On the Around the NFL podcast, Chris Wesseling made a bold prediction as part of a segment in which all of the hosts were asked to do so. His prediction: The 2016 Packers offense will be a juggernaut. Wesseling was talking serious production, to the point of breaking records. It’s supposed to be a bold prediction, after all.
To Packers faithful, that means 2011 – the game is over before it even starts so I’m just going to get wasted by half time and spout off all cocky on Twitter to entertain myself in the meantime – type of stuff. I’m not alone on that, right?
Surely, Jordy Nelson coming back will go a long way in erasing the memory of a receiving core so inept that we were crying for more playing time not only for People’s Champion Jeff Janis, but for homegrown favorite and admittedly less than exceptional talent Jared Abbrederis. On paper, that seems a far cry from 2011, which saw then-rookie Randall Cobb used sporadically because the options in the passing game were just so damn plentiful that even a seven touchdown season from James Jones, a career high for him at that point, landed him fourth on the team in receiving touchdowns. For perspective, Jones was tied for the team lead with eight touchdowns last season.
But regardless, entering a season with one of the most skilled passers on the planet who is usually the model of efficiency leaves plenty of room for optimism. Just how much optimism is realistic, though?
To be clear, to determine this, it probably isn’t fair to hold this roster to the 2011 standard. There are some players that were on both teams, but are obviously far different then compared to now. That was one of the best quarterbacking seasons with a roster that was much better in terms of proven talent and had just won the Super Bowl in a 10-6 season having never trailed by more than a single score in a game. That stat still gets me every time. They were literally one play away every damn moment of every damn game for a full year.
Instead, it’s probably best to compare last year’s team on paper to this year’s team on paper, and make a whole bunch of guesses about what can and will happen and what is reasonable to expect.
It’s time for a rousing rendition of “Better, Worse or Same?”
Best case: They stay healthy. Really, there are few position groups on the Packers roster with less question marks than this collection of follicly endowed fellows. The interior line is comprised of two of the best guards in football who are both playing for what will likely be their final contracts and a center that was quickly forced into action due to injury and hasn’t looked back since. Corey Linsley could teach the receivers a thing or two about winning the heart of Aaron Rodgers. Between he, Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang, the running game stands to be at least average and likely much more than that. Bryan Bulaga and David Bakhtiari have each shown they are more than capable starters and in the interest of optimism, should be more likely to maintain a level of consistency now that they have Jason Spriggs, a rare breed of sorts in terms of being a player that Ted Thompson loved so much he traded up to get him, breathing down their necks.
Worst case: Injuries have done the Packers offensive line in for seasons now. The lack of depth has always been an issue and while they have addressed that issue with the Spriggs selection, they are always a play or two away from Don Barclay having to pass protect or worse, having to rearrange the entire position group and have guards play tackle and tackles sub at guard and yada, yada…. down goes the quarterback. Unless Sitton and Lang have aged at a rapid rate this off-season, or Bahktiari plays worse with another year of experience under his belt, then I don’t see the offensive line as a group to be truly concerned about. But still, there were a few too many injuries last season to not at least think of it.
Reasonable conclusion: Better. And it’s strange to put it this way but I think the offensive line can be the exact same as it was a year ago and they will still be a better unit because the quarterback will be less hamstrung with his game day carpool mate back and active. That’s Nelson. How badly do you want to be in that car on Sunday morning when they’re driving to Lambeau Field together?
Remember when Rodgers would have all kinds of time to throw and not a single green and gold uniform to throw it to? At the very least, 50/50 balls can be launched the way of No. 87 as to avoid coverage sacks. Does the risk-averse quarterback do that when it’s his most trusted receiver? Maybe? Like, once or twice? Come on, dude! We know you’re great, nobody will judge you based on one interception. Except Cowherd. And Bayless. Dammit, alright, take the sack.
Best case: BMI. Body fat percentage. Calls placed to local “China food” joints after midnight. These are the only numbers that can afford to drop for Eddie Lacy this season. The best case scenario is that Lacy is actually in better shape, which is fair to assume based on what we have seen. It’s really refreshing that Mike McCarthy finally pointed out the most obvious fact in that no professional athlete in a non-fighting sport can be boiled down to his standard weight. It’s all about body composition, baby!
And Lacy might be obese by normal human standard BMI levels, but by NFL running back standards he’s just that much harder to bring down than some regular lean dude and by last year’s standards, he’s leaned out.
So, let’s say Lacy can get back some of that 2013 and 2014 magic. He’s got the offensive line to give him ample opportunities to be a great “neutralize the rush” carrier, an effective contributor in the short passing game and control time of possession and bleed out the block in four-minute drill situations.
He’s got James Starks back in the fold to spell him, too. Starks comes off of his most productive season as a pro and if he can stay healthy and cut down on his fumbles (five fumbles total in 2015, about 29.6 carries per fumble) then there’s no real reason to be worried about the ball carriers as a weakness. Especially if an improved passing game finds them leaning on Lacy and Starks primarily as a change of pace against teams that play Rodgers and co. with two safeties over the top or to control the clock and give their defense a rest against more explosive teams offensive teams.
