Last offseason, Green Bay Packers General Manager Ted Thompson made a concerted effort to improve the talent on the defensive side of the ball. The Packers used their first six picks to draft defensive help, yet it still wasn’t enough. The Packers’ defense was again the focal point for criticism following their playoff loss, as they allowed 45 points and 579 total yards.
Rumors around Green Bay are predicting that next year’s team may have a much different look than years past. Big names like Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, Jermichael Finley, Charles Woodson, and A.J. Hawk could all be elsewhere and you can see their complete free agent list here. These departures would leave a lot of shoes to fill and Thompson may have to, for once, address some of them through free agency. Here are the biggest positions of need.
Watching Green Bay’s attempt at a running game was painful at times. The unit as a whole rarely got a collective push and graded out as the 29th-best run blocking unit. They were a much better pass blocking team, having the 13th-best Pass Blocking Efficiency. That being said, they still gave up too many sacks, 33, and are in need of improvement. The main holes in the line are center and left tackle.
At seasons end the Packers were starting Marshall Newhouse at left tackle and Evan Dietrich-Smith at center. Dietrich-Smith is a restricted free agent, but has only 11 starts in his career and likely won’t garner much interest on the open market. In his 603 snaps last season he finished with an overall grade of -0.5, but would have fared much better if it weren’t for two performances grading below -4.0. Newhouse made a considerable leap forward after a terrible 2011 season to finish as a positively graded pass blocker. The TCU product is still a liability in run blocking though, and has never had a run blocking grade of +1.0 in any of his 33 career games. First-round pick from 2010 Derek Sherrod is set to return next season after missing all of 2012 due to injury. Sherrod was drafted as a tackle but it is unclear what kind of impact he will be able to have after his serious injury.
The Free Agent Fix: Branden Albert
However unlikely it may be, if the Packers are going to make a splash move in free agency, I see it being on a left tackle. Aaron Rodgers took the most sacks in the NFL in 2012 and it is impossible to think he could take 50+ sacks every season and not miss time. Branden Albert (+13.8) has developed into a very solid pass blocker on the left side and had the seventh-best Pass Blocking Efficiency among all tackles. The former guard at Virginia is athletic enough for the Packers’ zone blocking scheme and, although he isn’t a great run blocker, he would provide a considerable step up from Newhouse in that respect.
With the top player on most draft boards being left tackle Luke Joeckel, the Chiefs could be content drafting him and then spending their money elsewhere. If Albert does hit the market he could provide the Packers consistency and reliability for years to come at one of the most important positions in football.
A year passed by and nothing has changed for the Packers’ defensive line, although it wasn’t for lack of trying. The Packers brought in three free agent defensive linemen (Daniel Muir, Anthony Hargrove, and Phillip Merling) last offseason and all three were cut by midseason. They drafted two more (Mike Daniels and Jerel Worthy) and both failed to provide an impact. With Worthy now likely out for most of 2013, the Packers’ need for help along the defensive front has become even more apparent. B.J. Raji finally got a reduction in his snap totals, playing only 768 snaps after averaging over 1,000 the previous two seasons, but when he’s not on the field the quality of play is a big question mark. After investing two second-round picks on the defensive line the past three seasons it is very likely that the Packers may again turn toward free agency for help.
The Free Agent Fix: Ricky Jean-Francois
If the Packers learned anything from their losses in 2012 it is that they have to be stouter against the run. In their six defeats they allowed an average of 186.5 yards per game and 5.5 yards per attempt on the ground. That is where Ricky Jean-Francois comes in. The 49ers’ nose tackle has never gotten a chance to be a full-time player in San Francisco, but in his limited playing time he has excelled in run defense. His size, 6-foot-3 and 295 lbs, might not scream nose tackle, but his production speaks for itself. Jean-Francois has grades of +3.5 and +5.7 in run defense the past two seasons, despite playing just over 300 snaps in each. More importantly though, in the last three games of 2012, where he played 151 snaps while Justin Smith was injured, Jean-Francois had a total run defense grade of +4.8. He could also play end in the Packers’ scheme and provide another viable force against the run at a reasonable price.
At first I didn’t want to include this position as a free agent need because of Nick Perry’s impending return. Then I watched Erik Walden run downfield in pursuit of an empty-handed LaMichael James and I realized this situation has to be addressed. Walden has had the worst grade among all 3-4 outside linebackers by a wide margin each of the past two seasons. Dezman Moses was the next option in line, but the rookie quite often looked undersized and overmatched. To leave this position up to the hope that Perry develops into a starter would be irresponsible. If Perry or Clay Matthews were to suffer an injury next season, Green Bay would be left with a huge hole that opposing offenses will target.
The Free Agent Fix: Antwan Barnes
At this point the Packers would settle for average across from Matthews, but with Antwan Barnes they could get much more. After signing with San Diego in 2010 Barnes excelled in a spot pass rushing role as both a 4-3 end and a 3-4 outside linebacker. Barnes’ Pass Rushing Productivity marks of 13.9 (2010), 13.8 (2011), and 9.2 (2012) make him one of the best pass rushing free agents available. The only concern is about whether he could make the jump to more of a prominent role? Barnes is a little undersized and that was likely the reason he never got the same playing time as Shaun Phillips. However, despite his size he has never graded negatively against the run for a whole season. It is quite possible the Chargers part with Barnes as they have a large stable of outside linebackers. If the Packers are able to sign Barnes he would provide immediate improvement to a unit in desperate need.
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