With next Wednesday marking the beginning of 2016 NFL Free Agency, the conversation surrounding the Packers, along with the 31 other teams in the league, will be primarily focused on 2016 roster construction. As that relates to the Packers, it’s often a rather boring exercise.
Everyone knows all too well that general manager Ted Thompson is very passive until the NFL Draft begins as far as adding talent to his group, aside from signing some of their own talent.
Kicker Mason Crosby signed a four-year contract for $16 million to stay in Green Bay. Letroy Guion will remain on their defensive line for the foreseeable future. He signed a three-year deal worth $11.25 million in mid-February.
Outside linebackers Nick Perry and Mike Neal are both without deals thus far. Cornerback Casey Hayward, the team’s most notable unrestricted free agent, is yet to come close to any type of deal to return.
Should they be resigned, would that be enough to make the Packers the NFC North favorite again? Perhaps. Will Thompson add another splash signing like Peppers of two years ago or Charles Woodson in 2006? Will head coach Mike McCarthy be satisfied with whatever moves Thompson does and doesn’t make? The truth is that nobody knows these answers. Thompson himself likely does not have just one rigid plan that he’ll stick to as the next two months unfold.
So it is as good a time as any to make predictions about what will happen and how that will affect the narratives about the team heading into this summer. We’ll see how wrong we can all be come training camp. Or we’ll forget about it because we’ll be too excited about the football that is ahead to think about the not-so bold statements we made back in March.
The funny thing about Packers narratives is that, while varying in validity, these are probably statements that have been uttered within the last calendar year on just about any sports talk show in the state of Wisconsin about the 2015 Packers. Perhaps even the 2014 Packers. Hell, the narratives surrounding most teams are often just recycled garbage, repackaged and sold as new.
In some ways, that is the beauty of the Packers. For years now, there hasn’t been anything new to complain about for fans who continually watch their team compete in the postseason but ultimately fall short of winning a title that requires far too much luck for anyone’s liking.
Regardless, we’ve got to think about something as it relates to the team. So I’m guessing lines such as the following will be making their way to @JSComments or a First Take scroll soon enough, if they haven’t already.
“Aaron Rodgers’ window is closing”
That’s right, we’re all spoiled. We know that just before coffee each morning, we’re to thank God that we haven’t had to endure putrid quarterback play in over two decades. But now we’re supposed to be thankful and fearful of when those dark days will come our way because Aaron Rodgers is on the other side of 30?
Tom Brady just signed a two-year contract extension at the ripe young age of 38. He also threw for 4,770 yards last year with a quarterback rating of 102.2.
Rodgers, 32-years old, is in the older half of the quarterback crop as the 10th oldest active starter in football but those older than him are still extremely effective.
Carson Palmer just had his greatest statistical season of his career at 36-years old and if not for Cam Newton winning 15 regular season games with glorified practice squad talent at wide receiver, he may have been the MVP. Perhaps that is a bit of hyperbole. Ted Ginn’s speed is more an elite level talent, and has somehow kept him relevant in NFL circles despite his other shortcomings.
Then there’s Ben Roethlisberger, who had his best year in 2014 when he was 33 and followed that up with another impressive performance last season at 34, throwing for just under 4,000 yards despite missing four starts. Not to mention that he may throw the best deep ball in the game right now, showing that arm strength can last well into your mid-30s.
Eli Manning? He had his second best year as a passer this past season at 35-years old. Odell Beckham Jr. may have a lot to do with that, but that’s the point. The situation surrounding a quarterback has every bit as much to do with his window than his age actually does.
This isn’t to deny that some day, Rodgers won’t be one of the best in the NFL anymore. But he has made it perfectly clear that he intends to play for many more seasons. He’s been outspoken about his new dieting habits and how much focus he places on remaining flexible and continually challenging his body with new ways to workout as to avoid serious injuries that usually take a player from prime years to retirement fairly quickly.
