Monday, August 29, 2016

Packers 2016 Preseason Game 3, Packers Defeat 49ers, 21-10

We aren't going to see any Green Bay Packers highlights this season featuring QB Joe Callahan (or WR Geronimo Allison) so...
Preseason wins are meaningless but this is the 3rd preseason game in which the Packers starters and potential backups looked collectively better than their opponents. It's also been their 3rd game against three non-playoff teams in 2015 but it's the best we have to evaluate them.

Packers offense:

They'll keep Callahan on the practice squad (or maybe the active roster for a little while if Brett Hundley's ankle is still bothering him) but I can't believe they had any intention of keeping three QBs on the 53-man roster this season. Callahan's still too limited physically to be worried about any other team claiming him, but his accuracy on the deep ball has been impressive.

The starting offense was together for the first time (excepting WR Jordy Nelson) and their first series was a rusty, penalty filled mess. This happens every year and it's better to get it out of the way in the preseason than in Week 1. Their second series was a touchdown drive so it got better quickly.

The offensive line (starters and backups) have looked great this preseason and it's the best collective group I've seen in years. The Packers are usually struggling to find a decent 7th or 8th offensive lineman to keep and this year they'll have no trouble. Even C Don Barclay's looked good at center, though he did get lost on his first snap of the preseason and allowed a safety. LT Jason Spriggs played well again (after a shaky game last week against the Raiders) even with a club on his hand for an entire half. Undrafted G Lucas Patrick hasn't played much but he was a pleasant surprise against the 49ers. I had been high on rookie RT Kyle Murphy but he was a disaster in pass protection during the second half. The Packers might be able to release him now and sign him to the practice squad, he looked that bad in pass protection. They might also have an extra spot if C Corey Linsley (who still hasn't even practiced) has to go on I.R. JC Tretter isn't quite as good as Linsley but the step down is small. Barclay might have to stay if Linsley can't play, and with Spriggs and probably Murphy, there shouldn't be any more open roster spots for lineman.

Usually it's a case of keeping the backup wide receivers who don't drop the ball during preseason games but this year's group has been outstanding. There's an extra roster spot with Jeff Janis almost certain to go onto season ending I.R. but even then there's probably not room for Allison, who is still behind rookie Trevor Davis, and Davis might only stick for a while as a 6th receiver if they decide they need an extra one while they ease Nelson back. Neither Davante Adams or Ty Montgomery has shown much this preseason but they should both stay due to their high draft status. Maybe they're looking to trade Adams or Montgomery?

I'm not expecting a lot of big plays at tight end from Jared Cook but he looks like the player that I hoped Richard Rodgers would become last season. His speed and size make him a tough matchup and he'll get 10 yards on any slot route if they can get him into single coverage. Justin Perillo's been active every game this preseason and he looks set for the 3rd TE job. Though I didn't recall seeing Kennard Backman at all against the 49ers, he should still be on the roster.

As long as FB Aaron Ripkowski's knee injury isn't serious (reportedly not) they might only keep him, and RBs Eddie Lacy and James Starks. They should keep one more back on the practice squad and that spot might come down to whoever's healthy (Crockett's shoulder injury looked painful on the sidelines). They only needed Crockett last season on the active roster because of Lacy's issues, and those issues appear to be in his past.

Packers defense:

DT Kenny Clark didn't make the trip (he was held out as a precaution) and DT Letroy Guion's knee injury reportedly won't keep him out for Week 1. But DT Mike Pennel's four game suspension is looming and they did look outmatched up front when DT Mike Daniels and Pennel weren't in the game. Those four (plus rookie DE Dean Lowry) should be the only five lineman they keep. Probably someone else for the first four games while Pennel's suspended. DT Christian Ringo has probably played the best of the rest but they are looking at more than just sacks when evaluating what they want at tackle.

Speaking of rust, he was only in for several plays during his first action of the preseason, but Julius Peppers lost contain on RB Carlos Hyde for the big play on the 49ers only TD drive. But of course Peppers will start opposite Clay Matthews while Nick Perry and Datone Jones are the backups. Rookie Kyler Fackrell isn't going to be an elite pass rusher but he appears to do everything well, and his high draft status will provide him a roster spot. Jayrone Elliott, Reggie Gilbert and Lerentee McCray will be hoping there's room left for them.

