Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Packers Release WR Jordy Nelson, Sign Graham and Wilkerson

On a normal day, I'd have a lot to say about two significant free agent signings by the Green Bay Packers, but the release of WR Jordy Nelson hits hard:
The writing was on the wall a couple months ago when WR Davante Adams was re-signed. Three of the highest paid players on the team were wide receivers and that's not the way to build a balanced roster.

Nelson vanished most of last season, along with the rest of the offense, once QB Aaron Rodgers was injured. But Jordy really disappeared, and it can't all be blamed on Brett Hundley. In 2013, the previous time Rodgers broke his collarbone, Jordy was the only player who kept up the pace alongside a collection of backup QBs and finished with over 1,300 yards. A few years later, and one serious knee injury later, he's not the same receiver who can play like that without his star quarterback.

What really hurts is that they don't have a replacement. Adams is a good starter but he's no Jordy. This makes it harder for the offense to improve on last season.

But they did do something they had to do - find a receiving TE:
It's too much money and he'll be no better than the third receiving option, but they had to have a better receiving TE. Lance Kendricks was a big disappointment, one of the few players in the league last season that did not benefit from getting away from Jeff Fisher. They needed a TE who could do some damage in the passing game, and Graham might be a major threat in the red zone. Also, the TE market has gone crazy ($8 million per season is the going rate for a Trey Burton these days) and this is just what a guy like Graham costs.

And though he's not a cornerback, the Packers also found someone to play defense:
I'm not super excited about bringing in a guy who couldn't be ran out of town fast enough by the Jets.
The talent and health still appear to be there, and reuniting with DC Mike Pettine might help. There's no 2019 salary cap risk on a one-year deal, if this doesn't work out, and they'll have Dean Lowry as a backup in 2018 if needed. He provides upside but there's only so many moves they can take in free agency and they just used up $5 million of it on Mo. I hope it works out.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Packers Traded a Starting Cornerback for a Backup Quarterback

I was shaking my head when I read what the Green Bay Packers had done, the first major transaction of the GM Brian Gutekunst era.
But I did want to point out the swap of picks. It's not a huge get, moving up a dozen spots in those two rounds, but it's a nifty addition. It's nice to get to the good news first before writing about the bad.

Damarious Randall. The Packers were already weak at cornerback with only two starting quality CBs, and now their down to one. Quinten Rollins still exists and if healthy he would be their starter alongside Kevin King, however, Rollins is never healthy and he's never been good either. He's potentially the best from a number of bad options. Losing Randall makes the 2018 Packers a lot weaker, so far.

I'd like to think this trade means they intend to sign a free agent or two, but no one yet knows Gutekunst's tendencies and the Packers don't have a ton of cap space (if they keep Nelson and Cobb). Maybe this is the start of a bunch of trades by the new GM? Right now, all I expect them to do is draft a couple more rookies and hope for the best, which isn't going to work. They need a veteran, not just another Davon House re-signing, and it doesn't look like that can or will happen.

From a positional standpoint, this trade is terrible. But after Randall walked out on his team during their game in Chicago, I had been expecting he would be released during the season or traded for nothing at the end of the season. And maybe the coaches hated him too. So what I expected months ago came to happen, which is fine if I ignore that Randall finished the 2017 season strong and looks like a starter now.

Maybe there is good reason to expect a slide from him in 2018 because he has been an inconsistent player his entire career. After a great start to his rookie season, he faded down the stretch and might have outright lost them a playoff game in Phoenix. The next season was a disaster, maybe to do with injuries. His third season, 2017, was a roller coaster. He had one more cheap year on his rookie contract, a tough decision looming on his 5th year option, and then a potentially bad decision in his contract year with a risky new contract. I wouldn't have been disappointed if they let him walk in two years. At least he'd be their best option in 2018 alongside King while they work on grooming his replacement.

