Monday, June 20, 2016

Did The Packers Do Enough This Offseason: Run Offense

Unlike the Green Bay Packers' pass offense, which will only improve if a number of things go right (Nelson is healthy, Cook is a good free agent fit, the offensive line is healthy), the run offense simply needs more from RB Eddie Lacy:
Lacy's weight has been an issue for at least the past two seasons, and I could probably find articles about it during his rookie season if I tried to find them. He was reportedly down to 240 lbs. in April, which is still a lot for a running back, and losing weight should make him faster. That's not too important at the line of scrimmage, but it could turn some 10 yard runs into big plays.

RB James Starks. Starks was one of the worst running backs who had more than 100 carries last season, according to Football Outsiders. He's valuable as a pass protector and receiver, which is why it was a good move to re-sign him as a 3rd down back, but he's not going to replace Lacy unless they have no other choice.

The offensive line. Though they didn't miss many games, every starter on the offensive line missed some time with injuries. Unfortunately it seems like wishful thinking that a veteran offensive line would return the following season in better shape then they were the year before but that's the hope.

OTs Kyle Murphy and Jason Spriggs. Two of the three offensive players drafted last April were lineman who might help the running game. Murphy's the latter round selection but he's arguably better as a run blocker (he blocked last season for Heisman finalist Christian McCaffrey last season) while Spriggs is more likely to be the athletic, pass blocking offensive tackle of the future. Though Murphy could help as a run blocker, he's not going to take over the starting job from any of the projected starters, he might be helpful as an extra tackle on short yardage situations.

Short of drafting a rookie running back to challenge Lacy in 2016, except it wasn't much of a 2016 draft class headlined by Ezekiel Elliott and Derrick Henry as the top choices, the best way to improve the run offense was to ask more from Lacy this year. Based on his 2013 and 2014 seasons, his improvement is probably their best bet next season.

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Did The Packers Do Enough This Offseason: Pass Offense

For the past several seasons, when I'm reviewing the changes made by the Green Bay Packers during the offseason, I'm usually focused on what they're doing to improve the defense. But this offseason I'm starting with the pass offense, which was a huge disappointment in 2015, and received as much help help as any unit this offseason:
QB Aaron Rodgers. It all starts at the top with any NFL offense. If 2015 wasn't his worst NFL season, then it came really close, which is still a career year for some starting QBs. On one hand, it's not fair to put all the blame on him when his offensive line was a walking M.A.S.H. unit and he lost WR Jordy Nelson for the entire season, and those are good reasons to expect he'll be much in better 2016 season. On the other hand, his completion percentage in 2015 was his lowest as a NFL starter (60.7%) and its declined every season since 2011. His yards per attempt also hit rock bottom (6.68 per attempt) and placed him near the bottom among qualified players (just ahead of Colin Kaepernick). He should improve when he has more time to throw (healthy offensive line) and Nelson back, but those troublesome stats are something to keep an eye on next season.

WR Jordy Nelson. When Nelson got hurt last year, I thought the Packers were going to have to spread it out and get everyone involved in the passing game. That would have been a real shift in their mentality because Rodgers had come to rely so much on Nelson and Randall Cobb for a majority of his targets. Instead, the Packers continued to rely heavily on their top receivers which featured an ex-Packer off the waiver wire (James Jones) and a second year receiver who wasn't ready for a heavy work load (Devante Adams). Despite glimpses from Janis, Abbrederis and Montgomery, all they've shown so far are glimpses and they can't be counted on yet, if at all. Nelson's return remains the key, and it's still incredibly important that he returns to full strength, otherwise the offseason will have been a bust.

OL Jason Spriggs. Maybe he was selected in anticipation of 2017, when three offensive lineman are up for free agency, but adding quality depth at offensive tackle for 2016 was still an important move. His addition can only help next season.

RB James Starks. He was the 10th best receiving RB in the NFL last season according to Football Outsiders, and that alone might have been why they re-signed him to a two-year contract. Coming into the 2015 season, I had hoped Eddie Lacy would become a difference maker as a receiver but that never happened. Instead it was Starks, though he never became a major part of the passing game, did become very effective as receiver when asked. At 6-2, he doesn't look the part of a prototype 3rd down back, but that might be what he's become. Re-signing him this spring was a small move that might really help the pass offense next season.

TE Jared Cook. First the bad news; Cook was awful in 2015. Among TEs who were targeted more than 25 times last season, Cook was the absolute worst according to Football Outsiders. The counter-argument is that it wasn't just Cook's fault; the entire Rams passing attack was a disaster (which explains the need for Jared Goff) and Cook is a great athlete who's just needed a good quarterback. Though Richard Rodgers (and Justin Perillo for that matter) were statistically much better than Cook last season, Rodgers and Perillo can't get away from anyone in coverage while Cook has the upside to become a major playmaker. This move can't hurt but Cook's next great season will also be his first, so don't book him a ticket for the Pro Bowl just yet.

