Thursday, February 04, 2016

Will Julius Peppers Play For The Packers In 2016?

The Green Bay Packers should be very happy to have LB Julius Peppers back in 2016. Despite his recent Pro Bowl appearance, Peppers didn't have as much impact in 2015 as he did in 2014 but it's hard to see that as the sign of his imminent decline.

While his sack total was up (10.5 in 2015 from 7 in 2014) several other stats were down, but his 2014 and 2015 seasons are both comparable to past seasons stretching back to his time with the Panthers and Bears. His career stats are about as consistent from season-to-season as any player you're likely to find, and he's only missed 2 games since 2002! Though he just turned 36 years old, an age that should place major question marks on any non-QB/non-kicker, Peppers is an amazing, consistent star who is an exception to those rules.

So the fact that Adam Schefter wrote a line in his most recent column that Peppers may have already played his final NFL game is big concern.
It's a little surprising to read that from Schefter when there was a different report earlier this week suggesting that Peppers would play again in 2016 even if the Packers release him.

Just looking at Peppers by himself, he's a still a great player and worth the $8 million cap charge he'll cost next season. The lone advantage in releasing him now would be to use that cap space on a younger player in free agency, but I generally hate free agency and his release would also cost them a $2.5 million cap charge in dead money. The Packers currently have around $21 million in cap space so creating cap space is not a big need.

But when you look at the state of the roster without Peppers, his release would leave their roster without any quality linebackers other than Clay Matthews. Nick Perry and Mike Neal are both unrestricted free agents, and neither one is a priority to re-sign. Who knows how Sam Barrington will be after missing almost the entire 2015 season with injury. Some combination of Jake Ryan, Joe Thomas and Nate Palmer might be useful as a backup (maybe Ryan has potential next season as a starter) but that's a thin bench. Pro Football Focus listed linebacker as the Packers' number one need this offseason, and despite the recent report that coach Mike McCarthy is "fed-up" with the Packers' approach in free agency, it's unlikely that GM Ted Thompson will be aggressive in that area. It'll be important to keep valuable linebackers like Peppers, and draft a couple more options this April too.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

T.J. Lang Had His Best Season While Playing With Two Bad Shoulders

This might not be the last story we read this offseason about a Green Bay Packer offensive lineman who is having surgery, every starting offensive lineman missed at least some time last season with an injury, but today's its about RG T.J. Lang.
The only criticism that can be leveled against Lang this season is that he missed one game because of injury. Otherwise he was one of the team's best players. This season, he received the highest grade of his career from Pro Football Focus, who also graded him as the 4th best guard overall last season (just behind Zack Martin of the Cowboys and just ahead of his teammate Josh Sitton).

He'll have a reasonable $6.1 million cap charge next season, his final one before he can become a free agent in 2017. Next season will be his eight NFL season and GM Ted Thompson isn't known for re-signing players into their 30s (Lang will turn 30 during the 2017 season), and the wear-and-tear is starting to show, though Lang has only missed two starts in the past five seasons. It'll be interesting to watch how he recovers and plays next season.

Monday, February 01, 2016

Aaron Rodgers Had Minor Knee Surgery

After the Green Bay Packers beat the Redskins in the playoff Wild Card game, I looked back through the injury report to see when QB Aaron Rodgers had last been listed because something was wrong with him. Yes, his receivers were playing poorly and his offensive line was a disaster (at times) but he was also missing throws that he previously didn't miss. Against the Redskins, after completing his first attempt to WR James Jones, he was incomplete on his next seven attempts. Missing seven straight pass attempts for an NFL QB is rare these days, and I can't ever remember Rodgers going through such a bad streak. I thought he must still be playing through that right shoulder injury, though it hadn't been listed in weeks.

Now all teams stink at disclosing injuries, Mike Florio's been on them about this for years, and it looks like the Packers were part of the club. Maybe it was the combination of a sore shoulder and knee that messed up his accuracy, but his injured knee had to be the main suspect if it required surgery shortly after the end of the season.
The good news is that this doesn't seem to be a big deal. He'll be fully recovered and participating in the team's offseason program when it starts in April. The bad news is that this is the third season in a row where a mid-season injury (2013-collarbone, 2014-calf, 2015-knee/shoulder) took away a lot of what makes Aaron Rodgers a great quarterback. And, unfortunately, this is something that should be expected to continue each season now that he's over age 30 (he turned 32 in December).

