The Green Bay Packers Season Wrap Up
The Packers are well-constructed, but they still have some big holes to fill.
It is very difficult to reach, let alone win a Super Bowl, and it is unrealistic to expect your team to make it every year. Playing in the NFC Championship Game makes for a successful season by any reasonable measure, and had the Packers been fortunate enough to get healthy at the right time instead of suffering a rash of injuries, they may have gone all the way. As it stands, it’s nice to know that the Packers are in fact capable of such a run, as 90% of the NFL has no such confidence. The Packers have a strong roster, but it obviously does have some holes and could use some additional depth. As the season comes to a close, this is where the Packers currently stand.
It may be hard to remember that Aaron Rodgers actually struggled earlier in the season. Jordy Nelson was not yet back to full speed, Jared Cook missed some time and was not fully integrated immediately, and Eddie Lacy led the backfield. Rodgers had all the time in the world to throw, but simply missed open receivers with regularity. You can’t keep the MVP down forever though, and at some point everything clicked, and Rodgers was back to being the best in the league. It’s interesting to note that Rodgers does take time to adjust to new weapons and schemes like anyone else, but once that comfort was achieved and the addition of Cook and Montgomery started making everything easier, Rodgers became unstoppable. Barring injury, this should carry over into next season and beyond. Rodgers isn’t perfect, but he is as close to it as you are likely to see.
Offensive Line: A
Pro Football Focus, which uses a point-based ranking system to grade all individual players, recently ranked the Packers’ offensive line 5th in the NFL, which is good, but they also said:
“This has been the best pass-protecting offensive line in the game, and it isn’t particularly close to the next-best side in that regard.”
Pro Football Focus does a few things well, but understanding the relative importance of certain aspects of football is not one of them. The fact is that pass blocking is far more important than run blocking, and for that reason the Packer offensive line was, in my opinion, the league’s best. Only the Dallas offensive line would have any kind of realistic argument, but in general the Packer line excelled at keeping Aaron upright, and keeping him upright some more, and then some more. No quarterback had more time to let plays develop, no quarterback trusted his line more, and no quarterback caused me to yell “throw the ball!” at my TV more frequently. David Bakhtiari in particular was outstanding and now stands as the league’s best left tackle, but TJ Lang and Bryan Bulaga were almost as good. Lane Taylor was good enough that no one missed Josh Sitton, and JC Tretter was quietly dominant before getting hurt, and remains a priority to re-sign in free agency. Even Corey Linsley put in some good work once he was fully healthy. The only blemish on the squad is Don Barclay, and given that he’s the the last of a large group, it’s a relatively small problem. Ted Thompson’s ability to scout offensive linemen is unparalleled and this group was his finest creation.
Let’s dispense with the bad. James Starks, Knile Davis, and Don Jackson were all sub-replacement level runners who almost managed to derail the Packer offense. Starks in particular fell completely apart and while he is signed through the end of next season, his health, age, and 2.3 yards per carry average probably means his time in Green Bay is at an end. The Packers likely would not have won the 2010 Super Bowl without him, but it’s time to move on. Christine Michael at least had some boom to go with his bust, but he had a bad habit of lining up in the wrong spot, and was too tentative in the backfield, dancing when he should have exploded.
Fortunately, the majority of carries this year went to Eddie Lacy, Aaron Ripkowski, and Ty Montgomery. Eddie Lacy was was having an impressive rebound season before he got hurt, and in many ways he carried the offense while Rodgers struggled early in the season. His injury history, previous fitness issues, and likely price tag make it unlikely that he will return to Green Bay, but he should be praised for putting in a very solid 5 games of over 5 yards per carry.
Aaron Ripkowski will likely be remembered for his playoff fumble, but it was his first of the year (and his NFL career), and for the most part, he was a surprisingly effective power runner. While not that impressive in short yardage, he could move piles, and his pass blocking was quite advanced.