While the Packers didn't go for broke this offseason, Spriggs and Cook were nice additions but neither of them broke the bank, they didn't stand pat either and think that Nelson alone was going to make them a better passing team. When you have the franchise quarterback in place, it's important to focus on re-loading instead of re-building, and that's what they did this offseason.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Minor Packer Transactions: Release Josh Boyd and Jeremy Vujnovich

This is a busy time of year for the Green Bay Packers as they sign their draft picks and sign/release undrafted players. The undrafted guys are unlikely to see any playing time, even in a preseason game, but a couple notable players were released to make room for them:
DT Josh Boyd. I was expecting him to be healthy for training camp and compete for a job against the new draftees (Kenny Clark and Dean Lowry) though I didn't expect him to actually make the team in 2016. The combination of his mediocre play over the last three seasons, combined with his recovery from a broken ankle and ligament damage, made it unlikely he'd find a spot on the roster. Though his release is coming right after the draft, my guess is that his release has to do with his rehab. That was a major ankle injury he suffered, and it's unlikely he'd be available to participate in the mini-camps or even during training camp. Boyd isn't a player that the Packers can wait on. They need bodies to practice during these upcoming camps, and they need to figure out their 2016 roster. I wouldn't be surprised if they keep an eye on Boyd while he rehabs, and maybe give him a call mid-season if they need another lineman and he's healthy.

OL Jeremy Vujnovich. He's not as well known as Boyd but he wasn't the worst backup offensive lineman last preseason. Unfortunately he looked undersized while they tried him at guard and tackle. He didn't look good at tackle. His release seems to be directly related to them drafting two offensive tackles. Right now, the Packers probably have too many lineman.

Among the undrafted free agents, a few players stood out:

OL Josh James. He's 6-6, 315 lbs and one of the top non-Division I prospects. The Packers now have a lot of lineman but he might find a role this season on the practice squad.

P Peter Mortell. The "Holder of the Year" award gimmick was fun, but it's great to see some competition for P Tim Masthay. He needs it after a poor 2015 season.

S Kentrell Brice. The Packers always have one of two of these types of players on the roster to play on special teams with a head of steam. With S Sean Richardson's career over due to injury, there is a spot for someone who can challenge S Chris Banjo.

OLB Beniquez Brown. He's not an outstanding athlete but he was very productive in the SEC last season. He could earn a role based on his experience and hustle.

DE/OLB Reggie Gilbert. The Packers always seem to have a Frank Zombo/Andy Mulumba/Jayrone Elliott type guy emerge as a tweener DE/OLB during the preseason. Gilbert could be that guy in 2016.

TE David Grinnage. They didn't draft a TE but they did sign a guy who looks the part (6-5, 248 lbs.). Unfortunately he isn't an exceptional athlete and wasn't very productive last season.

CB Josh Hawkins. With Casey Hayward in San Diego and Demetri Goodson starting the season on suspension, plus they didn't draft a defensive back, there could be a spot on the practice squad or even the roster to start the season for an unknown CB, and he had a lot of success at East Carolina over the past three years.

Monday, May 02, 2016

2016 NFL Draft: Packers Select Seven Players at Four Positions

The Green Bay Packers' 2016 draft didn't exactly work out like I expected (I thought they'd select a cornerback and tight end in the mid-rounds) and I got a big surprise when GM Ted Thompson traded up in the 2nd round for one of the best offensive tackles in the entire draft.

It wasn't a flashy year and it won't get any high grades from the pundits who grade every team's draft the day after, but they filled a three gaping holes on the roster and they added a lot of size.
Defensive line. They had to replace NT B.J. Raji and they got DT Kenny Clark (who could be another Mike Daniels) in the 1st round before selecting Northwestern's DE Kyle Lowry at the end of the 4th round. Lowry's selection was a bit of a surprise because I thought the Packers were done with DE types who eventually became converted LB (Mike Neal, Datone Jones). Jones hasn't officially converted to OLB so maybe nothing's changed yet with their defensive scheme. Lowry seems like an early down, 3-4 DE who can play the run and record the occasional coverage sack.

