The 2016 NFL season begins now, with 32 teams scheming to knock off the reigning champion Denver Broncos. The NFL Draft is just around the corner, but the first step in any offseason plan is to assess a team’s needs. Here we look at what the Green Bay Packers team needs are.
The Green Bay Packers entered 2015 as the favorite to run away with the NFC North again – so long as there were no major injuries to the roster. Unfortunately for them and their fans, the latter did occur, as starting X-wide receiver Jordy Nelson tore his right ACL in the month before Week 1. The “Pack Attack” ended up surrendering the division championship to their rival, the Minnesota Vikings, though Jeff Janis and company certainly did not make their try for the title uninteresting on their way to the Wild Card round of the playoffs.
While GB had momentum on their side following a big win on the road at Washington, they saw their season end at the hands of the Arizona Cardinals. (Yes, even the Jeff Janis Hail Mary couldn’t save them this time around.)
The announcement of Nose Tackle B.J. Raji’s leave from the game left the Packers with an immediate need on the interior defensive line. Green Bay also found themselves with a slight need at tight end with Andrew Quarless’s contract expiring; they hope to have addressed this need with by signing UFA Jared Cook to a 1-year, “show-me” deal –a longer deal could materialize if Cook produces big in his first contract year.
General Manager Ted Thompson will look to fill the void that B.J. Raji left early in the draft, as the nose tackle / defensive tackle spot in Green Bay’s 3-4 Defense is a very pressing need. The Packers’ offensive unit will be glad to see Nelson back in uniform, but a contingency plan (outside of Davante Adams) at X-WR would not hurt in case of further injury.
B.J. Raji’s absence leaves a 337-pound hole in the middle of Green Bay’s defensive front. Raji, who abruptly retired in March, was very good at eating up blockers, pushing back against the point of attack in the run game and locking out guards to cause pressures in the pass game. While it is hard to replace the productivity of a seven-year pro with a single draft pick, the Packers should address this hole by using an early pick on a defensive tackle who has the tools to two-gap and control the inside of the defensive front.
Clay Matthews’ potential move back to outside linebacker leaves the cupboard thin inside for Green Bay, with Carl Bradford and Sam Barrington being the top names on the depth chart. However, the key word here is potential. Should Green Bay decide to keep Matthews inside on first and second down and align him on the edge against open-side tackles in passing situations, the priority of drafting this position likely falls. In any scenario, should the board fall in a way that the top DL are unavailable, the Packers will look hard to add an ILB who can play with a good, physical presence in their 3-4 front.
Wide Receiver (X)
Jordy Nelson’s absence hurt Green Bay’s receiving corps even more than some expected as no other X wide receiver on its roster had the ability to get off of press coverage and win space at the line of scrimmage. James Jones is the only other pass catcher who displayed solid hands and concentration against tight coverage. While every word coming from Green Bay’s camp on Nelson’s recovery has been positive and suggests that he’ll be in top shape come Week 1, a plan needs to be put in place to bring in a young, savvy receiver that can win versus press coverage and separate on quick game routes, which QB Aaron Rodgers had a propensity to throw this past season.
Rodgers is an elite quarterback and, as long as he is healthy, Green Bay should never be counted out to win any game. However, the Packers enter their 2016 campaign with one less quarterback, after Scott Tolzien signed a two-year deal to replace Matt Hasselbeck as the Colts’ primary backup. Current backup Brett Hundley has an abundance of attractive physical traits, including both arm strength and mobility in and out of the pocket. Former Memphis and Miami of Florida QB Ryan Williams was signed to be the team’s third QB in early January. Given the state of the depth chart, Green Bay should not feel rushed to grab a quarterback early, but should look near the backend of the draft and in college free agency to select and develop a backup-quality player that is durable and has the intelligence to operate within the system.
Green Bay’s need of an outside linebacker is somewhat dependent on what the staff decides to do with Matthews. If Matthews’ primary position remains at ILB, Green Bay still has a thin layer of solid contributors on the edge, including Datone Jones, who will seemingly move from 5 tech to stand-up OLB in the Packers’ front, replacing Mike Neal. The Packers would benefit from adding a long-armed OLB prospect who they can teach to set the edge in the run game and with extension in pass rush.
Green Bay primarily used Richard Rodgers and Andrew Quarless at tight end in 2015, with Rodgers playing mostly detached from the line of scrimmage either in the slot or in a wing alignment and Quarless – who is a free agent – serving as an in-line blocker. While Rodgers added value in the run game as a blocker on sweeps and reverses and was also a solid option in the quick pass game (mainly on Stick concepts) nobody has ever confused his play-making ability for Jermichael Finley’s. The hope is that new signee and former St. Louis Ram Jared Cook can add a solid, vertical presence in the middle of the field and in the red zone. Cook’s deal is only for 1-year, meaning that Green Bay should still look to add a young, athletic, pass-catcher at tight end in the draft. This year’s class at tight end does not boast a top-tier player, but there are a few that will be had in the later rounds who may not have great blocking abilities but can move around well and stress LBs who will try to cover them on downfield routes.
Packers fans scoffed at the team’s drafting of corner Damarious Randall. After the 2015 season, those fans are probably just fine with the spot where they drafted the former Arizona State safety, who earned NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month honors for November and finished the season with 58 total tackles, 14 pass deflections and four interceptions. However, with the departure of former starter Casey Hayward, Green Bay will again look to the draft to develop a young DB, alongside rookie Quinten Rollins.
Green Bay must bring in at least one new tackle in the draft. David Bakhtiari is one of the best at his position and the Packers had some difficulty softening the blow of his absence from Week 16 until the Divisional Round of the playoffs. Bakhtiari will also become an unrestricted free agent once the 2017 league year rolls around. Don Barclay is no longer under contract, leaving some open space on the two-deep behind Bakhtiari. Green Bay should look to draft a tackle who can win often in 1-on-1, base block opportunities as well as in pass protection against the complex stunts / games and perimeter pressures that teams like Detroit and Minnesota will throw its way in the fall.
Offensive Guard / Center
Corey Linsley has proven to be a good, starting center and back-up J.C. Tretter is like an interior OL that the Packers can win with, even if he’s forced to take reps at offensive tackle because of injury. Starting offensive guards T.J. Lang and Josh Sitton are both very dependable and effective. With that being said, their contracts are set to expire after the ‘16 season. For Green Bay, the need to draft a guard or a tackle that could kick inside to guard, is not as urgent as that of the DL spot, but it should still be addressed with an early or mid-round pick, as well as in undrafted college free agency.
Set, For Better Or Worse
Green Bay now has its two-pronged backfield fully under contract and ready to roll with Eddie Lacy and James Starks. So long as the offensive line remains relatively healthy, Lacy and Starks should total more than 1,300 rushing yards combined for the fourth consecutive season. With John Crockett’s presence in the back of the depth chart behind Lacy and Starks, Green Bay will be in no rush to go RB early in the draft unless an unforeseen drop occurs.