Monday, January 25, 2016

About Mike McCarthy Being "Fed Up" With GM Ted Thompson

There were a few times last season when I wondered if it would have helped if the Green Bay Packers had targeted a free agent or two, on a veteran's minimum contract, who might have helped out at some positions. Notably, the Arizona Cardinals had some success with low-priced veterans like RB Chris Johnson and DE Dwight Freeney in 2015. Apparently Bob McGinn has learned that coach Mike McCarthy was wondering the same thing.
It's hard to get too worked up over this report because in some ways it's old news. It reminds me of when almost everyone was upset that Thompson didn't pull the trigger in 2010 on a trade for RB Marshawn Lynch. Thompson turned out to be right in the sense that the Packers didn't need Lynch that season to win the Super Bowl, but Lynch would have still been worth whatever it would have taken to acquire him (the Bills gave up a 4th and a 5th round pick for him).

I wouldn't be surprised if McCarthy is looking for new answers after another playoff loss on the final play of the game. Having a veteran TE, a veteran DB, or a veteran ILB (instead of rotating Jake Ryan and Joe Thomas Jr.) might have made a small difference, but it could have turned one or two close losses this season into wins. Having no reliable inside LB other than Clay Matthews might have been his biggest regret because Bob McGinn specifically mentions the availability of ILB Mason Foster, who signed with the Redskins.

On the other hand, the NFL free agent market is a minefield. A healthy free agent who might be an average NFL player can command a bust-worthy multi-year contract while the true superstar who hits the market will get a cap crushing deal.

Typically the players who receiver one-year contracts aren't good or haven't been healthy for a while. Foster's a minor success story but other teams handed out one-year contracts to former Packer ILBs Desmond Bishop (released in early September) and Jamari Lattimore (played only on special teams for the Jets) without finding a starting caliber ILB. The Jets did well with ILB Erin Henderson, who could only get a one-year deal after a string of drinking and driving arrests ended his Vikings career, but obviously not every player with a checkered past is able to put it behind them. The Vikings signed Casey Matthews to compete at inside LB but he was hurt before the season even began. Signing a veteran on a one-year contract is much more likely to be a bust than even a mild success.

It's an odd time for this story to come out, on one hand, because this is the season that the Packers did sign WR James Jones to a one-year contract after his release from the Giants, and WR Jordy Nelson was lost for the year. I'm not sure any team in the NFL this season had a better one-year, unrestricted free agent signing than Jones. It's too bad he couldn't have played inside linebacker too.

McCarthy is used to having a deep bench to call on. The lack of depth at offensive tackle and inside linebacker were obvious, and the failure of WR Davante Adams to develop was disappointing, but these things don't always work out. The big takeaway for me in from Bob McGinn's article is that the Packers have really high standards, and if nothing less than a Super Bowl season is a disappointment, then you feel the same way as coach McCarthy.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Packers Disappoint At Running Back, Tight End, and Two Coaches Pay The Price

It's always hard to move onto the next offseason after the last game of the prior season, but Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy moved on quickly, at least as far as his coaching staff was concerned.
The one thing both coaches had in common; the position players under their wings under-performed during 2015. McCarthy did confirm that he will call the plays next season (it's hard for any boss to give up control) and he said would change the structure of the coaching staff. Maybe there's more changes ahead or maybe the firing of Gash and Fontenot is it. I'm sure he had his reasons for the firings, he hasn't been one to make a lot of changes to his staff every year (and usually not this quickly after the season), but I'm not expecting it'll make a big difference in 2016.

The draft is coming up, in almost 100 days (a lot of draft talk lies ahead...) but first free agency is up next. Usually, if GM Ted Thompson has not re-signed an unrestricted free agents before the end of the season, he doesn't re-sign them. But there's always an exception or two. In the big picture, only four of their unrestricted free agents had a positive score according to Pro Football Focus in 2015 (K Mason Crosby, CB Casey Hayward, LB Nick Perry and WR James Jones) so there is no vital unrestricted free agent that must be re-signed for 2016.

