Friday, January 17, 2014

Packers offseason filled with lots of questions

Packer fans, let's be honest: the 2013 Green Bay Packers were a pretty good football, perhaps an over-achieving team given the level of injury they had to get through on their way to the NFC North Division title. OK, a bit of luck and a couple division opponents who couldn't take advantage of the Pack's decimated roster and missing starting QB Aaron Rodgers for a critical chunk of the season didn't hurt any either.
Comeback player and fan fave, Johnny Jolly, may not be back in 2014.

But now what? Pretty good is not good enough, as the last few years have shown. While the offense looks as if it will be set for some time to come, barring injuries once again, the defense needs an overhaul. Looking at the divisional playoff games this past weekend, especially in the NFC, the Pack's defense seems slow and soft especially down the middle.

Questions have arisen once again from fans and pundits alike about the future of defensive coordinator, Dom Capers. In Mike McCarthy's last press conference of the season, he defended Capers. You'd expect no less. And to be fair, Wayne Larrivee, one of the best analysts in the business and the person who also just happens to be the radio voice of the Packers, has said repeatedly since the end of the season that he is convinced the problem does not lie with the coaching staff, but rather the personnel the Packers have.

The Free Agent Free-for-All
Here is the entire list of free agents on which the Packers will have to make decisions. Note that the letter designations following the name indicate the type of free agent each player is: "U" = Unrestricted, "R" = Restricted and "E" = Exclusive Rights.

Ryan Picket - U NT 32 12 $5.4 million
B.J. Raji - U DE 27 4 $4.49 million
Jermichael Finley - U TE 25 5 $4.45 million
James Jones - U WR 29 6 $2.95 million
Sam Shields - U CB 26 3 $2.023 million
John Kuhn - U FB 31 7 $1.8 milliion
Evan Dietrich-Smith - U C 27 3 $1.323 million
Marshall Newhouse - U T 25 3 $1.323 million
Andrew Quarless - U TE 25 3 $1.323 million
Seneca Wallace - U QB 33 9 $840,000
TMatt Flynn - U QB 28 6 $715,000
Johnny Jolly - U DE 30 4 $715,000
Rob Francois - U LB 28 3 $630,000
Mike Neal - U LB 26 3 $630,000
James Starks - U RB 27 3 $630,000
C.J. Wilson - U DE 26 3 $630,000
M.D. Jennings - R S 25 2 $555,000
Jamari Lattimore - R LB 25 2 $555,000
Chris Banjo - E S 23 0 $405,000

Decisions, Decisions...
The Packers will have lots of decisions to make regarding its players, particularly along the defensive front and in the secondary. Ryan Pickett is getting up in years, but has expressed an interest in returning to the Packers. B.J. Raji didn't show up much in the stats this year, yet coaches say he is doing exactly what they want him to do: hold the point. He'll test free agency and likely not return unless the Packers decide to really make a play for him. Fan favorite and Packers' comeback player of the year (in this writer's opinion), Johnny Jolly, may be finished with his comeback and NFL career because of the neck injury he sustained late in the season.

It could also be argued that there needs to be some adjustments in the linebacker corps, as well. For even as much as the stats show A.J. Hawk is key in terms of tackles, defensive assignment calls, etc., it became more and more apparent that he is slow especially in coverage. Nick Perry, who was supposed to complement Hawk in the middle has basically been a non-factor in his brief time with the Pack. Clay Matthews is a beast, but in the last two years he has only been able to play in 11 and 12 games. No one can predict injuries, but when your best defensive player can't be on the field for an entire season -- especially at the salary he's being paid -- it takes its toll on the team in many ways.

The Packers are clearly a step behind, literally and figuratively, on the defensive side of the ball and unless changes are made they will find themselves an early out in the playoffs next season, as well (and, yes, I'm assuming the Packers will be in the playoffs again next season). Keeping S Sam Shields in the fold will be a trick, but the Pack can certainly use his athleticism and, now, veteran skills.

TE Jermichael Finley is, as is the case with Jolly, likely done with the Packers because of his injuries. Whether another team will pick him up is anyone's guess. He's been hurt a lot for a young man. So much potential, but...

As for fullback John Kuhn, he's starting to age, but for what he does on this team who would you replace him with? He's a leader, a player, and a clutch performer. Just remember that block he was able to get on the Bears' Julius Peppers to spring Rodgers for the winning throw to Randall Cobb in the final game of the regular season and the NFC North Championship. 'Nuff said about Kuhn. As for RB James Starks, the general line of thinking is that he is likely not going to return to the Packers given the other backs the Packers have had on ice during this past season, especially DuJuan Harris and Johnathan Franklin. Still, the combination of Eddie Lacy and James Starks seemed to me to be a very good one-two punch. The Packers can't keep them all and Starks has had his issues staying on the field. But if healthy, in my mind he's as good or better than the other two relatively unproven backs whom the Packers are perhaps more likely to retain.

Adding Outside Free Agents?
CB Tramon Williams has already said that he thinks the Packers need to have more veterans on the team. GM Ted Thompson's ongoing reliance on young and unproven talent acquired through the draft a point. But look at what both San Francisco and Seattle did in the offseason to upgrade their talent through free agency. Then look at which two teams are playing in the NFC Championship this coming weekend. Perhaps Thompson needs to take another look at his approach. Salary cap will play a big factor in what he can and can't do given the salaries already tied up in Matthews and QB Aaron Rodgers. But one or two veteran free agents in key spots, even with the likelihood of overpaying, has to be a consideration.

Conversations are starting to note that the Packers may be squandering Aaron Rodgers' prime years -- as some argue Ron Wolf did with Brett Favre -- because of a limited personnel viewpoint, particularly as regards to adding free agents. The time window for a great quarterback to lead his teams into the Super Bowl is a small one. Thompson needs to open up that window a bit by adding not only through his draft-and-develop scheme on which he's an expert, but also by adding veteran free agents to fill the gaps in talent.

There is so much more that could be said on this and related subjects. But we now have the entire offseason to kick all that around. Keep checking back in. We'll have lots to say as the days, weeks and months go by.