Worst case: If Lacy doesn’t regain some of his explosiveness, the Packers could find themselves leaning on Starks more as they did in spurts last season. Increased opportunities saw an increase in Starks turning the ball over, not to mention the fact that Starks staying healthy is something that borders on miraculous.
This sounds like an annoying Monday morning motivation meme, but Lacy really does need to be the best version of himself. If that doesn’t happen, there’s greater doubt that he’ll be around beyond 2016. And if Thompson were to let him walk in free agency, that would very likely mean a complete reboot of the running back position with 30-year old Starks being far from the long term answer.
Reasonable conclusion: Same. I think it’s fair to assume Lacy will be better because the first two seasons of his career he was just that and the more reporting that has been done on his weight loss the more it appears he really was in the 260 lbs. range last winter. That seems like a weight that no running back would be able to be perform best at. Those Wisconsin winters, man.
I also think that more yards for Lacy will mean less for Starks. And in passing situations, the Packers could still opt to use Cobb and/or Ty Montgomery in the backfield so I don’t think I’ll going out on a limb and say that there will be drastic improvement from this position group.
Oh, and John Kuhn is gone. When your position group meetings lose a knight as noble and honorable as Kuhn, it’s hard to imagine anything can actually improve. Forget actual ability. The loss of intangibles is equivalent to that of losing a franchise player. Multiple generations of franchise player, at that. Could we perhaps forfeit a year of Rodgers for one more of Kuhn? Take the Favre years, then?
Unfortunately, the best the football Gods can do is clone Kuhn in the form of Ripkowski and grant us another 19 seasons of him inexplicably being on the roster despite playing an extinct position. Special teams coaches and blitz pickup specialists alike, rejoice!
Best case: World domination. Seriously, try to imagine Rodgers having a season better than he has ever had. Like, if he were to break his personal records, he would need a quarterback rating higher than 122.5. I don’t even know if that’s mathematically possible, to be honest. Oh, and he’d throw somewhere in the ballpark of 50 touchdowns and fewer than five interceptions. Those would be career highs for Rodgers. Yet, being another year older and one year removed from his worst season by most common statistical measures, I wouldn’t put it past him.
Rodgers is the kind of animal that feasts on your doubt. He’s dreaming of your doubt all damn night despite laying in bed next to a beautiful famous woman because if he weren’t slighted, he wouldn’t have someone to seek out with the smoothest press conference jab one could deliver and that is what really gets him off.
He’s the kind of player where you question if he purposefully underachieves at times to start lowering your expectations and make you look stupid by shattering them. Then he can just smirk when awestruck reporters ask “Aaron, how does it feel to be so damn awesome? Is it hard being perfect? And how come your famous girlfriend wants to have so much sex with you all the time?” in a press conference before he replies “oh, but I thought I was past my prime?”
I want to clarify that I don’t actually believe the above statement because I can never imagine a competitor like Rodgers not trying to figuratively rip the opposition’s throat out. But that I like to dream of these sorts of things at night because I love the “told you so” moments where detractors who are quick to criticize have to eat their words. And I know that as much as I love them, Rodgers must love them tenfold.
And I would volunteer for 16 games of 2015 Rodgers which, mind you, still had the Packers on the brink of the NFC Championship game, just to get another moment at the podium like his post game comments after the season opener against the Saints in 2011.
That beautiful, chest puffing, grudge holding son of a gun.
So, best case scenario for Rodgers in 2016 is to win another MVP and be the closest thing to perfect that football has ever produced. That’s about all.
Worst case: “Alright, Larry. Third and three for the Packers, now. Rodgers under center… one receiver to his right, two to his left…”
“Green eighteeeeeen, green eighteen HUT HUT”
“offside on the defense. Five yard penalty. Automatic first down.”
“DAMMIT RODGERS YOU CHEAP MOTHER-BLEEPER! YOU’RE RUINING THE SPORT WITH YOUR SUCCESSFUL METHODS TO GET FREE FIRST DOWNS!”
Reasonable conclusion: Better. Rodgers will have a season closer to 2011 than to 2015 but that isn’t to say he is going to post career highs. I’ll expand more on why I don’t think getting Nelson back means that they will be right back to one of the best units in the league when we explore the scenarios for the receivers. But regardless, 2015 was downright disappointing football that can only be attributed to Nelson getting hurt at a time where the receiving core was in a pretty significant rebuilding period. The second-round investment in Davante Adams felt like the beginning stages of them transitioning to a new group of up and comers that they so frequently have waiting behind proven talent but once Nelson’s ACL tore, the up and comers turned into the here and now. And they just weren’t ready. It’s the only scenario where Thompson would make a move like signing James Jones. It’s rare that he’d rather bring back a former player who couldn’t make other NFL rosters rather than give young players a chance. Janis and Abbrederis being the alternatives necessitates that kind of move.
