The 2017 Green Bay Packers Season Preview
The Packers had a very successful 2016, having lost in the NFC Championship Game to a team that really should have won the Super Bowl. The Green Bay offense kicked into high gear for the second half of the year but ultimately the defense, and the secondary in particular, ended their season just a game too early. One active offseason later and the Packers have revamped their secondary, dipped into free agency to solidify their linebackers, and should, if all goes according to plan, have a much improved defense.
It’s hard to remember that just two seasons ago the Packers boasted a top-10 defense, and it was the offense, lacking the explosiveness of Jordy Nelson, that ultimately did them in. In 2016 the team had the mirror image of the Nelson injury as Sam Shields suffered a severe concussion and is unlikely to play football again. Behind Shields were second year players Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins. While they flashed huge potential in their rookie seasons, they were not up to the task of taking on an opponent’s number one and two receivers, and things completely fell apart. Injuries added considerably to the issues in the secondary until the only healthy, competent corner remaining was Ladarius Gunter, whose moxie is inversely proportional to his athleticism.
The good news is that the Packers were at least solid everywhere else. A career year from Nick Perry and a nice swansong from Julius Peppers provided consistent pass rush that would have been more than enough for an average secondary. The defensive line anchored by Mike Daniels and the extremely promising Kenny Clark, combined with some of the best inside linebacker play the Packers have had in ages, kept opposing running games in check.
This was almost entirely a corner problem, and Ted Thompson attacked it head on by spending a high pick on the amazingly athletic Kevin King and bringing back Davon House to anchor Shields’ spot. House isn’t on Shields’ level, but he is reliable, and will serve to prevent the domino effect that destroyed the defense last season. Instead of being an issue, the corner position now enjoys quite a bit of depth, and may allow Randall to move into the slot, which may be a better fit.
Safety will remain a strength with second round pick Josh Jones joining Ha Ha Clinton Dix and Morgan Burnett. Jones is expected to fill the hybrid linebacker/safety role in the absence of Micah Hyde, and has looked good in the preseason. If the corners can live up to their potential, the safeties will benefit, as they will no longer have to cover up mistakes. They should see their sacks and picks increase as a result.
Linebacker was an area of potential weakness with Julius Peppers (Carolina) and Datone Jones (Minnesota) moving on, but Nick Perry and Clay Matthews are quality starters, and the addition of Ahmad Brooks and Chris Odom should bolster the depth long enough for rookie Vince Biegel to make his way back. I should mention that Brooks is facing charges for sexual assault, and it is possible he may face a suspension at some point as a result.
The real strength of the defense is up front, where Mike Daniels remains one of the top three players at his position. Daniels is elite against both run and pass, and his presence makes everything easier on his teammates. Kenny Clark came on strong in the second half of 2016 and along with Dean Lowry, the Packers possess one of the more active 3-4 defensive lines in the league. Jake Ryan, Blake Martinez, and Joe Thomas are above average run-stoppers at the inside linebacker position thanks in large part to the work of Daniels and company up front.
The Packers have maintained or improved their strengths while adding depth and athleticism to their weaknesses. A deep secondary also allows Dom Capers to work in more creative blitz packages should the pass rush become an issue. This is likely not a top 10 defense in 2017, but it is probably average, which should be enough given the talent on offense.
Aaron Rodgers actually struggled for about a year and a half, from the time Jordy Nelson was lost at the start of the 2015 season, through mid 2016. He was still more productive than your average quarterback, but in that time period the offense itself was nothing special. It’s worth noting that as great as Rodgers is, he does rely on other players in order to be truly superb, and the 2nd half of 2016, en route to a top 4 offensive finish was superb due to Ty Montgomery, Jordy Nelson, and Jared Cook.
Before mid-2016 the offense was extremely reliant on outside receivers, and as a result, very predictable. With the addition of a former wide receiver-turned-running back, an athletic tight end, and a fully healthy Nelson, the Packers were once again able to use the entire field, and exploit mismatches. Montgomery in particular was a matchup nightmare, forcing linebackers to make difficult decisions in coverage, or forcing safeties to come up in run support.
The team seemed to realize a good thing when they saw it, and doubled down on the positions that helped make the offense special. Martellus Bennett is one of the five best tight ends in football and an enormous upgrade from Cook. Backing up Bennett is former Badger Lance Kendricks, who is no slouch in the passing game either. When both players are on the field with Montgomery the Packers can power run or spread five wide with ease. That prospect is a nightmare for a defensive coordinator.
Montgomery showed just how dangerous a pass-catching back can be with Aaron Rodgers, and while his backups are all rookies, they all have one thing in common: passing game acumen. Jamaal Williams is a one cut power back out of BYU, but his pass protection is very advanced, and his hands and route running are well above average.
Shifty Aaron Jones, of UTEP was secretly one of the most athletic backs in the draft. His size and small school kept him off some draft radars, but if anything happens to Montgomery, Jones should be able to fill the void in the passing game.
It takes roughly a year and a half for an ACL to fully heal, and once Jordy Nelson finally hit that mark in his recovery, he looked like his old self, dominating the league. In the second half of the season Nelson caught 75% of his targets for almost 13 yards per completion, and scored seven touchdowns. He moved from outside into the slot, and back again, confusing defenses and opening things up for Davante Adams and Randall Cobb.
If there is a concern on offense, it’s the line where the starters are all average to excellent, but the backups are some of the worst in the league. David Bakhtiari is an elite left tackle and Bryan Bulaga is still very good across from him, but should either get hurt (and Bulaga is currently hurt) things go downhill in scary fashion. Former second round pick Jason Spriggs is too small to play guard, and he was dominated in pre-season by starters and backups alike, sometimes embarrassingly. Kyle Murphy has been almost as bad, and Patrick Lucas, Justin McKray, and the injured Don Barclay are hardly superior. The prospect of this offensive line facing off against a scary good Seattle front four in the first game is terrifying, especially when you consider Corey Linsley’s history of injuries, and Jahri Evans’ advanced age of 34.
Fortunately, not all fronts are as talented as Seattle, and Aaron Rodgers compensates for a lot of bad line play, especially if he has open receivers. The backs have all been working with pass protection specialist and former Packer running back Brandon Jackson in the offseason, and every back on the roster has benefitted. Martellus Bennett is as good a blocker as he is a receiver. Even if the line struggles at times, protection for Rodgers can come in many different forms.
The bottom line is that the 2017 Green Bay Packers should be better than the 2016 version. They are likely to have one of the three best offenses in the game, and their defense, while not elite, is unlikely to undo all of the offense’s good work. Considering the 2016 edition went to the NFC Championship Game, there is a lot to be excited about. They did leave themselves vulnerable on the line, which is scary considering Aaron Rodgers is the one truly indispensable player, but all teams have some flaws, and this one is not fatal. Getting past Seattle and Atlanta will be difficult, but this team should compete for a first round bye, and should be considered a Super Bowl favorite.