2016 record: 10-6
Point differential: +44
Turnover ratio: +8
Another year, another NFC North title in Green Bay. While a poor start threw the division into question, Aaron Rodgers and the Packers rallied strong to capture another title and followed that by upsetting the Cowboys en route to the NFC Championship Game.
Last year saw career performances from the likes of Davante Adams, Bryan Bulaga, Mason Crosby, and Nick Perry to help spike up an otherwise average and injury-prone roster. The stars here remain elite, as Rodgers, Jordy Nelson, Clay Matthews and Mike Daniels are all great franchise cornerstones. But for this team to get back to last year’s winning success, they will need some others to step up with career years and good health. That includes Mike McCarthy, who did not have his best season last year.
Five Questions for the Green Bay Packers
- What’s going on with the offensive line?
Green Bay waved goodbye to one of the league’s better guard tandems over the last year. They unexpectedly dumped Josh Sitton last summer, and this offseason allowed T.J. Lang to depart in free agency. Both went to NFC North rivals, and if Lang in Detroit is even close to what Sitton was in Chicago in 2016, the move will look bad no matter how the replacement performs.
Lane Taylor was adequate as Sitton’s replacement at left guard, though he’s a very different style of player. Taylor is a pass-blocking specialist who handles bigger defensive linemen extremely well. He does not move backwards, which is great. The problem for Taylor is he doesn’t move well in any other direction either. The running game sorely missed Sitton’s range and second-level aggression.
On the right side, Green Bay is hoping for a comeback season for veteran Jahri Evans. Just five years ago Evans was the league’s highest-paid guard and a worthy All-Pro for the Saints, but age hit him hard in the meantime. He appeared to have lost quickness in his punch and ability to reset his feet, one of the reasons cited by Seattle when that OL-desperate team cut him after a poor preseason. The 34-year-old is savvy enough to get by, but again the Packers sacrificed range and athleticism in the run game to slightly upgrade the interior pass protection. It’s an interesting tradeoff.
The good news is the tackles are outstanding. Right tackle Bryan Bulaga earned my PFWA vote as the league’s most improved player in 2016. Finally free of the seemingly chronic nagging injuries, the veteran from Iowa got better at pretty much everything. His ability to chip down and then engage a different defender at the second level is unparalleled. Left tackle David Bakhtiari was phenomenal in pass protection; Pro Football Focus had him on the hook for just four combined hits and sacks on Rodgers and a clean slate in several games. Given how many deep drops and play action fakes the Packers offense utilizes, it makes the fifth-year pro look even better. He’s progressed tremendously since his oft-ugly rookie campaign.
Center Corey Linsley is the best run blocker of the unit and has emerged as a solid all-around player. The team lost top interior reserve J.C. Tretter, a former starter of very similar skill level, in free agency, so it is imperative Linsley remain healthy. The only real depth on the line is third tackle Jason Spriggs, who plays too lightweight to kick inside. Spriggs, the team’s second-round pick in 2016, was not ready for prime time in limited rookie duty. I do like sixth-round rookie center Kofi Amichia if he can add--and keep--some needed bulk. He played in college at South Florida in the 280s, way too light in a division which features the likes of Haloti Ngata, Linval Joseph, and Akiem Hicks.
- Are the youngsters on defense ready for prime time?
It might surprise fans to know that no team allowed more yards per play (6.0) in 2016 than the Green Bay Packers. Ironically, the defense actually got worse late in the year when the team went on a 6-game winning streak to seize the NFC North title. Including the playoffs, the Packers allowed at least 400 yards in 5 of their last 6 games. It took a confluence of an amazing offensive surge, some fortuitous turnovers and plain old luck.
The defense will need to get more stops in 2017, and they will rely on a collection of young players to make it happen. From Kenny Clark and Blake Martinez in the front to Damarious Randall and Josh Jones in the back, the Packers are getting a lot more reliant on the fruits of the last three drafts on defense.
The defensive line is a prime example. Of the top five players on the depth chart, only Mike Daniels has more than two years of experience. Daniels, an underrated do-it-all talent, is the greybeard at 28 years old. He’s a great cornerstone at end, but he needs a lot of help from youngsters Clark, Dean Lowry, Montravius Adams and Christian Ringo. That’s the Green Bay defensive line depth chart, not counting journeyman Ricky Jean-Francois. And it could be a better one than the casual fine might think.
Clark is the key. The 2016 first-rounder didn’t do much statistically as a rookie with just 21 tackles and no sacks, but he’s already shown he can be a solid run stuffer. At UCLA he was good at collapsing the pocket in front of him and shedding to get to the ball. If he can incorporate more of that into his repertoire, he and Daniels make for a solid DE combo in Dom Capers’ 3-4 front. Lowry, another 2016 rookie, notched two December sacks as he got acclimated to playing more inside than his collegiate stand-up rush end role. Ringo and Adams figure to share the nose. If Adams, this year’s third-round pick, can learn to follow up his strong initial moves, he could be really good in the middle. Ringo is a success story as much because most NFL teams saw him as a long snapper as anything he does on the field.
