Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Just How Lucky Were The 2014 Packers?

No matter how it ended, I was very impressed that the Green Bay Packers improved over the course of the 2014 season. They started the season by getting beaten badly by the defending Super Bowl champs by 20 points, but they finished it by outplaying that same team in the same stadium, despite having a one-legged QB Aaron Rodgers. While they eventually collapsed in epic fashion in the NFC Championship game, the point is that they got better as the season went on and they finished as the best team that wasn't playing in the Super Bowl.

But here's the cloud hanging over that strong season.
The Packers went 5-0 in one-score games and they aren't likely to repeat that performance in 2015. However, six of the seven teams listed as likely to regress because of unsustainable performances in one-score games made the playoffs last year (except the 49ers) so they're in good company. So I was interested in these five games and just how lucky the Packers were last season.

September 14, home against the Jets. The Jets were one of the luckiest teams in 2013 and that good luck vanished last year. This was the Sheldon Richardson calls a time out game (also Tramon Williams was beaten for the touchdown, another reason why he's now playing for the Browns). The Packers had to come back from a 18 point deficit after playing very poorly in the first half. Also, a mid-game hamstring injury to WR Eric Decker was a big help. This easily could have been a loss.

October 12, away in Miami. After a strong defensive first half, the Dolphins started to run wild with three touchdown drives to open the second half. This game was getting away from them and Rodgers had to save them with a last second touchdown to TE Andrew Quarless. They did have the ball for almost 15 more minutes and had a +3 turnover margin.

November 23, away in Minnesota. Though this was a one score game, the Vikings never led and it never felt like the Packers were in danger. RB Eddie Lacy ran out the last 3:23 and the Vikings never got the ball back after a late touchdown made it a 3 point game. I can't imagine them losing this one.

November 30, home against the Patriots. While the Packers started out with a 13-0 lead, went for over 150 yards more yards from scrimmage, and possessed the ball for 13 minutes longer, the Patriots almost took the lead on a end zone pass to TE Rob Gronkowski. They outplayed the Patriots, but they almost let it slip away from them. This was similar to the game in Miami; the Packers were the better team but they easily could have lost.

December 8, home against the Falcons. This game shouldn't have been close after the Packers built a 24 point half time lead, but WR Julio Jones was uncoverable in the 2nd half and the Falcons got within one score with 2:22 remaining. Then the Packers ran out the clock. This would have been an epic collapse had they lost, but the Falcons (other than Jones) were outplayed the entire game.

Bonus one-score game, January 18, 2015, in Seattle for the NFC Championship. For all their one-score magic in 2014, it all came crashing down when the calendar turned to 2015. A 16-point lead vanished as the special teams collapsed (which eventually cost Shaun Slocum his job) and the defense fell apart late.

Despite that NFC Championship game failure, they aren't likely to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory every week either, and that series of unfortunate events in Seattle is not going to carry over into next season. But the truth is somewhere in the middle, and maybe they don't pull out that game against the Jets or Dolphins next year. Two more losses at 10-6 would have still gotten them a wild card spot with their head-to-head win over the Eagles. Maybe the 2014 season would have ended the same way even if (regular season) luck hadn't shined on them. But it's something to keep in mind if they have a couple more losses in 2015 though they're just as good.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Keeping Up With The Packers Roster Post-Draft

The Green Bay Packers's rookie camp came and went with only OL Andy Phillips being signed after the tryouts. He had a great college career as a guard in the MAC but he's not the biggest guy (6-2 and exactly 300 lbs.) and might be giving up as much as 20 lbs. compared to Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang. But he's about the same size as Corey Linsley, so if he has any future it might be as a backup center.
There's nothing special, in general, about Luther Robinson. He showed some speed when he was forced into the rotation at mid-season, but he didn't produce much (only 2 tackles recorded). His release might have been a surprise because him and Mike Pennel were the only rookies to contribute at all on the defensive line last season. Maybe Robinson's not working well with the coaches, but he was placed on I.R. last December with a calf injury and he might still be struggling with it. If he's not healthy enough to participate in the OTAs over the next couple months then he loses a lot of his value. They could re-sign him later this summer if he gets healthy.
RB John Crockett might have been the biggest name undrafted free agent signing this year. He reminds me of James Starks as a bigger back with good speed for his size. But unlike Starks, who slipped in the draft because he spent a lot of time injured in college, Crockett went undrafted because he was a healthy workhorse throughout his college career and he took a lot of hits in 795 career college touches. There's not a lot of room for any back to stand out with Eddie Lacy around, so Crockett will be hoping for a chance at the 2015 practice squad.

