Ah, the Green Bay Packers. Along with the Patriots, they’ve enjoyed such a long and luxurious time at the top of the sport that we’re well beyond and into the point of nitpicking when we analyse. Fans seem spoilt to supporters of lesser teams, but they’re not really to blame – we can only ever judge by comparison. For Packers fans that’s comparing good seasons to good seasons.
So, they’ve essentially spent 20 years in win-now mode. Last year that translated to a 10-6 record (after another slow start) and two playoff wins before getting steamrolled by the Falcons. The Packers’ window isn’t closing just yet, mind. Aaron Rodgers may be turning 34 during this coming season, but still puts him in the second quarter of QB age. Mind you, Green Bay’s problem has been converting playoff wins into Super Bowl appearances.
When you’ve got the best quarterback in the league still in his prime, everything’s a little easier. Aaron Rodgers has the best balance of arm strength, accuracy, vision and improvisation you’ll see across the league. So often he ends up completing a 24-yard pass having extended what looks a doomed play. Then he’ll hit the most beautiful back shoulder throw you’ll see, and he’ll be away. What do you even need to say about Aaron Rodgers?
Well, you can say he elevates the receiving corps around him, though Jordy Nelson is already pretty damn good. His key benefit for Green Bay is a near-telepathic connection with Rodgers. Behind him, Davante Adams caught 12 touchdowns last year but will regress somewhat to the mean. Conversely, Randall Cobb no longer looked like a slot phenom, but someone struggling with niggling injuries. He may bounce back. Martellus Bennett is a very shrewd signing at tight end, a real offense lifter at a position the Packers have lacked in recent years. The depth looks good too: Geronimo Allison, Trevor Davis, Jeff Janis, rookies DeAngelo Yancey and Malachi Dupre. Some of these will end up as #4 options on other teams after cuts.
If the receiving corps looks Mariana Trench-deep, running back is more a paddling pool. Converted receiver Ty Montgomery mixed huge games with anonymous ones. If he can’t produce consistently, the main challenge comes from three late-round rookies. BYU product Jamaal Williams comfortably leads the bunch, and will challenge Montgomery for snaps early. Don’t be surprised if Williams pushes Montgomery into third-down back role sooner.
The O-Line, headlined by top tackle duo David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga, is a pass-blocking exemplar. But you knew that. Think about it: how often do you see Aaron Rodgers just hanging around for what seems like minutes, waiting for someone to get open. Alas, that doesn’t extend to run-blocking. Unsurprising given Green Bay’s historical struggles under HC Mike McCarthy (Eddie Lacy’s two 1,000 yard seasons are Green Bay’s only 1,000 yard rusher seasons in the 2010s), but losing their best run-blocker J.C. Tretter in free agency doesn’t help. Still, most teams would be delighted with those tackles, guards Lane Taylor and Jahri Evans, and center Corey Linsley.
Nominally, the defense wasn’t considered that great last year. But the run D jumped from bottom-half to top-quarter in 2016. Part of that’s down to the front of Dom Capers’ 3-4 scheme. Nose tackle Kenny Clark flashed as a rookie and looks like a classic immovable object. Defensive end Mike Daniels was a breakout star in 2015, but took a small step back in 2016. With Ricky Jean-Francois and rookie Montravius Adams opposite him this year, he may have more help.
Further back, the pass rush still looks shaky. Clay Matthews may have antecedents who played well into their 40s, but now aged 31 he has declined starkly these past two years. Nick Perry picked up 11 sacks last year despite never looking terrifying. Beyond him are apparently role players like Kyler Fackrell and Jayrone Elliott. Inside looks better – Jake Ryan, Joe Thomas and Blake Martinez form a young and versatile, if not stellar, trio.
And so we come to the much-maligned secondary. Firstly, yes it was poor last year. Secondly, yes injuries were part of that, but only part. Worry most about corner – in theory Quinten Rollins and Damarious Randall are good complementary corners. Last year they were terrible; last year they were injured. The Packers will hope raw but athletic #33 overall pick Kevin King will star. Though, King was a combine star who was good-not-great, and lacking elite lateral quickness, as a Washington Husky.
Safety looks fine though, with Pro Bowler Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix manning the free safety slot and Morgan Burnett playing strong. Both are solid NFL starters; Burnett in particular goes under-appreciated. Both are solid against pass and run, too. The depth doesn’t look great, but second-round rookie Josh Jones should help with that.
Players To Watch
Aaron Rodgers. Just watch Aaron Rodgers play football. You know it’s beautiful; I know it’s beautiful. He might not win the NFC Championship game often. He might not win MVP often. But he will be the platonic ideal of an NFL quarterback – pretty throws, canny decision-making and inspiring his team to better things.
This was a marquee draft for cornerbacks, and Kevin King will make an interesting test case. Like Quincy Wilson, Adoree Jackson, Akhello Witherspoon, athleticism is his calling card. So he’s raw, and will get challenged by wilier receivers. How quickly he learns how to stay with the better route runners will be key for he and the Packers. You’d expect that the less-refined, more-athletically-talented receivers will be where he shows up early. But it’s watching his development (or potential lack thereof) that’ll worth keeping an eye out for week on week.
On the few games Jared Cook showed up last season, Green Bay were incredible on offense. So, upgrading at tight end to Martellus Bennett looks a fascinating move. Bennett is athletic, sure, but he has that dollop of veteran experience that often lets tight ends break out late. Of course, Bennett broke out years ago. He’s a solid blocker, a threat down the seam and a mismatch weapon wherever you put him. Give Green Bay a talented, reliable tight end like Bennett and watch them soar.
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