Offensive tackle. I didn't think they'd spend a high pick on an offensive lineman when the starting five are already set, but instead they moved up to the middle of the 2nd round to draft Indiana's OT Jason Spriggs, who could have been selected at the end of the 1st round. After all the injuries last season, and all the fail by their backups (Don Barclay in particular), they had to do something, and I'd rather they'd error on the side of too much when it comes to protecting QB Aaron Rodgers. For good measure, they also drafted Stanford OT Kyle Murphy at the end of the 6th round. Before the draft, I was hoping they could select Murphy in the 4th round to take over as their top backup, so getting him in the 6th round as their 2nd backup OT is a great value. It's looking like Lane Taylor or JC Tretter will find themselves in a training camp battle to be the top inside backup because Spriggs and Murphy should both make the team.

Linebacker. I liked Utah State OLB Kyler Fackrell before the draft as a poor man's Clay Matthews. He had a lost 2014 season to a knee injury and he's old for a rookie (he'll turn 25 during the 2016 season), but he's good in coverage and he should be able to help take off some of the load from Matthews and be an upgrade over LB Joe Thomas. Stanford ILB Blake Martinez's draft profile is very similar to the one for Jake Ryan last year and that's a good thing. At worst, Martinez will push to Ryan and play on special teams. Neither Ryan or Martinez are great in coverage but the Packers need early down starters like Martinez and Ryan to play against the run.

Wide receiver. They needed another receiver for developmental purposes, and they grabbed a 5th round speedster in Cal's WR Trevor Davis who they can stash on the practice squad next season. If he's fast and has good hands, then he's got something they can work with and we check back in on him in 2017.

They didn't address all their needs, but they added multiple players at the three positions where they needed depth. I don't expect any of their draft choices will be starting Week 1, but the defensive lineman should find themselves in the rotation right away and the linebackers might not be far behind, once they figure out their roles. Neither tackle will win a starting job but they're very welcome. Just a solid draft to add some size and depth where they needed it.

Friday, April 29, 2016

2016 NFL Draft: Packers Select UCLA DT Kenny Clark in 1st Round

I couldn't believe it as the Top 2 inside linebackers in the 2016 NFL draft, UCLA's Miles Jack and Alabama's Reggie Ragland, were still available when the Green Bay Packers were on the clock. And then they made the pick for UCLA DT Kenny Clark.
Initially I was disappointed, but in the end the Packers drafted one of the defensive tackles I expected them to draft. Clark looks like Mike Daniels v.2.0 (though he's slightly bigger) which would be a home run if he becomes as good as Daniels. In the clip above, he's sacking No. 1 overall pick QB Jared Goff, so he's made big plays in important games. The Packers have missed on two recent Southern California products (LB Nick Perry, and DE/LB Datone Jones) but they did hit the USC jackpot with LB Clay Matthews in 2009.

So what happens in the 2nd round? Maybe Ohio State's LB Joshua Perry would be a solid selection. It seems too early to draft a TE (at least too early for GM Ted Thompson). They really need a linebacker and they've already passed once on the two best linebackers who are rehabbing from serious knee injuries (Jack, Notre Dame's LB Jaylon Smith) so they're probably looking for someone healthy, like Perry. They already have one inside linebacker returning from a major knee injury (Sam Barrington) who is expected to start next season.

On the other hand, I really expected them to draft a linebacker early last year, and they waited until the 4th round to select LB Jake Ryan. One of GM Ted Thompson's most common draft traits is to draft a defensive lineman in the 1st round, and then go CB or WR (maybe even another DL) in the 2nd round. This draft is deep on the defensive line and at wide receiver (though there isn't an obvious elite WR at the top of the draft) so if there's a position left with a high draft grade, it's probably at one of those positions. Who knows what talent might fall on the defensive line (the two tackles from Alabama are still available). Penn State DT Austin Johnson should be available, and he'd fill the role of a run stuffer to replace NT B.J. Raji (and DT Mike Pennel during his suspension).

Thursday, April 28, 2016

2016 NFL Draft: Final Look At The Packers Upcoming Picks

This post isn't so much about who the Packers will pick over the next couple days but at what position.
1st round. GM Ted Thompson started out his GM career in 2005 with the selection of QB Aaron Rodgers in the 1st round, and he's only selected offensive tackles or defensive players every year since. I don't see why this year should be any different but offensive tackle and defensive back seem unlikely. It'll probably be Alabama LB Reggie Ragland (if he falls to them) or a defensive tackle. Reed's picture is above but there are several DT who could be drafted in the mid-to-late 1st round (Sheldon Rankins, A'Shawn Robinson, Robert Nkemdiche, Vernon Butler, Andrew Billings, Kenny Clark). Any of them would fill a need though I'd rather see them select someone like Billings, who brings more of a pass rush.