Maybe I would feel better about this trade if the main piece in return wasn't filling a need that was several spots down on their to-do list: find a better back-up quarterback. Instead they found Brett Hundley 2.0:
If any QB in 2017 was similar to Hundley, it was Kizer. He's got a lot of potential and upside, but he's always seemed like an underachiever, which is a description I'd apply to Hundley too. All backups are inconsistent (otherwise they'd probably be starting somewhere), Nick Foles looked like a hot mess at the end of the 2017 regular season before winning a Super Bowl MVP. Right now I don't trust Kizer to be any better if needed to start in 2018 then Hundley. Kizer might not even beat Hundley out next season. I'd rather they'd gotten a pick for Randall than a backup QB who they might never use and might underachieve as much as Hundley.

In the end, this trade isn't a disaster because Randall was too inconsistent to merit a new contract in two years and they were going to have to move on anyway. But there are a lot of ways to find a new backup quarterback that don't involve trading away one of your starters. In 2020, this trade should look better but it's a step back in 2018.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

This Was Written Last Offseason Too: The Packers Need More Cornerbacks

The cornerback position was a mess for the Green Bay Packers during the 2016 season. You can squint at the stats and say it got better last season, but that had more to do with how the games played out, since the Packers had a broken offense and they didn't force opponents into throwing and playing catch-up.

They haven't been strong at cornerback since before Charles Woodson was injured during in 2011, but they had kept it somewhat respectable with Sam Shields as their top cornerback. But now it's approaching two years since Shields played an NFL snap and the Packers' cornerback position has been a disaster since he's been out.
The silver lining to the 2017 season was that Kevin King and Damarious Randall both looked like legitimate starting cornerbacks. The problem is that neither one was healthy for 16 games last season and Randall famously flamed out during an early season game in Chicago. If they really could count on them both next season then I'd only be writing about finding depth and a reliable slot corner (how are Casey Hayward and Micah Hyde doing these days...never mind).

But they can't count on either of them next season. They're the only keepers who can compete for starting jobs but the Packers have to look towards revamping the entire unit.

The entire coaching and strategy side of the defense has already changed. DC Dom Capers was fired, they let safeties coach Darren Perry leave too, and they've handed over the keys to the pass defense to cornerback coach Joe Whitt. It doesn't seem like a stretch that they'd turn over the roster at cornerback either.

The Packers played their final game of the 2017 season with Pipkins and Hawkins at corner and the Lions torched the secondary. Rollins and Goodson are usually hurt, and haven't shown much on the field when healthy. Swapping out LaDarius Gunter for Davon House was meaningless, as limited as Gunter is, House wasn't any different last season. If all 5 of them were released or allowed to leave as free agents, that's fine.

The history of free agent cornerbacks is littered with cautionary tales. They could sign a veteran for a $10 million AAV and it might not be a meaningful upgrade. They might not be able to sign the top two free agent cornerbacks at any price. There are reasons to flinch on every high priced cornerback this offseason, but they have to kick the tires on them. Maybe now they'll actually sign one or two free agent veterans and I'd rather see them bring in a multiple veterans who are coming off injuries or down seasons on one-year "prove it" contracts. I'd rather they take chances on many players instead of risking that one high priced signing works out.

Then there's the draft. I'm sick and tired of young cornerbacks but they have to keep drafting them. It's not a strong draft class so they'll have to scout around the late 2nd, 3rd and 4th rounds for overlooked players.

I'll become a huge fan of the new GM if he can finally find a couple of reliable cornerbacks this year.

Monday, February 05, 2018

Comparing The Packers SB 45 Victory To The Eagles in Super Bowl 52

I was rooting for the Eagles in the Super Bowl because the last time they won the NFL Championship it was in Vince Lombardi's second season as the Green Bay Packers head coach. It was also the only time Lombardi lost a playoff game (9-1).
The Eagles had been waiting a long time for another championship.

Back to the present, Super Bowl 52 reminded me a little of the Packers win over the Steelers in Super Bowl 45 because of the moment when there was about 2 minutes left in the 4th quarter. Not that it means anything in particular, it was just an interesting memory I had while watching.

