Early Packers Defensive Line Preview and Prediction

For the past two seasons the Green Bay Packers have usually kept about 5 or 6 players on the defensive line. With the departure of BJ Raji and Josh Boyd, as well as the four game suspension of Mike Pennel, the Packers’ defensive front will certainly have a significantly different face in 2016.

It appears that there are four locks coming into training camp: Mike Daniels, Letroy Guion, first round rookie Kenny Clark, and fourth round rookie Dean Lowry. Daniels is often lined up at 3-technique defensive end, Clark is slated to move into the nose tackle spot vacated by Raji, Lowry is expected to play 5-technique defensive end, and Guion can play nearly anywhere on the line. That doesn’t leave any glaring holes, but the need for depth and competition is paramount with so much youth at the position.

Mike Pennel is likely to make the final roster give his familiarity with the defense, but his suspension certainly does not help his case. Behind Pennel is a bevvy of young players who’ve had little to no NFL playing experience. Christian Ringo and BJ McBryde come into their second year in the NFL after Ringo spent last season on the practice squad for Green Bay and McBryde was placed on IR for the Philadelphia Eagles before being released in October. Tyler Kuder (Idaho St.), Brian Price (University of Texas – San Antonio), and Demetris Anderson (University of Central Florida) are all undrafted rookies who will face an uphill climb to make the roster, but certainly have a shot with at least one or two roster spots up for grabs.

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BREAKING: Green Bay Packers take Indiana OT Jason Spriggs, 48

Analysis (Kelly Hodgson): In classic Ted Thompson fashion, the Green Bay Packers moved up in the second round to take the 48th pick of the 2016 NFL Draft to select Indiana OT Jason Spriggs. In a trade with the Indianapolis Colts, the Packers moved up in exchange for picks 57, 125 and 248, the Packers chose to protect their franchise player quarterback Aaron Rodgers and elected to tap the 6’6′, 301 pound Hoosier brick wall. He’s taller and leaner than anyone else currently on the offensive line, and may be the insurance policy keeping Rodgers upright through the end of the season.

Thompson always seems to be on the hunt for the next tackle to shore up the offensive line and may have found that long-term investment in Spriggs, and with a fairly shallow depth chart on the OL, the Packers pulled the trigger to shore up that deficit and add both speed and strength to the line. A four-year starter, he brings a wealth of experience to the table and will be ready to get to work day one of training camp.

A second-team All-American (Pro Football Writers of America) and Associated Press third team, Spriggs can technically play both the blindside and the right. But he is known as a formidable blindside blocker that will give his all through the entire play. Pro Football Focus ranks him as having the third highest pass blocking efficiency among the Power-5 left tackles and could very well give David Bakhtiari a run for his money.

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What’s Eddie Lacy’s Future with the Packers?

In 2016, Eddie Lacy will be playing out the last year of his rookie contract. The workhorse back has been a major piece of the Green Bay Packers’ offense since being drafted in the 2nd round of the 2013 draft. A down year in 2015, however, saw Lacy’s weight and worth ethic called into question. He even briefly lost his starting spot to James Starks (though ultimately winning it back).

The Packers know how dominant Lacy can be as a running back. With news that he shed weight with infomercial warrior Tony Horton (and pictures proving Lacy’s new, svelte physique), the team is clearly expecting him to be on the top of his game this season.

Still, they may expect Lacy to prove himself one last time before offering him a contract, something the team will likely attempt well before Lacy hits the open market after the 2016 season. I would not be surprised in any way to see the Packers attempt to shore Lacy up sometime toward the end of the season, as the team did in 2015 with Mike Daniels.

But Lacy is not going to come cheap. In this year’s free agency frenzy, the top two running backs, Chris Ivory and Lamar Miller, were paid $6.4 and $6.5 million respectively. Lacy could easily demand more. At 25, Lacy is significantly younger than the 28 year old Chris Ivory. Lamar Miller is a year younger than Lacy but has been in the NFL one year longer. Lacy trumps Miller in just about every statistic imaginable. Other teams would be happy to dish out significant dough for a proven bruiser like Lacy, who is likely coming into the prime of his career.

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Have Fans Seen the Last of John Kuhn?

It’s late April and John Kuhn is still a free agent. Has the sun set on the fan favorite? Have the echoes of “KUUUHHNN” been heard in hallowed Lambeau for the last time? Only time will tell.

At this point, the team will likely wait until after the NFL draft to see how the roster begins to shake out. Not only will the Packers, barring any trades, bring in nine draft picks, they will also sign a slew of undrafted rookies. Kuhn’s future with the team likely depends upon where those chips fall as the Packers begin to look forward toward training camp and accumulating a full squad.

