The Super Bowl and it’s aftermath are drawing to a close. The Seattle Seahawks are World Champions. The Green Bay Packers have a whole bunch of free agents and a whole bunch of cap space. While the cap space might be misleading (big contracts forthcoming for Nelson, Cobb etc.) it is still present enough to keep the Packers out of cap hell and continuing to make the playoffs every season. People are starting to get a little bit restless that the team’s window that was supposedly so open when a 27 year old Aaron Rodgers won the Super Bowl with one of the youngest teams in the league is closing. To keep that window open and to make it more of a “Super Bowl” window and not a “playoff” window, the correct additions, retentions, and subtractions are going to need to be made in the next 4 to 5 months of the player acquisition period.
I nearly decided to name this article “draft needs” for a few reasons. First being that I tend to gravitate more to lending my opinions on college prospects than current NFL personnel. I don’t pretend to have a good grip on which high name free agents will pan out, and I certainly don’t pay enough attention to the bottom of other NFL rosters to know whether an acquisition of one of those players is going to go well, in the case of an Al Harris or a Ryan Grant, or if it might go the way of Anthony Smith and Matthew Mulligan. The other main reason is that Unrestricted Free Agency isn’t something that the man that runs our favorite team really likes to dabble in. Sure, he hit UFA home runs with Charles Woodson and Ryan Pickett, and deserves credit for never handing out the Joe Johnson (the former Saint and Packer DL, not the Brooklyn Nets SG [although his contract is bad too]) albatross UFA contract, but his level of inactivity drives fans insane.
But this isn’t just about draft needs, it is about offseason needs. I can’t decide whether it’s my personal opinion or just common sense that the Packers have too much potential while simultaneously having too many glaring weaknesses to just address in the draft. In my opinion if the Packers stay healthy (huge if) they still have one of the 4 or 5 most talented rosters in the National Football League. They also have huge holes, or potentially huge holes that need to be addressed. Add that in to the fact that Ted Thompson has never been a needs based drafter and it seems to me like if there’s not veteran acquisitions this year, the problems that have plagued the Packers in the last 3 playoffs will go unchallenged. So here are the top 5 offseason needs for the Green and Gold.
Over the next five weeks I’ll be breaking down these positions individually every Friday. Each week I’ll predict who will and won’t be back from the 2013 team and where Ted Thompson might target a solution. Be sure to stop by PackersTalk.com each week!
Players under contract for 2014: Morgan Burnett, Sean Richardson, MD Jennings (RFA), Chris Banjo (ER)
Starters Morgan Burnett and MD Jennings both ranked outside the top 60 safeties according to Pro Football Focus. Whether or not you believe in their system is irrelevant. Outisde the top 60 by any measure isn’t even close to acceptable. Just look at this list of stud safeties on the past 6 Super Bowl winners: Earl Thomas (SEA), Kam Chancellor (SEA), Ed Reed (BAL), Antrel Rolle (NYG), Kenny Phillips (NYG), Nick Collins (GB), Darren Sharper (NO), Troy Polamalu (PIT). Elite safety play all over the place.
How in the world can one look at that list and believe that you can win a championship with the worst starting pair of safeties in the NFL? You can’t. I want to make one thing clear. I still believe in Morgan Burnett. I really do believe that Morgan Burnett can be what he was drafted to be, and that is the solid, unspectacular safety next to a star. That star was supposed to be Nick Collins (who is trying to make a comeback). He’s not a Green Bay Packer any more. The Packers don’t need to release Morgan Burnett to be good at the safety position, they need to reduce what they ask of him and set him next to a star.
Pipe Dream: Jairus Byrd
Possibilities: TJ Ward, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Calvin Pryor, Dion Bailey
2. Inside Linebacker
Players under contract for 2014: Victor Aiyewa, Sam Barrington, AJ Hawk, Brad Jones, Jamari Lattimore (RFA), Chase Thomas (reserve/futures)
I have the same thoughts about both AJ Hawk and Brad Jones that I do about Morgan Burnett. I feel like both of their abilities would work out just fine for a very good defense if they were paired with a star player. If AJ Hawk played next to a great athlete, that’d be a hell of a ILB duo. If Brad Jones played next to a true thumper who could control the line of scrimmage and intimidate opposing offenses I think we’d be set as well. Having those two playing together just hasn’t been creating positive enough results.
