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.