After a shaky first preseason game, ILB Blake Martinez has reassured me that he's the best of the bunch on the inside over these past two games. Before his injury, it looked like ILB Sam Barrington was going to be the every down inside backer who's not great but good at everything (run defense, covering TEs, slot receivers, etc.). Instead that job now belongs to Martinez, who's reminding me of former Packer Nick Barnett. ILB Carl Bradford's in good roster shape after a solid preseason while injuries have kept away his competition. ILB Joe Thomas was out against the 49ers (it's a muscle injury, a few days after a shin injury, and even if neither are serious it comes at the worst time for him). ILB Jake Ryan is back at practice but he hasn't been active for a preseason game yet; he'll have to showcase himself in their final preseason game. They can make room for five inside backers on the roster but I don't know if that's necessary. Maybe they'll choose between Bradford and Thomas plus the other three (Martinez, Barrington, and Ryan).

They've got some choices to make in the secondary among safeties Kentrell Brice and Marwin Evans, who have both played well this preseason, along with Josh Hawkins at cornerback. But these three are still deep down the depth chart, they'll only play if there are injuries, and it's those injuries that concern me. Chris Banjo doesn't think his injury is serious but hamstring injuries can linger (ask Jake Ryan) and Morgan Burnett has hardly played this preseason. The starting corners haven't looked lock-down this preseason (Sam Shields got beat for a would-be TD pass if Blaine Gabbert hadn't overthrown his receiver, and Damarious Randall's shaky preseason continued with a touchdown lateral to the receiver he was covering). The good news is that safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix keeps looking better and I'm wondering what his ceiling is (high for sure). Plus CB/S/DB Micah Hyde is there to fill in the gaps. They've got options here but there might be too many options at the bottom of the roster and injuries are looming.

Overall this hasn't been a surprising preseason (they're beating lesser teams, their starters look good, and they've got quality depth) and the the 2016 draft class is looking solid, but not spectacular. One more tune up against the Chiefs to finalize the roster and then onto the regular season.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Packers 2016 Preseason: Win Over Raiders

This was an odd preseason game to evaluate for the Green Bay Packers. With so many stars sitting in these first two preseason games, it's not like we're watching the team that's going to play in the regular season opener, and there are few starting jobs being fought over. JC Tretter and Blake Martinez both played well, but it might not matter at all if they're just keeping the seats warm for Corey Linsley and Jake Ryan, respectively. It's important to avoid injuries (the ankle injury doesn't appear serious for QB Brett Hundley) and sort out the battles at the end of the bench. Speaking of which...
After two games, the biggest surprise has been CB Josh Hawkins. Among the rookies, maybe Kenny Clark and Blake Martinez might have outplayed him, and among the returning players, it's good to see ILB Carl Bradford emerge. But I know who those guys are and I knew little of Hawkins before he stood out in both preseason games. On the play pictured above, Hawkins went up high to make a play on the ball and grab the INT on a pass that should have been over his head.

Offensive evaluation:

After an opening TD drive that featured RB Eddie Lacy (who's looked better than last season, so far), maybe the plan was to air it out with Hundley, but instead he re-injured his ankle shortly after Lacy took a seat. The injury did show that rookie LT Jason Spriggs isn't yet up to pass blocking against an All-Pro like DE Khalil Mack. After Hundley left, the Packers called a lot of running plays for James Starks and John Crockett, and by the end of the game they were almost exclusively calling running plays for QB Marquise Williams. That ground heavy performance did make the offensive line look good, and showed that rookie RT Kyle Murphy is a pretty good run blocker, but it provided few opportunities for the receivers.
But when they did throw the ball, they did have success throwing to WR Davante Adams. Mike McCarthy also complemented Adams during his post-game press conference. After a disappointing sophomore season, Adams is starting to show the promise that was expected last year. The only negative in the passing game was all the incompletions thrown to WR Ty Montgomery who is slowly moving down the depth chart this preseason.

Defensive evaluation:

With a lot of sure tackling and great coverage by the secondary, the Raiders struggled to get much of anything going against the Packers' first or second team defenses. Outside of two long completions to Amari Cooper and Seth Roberts, the Raiders moved the ball little through the air, and only averaged 2.4 ypc on the ground. I would like to stop seeing CB Damarious Randall stop getting beaten in coverage, and his INT wasn't a big sign of improvement when he had to push off (not called) to make the play. On the ground, the Raiders had little success moving the Packers' tackles off the line, and the Packers' linebackers did a good job of moving through all the traffic around the line of scrimmage to make the tackles.

