Green Bay Packers Preview 2016
You are looking at one of the best teams in football
It is a testament to the success of the Green Bay Packers that a 10-6 season featuring a playoff victory and a near upset of the Arizona Cardinals counts as a disappointment in the eyes of most, but with the offense struggling for most of the year, they never really felt like “true contenders”, and a true contender is what we’ve come to expect. Fortunately, in 2016, that is exactly what we are likely to see.
Aaron Rodgers took over starting quarterback duties for the Packers in 2008, and until last season, his offenses have scored over 400 points per season except, oddly in 2010 when the team scored just 388 en route to winning the Super Bowl. In 2015, after the loss of Jordy Nelson, the debut of “out-of-shape play of Eddie Lacy”, and countless injuries across the skill positions, the Packers scored just 368 points. To add some perspective, the Packers actually scored 417 points the year that Aaron Rodgers missed half of the season. Missing Aaron Rodgers was catastrophic for the offense, but in many ways last year was actually worse.
If you’re wondering how the Packers managed to win that 2010 Super Bowl with only 388 points, it is because they held opponents to an absurdly low 240 points, the second-lowest total in the NFL that season. Since the Super Bowl season they have allowed 359 (2011), 336 (2012), 428 (2013) 348 (2014) and last year, a very respectable 323 last season.
The reason it’s important is that in 2015 the team actually looked a lot like the 2010 Super Bowl winning Packers, except for the offensive woes created by the Nelson injury. Last season the Packer defense was quietly outstanding, especially considering the fact that the offense put them in consistently bad situations, and it may very well be even better this season. The Packers have invested heavily in their pass defense, with stalwarts Sam Shields and Morgan Burnett leading the way for the young, but extremely talented Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Damarious Randall, and Quinten Rollins. I frequently use FootballOutsiders.com’s advanced statistics when trying to identify offenses or defenses that may have looked mediocre using normal yardage or scoring stats, but were actually excellent on a play-by-play basis. Their advanced statistic DVOA (Defense-Adjusted Value Over Average), measures how valuable the outcome of a play was for the offense or defense vs. the average expected outcome, and according to DVOA the Packer pass defense was the 6th best in football in 2015, and the with another year of experience, and the ever present pass rush of Mike Daniels and Clay Matthews, they can improve on that mark.
The Achilles’ Heel of the Packer defense has always been the middle of the field, especially in run defense, but there is reason to believe that will change this year. Jake Ryan has been average in the middle in his short career, and should be bolstered by the return of Sam Barrington as well as the newly drafted Blake Martinez. While I am a big fan of Martinez, even if these three are just average that should be more than enough to support a dominant defense, both by anchoring the middle and allowing for Clay Matthews to focus on pass rush. Matthews may still move to the middle against teams with running quarterbacks, but for the most part he should be back to his normal position this season.
There’s nothing wrong with a great defense, but this team is still fundamentally built around Aaron Rodgers, who should rebound after a down year in which everything that could go wrong did. Jordy Nelson is back to lead the receiving corps, which should in turn give a big boost to Randall Cobb. Cobb suffered his own slate of injuries last year, and without Nelson on the outside to open things up, his game suffered an enormous drop-off. Nelson and Cobb share a symbiotic relationship, and having them back together will be like adding two additional all-pros, not just one. Ty Montgomery also looks to rebound from a lost 2015 where he suffered a severe ankle injury, and Davante Adams, now seeing the opponent’s 3rd or 4th defensive back instead of their best, should be able to put a disastrous 2015 behind him. The Packers don’t sign many free agents, but they went out and got Jared Cook from the Rams. He is a poor man’s Jermichael Finley, a fantastic athlete who sometimes has trouble squaring off routes and holding onto the ball, but he has also played exclusively with terrible quarterbacks, and some of his issues may disappear under Rodgers. Cook is a flawed player, and he’s not exactly young at 29, but he’s much faster and much more athletic than any incumbent tight end, and his ability to stretch the field should make everyone better.