Anyway, Rodgers being healthy for 16 games is one part of a playoff recipe. He’s also leading a team that has a defense that is all of a sudden trusted and has played fairly consistently for the past two seasons. That shouldn’t go overlooked, given some of the “Fire Capers” struggles that Rodgers kept the Packers afloat through.
And there’s at least a semblance of a running game. And his offensive line features five starters that are deserving. And he cut cheese out of his diet, lost weight, gained muscle, increased flexibility and basked in the glow of dating a Hollywood star which probably comes along with some further forms of anti-aging, right? So he’s Aaron Charles Rodgers and he’s great and will remain great. This is irrefutable.
Best case: It’s weird that you could argue Richard Rodgers has been disappointing despite being tied for the team lead with Jones with eight receiving touchdowns last year and having what most people would believe are the best hands on the team. But that’s kind of how Rodgers is going to be thought of because he was a third-round pick and is not the type of player that usually warrants a high selection. He doesn’t do anything flashy in the passing game. He isn’t such an exceptional blocker and even if he were, tight end is increasingly more pass oriented than run. So I think the optimistic view on tight ends would have to be centered on Jared Cook.
Cook is the perfect recipe for optimism. He has great measurables and the type of athleticism you hope for in a pass-catching tight end. He has had just enough terrible quarterbacks to write off his lack of production over seven seasons to incompetent quarterback play. And he is about to see as many accurate passes as he could want, should he truly get a crack at being the primary tight end on passing downs for the Packers offense.
I think McCarthy’s comments about the difference in the nature of the tight end position in today’s league are telling, and that he is probably dusting off some of those Jermichael Finley schemes to try and incorporate Cook.
If Cook is serviceable, he and Rodgers collectively make up one really good tight end. And as silly as that sounds, they will probably be used to their strengths and get sufficient opportunities between them to each contribute in the ways that they can. Rodgers being the more sure target in tight windows and shorter routes. Use that booty and box out, big fella! Cook, more of a seam-splitting tight end that can capitalize on one-on-one’s against linebackers with his speed or smaller safeties with his 6’4 frame. Tight end by committee. That’s the hope.
Worst case: Cook remains what he has been for his seven years in the league and that’s just sort of average. “If athletic tight end + great quarterback = production” is an oversimplification, then Cook may just be another in line of tight ends who you don’t necessarily notice as being bad but don’t stand out as good either. Looking at you, Quarless.
I’m still confused on what R. Rodgers’ ceiling is and what Thompson saw that compelled him to use a third-round pick on him and if that doesn’t become obvious this year than tight end may just remain a position that just sort of is what it is.
Reasonable conclusion: Same. It is what it is. And the hunt for a field-stretching tight end, which is not at all easy to find, continues.
Best case: Nelson is Nelson, Cobb is Cobb, and one other receiver emerges. I really wish I had a favorite as to who it is. I love the idea of Montgomery being that guy. Jones believes he’s that guy. But at the end of the day, my ammo in expectation tempering arguments for Janis and Abbrederis is lack of production and that same lack of production exists on Montgomery’s abbreviated resume. Regardless, Nelson will slide right back into the role of primary target in the offense. He’ll replace Jones who replaced him.
Jones saw 99 targets in 2015. In the three seasons that Nelson saw above 90 targets he had 1,263 yds (2011), 1,314 yds (2013), and 1,519 yds (2014). The career-high 1,519 came on a career-high 151 targets. And you know, the lack of proven weapons beyond Nelson and Cobb may just mean that type of volume of targets for Jordy. And I think he’s good enough where you can assume that volume will equate to production.
Now, if Nelson draws more attention from secondaries and Cobb can get back to winning one-on-one’s, I think the Packers could get by. If they could get Adams, Montgomery, Janis, hell, even Trevor Davis to be what Cobb once was when Nelson and Greg Jennings were the top targets, then I think juggernaut status is attainable.
Worst case: Adams, in a lessened role, does not prove to be any different than the player he was a year ago. Montgomery is a solid role player at best. Janis still stinks at running routes and doing anything other than running straight and fast and the staff and quarterback go right back to not wanting him to get opportunities. Abbrederis can’t stay on the field and Davis is just a gadget player and return man.
Man, all of these actually seem like the betting favorite. But that’s why training camp is fun. It’s the best time to wait around for somebody to prove you wrong and start winning off-season MVP awards.
Reasonable conclusion: Better. If all of the above are true and all things from the 2015 receivers hold true aside from having Nelson instead of Jones, the group is still far better off. Nelson’s consistent production and greatness is still somehow underrated, despite Rodgers looking mortal in his absence. Really, in a Peter King making an MVP case for Peyton Manning when he missed all of 2011 sort of way, 2015 was exactly what anyone doubting Nelson’s greatness independent of Rodgers ever needed.
The group still has too many unknowns to let the mind wander to Jennings/Nelson/Jones/Driver/Finley/Cobb territory, but the Packers don’t need that to be great. To be a juggernaut, perhaps. But they play defense now. And they run the ball. And the offense is just as well served by those facets of the game as they were being unstoppable through the air on their way to 15 regular season wins.