But the one thing that was really missing was their pass rush. The Packers didn't record a single sack or even a quarterback hit. Part of that was the result of the Raiders' QBs getting the ball out of their hands quickly. If the Packers were hoping LB Nick Perry and/or LB Kyler Fackrell were going to provide a consistent pass rush this season, it hasn't worked out so far.

Special teams:

It's kind of pointless to discuss special teams during the preseason, when the Packers are using so many different players on each unit compared to the ones who will be lining up during the regular season. But the Raiders scored their only touchdown when CB LaDarius Gunter whiffed on a block that led to a blocked punt recovered in the end zone. The return situation hasn't looked great either, other than a couple nice returns from rookie WR Trevor Davis, who seems unlikely to stick with so many other receivers ahead of him on offense.

So the Packers didn't look bad, and they mostly looked really good, but this is all happening with a number of key players sitting out and/or hurt. At least it looks like the Packers are a deep team, if they need to call on that depth later in the regular season due to injuries.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Packers Open The 2016 Preseason With A Win Over The Browns

For the Green Bay Packers, a couple players stood out in a good way, and a couple stood out in a bad way. Overall, their first preseason game went largely as expected and I didn't see any big surprises.
QB RGIII. He started the game off with a long pass against CB Damarious Randall, who appeared to be called out by his position coach on Sunday about it, and completed his next two passes. Then he threw an INT on a great diving play by CB Micah Hyde but it didn't look like his receiver had any idea the ball was coming. His last three pass attempts were incompletions against the Packers' second team defense. I thought he'd present more of a challenge to the Packers' defense, but other than that pass to beat Randall, he wasn't a factor.

QB Joe Callahan. He was better than I expected but I had low expectations. He didn't show the physical tools of an NFL starter though he made several good decisions and led the offense on a touchdown drive in the two minute drill. He reminded me of Scott Tolzien.

OLB Datone Jones. He got most of the press from the game and he was probably the best player on the field. But he did it while on the 2nd team defense and against the Browns' backups. He does look good playing at a lighter weight.

DT Kenny Clark. He looked like DT B.J. Raji on a good day at the nose, which is a very good sign.

OT Jason Spriggs. He played almost the entire game and was very good. He did have a couple bad moments learning opportunities: once he was pancaked by the DT to his right on a double-team, and he was flagged for tripping. But most of the time he handled the outside rush on passing plays, and made solid blocks downfield when they ran. Already I'd be confident that he could spot start at either tackle position if needed.

ILB Blake Martinez. It was only one play but I rarely see linebackers get rolled like he did. Neither Jake Ryan or Sam Barrington were active. ILB Carl Bradford looked better than Martinez, though he also had one bad play when he got blocked out on the opposite side of the field vs. a long run. It's only one game, but I have Bradford ahead of Martinez so far.

LB Joe Thomas. I wasn't sure what his role was going to be this season. I thought he could even lose playing time to Morgan Burnett. He might still find his role diminished but he started against the Browns and looked pretty good.

OLB Reggie Gilbert, OLB Kyler Fackrell, DT Christian Ringo. All three players had a sack against the backups on the Browns OL. Gilbert's "sack" happened when Cody Kessler forgot where the back of the end zone was on a safety, but he was still getting after Kessler on the play. The Packers have some depth at OLB this season and it showed. Ringo too was expected to look better after a redshirt rookie season, and so far so good.

CB Demitri Goodson. I wasn't sure they were going to make anything of the former point guard that they selected in the 2014 6th round, and he sure was the weak link against the Browns. He gave up the only TD on defense and picked up a personal foul on the preceding special teams play. Undrafted rookie CB Josh Hawkins (among others) already seem to be ahead of him on the depth chart, and they all clearly outplayed him against the Browns.

OL Don Barclay. He was a disaster last season and he allowed a safety on his first snap as center this preseason. I feel bad for the guy, who was once a pleasant surprise and solid starter at RT in place of Bryan Bulaga, but he hasn't been the same since his ACL injury two years ago.

