Green Bay Packers: Long-term Outlook

With the Packers winning 6 of their last 7 games, there is a sudden change of opinion for the team.  Many have even dared to mention the “D” word after watching the play of young stars like Aaron Rodgers and Greg Jennings.  With that in mind, let’s look at where the team stands for the long term.  Some anecdotal references to talent will be made, but this outlook is primarily on the basis of the players in each position category and where they are in terms of experience and contract status.

Offense: Overall, the offense could potentially be in a very delicate balance.  The team faces the strong likelihood of needing to find two new starters at tackle, which could devastate any team.  The Packers seemingly have long-term starters at running back and quarterback, but could face some degree of turmoil at receiver with starter Donald Driver getting toward the end of his career.

Offensive Line: The team will face a very difficult decision this offseason with regards to the starters on the offensive line.  10 year left tackle Chad Clifton is in the final year of his contract.  Although he has been injured this year and last, he’s been fairly durable over his career, having started at least 15 games per season from 2003-2008.  His salary this year is a bit over $6m and even hitting his mid 30’s, a starting left tackle isn’t likely to take much of a pay cut.  On the other side, Mark Tauscher was re-signed for a 1 year contract part way through the season due to ineffective play of Allen Barbre.  Tauscher has been serviceable, but also in his 30’s and coming off his 2nd major knee surgery, it’s unclear whether the team would want to invest long-term money. The team also has rookie TJ Lang, who seems to fit the profile of a guard, but may end up being a career tackle with Green Bay due to the age/contract situations of the current starters.

The interior of the offensive line seems stable for years to come.  While Jason Spitz was named the starter this year after playing mostly at guard, Scott Wells has replaced him due to injury and by all accounts performed well enough.  New starter Josh Sitton is in his 2nd year and has held the right guard spot all season.  Daryn Colledge has taken a lot of criticism from fans and scouts, but has also had a lot of turmoil in the spots to either side of him.  He’s also been asked to fill in at left tackle occasionally but each time has not been up to the task.  Colledge is in the final year of his rookie contract and will be a restricted free agent in 2010.  The team will need to decide whether to keep him at left guard or look at moving TJ Lang into his spot.

The team also has rookie center/guard Evan Dietrich-Smith and 2nd year tackle Breno Giacomini.  Both players are inexpensive and at this point are development projects.

Receivers: Greg Jennings recently signed a 4 year contract extension that makes him, at least financially, our #1 receiver for years to come.  On the other side, Donald Driver is arguably #1b on the depth chart.  His numbers have cooled over the last 6 weeks, as it seems defenses started focusing on him more than Jennings.  2010 will be a big year for Driver as he will be turning 35 and looking at the final year of his contract, which will pay him at least $7 million.  Similar to Darren Sharper a few years back, the last year of Driver’s contract will pay a very high amount in hopes of persuading the team to offer an extension.  While Driver has shown little or no drop-off in performance over recent years, it is fairly uncommon to give a long-term contract to a 35 year old receiver.  The Packers may likely pay the high salary next season and revisit the situation in 2011.

Behind the starters, the two notable receivers are James Jones and Jordy Nelson.  Jones and Nelson are in their 3rd and 2nd seasons respectively and neither projects to be a starter in the future.  Jones has been the primary 3rd option at WR.  Nelson has shown good flexibility, filling in at punt and kickoff return duties due to Will Blackmon’s season-ending injury earlier this year.  Because of the Driver situation and the somewhat limited potential of these players, look for the Packers to draft another receiver with a high ceiling that they can develop into an eventual starter.

At tight end, 2nd year player Jermichael Finley has already developed into the starting tight end.  He has become the primary receiving option in many situations.  Due to several injuries, he has only played 12 games but still has 51 catches for 642 yards.  Over a 16 game season, that would project to 68 catches for 856 yards.  Each of those numbers would put him as a top 10 tight end, statistically.  As the starter the majority of the year, Donald Lee has proved to be a solid option at his position.  He is signed through the 2011 season at a reasonable price and thus far has not complained about the increased attention Finley has received.