As far as I understand it the Brad Jones contract was put together in a manner that he could easily be released or restructured if he didn’t pan out as a starter and I think that’s clearly the case. If the Packers do absolutely nothing at the position (gosh, I hope not) I think that releasing him outright and using Jamari Lattimore is not a big enough drop off in play (if any) to not be able to justify the significant drop in salary. An ILB who’s a star in coverage or the thumping leader of the defense would be a huge get for this team.
Pipe Dreams: CJ Mosley, Donald Butler
Possibilities: Arthur Moats, Joe Mays, Ryan Shazier, Yawin Smallwood, Shayne Skov, Chris Borland, Christian Jones
3. Defensive Line
Players under contract for 2014: Josh Boyd, Mike Daniels, Datone Jones, Jerel Worthy
That list above looks pretty insane, doesn’t it? All 3 of the Packers starters: BJ Raji, Ryan Pickett, and Johnny Jolly are unrestricted free agents. Longtime source of depth CJ Wilson is gone as well. The Green Bay defensive line is going to need a remodel for both the simple reason that it has had that many contracts come up and also that the lien broke down late in the season. A unit that spearheaded a top 8 unit against the run in the early going dropped off precipitously, finishing 25th in the NFL against the run.
It’s reasonably possible that somebody from the group of Raji, Pickett, Wilson, and Jolly comes back. I’d say it’s even possible that more than one returns. They’re certainly not all coming back though, and with the only proven commodity under contract checking in at about 6’0″ (Mike Daniels) the Packers either need to fortify the position or pray for big (read: huge) leaps from talented players like Datone Jones, Josh Boyd and Jerel Worthy. Team needs include foremost a true nose tackle and some depth and size at defensive end.
Pipe Dreams: JaDaveon Clowney, Arthur Jones
Possibilities: Tyson Jackson, Linval Joseph, Jason Hatcher, Stephon Tuitt, Louis Nix, Timmy Jernigan, Ra’Shede Hageman, Anthony Johnson
4. Tight End
Players under contract for 2014: Brandon Bostick, Jake Stoneburner, Ryan Taylor
The Packers primary Tight End of choice during the Aaron Rodgers era has largely been Jermichael Finley. A lightning rod for the fan base, Finley’s antics, occasional drops and seemingly high ceiling drove fans insane. Finley was no lock to come back to Green Bay, and his neck injury against the Broncos has further muddied the waters. His main understudy during that time period, Andrew Quarless has been allowed to become an unrestricted free agent.
It is my personal opinion that one of either Finley or Quarless will be back with the team, though probably not both. Common sense would lead the team more towards Quarless. It employs a very conservative medical department and has not yet allowed Nick Collins to resume his playing career (at least not in Green Bay). Finley certainly still has a higher ceiling than “Q”. The thing that keeps getting to me and other Packers fans is how unstoppable this offense could be if Finley ever reached his true potential or if they were able to acquire a difference maker at tight end the offense would be unstoppable. Quite frankly with the additions of Eddie Lacy, Jonathan Franklin and DuJuan Harris, they might be right.
Pipe Dream: Jimmy Graham
Possibilities: Dennis Pitta, Garett Graham, Eric Ebron, Jace Amaro, Austin Seferian-Jenkins, CJ Fiedorowicz, Colt Lyerla
5. Outside Linebacker
Players under contract for 2014: Clay Matthews, Andy Mulumba, Nate Palmer, Nick Perry
I get that it seems insane to have a position that has two first round picks at each position as the team’s starters as a top 5 need. I do. But the fact is that it’s not 100% certain Nick Perry is the answer across from Clay Matthews, and Matthews is injury prone. The Packers need to be in a position where they have at least 3 viable outside pass rushers on the defense and right now they have 1.5. Could Nick Perry put it together in 2014, stay healthy and record 10 sacks? Absolutely. Is it the most likely scenario? I don’t know.
I’ve been clamoring for 3 off seasons now that that the Packers need to acquire a true outside linebacker to play across from Matthews. Matthews is the only OLB on the roster right now that isn’t a converted defensive end. Would I say no to a crazy signing of Brian Orakpo or Greg Hardy as an outside rusher? No I wouldn’t. In fact I wouldn’t mind a switch in scheme that allows Perry (and possibly a re-signed Mike Neal) to play with his hand on the ground in a hybrid scheme with Matthews playing a Von Miller/Bruce Irvin type of role. The bottom line is that the team needs bodies at this position with some talent, regardless of whether or not this is Nick Perry’s year.
Pipe Dreams: Brian Orakpo, Anthony Barr, Khalil Mack
Possibilities: Jason Worilds, Shaun Phillips, O’Brien Schofield, Kyle Van Noy, Dee Ford, Jeremiah Attaochu