Ted Thompson and company have always favored youth. If the team can land an undrafted fullback with future potential, it would not be surprising for the team to value that player more than Kuhn, a guy who can play now, but does not offer much beyond a season or two.

The largest determining factor on Kuhn’s future in Green Bay, however, likely depends upon second year fullback Aaron Ripkowski. If the Packers feel that Rip is ready to be “the guy” at fullback, there would be little reason to bring back Kuhn, even if he played for the veteran minimum, as he did in 2015.

The Packers drafted Ripkowski in the 6th round last year, a fairly high spot for a position that’s become so obsolete for most teams that it’s been phased out altogether. But fullback remains a vital role in Mike McCarthy’s offense. It’s clear that the Packers brought in Ripkowski to take the reins from an aging John Kuhn, who will turn 34 before the start of the regular season.

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Drafting for (shock) value

If Ted Thompson does indeed have the sizzle that he claimed to possess back in 2007, this April may be just the time to show it. Sure, the 2015 Packers struggled their way to a wild card berth but when examining their roster they’re not exactly full of holes that need to be filled at the top end of the 2016 NFL Draft. Instead, they share the rarified air with teams like the New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks; perennial Super Bowl contenders that could stand to improve at many positions but also have the luxury of adding, well… luxuries.

Defensive line is an area lacking serious depth but that doesn’t mean the Packers as currently constructed aren’t good enough to win a title. Most sports books in Las Vegas have the Packers at 10/1 odds to win Super Bowl LI as of now, second behind only the Patriots at 6/1.

Outside of defensive linemen, the likely choice in the first round of a draft littered with promising prospects at that position, the Packers could stand to add a tight end with long-term potential. But the signing of Jared Cook was likely an indicator that they will roll on with Cook and 2014 third-round pick Richard Rodgers rather than invest an early draft choice in a tight end this summer.

Inside linebacker has been viewed as the most obvious need for almost three years now, but the value of that position in Dom Capers’ defense likely does not warrant an early selection and Sam Barrington and Jake Ryan may be manning the middle come September.

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Packers 2016 Schedule the Silver Lining to Losing NFC North

If there’s any upside to losing the NFC North last year to the Minnesota Vikings, it’s probably that the Packers are looking at the easiest schedule in the NFL in 2016. Strength of schedule is calculated by combining the previous season’s winning percentages for every team’s opponents in 2016. The teams that Green Bay will play in 2016 finished 2015 with a combined 117-139 record, a mere 46% winning percentage.

Now, a large part of the schedule is not determined by the previous year’s division standings. Six games come against divisional opponents, four come against the teams in a division within your conference, and four come against teams within a division outside of your conference. For example, this season all NFC North teams will play each other, play all four teams in the NFC East, and all four teams in the AFC South.

Only two games are determined based upon where teams finish in their division. Those two games pit teams against their counterparts in the other intra-conference divisions which are not already on the schedule. Since the Packers took second place in the NFC North, they play the Falcons and the Seahawks, the second place finishers in the NFC South and the NFC West, respectively.

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The Tale of the Tape: Andrew Billings, DT, Baylor

Andrew Billings (#75), the stand-out defensive tackle from Baylor, has been shooting up mock draft boards since the NFL combine. He’s been practically the NFL draft prognosticators’ consensus for the Packers’ 27th overall pick. But the Billings hype train may have maxed out with the new article at Bleacher Report which argues that Billings has top 5 potential. That’s saying something in a draft that is widely regarded as being chock full of talent at defensive tackle.

Walter Football, on the other hand, has Billings dropping into the middle of the 2nd round. Even in the ludicrous guessing game that is mock drafting, that’s a fairly wide fluctuation. Is Billings on the short list of the Packers’ first round prospects? Will he be gone long before they pick at #27? Does he warrant a first round pick at all? I took a look at the tape from some of Billings’ games in 2015. Of course, I am not a professional NFL scout, but below you will find a few things that stuck out to a normal fan of football.

Pro: Strength 

Billings has a lot going for him, but his strength is his defining characteristic. He finished with the highest number of bench press reps for a defensive tackle (31) at the NFL combine. His ability to overpower an offensive lineman is well documented. It’s not unusual to see Billings make short work of a center, knocking him back on his butt before the guy even knows what hit him. While not an elite pass-rushing specialist, Billings utilizes his power as a pass rusher well, especially when he’s one-on-one with a center. This is just brutal.

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