Friday, February 26, 2016

Hey Quarterback, Does Hand Size Really Matter?

Among quarterback, one advantage that Aaron Rodgers and Brett Favre have/had over their peers is that they've got big hands. As you might expect, it helps in bad weather games to be able to grip the football, and Rodgers has said that he's been blessed with some pretty big hands.

This all came up recently at the NFL combine because Cal's QB Jared Goff could be the first quarterback drafted in April and there were concerns before he measured up with nine-inch hands. This might have been specific to Goff because he notably was benched during a 2013 game (sheets of rain were coming down) because he couldn't hold onto the football. So having big hands that grip a football probably helps avoid fumbles and it might even help with QB accuracy.

But it doesn't help with the other 99 things a quarterback has to do like read defenses, checkdown receivers at the right times, audibles, leadership, etc. etc., so it isn't a sign that someone is going to be great just because he has meat hooks. But it also looks like you can't have average size hands and expect to be a starting NFL quarterback.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

How The Packers Defensive Line Will Look Next Season Without Mike Pennel

It was announced last week that the Green Bay Packers will be without DT Mike Pennel for at least the first four games of the 2016 season because he violated the NFL's substance abuse program.
After the defense put together a terrible 2013 season, Mike McCarthy made some changes that brought more versatility to the group. One change was the departure of NT Ryan Pickett and B.J. Raji was switched from end to NT. They also brought in free agents Letroy Guion and Julius Peppers, and Peppers in particular brought a lot more versatility with him. Often during that 2013 season, the Packers looked slow up front when Raji and Pickett were lined up together, and those changes gave the defense more options.

In 2015, Raji and Pennel played on 444 and 287 snaps, respectively, and they rarely lined up together, so the defense only had one tackle at least 30% of the time. While the NT isn't very important to their defense, they still need a couple of big bodies for the goal line.

With Datone Jones likely moving to outside linebacker next season, it seems like the Packers have abandoned the idea of having any defensive ends at all. Apparently it's all tackles and outside linebackers going forward. That would fit with their goal of versatility because their linebackers can be defensive ends on passing downs, effectively using a 4-3 defensive scheme.

They probably need only four defensive tackles next season. Daniels and Guion have already been re-signed, and Pennel should return after his suspension (assuming he makes the team). DT Josh Boyd should be healthy after a season ending ankle injury, though he's never been very good, and rookie DT Christian Ringo made a "big-time" jump last season. Re-signing Raji might push Boyd or Ringo out of their plans, or maybe Guion will replace Raji since Guion's legal problems appear to be over. In any case, it doesn't look like they have a need for an outside free agent or high draft choice. Maybe a late draft choice like USC's Antwaun Woods could provide some depth. Woods might be a good fit because he doesn't have a history of injuries and he hustles, and he could play the same role that Ringo did last season on the practice squad.

While Pennel's suspension doesn't help them next season, it doesn't look like they'll have to adjust their offseason plans in free agency or the draft to make up for his absence either.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The Packers Shouldn't Be Tripping Over Themselves To Re-Sign Their Defensive Free Agents, Except...

The Packers have already re-signed and extended two potential free agent defensive lineman, but there are other defenders who played significant roles in 2015 that could become unrestricted free agents next month.
Player PositionAge PFF Grade 2015 Snaps
Casey Hayward CB 26 5.2 1020
Mike Neal LB 28 -12.7 822
Nick Perry LB 25 3.1 365
B.J. Raji NT 29 -4.6 472
Sean Richardson S 26 -0.8 98
And of those players, there's only one that'll draw significant attention in free agency.
I'm a fan of CB Casey Hayward. Looking only at conventional stats, he underwhelmed with no interceptions and only 7 pass defenses in 2015. But that's a sign that teams don't throw at him despite him being on the field all the time (see 1020 snaps in 2015 above), and the advance stats like him, having earned a grade of 5.2 from Pro Football Focus last season. Maybe he wasn't targeted because the Packers relied heavily on two rookie cornerbacks last season, and most teams went after the rookies instead, but this wasn't Hayward's first good season. He's been a reliable player ever since he was drafted in 2012, and other teams are going to notice. While teams are burned badly by free agent cornerbacks every year, they always seem to spend irrationally every March. I'm sure GM Ted Thompson will make Hayward an offer but I think Hayward will get more from another cornerback desperate team.

