GREEN BAY, Wis. – Nothing will ever compare to the Green Bay Packers selecting Tony Mandarich with the No. 2 overall pick of the 1989 NFL Draft instead of future Hall of Famers Barry Sanders, Derrick Thomas or Deion Sanders. Nonetheless, then-general manager Ted Thompson’s decision to bypass T.J. Watt for Kevin King in the 2017 draft was a monumental blunder.
Watt (assuming he’s back from a groin injury) and King (assuming he’s back from illness) will be on the field when the Pittsburgh Steelers visit the Packers on Sunday. If so, it will be a cruel reminder of the massive, wasted opportunity to add one of the NFL’s true game-changing players.
The Packers, owning the 29th pick of the draft after reaching the NFC Championship Game, could have picked Watt. Instead, Thompson traded out of the first round in a deal with Cleveland. Pittsburgh took Watt at No. 30; Green Bay took King at No. 33.
That decision couldn’t have turned out worse.
Watt is a three-time Pro Bowler and two-time All-Pro as one of the NFL’s elite game-changers. In 2018, he had 13 sacks and six forced fumbles. In 2019, when he finished third in voting for defensive player of the year, he had 14.5 sacks and a league-leading eight forced fumbles. In 2020, when he finished second in defensive player of the year voting, he had a league-high 15 sacks plus two forced fumbles.
King has six career interceptions. Five of them came in 2019, which is the only season in which he started more than 11 games or played two-thirds of the defensive snaps.
Here are the two most damning stats. First, of 67 possible regular-season games, Watt has started 64. King has started 38. Second, King, who is paid to prevent completions, has six interceptions and 28 passes defensed. Watt, who is paid to sack the quarterback, has four interceptions and 25 passes defensed.
Of course, hindsight is always 20/20. Nonetheless, Watt seemingly was the perfect Packers prospect. He’s a native of Pewaukee, Wis. He was an All-American in Wisconsin’s 3-4 defense. He had DNA as the brother of three-time defensive player of the year J.J. Watt. He was the type of self-made star that Thompson normally coveted, having moved from tight end early in his career with the Badgers.
Moreover, the Packers needed an outside linebacker. While Nick Perry was coming off a season of 11 sacks that set him up for a five-year, $60 million contract – a mistake unto itself – they let Julius Peppers go in free agency and 30-year-old Clay Matthews was coming off a season of just five sacks in 12 games.
The Packers needed a cornerback, too. At that point, it was clear Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins weren’t panning out. LaDarius Gunter, the far-too-slow former undrafted free agent, was forced to match up on Julio Jones in the NFC Championship Game – to predictably terrible results. Micah Hyde, who had thrived in the slot, signed with Buffalo in free agency.
So, Thompson went with King, a three-year starter at Washington with a superb combination of height and athletic ability. Based purely on need, it was the right decision. But that is ignoring the fact King was merely an honorable mention on the all-Pac-12 team after recording two interceptions as a senior while Watt had 11.5 sacks, 15.5 tackles for losses, two forced fumbles and one interception during his final season for the Badgers.
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The fallout from that decision continues to ripple through the franchise.
With King’s career going nowhere, general manager Brian Gutekunst drafted cornerback Jaire Alexander in the first round in 2018 and cornerback Eric Stokes in the first round in 2021. Alexander is a stud and the early returns on Stokes are promising.
Meanwhile, without Watt to rush the passer, Gutekunst tripled-down in 2019 by signing Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith in free agency and using a first-round pick on Rashan Gary. Getting Za’Darius Smith cost $66 million over four years and included a $20 million signing bonus and $14 million in roster bonuses. Getting Preston Smith cost $52 million over four years and included a $16 million signing bonus and $8 million in roster bonuses. As a first-round pick, every penny of Gary’s four-year, $15.88 million contract is guaranteed.
So, instead of having Watt sacking quarterbacks on a rookie contract, the Packers opened the vault to buy a pass rush after dumping Perry following the 2018 season. While the Smith Bros. have provided some excellent play, their contracts are just part of the reason why the team is about $42 million over the 2022 salary cap, according to OverTheCap.com.
Consider this: In 2020, Watt’s cap charge was $2.95 million. The Smith Bros.’ cap charge was $30.75 million. That’s a difference of $27.8 million – an enormous amount of money that could have been used for contract extensions or additions to the roster that might have made the difference in the narrow loss to Tampa Bay in the NFC Championship Game.
Instead, in that bitter defeat to the Buccaneers, the Smiths and Gary combined for zero sacks, zero tackles for losses and two quarterback pressures.
In free agency this past offseason, the Packers retained King with a one-year deal worth $5 million. Before missing Sunday’s victory at San Francisco due to illness, he had been moved to the slot to make room for Stokes.
Meanwhile, just before the start of this season, the Steelers signed Watt to a four-year extension worth $112 million. With $80 million guaranteed, he’s the highest-paid defensive player in the NFL, though his cap number for this year of $8.1 million is still less than the reworked deals for Za'Darius Smith ($14.6 million) and Preston Smith ($8.7 million). Watt's three sacks are more than every Packers outside linebacker combined. His two forced fumbles are more than the entire Packers defense combined.
“This is a dream to play for an organization like this,” Watt said after signing. “It’s everything from on the field to off the field. On the field, it’s a 3-4 defense. I’m an outside linebacker. That is a player’s dream. To play for Blitzburgh, to play for this city, to play for the fans is also a dream. To play for the Rooney family is also a dream. It’s incredible and I get chills talking about it, being a part of an organization that has such rich tradition and it’s not some rich billionaire came in and bought a team and started it because he had all this money. This is a team built off tradition and it goes so much deeper than just football. That’s why I am so grateful to be a part of it.”
It’s easy to visualize the Wisconsin native saying all the same things about the Packers. He would have played outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense. To play for such a tradition-rich franchise in his home state would have provided the same chills.
Instead, assuming he’s past the groin injury, he’ll be attacking Aaron Rodgers on Sunday and providing a painful reminder of one of the biggest personnel mistakes in franchise history.