In Super Bowl 45, the Packers had a long 5 minute scoring drive late in the 4th quarter to extend their lead to 6 points. But then the Steelers had the ball back with just under 2 minutes remaining and a touchdown would win them the game. Fortunately the Packers' defense held them to only 20 yards on that final drive and forced a turnover on downs. At first it looked like the Packers left too much time on the clock for Ben Roethlisberger but the defense held on for the victory.

In Super Bowl 52, a long 7 minute touchdown drive late in the 4th quarter gave the Eagles a 5 point lead. But they left the Patriots with 2:21 remaining and a touchdown would lose the Eagles the game. That's too much time for Tom Brady. But just as in Super Bowl 45, the defense came up with the plays they needed to win, this time a strip sack and a knocked down Hail Mary attempt in the final seconds.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Eliot Wolf Leaves for Cleveland, Following Former Packer Executives John Dorsey and Alonzo Highsmith

When there's a change at the top of the organizational structure, it's not surprising that the ones who missed out on the promotion decided to try their luck somewhere else though it's unfortunate that the Green Bay Packers have lost both Eliot Wolf and Alonzo Highsmith.
Current Browns GM John Dorsey was in the Packers front office until 2013, when he was hired by the Chiefs to become their GM and work alongside his long time friend HC Andy Reid. It was surprising when Dorsey then lost his own power struggle in 2017 and was fired by Kansas City while Reid was given a contract extension.
And it is a big deal, though only time will tell if the Packers made the right decision to promote Gutekunst knowing that it would likely lead to losing Wolf and Highsmith. From an opportunity standpoint, there's a lot more upside for Wolf and Highsmith in Cleveland than Green Bay. If they stayed in Green Bay, they would have helped the Packers rebound from their first losing season in 10 years, which isn't a big story when you have a future HOF QB. But if they can turn it around in Cleveland over the next couple seasons, with all the high draft picks the previous front office had been hoarding and all the cap room available for a quality free agent or two, helping a team that went 1-31 in the past two seasons back to respectability will grab attention. If that happens, it wouldn't be surprising to see either Highsmith or Wolf leave Cleveland in the next two or three years for a GM position of their own.

Keeping Gutekunst while losing Wolf seems to have the support of the Packers' scouting department, whatever you want to read into that about them seeming to support Gutekunst over Wolf.

The demotion of Ted Thompson and the promotion of Gutekunst also led to more authority for team President Mark Murphy.
Murphy is the de facto owner representative for the team, so anytime you read that Murphy or the Board of Directors are taking more interest in personnel and coaching, there is the worry that they're meddling. But every team runs that risk. Something went sour at the end of Ted Thompson's time as GM and Murphy feels he needs to have more oversight, which he should because it could be his job on the line next if he becomes out of touch with the team.

So who's left? It's interesting that Ted Thompson is technically an assistant to VP Russ Ball, who's on the football operations side and not the scouting department. There have been a lot of stories about how Thompson is a scout at heart. The new head of college scouting is the same as last year, Jon-Eric Sullivan. Good luck getting an interview with him. He's got a long history around college football though he's only 41 years old. Who knows how much credit he deserves for last year's draft, but it wasn't a bust and the quality of the top picks is left to be determined. There was definitely promise among that draft class.

Also promoted last year was John Wojciechowski who should be leading the pro side of the scouting department now while Sullivan leads the college side. It does make this all look like the team has been planning this all for a year now. His background is a little unique because unlike Gutekunst and Sullivan, who have spent almost their entire careers working with the Packers, Wojciechowski spent 15 years working with Pittsburgh, Jacksonville, and Dallas before joining the Packers a few years ago. Being the lead scout on the pro side is even harder to evaluate for the Packers because they sign so few pro free agents, and it's hard to tell their portion of the input on scouting each week's opponent during the season.

Overall the organization and Mark Murphy seemed to have handled it as well as they could have knowing they had more than one solid GM candidate for only one job opening. And they got their top choice in Gutekunst while leaving the scouting and football operations departments mostly intact and led by scouts who were already in leadership roles. Change is hard, and the Packers only have had subtractions from their brain trust with no additions so far, but the overall situation seems stable and promising going forward.

