They ranked second in the league in fewest points allowed and fifth for fewest yards by an opponent in 2010, but mediocre drafts since finding a perennial All-Pro in 2009 (Clay Matthews) has seen the defensive unit fail to maintain any sort of pace with its explosive offense.
As the chart indicates below, the defense finished dead last for yardage allowed in 2011, and while they improved in 2012, they slumped back to the bottom portion of the league rankings in 2013 and rank 17th for points allowed (22.5 ppg) and 25th total yards allowed 377.4 ypg) in 2014. The big culprit for the defense’s struggles resides on their front wall. They rank dead last in stopping the run at the bye, though they’ve improved the past two weeks.
The offense has been firing on all cylinders after a slow start, as Aaron Rodgers leads a unit that ranks first in the league in scoring (33.0 ppg). Rodgers leads the NFL in passer rating, touchdown percentage, interception percentage and yards per attempt.
The ground game has been OK, with Eddie Lacy & Co. ranking 18th in the league with 102.2 rushing yards per game and 4.07 rushing yards per carry. The offensive line always seems to be a work in progress due to injuries but that group has enjoyed continuity this season. The Packers have allowed 22 sacks, with the sack rate of 6.71 percent ranking No. 16. They’ve survived despite the release of 2011 first-round bust Derek Sherrod, whose career was ruined by a broken leg sustained during his rookie season, and injuries that sent Don Barclay and 2013 fourth-rounder J.C. Tretter to injured lists.
PACKERS LEAGUE RANKINGS IN RECENT YEARS
Current Record…8-3 (6-3 vs. the NFC/3-0 vs. the AFC)…354 PF/246 PA
Team Needs…1. Inside Linebacker; 2. Defensive Rush End; 3. Nose Guard; 4. Tight End; 5. Outside Linebacker; 6. Cornerback; 7. Offensive Tackle; 8. Tailback; 9. Quarterback..
Team 2014 Cap Numbers…$133,736,499…Offense: $54,001,648; Defense: $68,908,543; Special: $5,476,250.
Potential 2015 Free Agents (Player/Current Salary)…Unrestricted: offensive tackle Bryan Bulaga ($2,649,000); cornerback Jarrett Bush ($1,750,000); wide receiver Randall Cobb ($802,355); quarterback Matt Flynn ($1,000,000); nose guard Letroy Guion ($1,000,000); cornerback Davon House ($585,145); fullback John Kuhn ($1,030,000); nose guard B.J. Raji ($4,000,000); quarterback Scott Tolzien ($600,000); cornerback Tramon Williams ($8,250,000)…Restricted: offensive tackle Don Barclay ($480,833); wide receiver Jarrett Boykin ($480,000), inside linebacker Jamari Lattimore ($466,667).
Quarterback…#12-Aaron Rodgers; #10-Matt Flynn; #16-Scott Tolzien.
With Rodgers at the helm, the Packers possess one of the elite field leaders in the league, and the team has two adequate temporary fill-ins with Flynn and Tolzien.
The ever-steady Rodgers is starting to build his numbers this season, as his QB rating of 120.1 leads the league. His 28 touchdown passes are tied for second, three interceptions are tied for first and his pass completion percentage of .666 is sixth-best among starting signal callers. The mobile passer is also averaging 6.5 yards as a ball-carrier, finding the end zone once with his legs. As far as the Pack is concerned, he’s worth every bit of the $17.55 million salary they will pay him this year and the $18.25 million he’s on the books for in 2015.
Expect a change on the depth chart here next season, as Rodgers is now north of 30 years old and both Flynn and Tolzien could be gone via free agency. Flynn might not be worth the $1 million salary he’s earning this season, but the Pack could offer Tolzien the second-string role on a deal similar to Flynn’s. Both are on standby entering the second half of the season, as Rodgers is nursing a left hamstring pull that he suffered during the first half vs. the Saints.
Later in the draft, a quarterback that has vastly underrated ability is Cody Fajardo, making the most with a suspect roster at Nevada, where his passing and rushing totals rival those of former Wolf Pack standout, the 49ers’ Colin Kaepernick.
Receivers…Flanker #87-Jordy Nelson; #11-Jarrett Boykin; #83-Jeff Janis…Split End #18-Randall Cobb; #6-Kevin Dorsey…Third Receiver #17-Davante Adams…Tight End #81-Andrew Quarless; #89 Richard Rodgers; #86-Brandon Bostick…IR-wide receiver Jared Abbrederis.