Running Back: Ryan Grant is in a somewhat unique situation.  For carries among running backs, he has received 78% of the workload this year.  Around the league, unless teams have a major playmaker like Jones-Drew or Peterson, carries are split closer to 50-50.  While Grant doesn’t have the huge play-making ability that elite running backs possess, he has had back to back 1200 yard seasons.  3rd year player Brandon Jackson has gotten more involved as a 3rd down back, but the results have been mixed (3.0 rushing avg, 19 catches).  The Packers seem content with Grant getting the bulk of the carries, but may be pressed to find another 2nd option if Jackson doesn’t start showing more potential.

The Packers are also one of fewer and fewer teams that heavily use a fullback.  The position is used heavily in the run game as well as in pass protection out of the base offense.  This trend will likely continue well into the future as long as Mike McCarthy designs the offense.  Rookie Quinn Johnson looks to be the future starter, but because of his inexperience the team kept both John Kuhn and Korey Hall on the roster this year.  Look for one of those two to be cut next year as Johnson takes over the starting roll.

Quarterback: The Packers have seemingly succeeded where nearly every other team fails.  They’ve replaced a Hall of Fame QB with, at least, a star player at the position.  In his 2nd year starting (5th overall), Aaron Rodgers has made his first Pro Bowl, completed well over 60% of his passes, thrown for over 4,000 yards (each of his first two years) and most importantly, has led the team to the playoffs.  He has a contract with the team through the 2014 season that pays him among the level of the 2nd tier of starting QBs.  If he continues to improve his win totals, he will likely outplay that contract.  Backup Matt Flynn offers little in terms of talent or experience (this is his 2nd season) but being a former national champ from LSU, he offers a lot in terms of intangibles and the ability to win.

Defense: One of the top defenses in the NFL during their first year as a 3-4 team, there could be a lot of new faces next season.  2 of the 3 current starters on the defensive line will be free agents, and the 3rd starter will be entering the final year of his contract.  The starters at cornerback entering this season are both 35 and one will be coming off reconstructive knee surgery.  One of the NFL’s leaders in sacks over the past several years, Aaron Kampman, has not transitioned well to linebacker and will likely not be back.  The Packers also have a lot of money committed to their middle linebackers.  Bottom line is that the week 1 starters on defense in 2010 could be vastly different compared to 2009.

Defensive Line: The defensive line is one of the positions of greatest concern for the Packers going into the 2010 season and beyond.  The team had a lot of large bodies up front which eased the transition to a 3-4 scheme, but will now face a couple key contract decisions.  Of the top 4 defensive linemen, BJ Raji is the only one with a contract extending beyond 2010.  Starting nose tackle Ryan Pickett will be entering his 10th season as an unrestricted free agent.  The Packers drafted BJ Raji from Boston College to address the Pickett situation and be the anchor of the defensive front for years to come.  While Pickett has played extremely well, look for him to leave in free agency and be replaced by Raji next season.  On the left side, Johnny Jolly is also in a contract year and has been having probably his best season.  The Packers can minimize some risk with Jolly if there is no new CBA before the off-season as the current rules would make him a restricted free agent in 2010.  If the Packers offer him a restricted tender, they can avoid any financial penalty should Jolly’s play drop off next year.  However, if he performs at a similar level he will command a lot more money in a long-term deal.  On the other side, Cullen Jenkins has also performed well.  He is in his late 20’s and 2010 will be the last year of his contract which paid him a modest $15.8m over 4 years.  The team would be wise to look at an extension for Jenkins this off-season to avoid the possibility of losing all 3 starters over a 2 year period.

Behind those 4 players, the Packers lack any promising depth on the defensive line.  Rookie nose tackle Anthony Toribio was recently promoted from the practice  squad.  His size (6-1 315) puts him somewhat out of character for any position on the line.  He’s too small to play the nose and too short to play end (compared to typically 3-4 linemen).  The team will likely give up on Justin Harrell after another season spent on IR.  Defensive ends Jarius Wynn and Mike Montgomery have seen little playing time and it’s unclear how they fit in going forward.

Linebackers: There will also be many major financial decisions regarding the linebacker position this off-season.  Aaron Kampman, who was hopefully going to be the pass-rushing outside linebacker in the new defense, has made a shaky transition at best.  Before his season ended due to a knee injury, he looked slow in all phases of his game.  Scouts noted that much of his pass-rushing ability came from the way he was able to quickly gain leverage from a 3 or 4 point stance.  Playing from an upright position, he’s been unable to accelerate past linemen and has been stiff in coverage.  Since the loss of Kampman, two rookies have performed quite well at the position.  On the right side, 1st round pick Clay Matthews Jr is making a solid run at defensive rookie of the year.  On the other side, 7th round pick Brad Jones hasn’t played outstanding, but does everything well.  Both players will likely be starters again next year as it’s unlikely the Packers would risk offering any sort of contract to Kampman in the event they could not trade him.