Monday, January 08, 2018

Packers Promote Brian Gutekunst to GM

When the news first broke that Ted Thompson was out as GM of the Green Bay Packers, team President Mark Murphy said he would hire a consultant to search for varied candidates outside of the organization. Instead the new GM is moving in from across the hall.
There were reports that they tried to interview Seattle's GM John Schneider and Oakland's GM Reggie McKenzie but the Packers were denied the request. The Vikings also denied a request to interview assistant GM George Paton. The only outside candidate they did appear to interview was former Buffalo GM Doug Whaley. If they could have gotten their foot in the door with either Schneider or McKenzie, they probably would have been hired barring a disastrous interview or compensation issue. I wouldn't have been crazy about Whaley. It looks like the Packers tried to look elsewhere but it wasn't meant to be. And they didn't want to leave the top job vacant for too long.

Gutekunst's background is in scouting though almost entirely all of his experience is with the Packers organization. He was strongly considered last year for the open GM position in San Francisco though the way the 49ers switched completely around from originally focusing on a true scout like Gutekunst to a splashy hire in former NFL player/broadcaster John Lynch makes me wonder whether he ever really had a chance.

Scouting might be the most common background for a GM but the job is so much more than scouting including management, public relations, and hiring/firing coaches. I could never make an informed decision on whether someone might make a good GM. Former Packer great LeRoy Butler thinks Gutekunst is a great guy and that has to do it for me.

Thursday, January 04, 2018

Mike McCarthy's New Year's Resolution Is To Fire All His Assistant Coaches

The Green Bay Packers formally announced yesterday what was reported everywhere on Sunday and Monday - DC Dom Capers has been fired, along with DL coach Mike Trogvac and ILB coach Scott McCurley.
Then it was reported from multiple sources that QB coach Alex Van Pelt would not return and OC Edgar Bennett would no longer be the offensive coordinator, though Bennett remains under contract.
For a conservative organization that usually makes few changes in the offseason, this is an amazing turn of events. It's also odd considering the player contract extensions handed out the week before. Right before the front office and coaching staff is undergoing a complete overall, they took steps to bring back the same players for next season.
Adams was their best receiver last season and it makes a lot of sense to bring him back despite already having two other high priced receivers on the roster (Cobb, Nelson). The Packers have the cap room. Linsley probably had his worst season as a pro in 2017 which probably not coincidentally was his first season not playing alongside either Sitton or Lang at guard. He did get better throughout the season though.

As for Van Pelt, he was originally hired in 2012, seemingly at the request of Aaron Rodgers, as a coach with prior NFL QB experience though he wasn't officially his QB coach until a couple years later. Unlike most NFL OC, the job requirements in Green Bay aren't exactly clear, because on game day it's Mike McCarthy calling the plays. I've always thought the OC got the offense ready to play their next opponent during the week leading up to the game with few duties during the game itself. Van Pelt was usually seen on camera during games sitting next to Hundley with a tablet showing him what he just missed on his previous 3rd down incompletion.
No matter what QB statistical list you pull up for 2017, it's likely you'll find Hundley at the bottom of it. I think his worst stat of the season was being the starting QB for two home shutouts. It looks terrible in hindsight that in response to a question about Colin Kaepernick, Mike McCarthy went off on a rant about the three years he spent developing Brett Hundley. That's not to digress about whether the Packers should have signed Kaepernick, it's a look back at how very wrong him and his coaches were about Hundley and why two of them probably lost their jobs because of it.

These should not be difficult jobs to fill. Any ambitious coach looking to rise the coaching ladder would love to have "worked with Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay" on his resume. The offense with Rodgers has been mostly great over the past two seasons, but it's also lacked any of the new innovations that other offenses have been trying in recent years. Bringing in a new coach or two from the outside with a new perspective could be a big help.

Also, improving the backup QB position is probably high up on the to-do list this offseason. There's little financial cost to bring Hundley back for the final season under his rookie contract, while also drafting/signing an undrafted rookie free agent to develop behind him. Based on the results from last season, it would be a good idea to let an unbiased eye spend a year with Hundley in 2018 to see what can be done with him.