9 Moves the Green Bay Packers Must Make This Offseason
The 2013 season has been a frustrating year for the Green Bay Packers. The team has had to deal with a myriad of injuries, including ones to key players like quarterback Aaron Rodgers, wide receiver Randall Cobb, tight end Jermichael Finley, left tackle Bryan Bulaga and cornerback Casey Hayward.
Finley, Bulaga and Hayward are all out for the season and are on injured reserve. The knee injury that ended the season for Bulaga happened on the family night scrimmage the week after training camp started. That set the tone for the team in terms of injuries this season.
Cobb has missed eight games due to a leg injury he suffered against the Baltimore Ravens, and he was placed on the injured reserve, designated to return list. Cobb is eligible to come back anytime now, but he is making slow progress.
The biggest injury, of course, happened when Rodgers fractured his clavicle on November 4 versus the Chicago Bears. Rodgers hasn't played since then, and the team has gone 1-4-1 in his absence.
In his press conference on Wednesday, as reported by NFL.com's Marc Sessler, head coach Mike McCarthy said that Rodgers has still not been cleared medically after practicing with the team and he will be evaluated again on Thursday.
But the Packers are still in contention to win the NFC North with a 6-6-1 record, and they are only a half-game behind the 7-5 Detroit Lions with three games to play.
No matter what happens down the road this season, I believe the Packers have to do a number of things this offseason as they prepare for 2014.
Selecting a Safety Needs to Be a Priority in the 2014 NFL Draft
General manager Ted Thompson made a calculated risk when he did not select a safety in the 2013 NFL draft. Thompson was hoping that Morgan Burnett would perform at the level which led to a contract extension this offseason.
Thompson also hoped that between M.D. Jennings and Jerron McMillian, the Packers would get solid play at the other safety position.
That calculation has been somewhat of a disaster.
Burnett injured his hamstring in training camp and missed the first three games of the regular season. After he returned, his play has been up and down.
The experiment with Jennings and McMillian has flamed out. McMillian was recently released by the team, while the play of Jennings has been less than mediocre. Jennings always seems to be a second or two too late in pass coverage, which has led to big passing plays by opponents.
In fact, in 13 games, Jennings has not gotten credit for one pass defended.
The entire secondary, including the safeties, have also missed a number of tackles. A missed tackle by Jennings last week against the Atlanta Falcons, which led to a touchdown pass, caused him to be removed and replaced by Sean Richardson for the rest of the game.
The jury is still out on Richardson, but he appears to be a solid tackler, an attribute which is sorely needed by the defense. Richardson started the season on the PUP (physically unable to perform) list due to a neck injury suffered last season.
The Packers can also use rookie Micah Hyde at safety down the road, as he played some safety at Iowa, but this season Hyde has primarily played the slot-corner position which was formerly played by Casey Hayward.
Thompson needs to make selecting a safety in the 2014 NFL draft a priority, much like he did with the running back position this year. That has worked out well, based on the play of Eddie Lacy.
Hopefully the same thing will happen in 2014 if Thompson can draft a quality safety in the early rounds of the draft. Someone like Deone Bucannon from Washington State.
Kevin Greene Should Become the New Defensive Coordinator
Defensive coordinator Dom Capers has one of the brightest minds in terms of defensive strategy in the NFL. His track record of success speaks for itself.
But much like Monte Kiffin, who has a similar achievement history in running defenses, the results have not been up to par lately.
When Capers arrived in Green Bay in 2009, he took over a defense which was ranked 20th in total defense in the NFL in 2008. In his first season as defensive coordinator, the team improved to second in total defense.
Then in 2010, the season the Packers won Super Bowl XLV, the defense was ranked fifth in the league.
Since those first two seasons, however, the performance of the defense has gone downhill. In 2011, the defense was ranked 32nd, or dead last in the NFL. The defense improved to 11th in the league in 2012.
This season, the defense played pretty well early in the season and was ranked 11th in the NFL in total defense heading into the November 4 game against the Bears. The Packers were also ranked fourth in the league in run defense prior to that game.
Since then, the defense has fallen to No. 21 in the NFL, while the run defense of the Packers has plummeted to No. 25.
The main attribute of any defense that Capers has run in Green Bay has been the amount of turnovers it creates.
In 2009, the Packers forced 40 turnovers and had four defensive touchdowns. That led the entire NFL. In 2010, the Pack forced 32 turnovers and again had four defensive touchdowns. In 2011, even with a defense which was ranked last in the NFL in total defense, the Packers forced 32 turnovers and had five defensive touchdowns.
Last season, the team only forced 23 turnovers and had two defensive touchdowns. That pattern has continued this season, as the Packers have only forced 16 turnovers in 13 games and have two defensive touchdowns.
The 3-4 defense that Capers has put in place can be successful. History tells us that. But it's getting close to the time that someone else is put in charge of running the defense.
My suggestion would be outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene. Not only was Greene a Hall of Fame-caliber player in the NFL, but he is also an outstanding coach.
Greene has a fiery and exuberant personality which would help him when he becomes a coordinator. But his biggest attribute is his ability to teach.
And based on what we have seen recently, there is a lot for the Packers to learn.
Re-Sign B.J. Raji
As I mentioned in the previous slide, the run defense of the Packers has been sliding downward since Week 9.