In the middle, expect more turnover.  Current starters Nick Barnett and AJ Hawk have played well enough, but with backup Brandon Chillar recently receiving a contract extension, it’s possible that somebody could be out the door in 2010.  Barnett and Hawk will make $4.5 and $4.1 million respectively in 2010, which is a high portion of the salary for one position.  Hawk has recently been used heavily in pass coverage and has occasionally done well.  However, Chillar seems to be very similar to the way Hawk is being used, for less than half the money.  3rd year player Desmond Bishop has shown playmaking ability as a pass-rusher up the middle, but his inconsistencies elsewhere have kept him off the field.

Defensive Backs: Yet another area of the defense that could be in for a transition.  Al Harris will only make $2.5 million next season, but he is 35, coming off a major knee injury and has shown a decline in his performance.  Charles Woodson is having a career season, but is also 35 and regardless of him playing corner or safety, he is not a long term option.  3rd year player Tramon William is filling in for Harris at the 2nd corner spot and shows promise.  Most of his shortcomings at present are a result of teams not throwing in the direction of Woodson.  Williams will be a free agent in 2010.  Behind Williams, the team struggles to cover opponents 3rd receiver.  Return specialist Brandon Underwood was lost early in the year to injury, but when healthy is not likely to make an impact outside of special teams.  2nd year player Pat Lee was also put on injured reserve and might be our nickel corner right now were he healthy.  The team is not sure what they have with rookies Trevor Ford and Brandon Underwood.  Josh Bell was signed to fill in for all the backfield injuries but hasn’t been able to stay on a team in only his 2nd year.  4th year player Jarrett Bush is a liability in coverage.  If Harris is released, Woodson (who will turn 36 next year) and Tramon Williams will likely be the only corners from the current roster with any significant playing experience.

At safety, Nick Collins has shown for the 2nd year that he is capable of big plays.  Under the current CBA, he would be a restricted free agent in 2010 and the Packers are likely banking on that until they can work out a long-term deal with the free safety.  On the other side, Atari Bigby has been effective when healthy, but has missed significant playing time this year and last.  Bigby will also be a free agent in 2010 and looking for a long-term deal.  Behind the starters, the Packers have rotated several players on and off the roster.  The current backups are Matt Giordano and Derrick Martin.  All of the players at safety are fairly young, but the team will need to address the contract situations of the starters.

Special Teams: Once again, the Packers have a poor special teams unit.  The return game cannot be condemned much as star player Will Blackmon went on injured reserve early in the season.  However, the kicking and coverage units have not performed well.  On Kickoffs, Mason Crosby is toward the bottom of the league, averaging only 62.3 yards.  The Packers are in the middle of the league giving up 22.9 per return.  That puts opponents typically past the 30 yard line for starting field position.  Crosby has also come under fire for his field goal performance.  He is toward the bottom of the league at 74%.  21 teams are at 80% or better for field goals.  Crosby was under 80% each of his previous two seasons.  Performing in the bottom 1/3 of the league your first 3 seasons must be cause for concern.  At the very least, the Packers will look at replacements next season.

The punting game is also a problem, for another year.  Jeremy Kapinos is dead last in the NFL with a net average of 33.8 yards per punt.  He is also toward the bottom of the league with only 14 punts landing inside the 20 yard line compared to 10 touch-backs.  The Packers will almost certainly be starting 2010 with a new punter.

Head Coach: Mike McCarthy, in his 4th year as head coach, is 37-26 in the regular season and 1-1 in the playoffs.  He has coached the youngest or 2nd youngest team in the NFL each year, which is likely a strong factor in his teams being among league leaders in penalties.  This year he is again at the helm of one of the top offenses in the NFL, but the unit leads the league in sacks allowed.  He is under contract for the next 4 seasons.

Jay

Jay Ratkowski runs this joint, which is why his name is on the front door. You can find him elsewhere at Google+, Facebook, or Twitter

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Author: Jay

Jay Ratkowski runs this joint, which is why his name is on the front door. You can find him elsewhere at Google+, Facebook, or Twitter

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