2nd round. I thought about a wide receiver, but it doesn't make sense to draft one early when that would force them to release both Jeff Janis and Jared Abbrederis, instead of setting up a competition between the two in training camp. If not receiver, then there are a lot of outside linebackers expected to be drafted in the 2nd round. Utah State's OLB Kyler Fackrell wouldn't be much of a pass rusher but his ability to drop back in coverage might be very useful. He had a serious knee injury in 2014 but that probably wouldn't scare the Packers, who selected LB Jake Ryan last year despite his collegiate injury history.

If the Packers pick a defensive lineman and outside linebacker with their first two picks, they still need another linebacker, along with a defensive back, offensive tackle, and tight end. They might still draft a late round wide receiver and a late round quarterback to stash on the practice squad.

3rd round. This might still be the place to take another defensive lineman. Players like South Carolina State's DT Javon Hargrave and Nebraska's DT Maliek Collins aren't going to be available later in the draft.

4th round. The Packers are going to be busy at the end of this round because they have three picks during a period of 12 selections. Maybe Stanford OT Kyle Murphy is still available because he was limited by a quad injury during the combine workouts. Georgia Tech's DB D.J. White is about the same size as former Packers Casey Hayward and might be a future replacement as the nickel CB. Wisconsin's OLB Joe Schobert or Arizona's ILB Scooby Wright might be available for depth/future starter at linebacker.

5th round. Western Kentucky's TE Tyler Higbee might be another Richard Rodgers type of TE (he played as a receiver and TE in college). They could use another TE/FB for depth (it looks like John Kuhn is not coming back) or a future RB replacement for James Starks.

6th round. Maybe it's WR Moritz Boehringer time! He's almost the perfect candidate to draft, and let him spend a year or two on the practice squad learning how to play football.

7th round. Back in 2008, Ted Thompson probably didn't need to draft QB Matt Flynn in the 7th round but he liked his arm and didn't notice a bad thing about him. But otherwise he doesn't just select a QB at the end of the draft because he wants another arm in camp. He'd actually have to like a someone. Stanford's QB Kevin Hogan could be an option, if he falls in the draft due to legitimate concerns about his mobility and weird throwing motion.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

2016 NFL Draft: Looking at the Positions Where The Packers Need Players

With nine draft picks, seven rounds plus two compensatory picks in the 4th round, the Green Bay Packers are set to add depth at multiple positions, though no position is exactly barren of talent. Typically GM Ted Thompson spreads out his selections across every position, though sometimes he does load up at a specific one (CB in 2015, WR in 2014).

This year, their greatest need is at linebacker, mostly inside but outside too, followed by their defensive line. They could use another cornerback. What these positions have in common is that they've lost starters at them (CB Casey Hayward, NT B.J. Raji, LBs Nate Palmer and Mike Neal) and they will be missing players to suspension (DT Mike Pennel, B Demetri Goodson). Another position that could use some more depth is their offensive line, where injuries were a major problem last season and Don Barclay and JC Tretter both showed their limitations, though its unlikely they'd use another high draft choice on either an offensive lineman or defensive back.

The problem at linebacker is that after Alabama's ILB Reggie Ragland (who should be long gone by the time the Packers are on the clock), the draft is very thin at inside linebacker. While selecting an outside linebacker in the 1st round would hardly be a wasted selection, it would probably prevent them from moving LB Clay Matthews back outside, so it doesn't seem like an outside backer would be their preference.

They might even consider trading down, if the mock drafts are true that the Packers are interested in a defensive lineman, because that's a deep position in the draft and they could probably get a quality DT anywhere in the 2nd round. A couple of quarterback needy teams might be looking to trade into the late 1st round:
If they do find themselves with multiple 2nd round picks (after trading out of the 1st round), in addition to drafting a defensive lineman, they might also consider selecting another wide receiver. While WR Jordy Nelson is back and they have a number of young receiving options already, most of their young wide receivers played poorly last season. WR Davante Adams was pretty much a disaster last season and things weren't much better for either WR Jeff Janis or WR Jared Abbrederis, who both showed promise but also received negative DYAR ratings from Football Outsiders. It's very rare to have one of Aaron Rodgers's receivers score a negative DYAR, and it was the first time that three of them did it in a single season. If a receiver has a high draft grade and he's available in the 2nd round, I'd have to think they'd seriously consider it.

It's also a deep position with 10 wide receivers currently ranked in the Top 80 players according to CBS Sports (all 1st or 2nd round grades). One interesting receiver is Oklahoma's Sterling Shepard, because of his "quickness and balance to change directions in a flash" along with his good hands. If he was 6-2, 220 lbs. he'd probably be talked about as a Top 10 pick, but at 5-10, 194 lbs. he's about the same size as WR Randall Cobb and he'll probably be drafted in about the same spot (late 2nd round). The Packers need help on defense but they have to make sure the offense is better next season too.