In Depth 2014: Green Bay Packers
Green Bay was 5-2 and riding a four game winning streak when Chicago rolled into town. The Bears won the game and broke Aaron Rodgers’ collarbone in the process. The rest of the season was a hodgepodge of ups and downs for the Packers. They pulled off a late-season win that allowed for another division title, but bowed out quickly to current Achilles heel, San Francisco and Colin Kaepernick.
So are the Packers the near-elite level team they appeared to be growing into before Rodgers got hurt? Or does this team have too many holes to be considered a top-level contender for a deep playoff run? Ray Rivard, editor of Lombardi Ave., shared his thoughts with Zoneblitz. Read them below:
Zoneblitz: The Packers struggled while Aaron Rodgers was out but managed to stay in the race and pull off a division title. Then San Francisco struck again. How would you assess the 2013 season?
Rivard: In the end, 2013 was a lost season for both Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers. Starting out 5-2 and heading into November, it looked like the Packers were a shoe-in to win the NFC North Division and be a contender for the NFC championship and a Super Bowl berth.
Then Aaron Rodgers fell on his collarbone and the Packers realized they didn’t have anyone to back him up. They tried Seneca Wallace, but he got hurt. They tried Scott Tolzien, but it became quickly apparent that he had some talent, but not enough knowledge and experience. They went out and pulled Matt Flynn off his couch and though he was adequate and kept the Packers abreast in the race for the division title, it was clear that the Packers were simply not at the elite level without the likes of Aaron Rodgers and Randall Cobb, who was out for more than half the season with a fractured leg.
The Packers managed to win the NFC North and hosted the 49ers at Lambeau Field in the first round of the Playoffs. However, they just didn’t have everything they needed to advance.
Overall, the season was one of frustration. So much talent, so much potential, but one that will be forgotten real soon.
Zoneblitz: Rodgers’ injury clearly showed his importance to the team. What’s the backup plan heading into 2014?
Rivard: The Packers seem to be ready to head into the 2014 season with both Matt Flynn and Scott Tolzien in-house to back up Rodgers. That’s a much better scenario than last season when they went into training camp with Graham Harrell and B.J. Coleman in camp. They tried Vince Young, but he, too, was a failure.
Even with Flynn and Tolzien under contract, the Packers have indicated their desire to have four QBs heading into training camp. Head Coach Mike McCarthy has said he wants four in camp, which means he wants one to end up on the practice squad and three on the 53-man roster. That’s a good idea.
Zoneblitz: James Jones left for Oakland and Jermichael Finley’s status is still up in the air. Do the Packers have the receiver talent they need to stay an elite offense?
Rivard: The Packers have Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb and Jarrett Boykin under contract, so they are set at the starting wide receiver spots, but they need to add depth through the draft. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Packers address that issue in the early to mid-rounds of the upcoming draft. Adding depth at the position is crucial at this point, given the fact that both Nelson and Cobb are in their contract years. There has been talk for months that the Packers are working toward extending both Nelson’s and Cobb’s contracts, but nothing has been worked out as yet. I suspect they will reach agreements with one or both of them sometime before the start of the 2014 season.
Zoneblitz: On the other hand, Eddie Lacy looked like a stud in 2013. What can this offense do with Lacy in year two and a full year of Rodgers?
Rivard: All of the talk around Green Bay and among Packers fans is that the Packers offense, if they can keep everyone healthy for a complete season, will be as strong, if not stronger, than it’s ever been. The Packers not only have Lacy, Johnathan Franklin, and DuJuan Harris locked up with contracts, but they also re-signed James Starks this offseason – a solid backup who added around 600 yards rushing last year.
When you put together the Packers’ passing attack with their rushing threat, defenses are going to have difficulties stopping Green Bay’s offense.
I can see Lacy again topping 1,000 yards and Rodgers throwing again for as many as 4,000 yards.
It should be a heck of a lot of fun to watch.
