GREEN BAY — A little after 10 Thursday night, angry University of Wisconsin football fans took to Twitter brandishing torches and pitchforks.
The Green Bay Packers, a team with a crying need for an outside linebacker with pass-rush ability, were on the clock with the 29th pick in the first round of the NFL draft and one of the top pass-rushing outside linebackers in the draft pool, UW’s T.J. Watt, was there for the taking.
It seemed like match made in football heaven, especially after reports surfaced that Packers general manager Ted Thompson thought highly of Watt’s ability. Instead of taking the local boy to fill a need, however, Thompson traded back four spots to the first pick in the second round and in return gained an additional pick — the first selection in the fourth round.
Most Badgers fans and some Packers fans were up in arms over the decision to trade back, especially after Pittsburgh, which runs the same 3-4 defense as Green Bay, snapped up Watt with the very next pick.
Predictably, Thompson’s move caused a major stir on social media, eliciting the tired and factually incorrect criticism that the Packers are organizationally opposed to drafting players from UW.
It took two days, but with one simple move Saturday, Thompson silenced any and all critics. With the first pick in the fourth round, the one he acquired by swapping the 29th pick for the 33rd, he took UW outside linebacker Vince Biegel. That had the dual effect of putting to rest any notion that Thompson doesn’t draft UW players in the early rounds and giving his beleaguered defense a badly needed pass rusher after he had added two defensive backs and a nose tackle with his first three picks.
In essence, Thompson’s maneuverings turned the 29th pick, presumably Watt, into Washington cornerback Kevin King (33rd pick) and Biegel (108th pick).
“I think it was excellent,” director of football operations Elliot Wolf said. “We were able to trade back and get another player that’s going to help us.”
This is called working the draft. This is called creating something out of nothing. And in this instance, Thompson did it masterfully.
If you buy the premise that Watt and Biegel are relatively equal in terms of talent and production, a notion their stellar UW careers would support, then it is clear Thompson engineered an in-draft coup. One doesn’t have to be a math major to see that King plus Biegel is greater than Watt. Indeed, the Packers got two players for the price of one.
Only time will provide a definitive answer on Thompson’s ploy, and Watt certainly has a chance to be a terrific NFL player. But the same could be said for King, who became Green Bay’s most talented cornerback the minute he was drafted, and Biegel, who plays with passion, intelligence and has measurables that are almost identical to Watt’s.
Though both get high marks for their non-stop motors, above-average athleticism and ability to get to the quarterback, Biegel and Watt aren’t the same guy. Biegel is more explosive straight ahead and is a supreme leader. Watt has greater potential to add weight and better change-of-direction skills.
“He’s really good with his hands,” Wolf said of Biegel. “He’s tenacious, never takes a play off, all those kind of clichés. But he’s strong, he’s super-instinctive, he has speed around the corner. He needs to work a little bit on his celebrations. He plays so hard that he gets super excited and sometimes it doesn’t look like he has a plan after the play’s over.”
That last part was a joke, of course. In the end, the only pertinent question will be whether Biegel can give the Packers the same kind of pass rush as Watt would have. He should get his chance quickly. If the Packers are serious about moving outside linebacker Clay Matthews around more this season, they’ll need an edge rusher to pair with Nick Perry.
“I think he’s a good pass rusher,” senior personnel executive Alonzo Highsmith said. “I think he has a knack for getting to the quarterback. You know, there’s a whole lot of different traits to getting to the quarterback. There’s no single defined way other than just speed and tenacity and I think he’s got a little bit of both.”
Asked if he can be the edge rusher the Packers need, Biegel was optimistic, yet practical.
“I think I can definitely improve as a pass rusher, but being able to pass rush is one of the strengths of my game,” he said. “However they utilize me, I’ll definitely go in there with a chip on my shoulder and learn from guys ahead of me like Clay, learn from veterans and guys who have been there. I’m just really eager to learn.”
Thompson, who attended UW’s Pro Day, said he’s watched Biegel for a long time and that UW’s coaches speak very highly of him.
“He’s a leader and a very articulate, very bright young man and he happens to be a local guy and happens to be from Wisconsin,” Thompson said. “It wasn’t done because we were like, ‘We can get a Badger on our team.’ That’s not the reason we did that. We did that because he’s going to help the Green Bay Packers win games.”
As people finally discovered, that’s the whole idea.