The star of the show though, was Montgomery, who averaged 5.9 yards per rush and forced every defense he faced to make a hard choice; either cover him with a linebacker in the passing game, or add an extra DB and watch him run all over you. Montgomery, in conjunction with Jared Cook, had a huge hand in drawing defensive attention away from the outside receivers and opening things up for Rodgers. He’s slated to take a runningback's number next season, and with it, an increased workload. If he can improve his suspect pass protection, he can be a star.
Wide Receivers: B
I owe an apology to Davante Adams. I did not think he had this kind of game in him, but reports out of camp were that his work ethic is stellar, and that work paid off in a huge breakthrough season. Adams looked stronger, faster, and more confident, upped his catch percentage by just under 10% from 53.2 to 62.3, and took on lead corners with clean releases and crisp breaks. He was outstanding.
For most of the season you could not say the same thing about Randall Cobb, and I still have concerns about his long term health given the punishment he takes, but his work against the Giants this season by itself justifies some praise. That said, his yards per reception declined yet again and he is noticeably slower, taking longer to get into his short patterns. Cobb isn’t exactly old, but if his production decreases any more, you may start to hear rumblings about an early release.
Jordy Nelson piled up touchdowns early in the year, but that early production was a bit hollow. He started off without his deep speed and instead fought off contact over the middle, and out-worked DBs. He was as effective as he could be, but it also made him easier to take out of game plans in some instances. ACL tears take more than a year to fully heal, and you could see Nelson steadily improve over time, until he really started to get right late in the season. Over his last 6 games he caught almost 80% of his targets for 594 yards and 5 TDs. Until he broke his ribs in the Giant playoff game, he was fully back, and he should be completely healthy to start off next season, though we can expect some age-related decline for the soon to be 32-year-old.
Geronimo Allison was a pleasant surprise occasionally filling in for Randall Cobb, and his effort against Detroit late in the season was a key to victory. Allison isn’t that fast, but he showed that he could use his frame to box out defenders, and use his height to excel at the catch point. He even burned a few guys on go routes. Speed isn’t the be-all, end all for receivers, and they may have something here.
Trevor Davis and Jeff Janis had disappointing seasons. Davis’s highlight was a phenomenal pass interference penalty, and so far he has shown very little on offense. Jeff Janis is still a useful special teamer, but at this point the mental mistakes on offense (and occasionally on special teams) are starting to get a bit old. Janis is only signed through 2017, and if he doesn’t start to pick up on some of the nuances of the game, he’ll be gone.
Tight Ends: B-
Jared Cook was invaluable to the offense, but he’s still not that good of a player. Both things can be true. Cook got to play with the league’s best quarterback, but his underlying stats did not actually improve much. His 58% catch percentage is within career norms, his 12.6 yards per reception is within career norms, and his constant injuries were within career norms. Cook isn’t a good blocker and he doesn’t do any of the little things well. He also doesn’t have to. His ability to exploit linebackers and safeties over the middle makes life easier for everyone else, and that is exactly what he did. His amazing sideline catch against Dallas should live on forever in Packer history.
Richard Rodgers has some of the best hands on the team. Other than that, he offers almost nothing. While he is superior to Cook as a blocker, that’s about as low a bar as you will find, and in truth there isn’t anything Rodgers does particularly well. Usually tight ends with Rodgers’ speed are blockers first, and I’m still awed by just how little ground he covers when he goes out into a pattern. His contract is up at the end of next season, and if he is still on the team in 2018 something has gone wrong.
Defensive Line: B
The defensive line did their job. Mike Daniels remains one of the 3 best defensive tackles in the league, and rookie Kenny Clark actually acquitted himself nicely on run defense. In a 3-4, if you can make plays it’s a nice bonus, but your main job is often to anchor positions and free space for the linebackers in back of you. This fact actually makes judging 3-4 line play difficult, but I suspect this is one of the most underrated units on the team. Even Dean Lowry showed some playmaking ability in very limited work, and Letroy Guion was a fine anchor, and surprisingly effective offensive lineman when called to step in against Dallas. Daniels is on the short list for best non-Rodgers Packer, and this unit is, in general, very good. I barely noticed Datone Jones, which is par for the course at this point.
