Top 3 offseason needs for the Green Bay Packers
The 2015 version of the Green Bay Packers wasn’t too dissimilar in talent from the 2014 version that was a collapse away from a Super Bowl appearance. Offensively, Jordy Nelson and Andrew Quarless’ injuries were the only differences, while on defense, A.J. Hawk, Tramon Williams, and Davon House were contributors lost from the previous season. The tragic irony here is that the offense became a shell of its former self with the loss of really one player, while the defense turned into a top-10 unit.
Those results make it a tad difficult to get a handle on the Packers’ true offseason needs. Do they focus on rebuilding an offense that will again in 2016 have almost the exact same personnel as the 2014 team that was second in points-per-game? Or do they beef up their defense in an effort to emulate the strong defenses we’ve seen in recent Super Bowls?
Whichever they choose, there are definitely positions that won’t need to be addressed any time soon. Obviously quarterback is one of them, with two-time MVP Aaron Rodgers signed through 2019, and his backup, Brett Hundley, drafted in the fifth round last season. Defensively, it’s unlikely that the Packers make any additions to their secondary, even with the possible departure of Casey Hayward in free agency. They go three-deep in quality safeties, with Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Morgan Burnett developing into one of the highest-graded safety tandems in the NFL. Then at corner, they already spent their first and second-round selections on Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins, respectively, and both put up promising rookie seasons, grading at or above average.
There are certain positions, though, that Ted Thompson has been content in recent years with having average or below-average production from, and I believe this is the year we see him address those units. And the question on every Packers fans’ mind is, once again: Is this the year Ted Thompson makes a splash move in free agency? I think it’s a strong possibility. The following list names Packers with meaningful snaps that are set to hit free agency:
– CB Casey Hayward
– NT B.J. Raji
– OLB Mike Neal
– K Mason Crosby
– DE Letroy Guion
– LB Nick Perry
– RB James Starks
– FB John Kuhn
– WR James Jones
Only Hayward will command big money, and then only Crosby, Perry, and Starks performed well enough that you’d want to have them back. With a healthy $21.9 million in cap space at the moment, and a potential $8 million cap casualty in Julius Peppers, the Packers have enough wiggle room for a high-priced free agent. Now let’s see where they should prioritize.
1. Inside Linebacker
This is one that fans have been calling for for years and went inexcusably unaddressed last offseason. I understand that Clay Matthews brings versatility to their defense on the inside as a blitzing threat, but they are paying a player who has graded out as average against both the run and pass almost $1 million more a year than Luke Kuechly makes with Carolina. They need to let Matthews do what he does best, and that is rush the passer. The problem is that no other inside linebacker on the roster has ever graded positively for a season.
That means that the Packers will need at least one, if not two, inside linebackers this offseason to replace him. In free agency, there are some intriguing options. Derrick Johnson has been a top-three graded inside linebacker in his last two healthy seasons, but at 33 years old, he’d be little more than a stop-gap. Jerrell Freeman is a tad younger at 30 years old, and is coming off a career year in Indianapolis that saw him as our second-highest graded inside linebacker. On the younger, and likely cheaper, side of things there is Danny Trevathan and Rolando McClain. Both of whom would be huge upgrades over what the Packers currently have at the position. In the draft, Alabama linebacker Reggie Ragland seems like a pipe dream with the Packers picking 27th, but Jaylon Smith (Notre Dame) is liable to make it that far after his ugly knee injury and the ultra-productive Scooby Wright III (Arizona) could be an option in the second round.
2. Tight end
Ever since Jermichael Finley’s career was tragically cut short by a neck injury, the production from the tight end position in Green Bay has been non-existent. They drafted Richard Rodgers in the third round in 2014, and while he’s a sure-handed safety-net, he’s far from the dynamic player that Finley was. Defenses were unafraid of anything going up the seams and over the middle of the field with Rodgers in the game; his 1.19 yards per route was 27th-best among tight ends this season.
This is a position that could easily get upgraded through free agency, and likely for cheap. Dwayne Allen, Coby Fleener, Larry Donnell, and Ladarius Green are all talented players that won’t command big money on the open market. In the draft, Hunter Henry (Arkansas) is a name to watch at the end of round 1, while Nick Vannett (Ohio State) and Jerell Adams (South Carolina) could be upgrades later on.
3. Edge rusher
Even if Clay Matthews does transition back to outside linebacker, and Julius Peppers isn’t cut, this is still a pretty glaring need. The Packers’ “NASCAR” package lost some of its luster last season, and it could use a boost. Their OLB’s combined for a pass rushing grade of -8.3 in 2015 (0.0 is average). With the impending free agents, Jayrone Elliott is tentatively penciled in for a bigger role. While he flashed at times with a 10.1 pass rushing productivity that was second on the team behind Peppers, it’s not a great sign that he couldn’t steal snaps from Mike Neal (7.0 pass rushing productivity).
The problem with this position is that it never comes cheap. It’s easy to say, “Go get Von Miller or Olivier Vernon,” but it’s not so easy to make their $15+ million per year salary work under the cap. The draft seems like a much more realistic option here, but yet again, at 27th overall, they’ll be left with some afterthoughts. This might be a position the Packers take a couple of late-round gambles on; a couple of my favorites are Joe Schobert (Wisconsin) and Kyler Fackrell (Utah State).