So really, as long as Rodgers has sufficient talent around him, he should be able to compete for Super Bowls. Especially when you consider that the majority of quarterbacks with a greater shot at a championship in the next few seasons are the ones mentioned above, all older than Rodgers. There isn’t exactly a young phenom coming to take the throne as much as there are elder quarterbacks still hanging on. America thought Andrew Luck was that quarterback and now his franchise might be closer to rebuilding than ascending.
“Ted Thompson is complacent”
If you’re expecting a big name free agent, then bless you for not resigning years ago to the notion that anyone of significance on the open market has zero chance of being a Packer.
You were right in 2014 if you were the “always holding out hope” type thanks to Peppers. The same goes for 2006, which saw both Woodson and Ryan Pickett, significant pieces to an eventual Super Bowl defense, added to the mix. One could even argue that the combination of Cedric Benson and Jeff Saturday was a significant free agent haul in 2012 even though Benson suffered an injury that would eventually end his career two months after signing with the team and Saturday lost his starting center job by season’s end.
But the other eight offseasons offered little in the way of sexy signings. So you’d be wrong 72 percent of the time if your expectations remain high. I prefer to be right, and when wrong, pleasantly surprised.
There are a few names that could make sense for the Packers to target. Clay Matthews moving back to outside linebacker opens up a spot inside that Thompson may want to address with proven production like Jerrell Freeman (Colts) or Danny Trevathan (Broncos). But I don’t know that spending at inside linebacker is something Thompson would be inclined to do (more on that later).
Perhaps a free agent tight end would come at a greater bargain. The Colts may opt to let Dwayne Allen walk since they have Coby Fleener as their starter and Allen had a down year with injuries and no Luck. Ladarius Green of the Chargers has never really been a true starter but has been productive in the shadow of Antonio Gates, as John Breitenbach of Pro Football Focus points out in his piece about free agents with good value.
Whether or not any of those would be “big signings” would depend upon their production. The only name that could be in play that would immediately join the Peppers/Woodson ranks is Matt Forte. He would immediately command playing time at running back, and may even take Eddie Lacy’s starting job depending on just how effective P90X really is.
Will they take another former Bear that craves a ring to play out his remaining years for a contender? It would be darn sweet, almost too good to be true. Not to mention that he would bring an element to the Packers offense they have never had in the Rodgers era. But again, these are the things I bet against and hope to be wrong.
“Mike McCarthy is on the ‘hot seat’”
The only way I could see this being possible is if Rodgers were to miss a significant amount of time, thus the Packers going 6-10, missing out on the playoffs and then Thompson retires because he wants to let someone else spread their wings a la Greg Jennings, a new general manager is brought in and decides that he wants to hire his own guy since the previous guy went 6-10 with no quarterback.
Look at how ridiculous one scenario is for this to happen. What if the Packers are just plain bad? What if they actually don’t need Rodgers to get hurt to have 2016 be a major disappointment and instead could be bad enough on their own?
I just can’t buy that a healthy Rodgers misses the playoffs with what I would think will be a serviceable defense and a better receiving core than the one he almost beat the Cardinals with on the road in the playoffs.
If Thompson did retire, he’d be doing it rather surprisingly since he hasn’t hinted at it whatsoever and is under contract until 2018. On top of that, it is more probable than not (excuse the Deflategate phrasing) that his replacement would come either from within the Packers organization or be current Seahawks general manager John Schneider, also a “Packer guy”. Would the hometown kid come in and fire the coach that brought Green Bay a Super Bowl and has been in the playoffs every year since 2009 as his first move? That’d be awfully bold.
So let’s play out a highly unlikely scenario where 2016 is borderline tragic and somehow, someway, McCarthy is gone. The Rodgers vs. McCarthy narrative probably then picks up even more steam as Skip Bayless proclaims that Rodgers forced McCarthy out, and the incumbent coach would come in with the same suspicion that many of us have that drives the entire Rodgers insubordination narrative to begin with: that his predecessor, a Super Bowl champion and one of the NFL’s most successful play callers, wasn’t smart enough to command full respect from the quarterback. And that the quarterback believes he can do it better. Talk about drama.