The receiving corps wasn’t the only issue last year. Eddie Lacy now appears to be in shape, and the offensive line should keep Rodgers upright more often than last year. Don Barclay may still make the team as a backup interior lineman, but it is highly unlikely he will see time at tackle for any extended period.
Last season was a complete disaster for the offense, but it was a fluky disaster, unlikely to repeat. While it’s impossible for a team to remaining completely healthy for an entire season, it’s a good bet that the Packers will have average health. If they do, they will be Super Bowl favorites. I’m obviously optimistic about 2016, here are ten additional reasons.
1. Jordy Nelson and Ty Montgomery are suiting up.
Both were on the preseason injury list, and Montgomery’s injury in particular was very severe. Until recently it was an open question as to whether either would be ready for game one. Now it is a near certainty. We have yet to see these two on the field together and along with Cobb, they have the potential to be true match-up nightmares.
2. Lacy looks shifty.
Eddie Lacy isn’t just a powerhouse. In his slimmer days he was excellent at forcing missed tackles, and powering through everyone who took a bad angle due to his underrated shiftiness. That, more than anything was a casualty of his weight gain last season, as he was too often, hit squarely by defenders. Lacy has looked quick and in shape, and should bring another much-needed weapon to the offense.
3. JC Tretter.
In the invaluable Football Outsiders Almanac they publish a list of 25 “prospects”. This list calls out young players who are no longer rookies, who still have breakout potential, and Tretter appears on it. He wasn’t just an adequate fill-in last season; he excelled whenever given the chance to play, and solidified what had been a very shaky line. Tretter will start the season at center in place of an injured Corey Linsley, but he can play anywhere on the line and is a star in the making.
4. Peppers’ last hurrah.
Julius Peppers is almost certainly playing his final NFL season, and this is his last chance for a ring. Peppers has lost a step, but he can still get after quarterbacks, and the prospect of a Peppers motivated by the finality of his football career should terrify every opposing quarterback.
5. Everyone in the secondary.
The Packer defensive backfield is stacked with talent. Shields, Burnett, Randall, Rollins, and Clinton-Dix are all capable of All-Pro seasons and there is depth behind them. Few teams will be able to cover like the Packers
6. Mike Daniels is 27 years old.
The anchor of the Packer defensive line, and arguably the anchor of the defense enters his prime on a four year, team friendly contract that will keep him a Packer through his prime.
7. A punting competition!
Tim Masthay may still win the job, but Peter Mortell, the self-proclaimed Big Ten holder of the year and Green Bay native has given Masthay all he can handle thus far. Masthay is entering the last year of his deal and you can bet that Ted Thompson hates nothing more than having to pay a punter actual money. If Mortell remains competitive in camp, don’t be surprised if he unseats Masthay for financial reasons as well as performance.
8. Kenny Clark.
The Packers’ first round draft pick has drawn comparisons to Mike Daniels, and has been impressive in camp, though he is currently suffering from a sore back. Clark was a high school wrestler, something I am a fan of when it comes to linemen relying on balance, leverage, and a nasty streak.
9. The draft and develop quarterback strategy.
No one wants to see Aaron Rodgers hurt, but if it does happen I like their chances better with second year player Brett Hundley than with any backup since Rodgers himself. Hundley has received universal praise from the staff for his football smarts and work ethic, and his relatively rapid improvement. It is likely that Hundley never sees the field outside of garbage time, and the drop from Rodgers would still be enormous, but if he has to play, it will at least be more interesting than seeing Seneca Wallace out there.
10. Aaron Rodgers Throwing Bombs
Everyone remembers the Hail Marys from last season, but with the exception of a few deep shots to James Jones, the passing game took place almost entirely within five yards of the line of scrimmage. Nelson won’t just make the offense better, he’ll also make it more entertaining.
This season should be fun, both in terms of success, an aesthetics. This team is capable of anything, and the first real game can’t come soon enough.