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

2015 NFL Draft: Who Are The Packer Undrafted Rookie Free Agents?

The Green Bay Packers have signed around 20 undrafted rookie free agents with another 10 or so rookies coming in for a tryout. I'm not familiar with most of them so I'm probably overlooking someone, but these players caught my eye.
LSU DE Jermauria Rasco is 6-3 and 247 lbs. which means he's probably going to be playing outside linebacker for the Packers. He stood out because it's an annual occurrence that the Packers sign one college DE to play OLB and that player finds his way onto the 53-man roster. Rasco's not an elite athlete and he wasn't invited to the combine, but he's a smart player who could stand out early in camp or OTAs.

Miami S Ladarius Gunter. Though they drafted two defensive backs with their top two picks, there's always turnover among the backups DBs they keep on the practice squad. Gunter played cornerback in college but his lack of speed will probably force him to safety in the NFL. He's slightly taller at 6-1 than most of the DBs on the roster which will give him a slight advantage. He seems like a good candidate for the practice squad.

Alabama QB Blake Sims. The Packers don't need another QB. In addition to Brett Hundley, they have QB Matt Blanchard on the roster as an extra camp arm, but Sims is a good athlete and they might want to see what else he can do. If Sims were a running back, his combine results would make him comparable to his former Alabama teammate RB T.J. Yeldon, who was drafted (too early) in the 2nd round by the Jaguars. He's only coming in for a tryout so he might be gone quickly if he looks like too much of a project.

Mississippi DT Lavon Hooks. He's a 6-3 and 312 lb. DT who will probably be asked to stop the run. He wasn't expected to be drafted but he was a highly recruited JUCO player a couple years ago and was the NT on a very good Old Miss defense last season.

It's not the best looking class of undrafted rookie free agents that I've seen from GM Ted Thompson, but as I said before I don't know much about these guys and they might be the ones to watch (if they sign Sims) when training camp opens.

Monday, May 04, 2015

2015 NFL Draft: Packers Select Brett Hundley In The 5th Round

The Green Bay Packers selected Michigan LB Jake Ryan in the 4th round who was held back in college by a major knee injury in 2013 but he seems to be a jack of all trades and Eliot Wolf said that he won't be needed to start right away.

In the 6th round, they first selected Oklahoma FB Aaron Ripkowski because they probably had to with a football name like Ripkowski. He's also a big lead blocker who's a good enough athlete that he could develop into something more. Then they selected DT Christian Ringo, who might be a Mike Daniels-type undersized, overlooked inside pass rusher. And finally TE Kennard Backman who might provide some depth as a receiver from a weak draft for tight ends.

They didn't draft the all-around inside linebacker I'd have loved, but that player didn't appear to be available in this draft. They didn't seem too interested in drafting a two-down inside run stopper, but that's not a top priority in the pass happy NFL. They needed depth at cornerback and linebacker, and they got it done. But all of that was overshadowed on day three by their selection of QB Brett Hundley in the 5th round.

Everything about Hundley seems to be the same analysis: he's got a big arm and he's a great athlete but he brings with it inconsistency and questionable decision making. The worst case scenario for him is probably what Vince Young brought to the Packers during the 2013 preseason; if his first option isn't there then he's going to run for it.

And if the Packers gave up a 1st or 2nd round pick to watch Vince Young v.2.0 then I'd be upset. But they used a 5th round pick for him (plus their 7th round pick to move up in the 5th round). A 5th round pick can sometimes turn into Corey Linsley and a 7th round pick can become Donald Driver, but those are the exceptions. It's not going to set them back much if he doesn't work out. The player they might have selected in the 7th round might be one of the undrafted rookie free agents they signed on Sunday.

After the backup quarterback disaster of 2013, I'm glad to see them draft a quarterback who can provide some upside. I wanted to see Matt Flynn return, but he played some terrible games for the Packers in 2013 and he wasn't going to get any better. I don't know about keeping Scott Tolzien over Flynn, but Tolzien did show enough in 2013 to make me believe he could be better now after a full year of coaching from Mike McCarthy.

I'm not sure what the long plan is here with Hundley. Aaron Rodgers isn't going anywhere for a long while and Hundley isn't going to be his replacement even if McCarthy coaches him into the projected 1st round pick he was supposed to be. Maybe he can become the best backup quarterback in the NFL for a couple years before he moves on in a trade or free agency. Maybe Ted Thompson can trade him for a 1st or 2nd round draft pick in a couple years. Or maybe they'll release him before his fifth season because he never puts it all together.

I can't say I'm excited about Hundley's selection because he's going to be of no help in 2015. But Rodgers isn't indestructible so I can appreciate the value of a talented backup, if needed. I don't recall much being made of former QB B.J. Coleman's draft selection in 2012 and most of the difference between Coleman and Hundley is hype. And he can't be worse than Coleman was. Getting someone with Hundley's upside at any position is worth a selection in the 5th round, and I'm looking forward to watching him this preseason.

