The 2013 offseason has been very interesting for the Green Bay Packers. The team has had to make a number of very difficult decisions, but through it all, the team has been improved, at least from my standpoint.
Like usual, general manager Ted Thompson has not done much in free agency, except for signing "street" free agents and undrafted rookies. But Thompson did very well in the 2013 NFL Draft, one that may turn out to be among his very best.
The Packers also saw some key veteran leadership leave the team with the retirement of Donald Driver and the release of Charles Woodson.
The Packers also looked to the future with the contract extensions they signed with both Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews, who are the building block pieces of the franchise.
Let's take a look now at some of the best and worst moves the Packers made this offseason.
When the Green Bay Packers selected defensive end Datone Jones in the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft, I'm sure that Ted Thompson remembered the 45-31 NFC divisional playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers.
The Niners had 579 total yards in that game, and quarterback Colin Kaepernick was responsible for 444 of those yards via the pass and the run.
The Packers were brutalized in that game by the read-option play where Kaepernick had a choice to either keep the ball or give it to a running back on a running play, as the second-year quarterback rushed for 181 yards in the game.
Jones was very familiar with a couple of aspects which were important to the Packers defensively. First, he played in a very similar 3-4 defense at UCLA that Dom Capers employs in Green Bay. Second, Jones was very successful playing against opponents in college which utilized the read-option.
Finally, Jones was very productive. Jones had a fabulous senior year at UCLA, where he had 62 tackles, a whopping 19 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks, one forced fumble and two blocked kicks.
The Packers see Jones as a three-down player who will help out in both stopping the run and also rushing the passer.
In terms of putting pressure on the passer, the Packers are hoping for a "California Gold Rush," with Jones (UCLA), Clay Matthews (USC) and Nick Perry (USC) leading the way.
The Packers saw their offensive production slip a bit in 2012. The Packers finished third in total offense in the NFL in 2011, but saw that production go down to 13th in 2012. Why? There were a couple of reasons.
One, there were a number of key injuries. Secondly, the defenses that the Packers played against almost always had their safeties playing in two-deep coverage.
Why? Because teams didn't respect the running game of the Packers and they also wanted to thwart the deep-passing game of Aaron Rodgers.
Enter Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin. The Packers surprised some people when they not only selected a running back early in the draft (Lacy), but then selected another back (Franklin) just two rounds later.
Both Lacy and Franklin were very productive in their final year of college.
Lacy rushed for 1,322 yards (6.4 average) and had 17 touchdowns for Alabama. He also caught 22 passes for 189 yards and two touchdowns. Lacy is also a better-than-average blocker.
He was also dominant in big games, as he rushed for 181 yards in the SEC championship game versus Georgia, and then had 140 yards on 20 carries and a touchdown, plus caught two passes for 17 yards and had another score as the Crimson Tide won another BCS title when they whipped up on Notre Dame.
Franklin rushed for 1,734 yards rushing and had 13 touchdowns for the UCLA Bruins. He also caught 33 passes for 323 yards and two more scores.
Both Lacy and Franklin have the skill-set to be three-down running backs.
More importantly, their arrival in Green Bay will force the defensive opponents of the Packers to respect the running game.
If Lacy and Franklin play as well in the NFL as they did in college, it will also enhance the passing game of Rodgers, via play-action passes and deep-pass plays.
In 2012, the Packers were coming off a season in which two former No.1 picks in the draft were sidelined with injuries.
I'm speaking of offensive tackle Bryan Bulaga, who was chosen in the first round of the 2010 NFL Draft, and Derek Sherrod, who was selected in the first round of the 2011 NFL Draft.
Bulaga missed almost half of the 2012 season due to a hip injury, while Sherrod missed the entire season due a a leg fracture which occurred late in the 2011 season.
The Packers were forced to play an undrafted rookie (Don Barclay) at right tackle the latter part of the season and into the playoffs. Plus, the team benched veteran center Jeff Saturday late in the season and replaced him with Evan Dietrich-Smith.
This season, the Packers have decided to make some changes on their offensive line. The Packers are moving Bulaga to the left side of the line to play left tackle, and they are also moving Josh Sitton to that side of the line to play left guard.
Dietrich-Smith will remain at center and T.J. Lang will move from left guard to right guard.
The Packers also added a couple more offensive linemen in the draft and signed a couple more as undrafted rookies.
With the drafting of both David Bakhtiari of Colorado and J.C. Tretter of Cornell in the fourth round, the Packers brought in some versatility for the offensive line.
