2014 Preview: Green Bay Packers
The Packers still managed to make the playoffs with just eight wins in 2013, despite having a roster riddled with injuries. The season ended with an all too familiar loss to the 49ers in the Wild Card round. In an attempt to shore up the defense, Ted Thompson took a rare dip into the free agent pool to sign Julius Peppers, and also selected safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix with the Packers’ first round pick. Outside of a couple departures on offense, the unit is fairly intact and looks to regain its explosiveness with a healthy roster. Let’s take a look at five reasons to be confident and five reasons to be concerned for Green Bay’s upcoming season.
Five Reasons To Be Confident
1. Aaron Rodgers
There’s no question that Rodgers is one of the best quarterbacks in the league and his performance can help mask deficiencies elsewhere. Last season Rodgers earned a +18.5 overall grade through Week 8, behind only Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers at the time of his injury. There’s little he cannot do as a passer, if anything, but maybe the most impressive trait of Rodgers is his accuracy. He has finished in the Top 2 in both Deep Passing Accuracy and overall Accuracy Percentage in each of the last three years.
2. Running Back Trio
It took a couple weeks last year because of a concussion, but once Eddie Lacy burst on to the scene, he never looked back. His punishing, physical running style was a much-needed quality that the Packers’ offense had been lacking. Lacy forced 56 missed tackles on rush attempts on his way to being our fifth-ranked running back.
James Starks has shown flashes in his four-year career, but has primarily been held back by injuries during that time. With Lacy as the lead back, the reduced role for Starks should once again increase his effectiveness and keep him fresh. Based on 99 combined rush attempts and receptions, his Elusive Rating of 66.7 was second-highest among running backs with as many touches last year.
Rejoining the team is DuJuan Harris, who missed all of 2013 after a good showing late in 2012. This preseason, Harris has not shown any lingering effects from the knee injury and looks just as elusive as before the injury. He has had three penalties and a fumble in three preseason games, but has also forced 10 missed tackles on just 26 attempts for 128 yards. Each player has a unique skill set and the group should be the most dangerous backfield the Packers have had in years.
3. The Jordy Nelson-Randall Cobb Combo
Last year was easily the best season of Jordy Nelson’s career. Having the Seneca Wallace-Scott Tolzien-Matt Flynn combination at quarterback for seven games and without Randall Cobb and Jermichael Finley on the field for most of the year made it all the more impressive. Showing that he can do just about anything, Nelson racked up the fourth-most receiving yards from the slot—an alignment he was rarely utilized in in the past. At the other receiver spot, Cobb was on pace for over 90 receptions and 1,200 yards prior to his injury and his 77.5% catch rate was the highest in the league at wide receiver. Now fully healed, it’s reasonable to expect him to resume his stellar level of play a year later.
4. Mike Daniels
One could argue that the Packers’ defensive line was the most vulnerable of their defensive position groups in 2013. However, defensive end Mike Daniels was the exception as the lone bright spot on the line last season. Daniels was Green Bay’s only defensive lineman to grade positively in either run defense or pass rushing, and he did so in both aspects. Even in limited playing time, Daniels finished as our sixth-highest graded (+17.3) 3-4 defensive end and ranked eighth in Pass Rushing Productivity. Slated to see significantly more playing time as a starter this year, he has an opportunity to become a breakout player and potentially one of the best 3-4 defensive ends in the league.
5. Cornerback Depth
The Packers have as much proven depth at cornerback as they have had in recent years. Sam Shields still has plenty of room for improvement considering his potential, but even his play last year was that of a solid starter. Tramon Williams had a bit of a down year, but shouldn’t see nearly as many snaps in the slot as last year. If Casey Hayward can return to the level of play that made us name him our 2012 Defensive Rookie of the Year, there should be an improvement in the secondary. Davon House now has plenty of experience for a No. 4 cornerback and his performance would have him higher on several other teams’ depth charts than he is in Green Bay. Even though Micah Hyde has transitioned to safety, he too will play significant snaps in the slot as well, similar to the role that Charles Woodson played during his tenure with the Packers.