This is LB Mike Neal's second run through unrestricted free agency. He drew little interest back in 2014 and he hasn't done anything to improve his worth since then. But he shouldn't cost too much and the Packers might prefer the limited player they know (see Guion, Letroy) rather than the unknown player they'd have to find to replace him. It's not important to re-sign him but I won't be upset if they do.

While LB Nick Perry is the only defender other than Hayward listed here with a positive PFF grade, his positive grade was from his run support, not his pass rush. The irony is that Perry entered the NFL with a reputation as a great pass rusher at USC and a complete unknown as a run defender. He's obviously worked hard to improve the weakest part of his game. Unfortunately his best skill (pass rush) has either stalled or vanished last season. The Packers declined his fifth-year option last year and he didn't do much to prove them wrong. Whether it was due to injuries or a lack of trust, the former 1st round pick only logged 365 snaps at outside linebacker when there wasn't any serious competition blocking his path to more playing time. I would guess that the Packers might be willing to give him a one-year contract to provide depth, but maybe another team will be more aggressive on giving him a fresh start and seeing if they can find the talent that made him a top prospect.

Like Neal, this is not NT B.J. Raji's first go around as an unrestricted free agent, and he's drawn little interest from other teams in the past. He didn't do much to stand out last season, but if they don't re-sign him then they'll absolutely have to find someone else like him. With $23 million of room available under the cap, there's no reason to go cheap on the defensive line. While Raji could be replaced, his position needs to be filled, and only the Jets's NT Damon Harrison is clearly a better free agent who might be available. GM Ted Thompson will spend for a star player but Harrison doesn't look like that type of player. The Packers know what they've got with Raji as a run stuffer (even if he's becoming a bit injury prone) and that's probably better than spinning the draft roulette wheel.

Unfortunately this is probably the end of DB Sean Richardson's career.

In the end, other than Hayward (the Packers have depth at CB if he leaves) they should probably push to re-sign Neal, Perry and Raji because they should be affordable and they'd leave holes on the roster if they departed. And the Packers already need to add another inside linebacker (or two) and need more depth at every offensive skill position. This team is good enough now to win a championship and they should try and keep it all together, as best as they can.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

The Packers Re-Signed Letroy Guion For Reasons...

UPDATE: The contract only has $500K in guaranteed money, which was probably something Guion had to do because of his past history of arrest and suspension. It still doesn't change the fact that the Packers are counting on him in 2016 because they have few in-house options. But at least if he is a bust next season, then they can move on from him at little cost.

This free agent period has already been a success for the Green Bay Packers because they re-signed DT Mike Daniels back in December. His possible departure was the only move that would make or break them. He has been one of their best draft picks, but overall the Packers have done a terrible job of drafting defensive tackles in recent years.

This seems to be a blind spot for GM Ted Thompson, who got off to a bad start by selecting Justin Harrell in the 1st round of the 2007 draft, and followed that up with some other notably misses; such as Jerel Worthy in 2012 and Khyri Thornton in 2014. His only other success was B.J. Raji, who's had an up-and-down career and might be leaving in free agency this offseason.

That lack of depth at defensive tackle explains why Letroy Guion was one of the few outside free agents they've signed in recent years, and explains why he'd get a three-year, $4 million per season contract.
In a bubble, there's no great reason to re-sign Guion. He was arrested for felony possession this time last year and was suspended for three games. While he wasn't bad in 2015, he wasn't great either, and Walter Football gave this signing a C grade (a lot of money for an OK rotational lineman). But he's a run stuffer, and GM Ted Thompson has placed somewhat of a premium on veteran run stuffers (he paid NT Ryan Pickett a lot of money over his Packer career).

But it also goes to show that the Packers don't have a lot of depth at DT. Mike Pennel has been a pleasant surprise as an undrafted free agent, and Josh Boyd should return from his broken ankle, but that's all they currently have to play alongside Daniels next season. The Packers rotate their defensive lineman a lot and don't always have a defensive tackle on the field, but they do need more players than just those four. Even if B.J. Raji is also re-signed, they'll still probably draft a defensive tackle at some point next April (though it might turn out to be another bust).

So keeping the player you know, who can do what you need him to do, even if the price is a little steep, makes sense. The unfortunate bit is that the Packers haven't done well drafting defensive tackles in the past, which is why they needed him in the first place. And overpaying Guion now might explain why they aren't as aggressive later in free agency.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Will Julius Peppers Play For The Packers In 2016?