Of course, you could avoid that sort of thing by hiring a Rodgers guy, but that guy would come from within the Packers organization and under this circumstance – where 2016 was a total disaster – why would someone in the organization be deserving of a head-coaching job anyway?
Outside of the organization, do you let Rodgers hand-pick his coach? This isn’t the NBA. And even if it were, look at the drama that surrounds the Cavaliers as a result of that.
So yeah, the more I think about it, the more unlikely it seems. Thompson is too levelheaded to make such a move and the bottom line is that Rodgers-McCarthy is the closest that there is to the Brady-Belichick marriage. Even if things aren’t always sunshine and rainbows, each has been wildly successful. So I’m cool with McCarthy sticking around as long as Rodgers’s right arm still works.
“I’m tired of ‘Next man up’”
This is where I reveal that while I, too, would like a playmaking inside linebacker on the 2016 Packers defense, I really don’t think it’s going to happen. Wouldn’t banking on a young Sam Barrington to rebound from injury and a second-year Jake Ryan to take a major step forward be the most Thompsonesque thing ever?
I have a sneaking suspicion that inside linebacker isn’t going to be addressed in any major way. My reasoning is that I just don’t see it as a position that is important enough to do so.
Matthews may very well have been moved back outside because they plan to get an impact player to play in that now vacant slot, but you could also make the argument that Matthews’ skill set is better suited inside. He does, at times, lack discipline on the edge. He’s usually best when just chasing after the football, which inside linebackers always do. You want to, for lack of a better phrase, “turn him loose” and just let him be a fast, strong wildling.
The most production we saw from the Packers defense in 2014, a year where they were a single play away from the Super Bowl, came when Matthews was moved inside with almost no prior experience there.
Perhaps the Packers realized that Matthews is still one of their most talented defensive players who has proven he can be productive outside. And if that’s the case, why waste him at a position of little significance?
Sure, Luke Kuechly is a game changer that can run down the field with Julio Jones, even. But he’s an outlier and is playing in a much different scheme. Everyone wants a luxury like Kuechly but who else actually has one? If I were to try and list the five next most impactful inside linebackers, I’d be left scratching my head.
Pass rushers are a different story. They make the big money because they play what is likely the second most important position in football behind quarterback. If you can’t have a great quarterback, you better be able to disrupt the opposing one. And if you can disrupt the opposing quarterback and have a good-to-great one of your own then you are a Super Bowl caliber team.
Not since the significance of running backs dropped off in the mid-2000s have inside linebackers been that important a piece to a defense. That idea basically retired with Ray Lewis. We know that the NFL is a passing league and having good coverage linebackers is something any defense would strive for. But the name of the game is to be able to stop the run while not sacrificing the ability to cover in the passing game, given how prolific passers are these days.
I believe the Packers can do that without an impact ILB because, well, we’ve seen them do it. Matthews wasn’t exceptional in coverage in 2014 or 2015. The Packers just had a deep crop of defensive backs. And in 2015, they took a leap to a really good run defense because Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Morgan Burnett were two of the best run defending safeties in football that spent a good amount of time in the box and Mike Daniels is an absolute monster. Therefore, the Packers could afford to have Clinton-Dix, Burnett, Hayward, Shields and Randall all on the field at once and not get absolutely gashed every time.
So if the Packers are on the clock with the 27th pick of the first round on April 28th and the best player available is an inside linebacker, sure, they may take him. But UCLA’s Myles Jack won’t make it that far to them and Notre Dame’s Jaylon Smith may not even be able to play in 2016 due to a knee injury that NFL teams found to be worse than originally thought at the NFL Combine. I think Thompson learned his lesson when it comes to injured prospects in the first round with Justin Harrell. At least I hope so.
That leaves Reggie Ragland from Alabama. If he is there and Thompson takes him, it would make as much sense as the Clinton-Dix pick two years ago. A position of need, one of the best prospects at the position falls into your lap and away you go. But say Ragland isn’t there or Thompson passes on him? Then what? Well, then it may just be Barrington and Ryan after all.