Randall and Quinten Rollins were the first and second-round picks in 2015, and thus far neither has lived up to billing. Randall played his way to a benching last year, unable to play with the sort of awareness or anticipation needed on the outside. The Packers are planning on trying him in the slot this year, though that doesn’t seem to suit his physical skills all that well. Rollins, whose point guard skills and quickness seem better suited for the slot, will try to stay afloat outside or perhaps inside in dime packages. The potential is there with both, especially Randall, but the Packers desperately need them to prove it after a very disappointing start to their careers.
A pair of rookies will help bolster the ranks. Once again the Packers double-dipped in the early rounds on defensive backs, spending second-round picks on CB Kevin King and safety Josh Jones. King brings length and the ability to play outside or inside, an odd trait for a tall corner. He will need to stop holding so much. Jones tested off the charts and is a heat-seeking missile at safety, but I wasn’t a big fan on his film at NC State. Playing next to an accomplished Haha Clinton-Dix, another recent high draft pick, should help steady his tendency to overrun plays. Clinton-Dix has developed nicely into a great run stopper and a savvy pass defender. If he and fellow starter Morgan Burnett can help Jones learn to read plays quicker and react more under control, the Packers will have a very good safety trio.
At linebacker, Jake Ryan and Blake Martinez are both fourth-round picks who are tailor-made to play inside in a 3-4. Ryan is stiff and limited in range but a smart and reliable between-the-tackles run defender. His work in short-area coverage improved in his second season. Martinez was a target in the passing game as he too is stiff athletically but doesn’t have Ryan’s quick instincts. The hope is the game will move a little slower for him in his second season. It needs to because the depth behind them is special teamer Joe Thomas. Or at least that appears to be the design; Thomas actually led all Green Bay linebackers in defensive snaps last season.
- Can the Packers run the ball?
The starting running back is a wide receiver with durability issues. The primary backup is a fourth-round rookie with durability, balance and vision issues, backed up by a fifth-round rookie who lacks speed and has a lengthy injury history of his own.
That’s the pessimistic view of the Packers’ running situation. Valid as those facts may be, it’s easy to see this offense running the ball both more often and more effectively in 2017.
Ty Montgomery, the wide receiver turned RB, is the key. He proved explosive in his first full season playing in the backfield, averaging just under 6 yards per carry and finding the end zone three times. The problem for the Packers was getting him the ball enough, as he managed just 77 carries. Montgomery did haul in 44 passes, almost all of which were an extension of the run game. He’s fast, elusive and blessed with extraordinary balance while at top speed. He needs at least double the amount of carries. With Eddie Lacy and James Starks both gone, he should absorb most of their combined 134 carries.
That low rushing attempt total stands out. Montgomery led the team with his 77, with Lacy next at 71 and then Aaron Rodgers at 67. Only two teams had fewer rushing attempts, and considering almost all of Rodgers’ efforts were not designed runs, it makes the 22.8 rusher per game seem even paltrier. They had the second-worst run/pass balance in the league after years of being substantially closer to the top. The Packers offense must find better balance, but the lack of experience at running back is a real hindrance in convincing coach Mike McCarthy to take the ball out of Rodgers’ hands as a passer to trust to guys who have no proven NFL ability.
Jamaal Williams is the aforementioned fourth-round rookie. A bruiser from BYU, he should nicely fill the between-the-tackles role. He will be one of the slowest RBs in the league but it didn’t stop him from reliably grinding tough yards in college. As a bonus, Williams is also strong in all facets of the passing game. He should at least take over Starks’ old workload.
The rest of the depth chart is a total crapshoot. Green Bay is simply hoping the emphasis is on the shoot and not the crap. Late-round rookies Aaron Jones and Devante Mays figure to be the depth. Jones has big play potential if he can stay on the field, something which was a big issue for the speedy UTEP product. He carried a reputation as an all-or-nothing runner in college, peppering in breakout 25-yard scampers with a bunch of 1 and 2 yard efforts where he quickly went down on first contact.
One hidden asset is fullback Aaron Ripkowski, an above-average lead blocker who can also serve as an effective short-yardage back. He’s one of the best of a dying breed.
- Will Aaron Rodgers win the MVP?
This question has an easy and obvious answer. Of course Aaron Rodgers can win the MVP. He should be a leading candidate. A year after leading the league with 40 TD passes against just 7 INTs, the 33-year-old quarterback is still in his prime. And his prime is as good as perhaps any other QB prime in NFL history.
Despite his impressive numbers, 2016 was not a great year for Rodgers. Along with the rest of the offense, the 2005 first-round pick started slowly. He was forcing throws and letting pressure, both from the defense and from the relative lack of healthy talent around him, to bother him more than fans were used to seeing. Once the receiving corps got healthy and the running game found some legs, it was back to MVP-caliber Rodgers.