After signing Jordy Nelson to an extension that will pay him $4.6 million in 2015, the next priority for Green Bay needs to be insuring that Randall Cobb provides them with his “autograph.” With the banner 2014 campaign he’s producing, pulling in 54 balls for 79 yards and leading the NFC with 10 touchdown catches, finding a replacement for him in the draft is nearly impossible. Few players have excelled in multiple roles like Cobb has, as he’s also averaging 10.2 yards as a punt returner.
Nelson is more than living up to his contract extension. The team’s leading receiver is among the league leaders with 60 receptions for 998 yards and nine touchdowns. Rookie Davante Adams has also chipped in. He’s pulled in 27 balls for an 11.9-yard average, reaching the end zone three times. The three wideouts have combined to pull down 22 of Rodgers’ 28 scoring strikes.
Depth is needed later in the draft, but the team has high hopes that 2014 late-round find Jared Abbrederis will be fully recovered from the ACL tear that has him residing on the injured reserve list. Behind Nelson and Cobb, little has come from the other receivers. Jarrett Boykin has battled groin issues, limiting him to two catches for 17 yards, Jeff Janis had added two others and Kevin Dorsey had just one grab before going on IR.
The tight end unit will need to be addressed in the draft. Andrew Quarless is nothing more than a decent No. 2 guy, leading the Pack’s tight ends with 19 catches, but there are a lot of holes in his receiving game. Richard Rodgers has 10 catches, but outside of a 43-yarder, he’s failed to impress. Depending on where the Packers finish in the rankings, a safety-valve receiver with size is critical to keep the “hounds” on defense from turning Aaron Rodgers into a chew toy. The perfect solution is Penn State’s Jesse James, one tough hombre whose blocking, big-play ability and 6-foot-7, 271 frame has scouts hailing him as another Rob Gronkowski.
Running Backs…#27-Eddie Lacy; #44-James Starks; #26-DuJuan Harris
The running game hasn’t flourished, though part of that is due to opposing defenses focusing on taking away Lacy. Even with Rodgers having a monster season through the air, the Eagles, for instance, tried to win by stopping Lacy.
Lacy paces the ground unit, averaging 4.2 yards with five touchdowns on 129 carries, but he does not look like the steamroller he displayed last season. He also leads the backfield with 27 receptions for 322 yards, and some big plays of late have him ranking second in the league in yards after the catch per catch. He’s also a tremendous pass protector.
Starks has been given 57 carries this season, picking up 212 yards (3.7 ypc) with only one touchdown. He also has pulled in nine passes, but with a 2015 salary cap figure of $1.837 million, the team can save $1.475 million of that amount if they decide to look elsewhere for a cheaper and younger “caddy” to play behind Lacy. Harris has been given just 16 chances to carry the ball this year. An exclusive rights free agent after the season, he might be affordable enough ($555K) to at least bring into camp next year, but a third-down, change-of-pace back like Auburn’s Corey Grant or Northwestern castoff Venric Mark-West Texas A&M might bring decent value in the later stages of the draft.
Part of Green Bay’s success running the ball the last few years has come with John Kuhn serving as the lead blocker. Green Bay is one of the few teams that still utilize the classic fullback position. The team just needs to see if Kuhn’s blocking for the tailback and protecting their franchise quarterback is worth spending more than the $1.03 million they are dolling out for Kuhn’s services this year, especially since he will be an unrestricted free agent after the season and both Seattle and San Francisco are expected to be highly interested in securing Kuhn’s services. If he does leave, a late-round choice could see LSU’s versatile Kenny Hilliard be a nice fit for the Packers’ scheme, as he can get the tough yards between tackles, catch out of the backfield and block like a lineman.
Offensive Line…Left Tackle #69-David Bakhtiari…Left Guard #71-Josh Sitton; #65-Lane Taylor; Center #63-Corey Linsley; #73-J.C. Tretter; #72-Garth Gerhart…Right Guard #70-T.J. Lang…Right Tackle #75-Bryan Bulaga…IR #67-Right tackle Don Barclay; #77-offensive tackle Aaron Adams.
This unit has slowly developed into a strength of the team, which is what coach Mike McCarthy forecasted before the season. It helps that they’ve remained relatively healthy. Of the starting five for the Week 1 game, only Bryan Bulaga has missed a game.
