Monday, July 25, 2016

Did The Packers Do Enough This Offseason: Defensive Backfield

In a vacuum, the 2016 offseason looks like a step back for the Green Bay Packers' defensive backfield. They lost a cornerback in free agency who played on the 2nd most snaps among all of their defensive backs, and they added no one in the 2016 draft. However, this was all part of the plan.
While the 2015 draft isn't going to remembered as one of the all-time greats, it's was a very strong one that added two (probable) starters with their top two picks (CB Damarious Randall and CB Quinten Rollins) plus a very promising undrafted free agent (CB LaDarius Gunter). Despite the free agent loss of CB Casey Hayward (who was 2nd among defensive backs with 914 snaps in 2015), the Packers can't afford to keep all of their players and took a chance that they could afford to lose a slot corner with a history of injuries when they had a 2nd year player (Rollins) ready to step into that role. Plus they'll gain a draft pick for Hayward in 2017 when the compensatory draft picks are awarded by the league.

Here are the snaps among the returning defensive backs in 2015 and I can't recall a deeper group. This list doesn't even include Gunter, who should play more in 2016.
Player Pos. Def. Snap Def. %
Clinton-Dix S 1048 99.7%
Randall CB 755 71.8%
Shields CB 697 66.3%
Burnett S 683 65.0%
Hyde CB/S 652 62.0%
Rollins CB 323 30.7%
Banjo S 102 9.7%
Goodson CB 72 6.9%
The safety position is pretty much set with Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Morgan Burnett. Usually Burnett leads this group in snaps but he missed several games early last season with a calf injury. While Burnett's probably never going to be anything more than a reliable veteran, not that there's anything wrong with that, Clinton-Dix still has time to improve as he enters his 3rd season. To back them both up is jack of all trades Micah Hyde, who should see the field in a variety of sub-packages.

It was an up-and-down season for Randall, who started out very strong, struggled as the season went on, and made the biggest mistake of his NFL career against the Cardinals in the playoffs. The Packers threw him to the wolves as a rookie, they switched him from college safety to NFL cornerback and they kept on the field almost all the time (his 755 snaps was 3rd among their defensive backs). It sucks that he blows it against the Cardinals and then has to wait several months to prove that he'll bounce back. Assuming he does bounce back, overall it was a strong rookie season for him, he'll become an excellent sideline corner across from CB Sam Shields (who's spent the last two seasons proving he was worth his big four-year contract).

So the Packers have to find a new nickel corner and they have a bunch of options. Rollins was getting playing time in the slot as soon as he stepped onto the practice field last year, so the job should be his. If not, Gunter, Hyde, and Demetri Goodson (who the Packers seem to like and they've given him the last two years to adjust from playing point guard to cornerback) are right behind him. So far Goodson's shown great athleticism and poor instincts and maybe their patience in him will never pay off.

Their pass defense was the strength of the defense last season, ranked No. 6 overall by Football Outsiders, and this could be a great unit with good health (both Shields and Burnett missed several games last season) and a year of experience for Randall and Rollins. It's not a top heavy group, it's lacking one of the super star DBs like Josh Norman or Richard Sherman, but their overall talent can match up with any team entering the 2016 season.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Did The Packers Do Enough This Offseason: Front Seven

It's been weeks since I've posted anything about the Green Bay Packers and I've been meaning to finish my look back at the 2016 offseason.
Rookie DT Kenny Clark and 4th year DE/LB Datone Jones are going to be two of the new faces to watch in 2016; Clark because he's a rookie and Jones because I expect he'll take over the elephant rusher role from LB Mike Neal.

Here are the 2015 snap counts from the returning defensive linemen and it's a short list:
Player Pos. Def. Snap Def. %
Daniels DT 706 67.2%
Guion DT 330 31.4%
Pennel DT 287 27.3%
The big departure is DT B.J. Raji, who played on 444 defensive snaps in 2015, but it's safe to assume that Clark can step into that role. Other than Daniels, the most notable thing about Guion and Pennel, and the two rookies (Clark and DE Dean Lowry) plus 2nd year DT Christian Ringo, is that none of them are known for their pass rush. The rush defense was ranked only 19th overall last season by Football Outsiders, but the Packers didn't do a whole lot to shake up their expected 2016 tackle rotation.

If the Packers were intending to improve their pass rush and the run defense, it doesn't look like the focus for the improvement was going to come from the trenches. Other than Clark taking over for Raji, and some combination of Guion, Ringo and Lowry filling in for Pennel while he serves his four game suspension, there aren't a lot of changes here, and no obvious improvements.

The big move was that Clay Matthews will be back outside. While he's good on the inside, he's clearly better, bigger play maker, on the outside. Moving their best defensive player back to his best position only makes sense.

Here's the 2015 snap counts for the returning linebackers:
Player Pos. Def. Snap Def. %
Matthews OLB 1020 97.1%
Peppers OLB 706 67.2%
Jones OLB 364 34.6%
Perry OLB 351 33.4%
Ryan ILB 260 24.7%
Thomas ILB 250 23.8%
Elliott OLB 174 16.6%
Matthews didn't leave the field in 2015 and nothing should change in that regard next season, though it's unclear what's going to happen with the Al Jazeera report. OLB Julius Peppers arguably played too much last season and as good as he was in 2015, he might be even better in a lesser role. Jones didn't play much (if any) linebacker last season but I've included him here, as he'll be asked to take over at least part of the 734 snaps that went to Neal last season. Maybe they plan on a bigger role for OLB Nick Perry too, but his re-signing just seemed like a value free agent pick-up. Everyone should expect a bigger role from ILB Jake Ryan in his 2nd season, and ILB Joe Thomas might still find himself a role on passing downs in a platoon with Ryan.

In addition to Neal's departure, the Packers also have to replace the 539 snaps that went to ILB Nate Palmer, however, those should go to ILB Sam Barrington, who appears to be set for a full recovery from a 2015 season ending foot injury. I'm not expecting much from 4th round rookie ILB Blake Martinez in 2016 but he should be a better option for depth than what they had to replace Barrington last season.

3rd round rookie OLB Kyler Fackrell isn't needed immediately and appears in line for a redshirt NFL rookie season, but OLB Jayrone Elliott didn't provide much in a limited role and might be only a preseason performer. While there's no guarantee he'll make the roster either, free agent LB Lerentee McCray should get a chance to earn playing time, if he can.

Though there are several new faces, this isn't a major change for the defense. Overall the defense was ranked No. 9 overall by Football Outsiders, so the step of moving Matthews back to his best position, and removing two of their worst regulars (Neal and Palmer) from the rotation might be all that they need for a unit that can compete for a Top 5 ranking next season.

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).