Bakhtiari managed to earn lucrative long-term deals. Perry, who played on a one-year deal in 2016 after his option was declined, signed a four-year, $60 million deal last month.
According to data from ESPN.com’s NFL Nation reporters compiled by Minnesota Vikings writer Ben Goessling, the Packers rank roughly in the middle of the 32-team NFL, with four of their picks having gotten second contracts. The rival Vikings also drafted 29 players during that time and have five left on their roster.
Eight teams have at least six draft picks still with them, with the Cincinnati Bengals leading the way with 10. Even if you count House toward the Packers’ total and acknowledge that they’re not significantly worse off than most other NFL teams -- a whopping 17 teams have four or fewer picks left, including six teams with just one pick remaining -- it’s astonishing that the Packers haven’t retained more of their own, given their ardent mentality of building through the draft.
In short, when you eschew veteran free agency and rely almost exclusively on the draft -- and undrafted rookie free agency -- to build your roster, your retention rate logically should be higher. Your total should be closer to the Bengals’ 10 than the Browns’ one.
“Well, you’d like to draft players, develop them and extend them for the future. It doesn’t always work out that way,” Thompson said. “Sometimes it’s like it was this year, where we felt like [it was] bad luck, and we weren’t able to get a couple of guys back.”
But is it bad luck? The Packers locked Bakhtiari up with a four-year, $48 million deal on the eve of last year’s regular-season opener. But the other four members of that 11-player draft class who were still on the roster last season -- outside linebacker Datone Jones (first round), running back Eddie Lacy (second round), center JC Tretter (fourth round) and defensive back Micah Hyde (fifth round) -- signed free-agent deals elsewhere.
“We lost some really good players, and really good people, too,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “I look at it from both angles. It’s more opportunity for our younger players [and] our new players that are coming in, because at the end of the day, we’re going to tailor what we ask these players to do to their strength, not based on what players before them did.
“So you’ve got to stay focused on that. Really, the biggest challenge -- I don’t really look at it as a challenge -- the biggest opportunity is for our second-, third- and fourth-year players and clearly our veteran group to take big steps in leadership, because some of the players that have moved on had big leadership roles in our locker room.”
Thompson did sign four veteran players who were elsewhere last season -- ex-New England Patriots tight end Martellus Bennett, ex-Los Angeles Rams tight end Lance Kendricks, ex-Washington Redskins defensive tackle Ricky Jean Francois and House. Bennett is the only true unrestricted free agent in the group, as the others were cut by their previous teams.
Lacy (Seattle) and Jones (Minnesota) each signed one-year deals with their new teams, and Tretter (Cleveland) and Hyde (Buffalo) got multiyear deals with significant guaranteed money. The Packers wanted Lacy back but made little or no effort to re-sign the others.
“The reality is, you can’t pay everybody,” Packers president/CEO Mark Murphy said. “That cap is a hard cap, so you have to work within it. I think you have to look at each player and [ask], what are you comfortable paying? There’s just certain players that other teams were willing to pay more than we thought was reasonable.”
Entering Thursday’s first round, the Packers have five of their nine 2014 draft picks still on the roster: safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (first round); wide receiver Davante Adams (second round); tight end Richard Rodgers (third round); center Corey Linsley (fifth round); and wide receiver Jeff Janis (seventh round). But how many will remain a year from now?
“Our philosophy is clear pretty much each and every year: We do intend to sign our own guys. That’s always our priority,” McCarthy said. “It’s a challenge. Obviously, the landscape was different this year.
“You do want all your guys back. That’s really a constant conversation between Ted and I. We focus on our own players.”
Editor’s note: Jason Wilde covers the Green Bay Packers for ESPN Wisconsin and hosts “Wilde & Tausch” with former Packers offensive lineman Mark Tauscher weekdays on ESPN Milwaukee and ESPN Madison.