Having started just one game since being drafted in the first round in 2011, the Pack finally washed their hands of right tackle Derek Sherrod, adding $825K of dead money to their 2014 cap figures. Sherrod was expected to be gone after the season via the free agent route, but with injuries and less-than-spectacular play, the team felt it was better to cut the umbilical cord now, rather than have him play out the season.
The pleasant surprise has been the stellar play of rookie late-round find Corey Linsley, who has more than held his own weekly vs. the massive nose guards. Linsley was supposed to learn behind J.C. Tretter in the pivot, but Tretter’s injury in the preseason allowed Linsley to stake claim to the starting job. Tretter, experienced at both guard and tackle, will likely remain in a swingman role the rest of the season for Green Bay. With Sherrod no longer around, the former Ivy Leaguer will be needed at tackle, if injuries pop up for the starting tackle duo.
Josh Sitton has been rock-steady at left guard and T.J. Lang has found his niche at right guard. They form one of the NFL’s top guard duos, and their experience and intelligence was a key in Linsley’s quick growth. Without versatile backup Don Barclay, who started 14 games at right tackle in 2013, Lane Taylor is the top reserve at both guard spots.
Look for the team to shuttle in third-day draft types to provide depth in 2015 training camp. Things could change and Green Bay may have to go for linemen earlier than they want, as Bulaga ($2,649,000 in 2014) is an unrestricted free agent after the season. If they opt to go for a lineman early, they could have a shot at Iowa’s Brandon Scherff with a pick in the top 20.
Defensive Line…Left End #95-Datone Jones; #93-Josh Boyd…Nose Guard #98-Leroy Guion; #64-Mike Pennel…Right End #76-Mike Daniels; #97-Luther Robinson…IR #90-nose guard B.J. Raji; #94-right end Khyri Thornton.
The team not only lost B.J. Raji (torn bicep) and Khyri Thornton (hamstring) to the injured reserve list, the squad is also dealing with a lingering ankle problem by starting right end Datone Jones that sidelined him for the last three weeks and had him hobbled for the Minnesota game in Week 12. Long a problem area for the Packers, the defensive front is desperately in need of a pass rusher.
Thanks to their inefficiency in plugging the gaps, the defense has allowed opponents to convert 43.5 percent of their third downs, which ranks 24th in the league. The Packers rank 29th in the NFL in stopping the run (139.2 ypg). The team has also allowed a 28th-ranked 4.46 yards per carry, as their slew of missed tackles (at least a dozen each in the Seattle and New Orleans games) continues to frustrate the team brass.
Barring an unexpected major need elsewhere, the Packers have to address their front wall problems through the draft and free agent market. The line’s leading tackler is Daniels, as the right end has collected 26 tackles, but has gotten to the quarterback just 2.5 times after getting home 6.5 times in 2013. Jones has delivered only 14 tackles and a sack. The backups don’t offer much relief, with Boyd making 13 tackles and Robinson accounting for two stops.
Jones, the 2013 first-round pick, has not been the answer up front the team was hoping, as he’s made 4.5 sacks in his two seasons. Any chance for the team moving on from the UCLA product is a problem, as the team will be charged $3.1 million in dead money, saving only $998K in cap space if the team parts ways with their second-year player after the current season. In comparison, Daniels is scheduled to make $734K next year.
There is no question that the team needs a quality pass rusher – one with size and strength. One that immediately comes to mind that can be around for Green Bay late in the first round is Baylor’s Shawn Oakman, who some scouts liken to Richard Seymour. At 6-foot-8 and 275 pounds, those scouts feel that he is ideal to operate on the flank in a 3-4 scheme or shift inside when the team utilizes its nickel alignment.
There is little doubt that B.J. Raji will not be in a Packers uniform next season. Quite frankly, it was a big surprise when the team re-signed him this year, as they sort of bid against themselves, with no other NFL team interested in offering the 2009 first-round bust the money or multiple-year contract he was seeking last offseason. He settled on a one-year, $4 million deal, then sustained a season-ending biceps injury in the preseason. It was a big blow to the defense.
Further poor decisions in attempts to fix the defensive line cost Green Bay a second-round pick in 2012, as Michigan’s Jerel Worthy was soon shown the door and shipped off to New England. The Patriots (then the Chiefs) released him, and he’s out of the league.