Zoneblitz: Green Bay spent a fair piece to acquire Julius Peppers after one day earlier having lost center Evan Dietrich-Smith to Tampa Bay for numbers that weren’t all that big. They also lost Marshall Newhouse. What’s the offensive line going to look like in 2014?
Rivard: The offensive line is solid – even without Dietrich-Smith and Newhouse. David Bakhtiari stepped in as a rookie to take over the left tackle spot, while second-year pro Don Barclay held down the right tackle position. The switch of Josh Sitton to left guard, along with the consistent play of T.J. Lang at right guard gave the Packers a solid unit.
Losing Dietrich-Smith will be one of the challenges the Packers face this offseason. They drafted J.C. Tretter last spring with hopes that he would transition from guard to center. However, he got injured on the first day of workouts and never saw the field as a rookie. They are relying on him to compete for the center’s starting spot, but will also most likely draft once again to solidify the offensive line. In addition, they still have Bryan Bulaga coming back off of a season-ending knee injury last year, as well as former first round selection Derek Sherrod waiting to compete for a starting job.
Zoneblitz: Regardless of the injury to Rodgers, the defense gave up 428 points — the most since 1983 — ranking 24th in points allowed and 25th in yardage allowed. What happened and what has to be done to fix it?
Rivard: The Packers defense started out strong last season, with a stout presence up front along the defensive line. Injuries started to mount about one-quarter of the way through the season and the team never recovered. Each week, the defense seemed to get worse. When Rodgers went down, the offense crumbled, failed to move the sticks and control the clock and because of that, the defense suffered. They were on the field way too long in games and the numbers reflect that failure.
The Packers have taken steps in free agency to solidify its defense – they re-signed their best cover cornerback, Sam Shields, and one of their up-and-coming linebackers in Mike Neal. In addition to the signing of Peppers, the Packers also brought in former Vikings defensive lineman Letroy Guion.
But they aren’t done. They still need to address the inside linebacker position, but most importantly have to address the safety position. Ted Thompson may expend a first round draft pick on a safety or linebacker, but will most likely again expend a number of his picks next month on the defense.
Zoneblitz: Regarding that Peppers signing, it was an interesting move. What’s his role going to be and what are you expecting to get from him at this stage of his career?
Rivard: The Packers have said they will use him as the “elephant” linebacker where he will be moved around quite a bit. Judging from Dom Capers’ past, when he has impact players like Peppers his creativity seems to shine. With Peppers moving around the line, from a two-point to three-point stance, it will be fun to see just how much he has left in the tank and how the scheme utilizes his talents.
Zoneblitz: One of the oft-mentioned issues is safety. How are the Packers going to resolve that moving forward?
Rivard: As I stated above, safety will have to be addressed through the draft. There are prospects out there who could fit well into the Packers system and at this point Packers fans are “trusting in Ted” to handle the situation and draft to solidify one of the weakest spots on the Packers defense.
Zoneblitz: What should expectations be in 2014? Is this an elite team? How far is this team from making another deep postseason run?
Rivard: The Packers are an annual contender. As long as Aaron Rodgers stays healthy, Green Bay will be part of the Super Bowl discussion. Are they elite? They might be considered so by many, but until they get their defense figured out, I wouldn’t place them into the elite category. They can score points; they can win games, but they need all three areas of the team – offense, defense and special teams – to be clicking to be considered elite.
As far as expectations, Packers fans go into every season believing their team will win the Super Bowl. That’s how all fans should think. However, with all three other NFC North teams seeing major shakeups in coaches and personnel, they will all contend for the division title. For the Packers, winning a fourth straight NFC North Division title is the immediate goal … one in which they should have a great shot at accomplishing.
Zoneblitz: What else would you like to see Packers do in free agency and then in the draft?
Rivard: I would like to see the Packers re-sign Johnny Jolly and Ryan Pickett to add even more depth to the defensive line. In the draft, I would like to see them select a safety, inside linebacker, offensive lineman and wide receiver. They should also be in the market for a quarterback. With nine selections going into the draft, the Packers should be in good position once again to add players who will help the team immediately.