Saturday, May 02, 2015

2015 NFL Draft: Packers Select Rollins in 2nd, Montgomery in 3rd

After the Green Bay Packers drafted one cornerback in the 1st round, I didn't expect them to select another one with an early pick. Instead they selected Miami (OH) CB Quinten Rollins at the end of the 2nd round.
Matt Bowen has written a great story about Rollins's journey from being a great collegiate basketball player with little chance of playing in the NBA, to a college football walk on (he only played football his last year in college) to MAC defensive player of the year. There's a lot to like about watching his highlights and his fluid play. The knocks on him are that he doesn't have great long speed (4.5-4.6 40 time, but great acceleration) and he's so inexperienced. The inexperienced part might not hold him back for long because he looks like a natural. He also continues their interest in drafting former basketball players as cornerbacks; they selected former Gonzaga point guard Demetri Goodson in the 6th round last year.

The big downside to his selection is that he's not going to be a major 2015 contributor. Even if he catches on quickly, he'll be lucky to receive 300-400 snaps as a part of a rotation. He's more likely to contribute in the future and his addition makes me wonder if the team isn't as high on Micah Hyde and Casey Hayward as I thought.

After drafting three wide receivers in the 2014 NFL draft, I wasn't expecting they'd draft another wide receiver in 2015, but apparently they couldn't pass on Stanford's WR Ty Montgomery.
He's a fair comparison to Cobb. Montgomery didn't light it up as a senior, but Stanford's offense went stagnant as their QB and offensive line struggled. I'm always in favor of keeping the pipeline of wide receiver weapons for QB Aaron Rodgers flowing. The biggest help he might provide in 2015 is as a punt/kick returner since the Packers got little to nothing from their return game in 2014, and that alone might justify the pick.

But the same thing can be said here as with Rollins; he's not going to be a major 2015 contributor. It's unlikely he'll move ahead of WR Davante Adams for the No. 3 job, and the No. 4 receiver isn't a major contributor. Though when the offense went wild in 2011, both rookie WR Randall Cobb and veteran WR Donald Driver were involved as the Nos. 4 and 5 wide receivers, combining for 7 TD receptions and over 800 yards receiving.

It's looking like their 2015 draft is all about taking who they consider the best player available. Both Rollins and Montgomery might have been available later so they didn't receive an exceptional value for either, and while cornerback was a need position, it wasn't necessary to use their top two picks on defensive backs. And wide receiver wasn't lacking for depth.

They still have six more draft picks to add depth at linebacker, and to their offensive and defensive lines.

Friday, May 01, 2015

2015 Packers 1st Round: Arizona State DB Damarious Randall

He played free safety in college but GM Ted Thompson has already said that Randall is going to play cornerback for the Green Bay Packers and he's a versatile player who gives them more options.
Watching these video highlights I can see what the scouts were talking about when they said he has cornerback size and free safety skill set. He's a hard charging downfield runner, but he doesn't have a very big frame. He looks a little smaller than his measurables, which aren't the biggest anyway. If Randall does end up lining up outside, at least he'll be a plus in run support because sometimes the cornerbacks are the only defender when a running back bounces the play outside.

Value: While Randall wasn't generally projected as a 1st round pick in mock drafts, he was ranked No. 37 overall at CBS Sports.com and he wouldn't have remained available if the Packers had waited until the end of the 2nd round. GM Ted Thompson talked to some teams about moving back but those scenarios might have moved them back too far to still take Randall. So he's not a great value pick, but this was when they had to make their take him or lose him.

Need: He probably won't start from Day 1 and won't be a major contributor in 2015, but they had a glaring need for depth in the defensive backfield. Also, the transition of Micah Hyde to full time, starting cornerback isn't guaranteed to succeed. They still have a lot of question marks at linebacker but only one inside backer was selected in the 1st round (the Saints reached for Clemson's Stephone Anthony who had a 2-3 round grade) and their options remain open. So he doesn't fill their biggest need on the roster but he does fill an important one.

Best Player Available: That answer might depend on how high you value defensive backs. He was the highest ranked free safety at CBS Sports.com, and the only two corners remained with higher draft rankings. And those two players come with character issues (Florida State's Ronald Darby) or worries that he might be a safety in the NFL (Utah's Eric Rowe). So Randall was arguably the best defensive back available. Some players fell due to character concerns (Nebraska's Randy Gregory) which makes it hard to say he was clearly the best remaining player.

The Packers did well in the 1st round last year with a defensive back (Ha Ha Clinton-Dix) so that's a good sign that their scouts know what they're doing. While Randall wasn't the best player available, didn't fill their biggest need, and didn't provide the best value, he was taken only a little ahead of when he should have gone and he'll give them the backfield depth they really need. He looks like a good selection and now we'll have to wait and see what he looks like on the field.