Raji’s eventual replacement could be 2014 third-round pick Khyri Thornton, who many suspect is being “stashed” on IR with a hamstring injury. The additional year observing has the team hoping the “light will go on upstairs” for this football neophyte who has just four years of organized football to show on his résumé. In the interim, Green Bay is plugging the middle with Letroy Guion, who has contributed 20 tackles with 2.5 sacks in eight starting assignments.
Guion is an unrestricted free agent after the season, but if he accepts an offer close to his 2014 salary ($1.0 million), the team would like to have him back. If not, they will likely use a mid-round selection on a wide body like Willis McCarthy (UCLA). The best nose guard in college is Washington’s Danny Shelton, but it will cost a first-rounder to secure the massive pass rusher’s services to man the middle.
Linebacker…Left Outside #56-Julius Peppers; #96-Mike Neal; #91-Jay Elliott…Left Inside #50-A.J. Hawk; #57-Jamari Lattimore; #54-Carl Bradford…Middle #58-Sam Barrington; #59-Brad Jones…Right Outside #52-Clay Matthews; #53-Nick Perry…IR #51-Nate Palmer; #55-Andy Mulumba.
No matter what they are paying Clay Matthews ($10.95 million in 2014/$12.7 in 2015) – or where they are playing him – you will get no argument from the peanut gallery or the team’s shareholders. His numbers are not Matthews-like (35 tackles, 4.5 sacks), but he’s battled through a groin injury (some suspect it is a sports hernia) and made a big difference upon taking some snaps inside to alleviate the team’s major weakness.
The left side outside linebacker spot is being shared by former defensive ends Julius Peppers and Mike Neal. Peppers (five sacks) and Neal (two) have combined for 53 tackles and collected seven of the team’s 25 sacks. Peppers might not be great on a play-to-play basis, but he has three fumble recoveries, two forced fumbles and two interceptions (both returned for touchdowns). Combined, Peppers and Neal are costing the team $7.25 million in base salary ($3.5 to Peppers) for this season. Next year, those two will be on board to make $16.25 million, including $12 million to Peppers. If they decide to cut ties with the former All-Pro, they will save $7 million in cap money, but will have to carry over $5 million in “dead pool” money for the privilege of having him play this season.
Matthews’ backup, 2012 first-round selection Nick Perry, has struggled to adjust to life as a linebacker. Used more as a situational pass rusher this season (three sacks), he has made 18 tackles. Making $2.045 million this year, Perry is scheduled to pull in $2.39 million next season and has been bothered this year by a wrist and shoulder problems. Cutting him would save the team $1.4 million in cap space, but will take a $973K hit in the dead pool.
The biggest change on the roster is expected to occur at the two inside linebacker positions. While A.J. Hawk is second on the team with 70 tackles, he is perhaps the slowest reactionary defender vs. the pass than any other inside linebacker in the league. For a two-down effort, the team could get someone much cheaper than the $5.1 million Hawk will cost the team next year. He comes with a $1.6 million cap hit, but will save the team another #3.5 million in 2015 if they let him go after the 2014 schedule.
The Packers were forced to put Matthews inside because Brad Jones has been nowhere near the defender he displayed in 2012, Jamari Lattimore couldn’t keep the job and Sam Barrington proved just as ineffective as the others. Jones, stealing $3.925 million from the Packers’ shareholders this season, has provided five tackles for that paycheck. It is highly doubtful that he will be brought back next season, especially at the numbers on that contract ($4.75 million). Cutting him will save $3.75 million in cap space.
If the team makes the front seven a primary area to address in the draft, the inside linebacker spot should jump to the top of their “needs” board. Unless a stud defensive lineman slips, the team really has to look into Mississippi State’s Benardrick McKinney, who is being hailed by scouts as a player with all the ability that Harry Carson showed during his Hall of Fame career with the New York Giants. McKinney offers the team not only a player with weak-side and strong-side starting experience, but at 6-foot-4.5 and 245 pounds, he towers over any of the other squat “Mike” ‘backers in this year’s draft pool.
Secondary…Left Cornerback #38-Tramon Williams; #39-Demetri Goodson…Strong Safety #21-Hasean Clinton-Dix; #42-Morgan Burnett; #28-Sean Richardson…Free Safety #33-Micah Hyde…Right Cornerback #31-Davon House; #37-Sam Shields; #24-Jarrett Bush…Nickel-Back #29-Casey Hayward.
It will be interesting to see what this unit looks like next season. Green Bay ranks 13th in pass defense (238.2 ypg) but is tied for third with 14 interceptions and ranks fifth with 56 passes defensed.