Crosby should be expected back, but he might not be re-signed until March when it's seen what other kickers are earning. Hayward had the highest grade of the four, but he was the 4th highest rated defensive back in 2015, which is a sign that it's a strong unit and maybe not Hayward specifically. He should also be the free agent who attracts the most attention from other teams. Perry had a good grade too but primarily for his run defense (not his pass rushing) which makes him less appealing. They have a bigger need for edge pass rushers than they do for another run defender. Jones obviously had a lot of value in 2015 but he's exactly the type of player that GM Ted Thompson usually lets go in free agency (as he did after the 2013 season). Maybe Jones has so little value to every other team, and the Packers would like the insurance he provides, that a low cost, one-year contract can be worked out.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Packers Playoff Loss: Still Taking It All In

[UPDATE: While I picked on Hayward below it appears that CB Damarious Randall was to blame for the blown coverage.] CB Casey Hayward is soon to become a free agent. While he's a good player, he seems to make mistakes that might give the front office pause on whether he's a keeper. DE Mike Daniels already got his mid-season extension but unless Hayward isn't in demand (which seems unlikely since CBs have been getting paid in free agency) I don't see the Packers re-signing him. It's plays like the opening one in OT, when WR Larry Fitzgerald deployed a cloaking device and ran right past him, that makes me wonder.
It's been a struggle on offense this season (QB Aaron Rodgers does need a healthy offensive line, which he finally got in the playoffs, and a deep roster of receivers) but these two Hail Mary plays, side-by-side show how he's made up for some of it. It's also interesting that both defenses played it completely different. The Lions took a lot of criticism for defending a series of laterals that never came, instead of the Hail Mary, and they didn't bring much pressure because they were expecting the short pass. The Cardinals, instead, brought the house and got into Rodgers's face immediately, and they only dropped four into coverage. Rodgers spun away from the rush and still managed to throw the pass he needed anyway. Two different defensive schemes to the same scenario, but Rodgers made the result the same.

I'm all for taking risks, and understood why Bruce Arians passed late in the game when he could have run out the clock. If the Cardinals had completed that fade pass to Fitzgerald, then the game was over. But the Cardinals were the favorites and they've been the better team all season, so they could have taken the lower percentage path to victory (and probably won in regulation, if they'd wiped out another 35 seconds). The Packers, on the other hand, could have gone for the two point conversion to end the game before OT. I understand the math and the Packers probably had a better chance of converting then rather than winning in OT, but it's a one-and-done scenario. Instead of giving his team a few chances to make a big play in OT, Mike McCarthy would have gave them just one. Unfortunately, the secondary blew the coverage in their first opportunity to make a play in OT, but McCarthy made the right call for the extra point. He should give his team more than one chance to win, though Bill Barnwell below explains why he thinks McCarthy should have gone for two.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

The Packers' 2015 Season Ends Like The 2014 Season, With An Overtime Loss At An NFC North Opponent, Cardinals Win 26-20

The Green Bay Packers defense gave them a chance in this game, and they didn't let the team down until they allowed two late TD drives which gave the Cardinals the lead in the 4th quarter and then gave them the win in OT. It was better than the offense could do. Outside of a long run by RB Eddie Lacy, the Packers' rushing attack wasn't much of a help. With WR Randall Cobb injured early, and WR James Jones shut out by CB Patrick Peterson, their top two receivers caught zero passes. But three big completions to WR Jeff Janis for two touchdowns gave them just enough offense to force OT. It was a wild ride, starting with a dumb luck, ricochet TD pass to WR Michael Floyd.
Then QB Aaron Rodgers answered with an amazing Hail Mary pass to WR Jeff Janis for the tie.
But a 75 yard pass play to start OT, when the Packers' pass rush doesn't quite get to QB Carson Palmer, ends their season.
It was a great season, and an amazing run considering QB Aaron Rodgers played this game without his expected top 3 receivers (Nelson, Cobb, Adams) and had no passing yards to his best remaining receiver (Jones), but they were so close, just like last season, and you never know when the opportunity might come again.