This year everything points to Rodgers having a full season of outstanding play. Jordy Nelson is healthy after being slowed at the start of last season. He’s one of the best receivers in the league, able to run routes at any level and run away from defenders after the catch. Nelson also has the full confidence from Rodgers, something which can be fickle.
That’s what made Davante Adams’ breakout last year so impressive. Adams to that point had been a big disappointment, an unreliable receiver who ran lazy routes at times and was on the end of many a Rodgers death gaze. The second-round pick in 2014 finally looked like he belonged, and like Rodgers wanted him. His 75 receptions and 997 yards nearly doubled his output in Adams’ first two seasons. His 12 TDs gave Rodgers and the Packers a much-needed bigger target in the red zone. With Randall Cobb a great, reliable second banana to Nelson, having Adams emerge made the Packers passing attack so much more balanced and potent. Cobb is a wizard in the slot, lightning quick and nifty as well as being explosive with the ball in his hands. Nelson can line up anywhere, and Adams flanking on the other side gives Rodgers a lot of choices.
His options got even better when the team signed Martellus Bennett and Lance Kendricks to overhaul the biggest weakness, tight end. Bennett is a pro’s pro, a consistent threat coming from an inline alignment or flexed out. Three years ago he caught 90 passes for a bad Bears offense, but he proved he can play even better with more talent around him in the last two years in New England. His 12.7 yards per reception and 7 TDs last year were both full-time career-highs. Kendricks is more of a supersized wideout playing tight end, but the Packers have needed someone capable in that role. Bennett’s unique personality and penchant for going off-script is something of a risk, but it could also bring more fire to a locker room that doesn’t get freshness from the outside very often. I love the gamble here and I strongly suspect Rodgers will too, especially in a division where none of the opponents have shown they can cover the middle of the field against the pass.
- Can the Packers rush the passer?
Much of the answer here depends on Clay Matthews, and that in and of itself makes an affirmative answer uncertain. Matthews remains a popular figure with his flowing hair and intense competitiveness. He also is an increasing durability problem, and last year was the first time where the collection of years of injuries finally looked like they were taking a toll. Matthews missed four full games and was clearly not right in most of the others. Hamstring and shoulder issues left him a step slow and largely unable to deliver pop behind his hits or go all-out reaching with his arms. He recorded just 5 sacks, but that isn’t the full story either. Matthews graded out as the worst regular linebacker in the league in run defense at Pro Football Focus, and opponents stopped being afraid of him. The packers desperately need him back at full intimidating strength.
Nick Perry was a great story a year ago, notching 11 sacks and earning some votes as most improved player. Much of his success came as he was finally healthy after years of struggling with various maladies. Perry cashed in on a new contract which expects him to continue being a double-digit sack guy. That’s a real reach; Perry never topped 4 sacks in a season in his first four years and his durability will always be an issue.
Keeping both Matthews and Perry on the field and at full speed is paramount, because there is little help around them at rushing the passer. Julius Peppers is gone. Mike Daniels, as noted above, is very good at collapsing the pocket but not a great sack master. He had 4 last year. Morgan Burnett was next in line with 3 as a blitzing safety. The biggest legit knock on the Packers is the lack of dynamic athletes on the defensive front, and that’s even with Matthews at full speed. Guys like Dean Lowry and rookie Vince Biegel can help here, but don’t expect the Packers to finish 11th in sack percentage once again without a lot of fortunate breaks. Legendary defensive coordinator Dom Capers has been hit-and-miss with his schematic wrinkles lately, and the lack of athleticism also limits his creativity.
At the halfway point of the 2016 season there was very legit reason to panic. Aaron Rodgers didn’t look right, the defense couldn’t get off the field and Mike McCarthy’s coaching acumen was openly questioned by even the most sycophantic members of the Green Bay media. A late run which catapulted the team to yet another NFC North crown erases a lot of the stain, but that wobbly team is still visible.
Health is important for every team, but perhaps none more than Green Bay. If the core of the roster (Rodgers, Matthews, Perry, Daniels, Nelson, the offensive tackles) are all healthy, this is unquestionably the best team in the NFC North. It might be the best team in the entire NFC and would certainly get a chance to prove it in the postseason. The problem is the depth isn’t proven, especially on offense. With so many key players aging and with their injury histories, it’s tough to see this team escape without a significant casualty or two. The special teams remain shaky, notably the punting.
The bottom line here is none of the negatives really matter all that much if Rodgers is a deserving MVP finalist. The flip side is, this roster almost requires Rodgers to be that great week in and week out to do more than scrape to 9 wins and a Wild Card round loss. I think the addition of Marty Bennett and the overhauled run game pays dividends to help Rodgers, and the defense will do just enough to close out close games. It might not always look pretty for the fans or for Coach McCarthy, but Green Bay captures another NFC North crown with another late-season surge. The early schedule is menacing but sets up nicely for a 6-game winning streak to launch the Packers to an 11-5 finish.