Green Bay’s recent string of success has hinged upon their draft, develop, and re-sign philosophy. For the past several years, GM Ted Thompson has thumbed his nose at the marquee free agent market, choosing instead to focus on re-signing his own and developing talent through the draft.
With this year’s season-long defensive meltdown and some impending free agency losses, holes are opening up in what had once been considered one of the league’s deepest rosters. Perhaps this is the year Thompson might be forced to look outside the organization for talent.
Here’s a look at the Packers most pressing needs and some moves that we can see them making.
Primary Need: Outside Linebacker
Thompson hit a homerun in the 2009 draft when he traded up to the first round to nab Clay Matthews. However, his attempts at finding an adequate complement for him at ROLB have failed miserably. Sifting through the bargain bin of late round draft picks and undrafted free agents just hasn’t uncovered that diamond in the rough. In 2010, undrafted free agent, Frank Zombo and street free agent, Erik Walden manned the position for most of the season–both grading out very poorly. In 2011, with a Super Bowl win under his belt, Thompson chose to ignore the position during free agency and waited until the sixth round of the draft to pick up Ricky Elmore out Arizona. Elmore showed nothing in camp and was cut. Instead, two undrafted free agents, Jamari Lattimore and Vic S’oto, made the team. Walden got nearly all the snaps during the season and graded out as by far the worst 3-4 OLB in the league (-20.6). As a pass rusher (-1.9, three sacks, 39 total pressures, 7.3 Pass Rushing Productivity rating), Walden had minimal impact. His run defense (-16.4) was disastrous and also by far the worst in the league.
It took the Packers a long time to recognize this, finally benching Walden in Week 17. It’s not like they had many promising options as a replacement. Zombo (-8.5 overall), S’oto (-3.0), Brad Jones (-2.6) and Lattimore (-1.9) offered little in the way of improvement. Thompson will be under intense pressure to address this gaping hole, just don’t expect it to happen in free agency. Smaller names like LB Manny Lawson of the Bengals could be a fit, but Thompson will most likely look to the early rounds of the draft for an answer.
Secondary Need: Safety
When injuries struck the Green Bay secondary during the 2010 season, they inserted retread safety Charlie Peprah and managed to make their run to the Super Bowl. Peprah provided a physicality that had been missing against the run, but his limitations couldn’t always be hidden. In the Super Bowl, he was exploited in coverage, had two missed tackles, and a -5.4 grade on the day. Green Bay management thought well-enough of him to bring him back in 2011. This time, a career-threatening neck injury to Nick Collins forced Peprah back into a starting role, and Peprah again proved a liability. To be fair, no one in the entire Packer secondary graded out in the green for the season, but Peprah’s -8.6 overall grade was not only the worst among the bunch, but put him 71st out of 86 qualifying NFL safeties. It’s questionable whether Collins will ever play football again, so Green Bay must decide whether they’re prepared to live with Peprah as a starter for another year. There’s reason to hope that fellow safety, Morgan Burnett can make strides to improve on his first full season (-1.3 overall), but no doubt the Packers will be looking to solidify this position.
Many think the solution is already on the team. As future Hall-of-Famer, Charles Woodson continues to lose a step or two in coverage, there’s talk of moving him to safety. The Packers might not be ready to make that move yet with second-year CB Sam Shields taking a step backwards in 2011. They also prefer to run a 2-4-5 defense that allow Woodson to be a dual threat from the slot. In that formation, they still need two safeties on the field behind him. A free agent pickup isn’t out of the question, but don’t expect the Packers to make a run at any of the bigger names. Thompson likes to stick with guys he knows, so former Packer Atari Bigby could be on their radar. Apparently healthy again, Bigby was a forgotten man in Seattle last year. He graded out well in his only start (+1.5) but didn’t see the field much the rest of the season. Brodney Pool could be another relatively inexpensive option. We have him ranked as our fifth-best safety free-agent.
Tertiary Need: Tackle
When the Packers drafted Bryan Bulaga in the first round of the 2010 draft, he was anointed their “left tackle of the future.” With veteran Chad Clifton still entrenched as the starter, Bulaga was inserted at right tackle and has quickly developed into one of the league’s best. Now, with Clifton likely to be released, and last year’s first round pick Derrek Sherrod (also anointed “left tackle of the future”) in a long recovery from a horrific leg injury, the thinking here is that now is the time for their “left tackle of the future” to play left tackle. That means moving Marshall Newhouse, last year’s disaster in pass protection (-22.9), over to the right. Yes, there were enough bright spots during Newhouse’s first season of action to suggest he could develop, but we’re talking about protecting the league MVP here. If Newhouse can’t hack it at right tackle either, the Packers are going to need an alternative and right now there isn’t a healthy one on the roster.
It’s hard to predict who the Packers might look to give Newhouse some competition, but with their recent high draft choices going to tackles, if they look for free agents at all, it will likely be on the cheap. Anthony Collins could be a possibility. We have him as one of our Top 10 tackles available in free agency. In four starts last year he yielded a mere three pressures and his limited playing time at Cincinnati may bring his price down to where Thompson may consider the move.
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