Free agency could cost the team a Pro Bowl-caliber cornerback in Tramon Williams, who is seeking a hefty multi-year deal after making $8.25 million this year. Williams paces the secondary with eight pass deflections, in addition to picking off one pass. Davon House, who played frequently early in the season, has fallen out of the rotation. He is tied with Williams for the team lead in passes defensed. A fourth-round pick from the dreadful 2011 draft class, he also is in his last season under contract. This is also Jarrett Bush’s final year under contract. He is making $1.75 million for his role on special teams.
Sam Shields, who was re-signed to a lucrative deal just before free agency, has two interceptions and seven passes defensed. Shields is scheduled to make $9.175 million in 2015 and is being counted on to be the top defender in the secondary for the immediate future.
Nickel-back Casey Hayward will probably take over for Williams in the starting lineup if the veteran isn’t retained. He’s leading the team with three interceptions, recovered two fumbles and scored two touchdowns. The ball just seems to find Hayward, a second-round pick in 2012 that is due to make $1 million in 2015.
I will admit, I thought 2014 first-rounder HaHa Clinton-Dix was not going to cut it, as he struggled quite a bit last year at Alabama and Tide defenders have bombed out more than a 1974 ford Pinto chugging down the highways. Even though it took him a few weeks to move into the starting lineup, he’s been a front-line player for most of the season and ranks third on the team in tackles while adding a physical presence.
Burnett has bounced back from a poor season and leads the team in tackles while serving as the secondary’s key communicator. Converted cornerback Micah Hyde started the season at safety and has played extensively as the nickel defender. He’s fourth on the team in tackles, meaning Burnett, Clinton-Dix and Hyde have produced 188 of the 671 tackles.
In the draft, the team might look to bring in a few more cornerbacks, especially if Williams, House and Bush bolt via free agency. But, unless they deem Burnett’s 2015 salary of $5.15 million too pricey, all three safeties should return. Besides, cutting Burnett will result in a $4.95 million cap hit.
Punter #8-Tim Masthay…Placekicker #2-Mason Crosby…Punt Returner #18-Randall Cobb; #33-Micah Hyde…Kickoff Returner #26-DuJuan Harris; #83-Jeff Janis.
Punter Tim Masthay ranks 15th with a 45.8-yard gross average and 20th with a net of 39.2, but he’s one of the better punters in the league because of the elements he kicks in during the final two months of the season. Kicker Mason Crosby is 16 of 18 on field goals, with one of the misses being blocked. His horrendous 2012 season seems like ancient history.
Cobb and Hyde have shared the punt-return duties. Cobb has averaged 9.5 yards on his 11 returns while Hyde has averaged 18.0, with a 75-yard touchdown against Philadelphia. Reserve tailback Harris handles most of the kickoff return calls, but Hyde is also available as a capable fill-in.
Capping The Future
The current roster is projected to have a cap figure of $121,193,464 in 2015, with the offense earning $47,093,561, the defense checking in at $67,650,301 and special team players costing $5,866,250.
“Dead pool” money currently holds only $583,352 towards their 2015 cap numbers, with a chunk of that being a charge for 2012 second-round draft bust Jerel Worthy ($327,855) and retired tailback Johnathan Franklin being on the books for another $202,734. A total of 13 players make up the total dead pool, but only Kevin Dorsey’s numbers ($28,424) reach five figures.
2015 Top “Dirty Dozen” Salary Cap Players
|Name||Base Salary||Bonuses||Cap Number||Dead Money & Cap Savings|
If the Draft Was Held Today…Barring a late-season collapse, the Packers’ draft position will be determined on their playoff success. There is no question that the team will have to address pressing needs for the front-seven defensive unit. Depending on who might be available at that spot, Green Bay could decide to take an edge rusher like Kentucky’s Alvin “Bud” Dupree, Michigan State’s Shilique Calhoun, Nebraska’s Randy Gregory or Florida’s Dante Fowler Jr., but I am sure that if Baylor’s Shawn Oakman is still available, Green Bay will set a record getting their card up to the podium and into the commissioner’s hands.
If I Was Drafting For Green Bay in Round One…Another area they need to address in the first two rounds is the huge void they have at inside linebacker. With a roster loaded with blue-collar, squat types playing inside, a big physical presence like Benardrick McKinney-Mississippi State would be my choice, if Oakman is long since gone.