I was tempted to split this group into inside and outside linebackers, but in truth the two units work in tandem so much, that struggles in one area will cascade everywhere. Julius Peppers was adequate for and old man, but he is well out of his prime and can be exploited in all areas other than pass rush. Nick Perry had a very good breakout season, but he did take a step back after breaking his hand.
The biggest disappointment was Clay Matthews. Once a holy terror of freakish destruction, Matthews was slow to the ball, tentative, and occasionally tossed like a rag doll. Matthews isn’t exactly old, and it is possible this is injury-related, but Matthews has not developed much technique during his career and a drop in his athletic ability may hurt him more than most. It is something to keep an eye on, as Matthews is a key cog for Dom Capers, and when he underperforms everyone is worse for it.
3 of the 5 leading tacklers on the team were Blake Martinez, Joe Thomas, and Jake Ryan. Ryan had his moments, and Thomas and Martinez were generally able to clean up everything that was funneled to them. The Packer run defense was actually very good all year, and adequate-if-unspectacular play in the middle was a big reason why. Unfortunately, they all struggled in coverage, like just about every other Packer. Kyler Fackrell needs to put on 20 pounds of muscle.
Perry and Peppers have impressive sack totals, but the linebacking corps currently lacks any well-rounded players, which makes them all easier to scheme for. It is possible that Ryan could become that guy, and Perry was when both hands worked, but Perry is a free agent who may be priced out of Green Bay, and everyone else has huge question marks and areas of weakness. Many are calling for the Packers to focus on edge rushers in the draft and I am inclined to agree.
Same Shields held this unit together more than was commonly understood, but there is no excuse for the atrocious play of both Quinten Rollins and Damarious Randall. Both showed immense promise in 2015 and both suffered huge regressions when the degree of difficulty increased. Randall has a bad habit of gambling instead of simply sticking with his man, and his tendency to give free releases and huge cushions put him in several embarrassing situations. The Falcons picked on Randall repeatedly in the NFC Championship game, and his inability to adjust destroyed the Packer defensive scheme. Rollins was every bit as bad. He doesn’t have the speed of Randall to fall back on, and his inability to stick with outside receivers was exploited constantly.
Ladarius Gunter was the lone bright spot, and he was merely adequate. He was able to work with some excellent receivers when the Packers were able to provide him with help, either via pass rush or with a safety, but if he was forced onto an island, he quickly became a liability.
Micah Hyde is sort of a jack-of-all-trades member of the secondary, and while his speed will always limit him a bit, the guy can break on a ball like few others. He’s a smart player worth having around, and had a very nice season plugging the holes of this sinking ship.
As for the safeties, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix put together a Pro Bowl season, and while he was very good, he can still be caught out of position occasionally. Packer corner play provided a lot of opportunity for this to occur, and so it did. Morgan Burnett was extremely effective when he moved down in the box for extra run support, but struggled in pass coverage more than in previous years. Whether this was due to injuries, or the overall lack of cohesiveness created by the issues at corners, it would be nice to see him rebound next season. Both players were good, but both are capable of being great.
Judging cold weather kickers is always difficult, and it is to Mason Crosby’s credit that you cannot see the Lambeau conditions in his stats. Crosby remains an excellent field goal kicker, and his kickoffs are solid enough to not warrant complaint.
Jacob Schum had his moments and seemed to improve as the season progressed, but he still shanked far too many balls, and rarely flipped field position when it was desperately needed. He did have a nice showing in the playoffs, and I expect he will be back next year.
It’s easy to become extremely negative once your team washes out of the playoffs, but the fact of the matter is that this team, holes and all, made it further than all but 2 teams this season, and the single biggest failure was a catastrophic collapse in the secondary which is unlikely to repeat itself. If you are looking for Ted Thompson to make some big splash in free agency you should know that the cornerback pool is extremely shallow, while the draft is purportedly stacked with corners and edge rushers. When next season rolls around and not much has changed on this team, I would caution against pessimism. The Packer offense will likely maintain its elite level of play, and while defenses are fickle, the secondary almost cannot help but improve. They were a serious contender this season, and will remain one going forward.