Five Reasons To Be Concerned
1. Defensive Line Beyond Mike Daniels
As much potential as Daniels has, the other two positions on the line are more concerning. There were a few departures in the offseason as they Packers attempted to retool their line by getting younger and more athletic and the recent news that B.J. Raji is out for the season leaves a hole at nose tackle.
On the roster to fill Raji’s spot are free agent acquisition Letroy Guion, who has been on the P.U.P list all preseason, second-year player Josh Boyd, and undrafted rookie Mike Pennel. Guion struggled last season with the Vikings, earning a -11.4 overall grade in 397 snaps. Boyd earned a -2.9 grade in 117 snaps as a rookie and Pennel has seen the field for 65 snaps this preseason.
Last year’s first-round pick Datone Jones is slated to start opposite Daniels, but Jones had little impact as a rookie with a -8.1 overall grade. His playing time actually decreased as the season progressed and seven of his 18 QB pressures came unblocked or in cleanup. Jones has yet to record a pressure on 33 pass rush snaps this preseason. Rookie third-round pick Khyri Thornton will likely see substantial playing time as well, but he has just one pressure on 52 pass rush snaps.
One positive note is that last season the Packers played with two or fewer defensive linemen on the field for 71% of their defensive plays in the regular season, so the lack of proven depth may have a little less impact than it would for some other teams.
The center position has been a revolving door for the Packers for a few years now. Ted Thompson let Evan Dietrich-Smith walk in free agency after he graded positive in 14 of 17 games in his first full season as a starter. His departure leaves second-year player J.C. Tretter and rookie Corey Linsley on the roster. Prior to this offseason, Tretter had no experience playing center and his first NFL snaps came just a few weeks ago. That said, his performance has been encouraging thus far and he easily won the starting job.
However, this past weekend’s news is that Tretter is out approximately six weeks, and the Packers will be forced to turn to the rookie to start the season. Linsley has been equally as impressive this preseason with the third-highest grade at center and only one hurry allowed in 65 pass block snaps, albeit against lesser competition. Both players have put forth good film this preseason, but whether that level of performance can be sustained through the regular season, as well as the lack of experience, are the causes for concern.
3. Tight End Depth
With the Jermichael Finley era now in the past due to his unfortunate injury, the Packers’ situation at tight end is untested. After testing the free agent market, Andrew Quarless is back in the mix. He played a career-high 752 snaps in 2013 and was serviceable as a receiver and blocker, but he wasn’t enough of a threat for opposing defenses to focus on.
Third-round pick Richard Rodgers has been running with the first team in their preseason games and may have a hold on the starting spot. The rookie has three catches for 50 yards in three games but has also missed a few blocks in the run game. Beyond Quarless and Rodgers, Brandon Bostick will be back, although he is currently injured and the timeline for his return isn’t entirely clear. The athletic tight end is raw and had only seven catches with three drops in 2013.
4. Inside Linebacker
Many thought A.J. Hawk had a career year last year, and in some ways he did improve. His pass coverage was the best in recent years and his QB pressure totals were the highest as well. But all four of his sacks came unblocked, along with several other pressures. In addition, pass rushes made up less than 11% of his total snaps—just a small portion of what he does on defense. Hawk struggled against the run, ranking 50th out of 62 inside linebackers in Tackling Efficiency versus the run.
Opposite Hawk, Brad Jones started last season well. But after sustaining a hamstring injury in Week 6 and missing a few games, he never quite made it back to that same level of play though. He graded negatively in seven of his final eight games.
Every team sustains injuries. It is an unfortunate part of the game. The great teams overcome the adversity, but there is also only so much a team can handle. The Packers have had worse fortune than most teams over the last few years. Many injuries were not preventable and can be attributed to poor luck, such as the injuries to Finley, Rodgers, and Cobb last year. But with it becoming an annual affair, it is a cause for concern and may have already began this season with the Raji, Tretter, and Don Barlcay injuries within a month of training camp opening.
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