TE Justin Perillo. One of the secrets to Callahan's success was that he leaned heavily on his TEs (his first two completions were to TE Jared Cook). Perillo ended up leading the team in receptions. He's still behind Cook and TE Richard Rodgers on the depth chart, but he could be more involved as a receiver this season.

WR Jared Abbrederis. It was a ho-hum 2 receptions for 23 yards night, but he looked good as a receiver and also as a return man. He's still behind WR Davante Adams as the No. 3 receiver for some reason but I'm looking forward to seeing what he can do this season.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

2016 Packers Preseason Game Number One Preview: Browns at Lambeau

With the Packers' first preseason game off the books due to the massive incompetence at the annual Hall of Fame game, the Packers actual first preseason game of 2016 will be at Lambeau on Friday night against QB RGIII and his Cleveland Browns.
The big match-up will be everyone's first look at RGIII in a Browns uniform vs. whoever's playing at QB for the Packers. It won't be QB Brett Hundley, who's still unable to practice due to his injured ankle, and it won't be QB Aaron Rodgers either, who appears to be running the scout team this week. It'll be some combination of Joe Callahan and Marquise Williams, neither of whom I've ever seen play before, and I don't expect either one will be very good.

Rodgers used to play in the first half of their first preseason game, he played almost the entire first half last season in their preseason opener at New England, but he's played very little preseason football since WR Jordy Nelson's season ending knee injury last year in Pittsburgh. I don't think that's a coincidence, and I'm not sure whether Rodgers will play at all this preseason.

It's not like just any QB can step into the Packers' offense during the preseason either. There's been a lot of bad quarterback play from non-Rodgers QBs in recent years' preseason games. One example is any preseason game that involved QB Graham Harrell. So it should be expected that Callahan and Williams will struggle, which might make it difficult to properly evaluate anyone on offense.

On the defensive side, I'm expecting RGIII will have a big game. Not because he's going to find some magic potion in Cleveland with new head coach Hue Jackson by his side, but because the Packers play some extra vanilla defense during the preseason. In their 3rd preseason game of 2015, they hosted the Eagles and were shredded by QB Sam Bradford who went 10-for-10 with 121 yards, 3 TDs and a perfect QB rating against the Packers first team defense. The Packers have a very good defense, but they make a bum like Bradford look like an MVP during the preseason and RGIII should be able to do the same.

The players I'll be watching are the players on the bubble to see whether they can make some big plays against the back-ups. Is the hype surrounding ILB Blake Martinez for real? Can OLB Reggie Gilbert be the breakout, undrafted rookie free agent of 2016? Did the Packers find something in free agent OLB Lerentee McCray, who was buried on the depth chart in Denver? Some of those individual players might stand out while the Packers overall struggle with inexperience QBs and super vanilla defense.

Tuesday, August 02, 2016

Packers 2016: First Week of Training Camp In The Books

While the Green Bay Packers had their annual Family Night scrimmage over the weekend, and it's always impressive to see the fans come out in such huge numbers for a practice, it doesn't tell you anything (yet) about the players. Maybe Jared Abbrederis was impressive and maybe Davante Adams wasn't. But it doesn't matter until you see them play in a preseason game, and maybe it doesn't even matter then if someone like Adams is already penciled in as the starter by the coaches and isn't being asked to do much during the preseason.

So far, the good news is that the Packers have few injuries. And while some players are out, it gives other players a chance to prove themselves. Both WR Jordy Nelson and Ty Montgomery are on the PUP list (so that's provided Abbrederis more practice time). Also, LB Sam Barrington is on the PUP list (though I still expect him to become the starter when he's ready) and his absence has given rookie LB Blake Martinez a big opportunity:
It might be a little bit concerning that Barrington is still unable to practice but we don't know all that's gone on with him over the past year during rehab. Maybe it's still precautionary and nothing more. Though it's a little surprising that Martinez has seemed to have moved ahead of LB Jake Ryan, or maybe the coaches know what they have in Ryan and want to see what Martinez can do. None of them are going to be mistaken for Luke Kuechly but at least the Packers have options and it looks like they found a good player in Martinez.

It's super early, there hasn't been any real football played yet that can truly evaluate the players, and they don't play their first preseason game until next Sunday, August 7. I'm glad the season is getting closer but I'm not jumping to any conclusions yet.

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.