Although both Bakhtiari and Tretter played left tackle in college, it appears that both will find different positions in the NFL.
I expect Bakhtiari to be in the mix for the starting right tackle job, while Tretter will most likely be moved inside to help out at both guard and tackle.
The Packers are also expecting second-year offensive lineman Andrew Datko to be in the mix this season, as he appears to be healthy and much stronger.
The jury is still out on whether Sherrod will be effective this season, but head coach Mike McCarthy expects him to be a factor.
With the injuries the team has suffered on the line recently, along with the inconsistent play of Marshall Newhouse at left tackle the past two seasons (gave up 24.5 sacks), the Packers needed to add more bodies and make some serious changes.
The Packers have done a very nice job in managing the salary cap over the years, and it paid off big-time for the team this offseason.
Rodgers and Matthews are the cornerstones of the franchise, and it made perfect sense to get their deals done now.
Rodgers is now the highest paid player in the NFL, as he signed a five-year, $110 million extension in late April. He will also get $54 million in guarantees, which includes a $35 million signing bonus and $62.5 million in the first three years of his new deal.
Earlier in April, the Packers made Matthews the highest paid linebacker in the NFL when he signed a a six-year, $69.73 million deal that runs through the 2018 season. Matthews will also get $31 million in guaranteed money.
Rodgers has the highest rating of any quarterback in NFL history (regular season) with a 104.9 mark. Rodgers has thrown 171 touchdown passes and compiled 21,661 yards. He has thrown just 46 interceptions in his first eight seasons.
Rodgers was also named the MVP of the NFL in 2011, as well as the MVP of Super Bowl XLV. He has also been named to three Pro Bowls.
Matthews has 42.5 sacks in four seasons, plus four interceptions (two for touchdowns), seven forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries (one for a touchdown).
Matthews has been named to the Pro Bowl in each of his four seasons in the NFL.
Both Rodgers and Matthews certainly deserve these contract extensions for their productivity on the field, as both are considered the best of the best at their respective positions in the NFL.
When the Packers released veteran Charles Woodson and then did not draft a pure safety in the 2013 NFL Draft, the team basically told the NFL world that they will be staying with youth at the safety position.
Woodson missed nine games during the 2012 season due to another broken collarbone. He played strong safety in the base defense of the Packers, and then moved to the slot-corner position in the nickel package.
Both M.D. Jennings and Jerron McMillian filled the role of Woodson at safety in his absence, while Casey Hayward did a very nice job handling the role of slot-corner.
The good news is that both Jennings and McMillian saw a lot of playing time in 2012. Both played in all 16 games last year, with Jennings having 52 total tackles, while McMillian had 27.
Each picked off a pass as well, with Jennings returning his for a touchdown.
The only possible addition the team has made at safety since the release of Woodson was the drafting of defensive back Micah Hyde of Iowa in the fifth round of the 2013 draft. Hyde played cornerback most of the time while he was a Hawkeye, but did see some time at safety as well.
Otherwise, it will be up to Jennings and McMillian to man the safety position opposite Morgan Burnett. To me, McMillian is the better option, as he is a better tackler than Jennings and has more upside.
Still, this could be a role of the dice for the team in 2013, depending on how this all plays out.
With the retirement of veteran wide receiver Donald Driver and the release of veteran defensive back Charles Woodson, the Packers will lose two very big leadership roles in their locker room.
Both Driver and Woodson were nearing the end of the line in terms of their effectiveness in the NFL, but they were also mentors to the younger players on the team, especially those who played their positions.
What both players did while wearing the green and gold was exceptional.
Driver is the all-time leading receiver in Green Bay with 743 catches, plus the all-time leader in receiving yards (10,137). He also had 61 touchdown receptions and one rushing touchdown.
Driver also did well in the postseason too, as he had 49 receptions for 675 yards, which is second all-time in both marks for the team. He was also named to four Pro Bowls.
Woodson didn't come to Green Bay until 2006 as a free agent, but what he did in seven years was remarkable.
The former Michigan Wolverine had 38 career interceptions, including a whopping nine for touchdowns. He also forced 15 fumbles and recovered six more, including one for a touchdown. Woodson also had 11.5 sacks.
Woodson was also named NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2009. He was named to four Pro Bowls as a Packer.
To add some icing on the cake, both Driver and Woodson were able to hoist the Vince Lombardi Trophy after Super Bowl XLV.
Yes, the skills of both Driver and Woodson were certainly eroding as they got older, but their leadership skills never wavered as they helped to teach the younger players on the team with the knowledge they had learned in their long NFL careers.