The Green Bay Packers should be very happy to have LB Julius Peppers back in 2016. Despite his recent Pro Bowl appearance, Peppers didn't have as much impact in 2015 as he did in 2014 but it's hard to see that as the sign of his imminent decline.

While his sack total was up (10.5 in 2015 from 7 in 2014) several other stats were down, but his 2014 and 2015 seasons are both comparable to past seasons stretching back to his time with the Panthers and Bears. His career stats are about as consistent from season-to-season as any player you're likely to find, and he's only missed 2 games since 2002! Though he just turned 36 years old, an age that should place major question marks on any non-QB/non-kicker, Peppers is an amazing, consistent star who is an exception to those rules.

So the fact that Adam Schefter wrote a line in his most recent column that Peppers may have already played his final NFL game is big concern.
It's a little surprising to read that from Schefter when there was a different report earlier this week suggesting that Peppers would play again in 2016 even if the Packers release him.

Just looking at Peppers by himself, he's a still a great player and worth the $8 million cap charge he'll cost next season. The lone advantage in releasing him now would be to use that cap space on a younger player in free agency, but I generally hate free agency and his release would also cost them a $2.5 million cap charge in dead money. The Packers currently have around $21 million in cap space so creating cap space is not a big need.

But when you look at the state of the roster without Peppers, his release would leave their roster without any quality linebackers other than Clay Matthews. Nick Perry and Mike Neal are both unrestricted free agents, and neither one is a priority to re-sign. Who knows how Sam Barrington will be after missing almost the entire 2015 season with injury. Some combination of Jake Ryan, Joe Thomas and Nate Palmer might be useful as a backup (maybe Ryan has potential next season as a starter) but that's a thin bench. Pro Football Focus listed linebacker as the Packers' number one need this offseason, and despite the recent report that coach Mike McCarthy is "fed-up" with the Packers' approach in free agency, it's unlikely that GM Ted Thompson will be aggressive in that area. It'll be important to keep valuable linebackers like Peppers, and draft a couple more options this April too.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

T.J. Lang Had His Best Season While Playing With Two Bad Shoulders

This might not be the last story we read this offseason about a Green Bay Packer offensive lineman who is having surgery, every starting offensive lineman missed at least some time last season with an injury, but today's its about RG T.J. Lang.
The only criticism that can be leveled against Lang this season is that he missed one game because of injury. Otherwise he was one of the team's best players. This season, he received the highest grade of his career from Pro Football Focus, who also graded him as the 4th best guard overall last season (just behind Zack Martin of the Cowboys and just ahead of his teammate Josh Sitton).

He'll have a reasonable $6.1 million cap charge next season, his final one before he can become a free agent in 2017. Next season will be his eight NFL season and GM Ted Thompson isn't known for re-signing players into their 30s (Lang will turn 30 during the 2017 season), and the wear-and-tear is starting to show, though Lang has only missed two starts in the past five seasons. It'll be interesting to watch how he recovers and plays next season.

Monday, February 01, 2016

Aaron Rodgers Had Minor Knee Surgery

After the Green Bay Packers beat the Redskins in the playoff Wild Card game, I looked back through the injury report to see when QB Aaron Rodgers had last been listed because something was wrong with him. Yes, his receivers were playing poorly and his offensive line was a disaster (at times) but he was also missing throws that he previously didn't miss. Against the Redskins, after completing his first attempt to WR James Jones, he was incomplete on his next seven attempts. Missing seven straight pass attempts for an NFL QB is rare these days, and I can't ever remember Rodgers going through such a bad streak. I thought he must still be playing through that right shoulder injury, though it hadn't been listed in weeks.

Now all teams stink at disclosing injuries, Mike Florio's been on them about this for years, and it looks like the Packers were part of the club. Maybe it was the combination of a sore shoulder and knee that messed up his accuracy, but his injured knee had to be the main suspect if it required surgery shortly after the end of the season.
The good news is that this doesn't seem to be a big deal. He'll be fully recovered and participating in the team's offseason program when it starts in April. The bad news is that this is the third season in a row where a mid-season injury (2013-collarbone, 2014-calf, 2015-knee/shoulder) took away a lot of what makes Aaron Rodgers a great quarterback. And, unfortunately, this is something that should be expected to continue each season now that he's over age 30 (he turned 32 in December).