That improved somewhat last week versus the Atlanta Falcons, but the team's ability to stop the run on a consistent basis falls well short of expectations.
The success of a 3-4 defense is predicated on its ability to stop the run, rush the passer and force turnovers. In Raji's rookie year in 2009, the Packers were first in the NFL in stopping the run. In 2010, the Packers were ranked 18th in stopping the run.
The team improved to 14th in that stat in 2011. Last season, the Packers were ranked 17th.
This year, the Packers have fallen to 25th.
The two primary run-stuffers on the defensive line during that time were Raji and veteran Ryan Pickett. Both are wide-bodied players who use their bulk to tie up offensive linemen so the linebackers behind them will be free to make tackles.
Raji has had a decent career in Green Bay. He has been named to one Pro Bowl and also had a key interception for a touchdown in the 2010 NFC Championship Game. Up until this year, Raji has averaged close to 48 tackles per season. In addition to that, No. 90 has 10.5 sacks in his career.
Raji will be an unrestricted free agent in 2014 and has not been nearly as effective this season. In 13 games, Raji only has 14 tackles. He also doesn't have a sack or a forced fumble.
Earlier this season, the Packers offered Raji a contract extension that would pay him $8 million per season.
Up until now, Raji has not accepted that generous offer. Raji is represented by David Dunn, who also is the agent for both Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews, who both received contract extensions before the season.
Rodgers is now the highest-paid player in the NFL, while Matthews is the highest-paid outside linebacker in the league.
Both players received their contract extensions due to their excellent play. Raji is a good player, but he has not come close to the level of play of Rodgers and Matthews.
If I were Raji, I would sign the contract offer as soon as I could. If I were the Packers, I would not budge one cent on the offer. If anything, I might lower it based on Raji's play this season.
Another thing to keep in mind is that both Johnny Jolly and Mike Neal will be unrestricted free agents in 2014, too. Both have had better seasons in 2013 than Raji has.
Say Goodbye to Ryan Pickett
Defensive lineman Ryan Pickett has had a great career in Green Bay since 2006, when he signed with the Packers as an unrestricted free agent. Ted Thompson struck gold that year in free agency, as he not only signed Pickett but also defensive back Charles Woodson.
Pickett spent his first five years in the NFL with the St. Louis Rams. The 2013 season is the eighth season that No. 79 has been with the Pack. Pickett has been the primary run-stopper for the Packers during that time.
Over his career with Green Bay before this season, Pickett averaged just over 66 tackles per year. This season, Pickett has just 15 tackles in 13 games. The run defense is now ranked 25th in the league and has allowed 122.6 yards per game on the ground.
Pickett will be an unrestricted free agent in 2014. As great as he has been for the Packers, it's looking like Father Time has caught up with Pickett, who is now 34 years old.
The Packers will have a number of unrestricted free agents like Pickett in 2014, and some tough decisions will have to be made.
And one of those tough decisions will have to be made with Pickett.
The Tight End Position Needs to Be Addressed
Going into training camp this year, it sure seemed like the Packers had very good depth at the tight end position. The Packers had seven tight ends on their roster. The list included Jermichael Finley, Andrew Quarless, Ryan Taylor, D.J. Williams, Brandon Bostick, Matthew Mulligan and Jake Stoneburner.
When the Packers trimmed their roster, both Williams and Mulligan were released, while Stoneburner was placed on the practice squad.
Finley was on his way to his best year (34 receptions for 300 yards and three touchdowns in just six games) in his career when he suffered an neck injury against the Cleveland Browns in Week 7. The injury put Finley on injured reserve. No. 88 also had a spinal fusion surgery procedure done last month to correct the damage done to his neck.
Finley is due to become an unrestricted free agent in 2014, and this injury certainly has clouded his future in the NFL.
After the injury to Finley, the Packers brought up Stoneburner from the practice squad.
The future of the tight ends on the roster is a bit murky. Again, Finley is a free agent and coming off a possible career-ending injury. Nick Collins had a similar procedure and never played again. Sean Richardson also had fusion surgery, but he has come back to play.
I've also had fusion surgery in the neck area. Whether a player can continue his career depends on the location of the injury and the vertebrae involved.
Regarding the other tight ends on the roster, Andrew Quarless had his best game since 2010 when he caught six passes for 66 yards and a touchdown last week against the Falcons. However, Quarless is just now rounding back into form. He suffered a severe knee injury in 2011 and missed all of the 2012 season. Quarless will also be an unrestricted free agent in 2014.
Taylor excels mostly on special teams and in blocking. He's only caught six passes so far this season.
Bostick has some upside. He has some of the attributes that Finley possessed, especially with his ability to be a downfield threat up the seam. Bostick has only seven receptions, but one was for a touchdown, and he has an excellent 17.1 yards-per-catch average.
Stoneburner had a nice career at Ohio State, where he had 53 catches for 714 yards and 13 touchdowns. He has yet to catch a pass yet with the Packers.
The bottom line is, the Packers would be wise to pick a tight end in the early rounds of the 2014 NFL draft. Perhaps someone like Jace Amaro from Texas Tech.
Re-Sign James Jones
James Jones is sort of the Rodney Dangerfield of the wide receivers with the Packers. He doesn't get respect.
Before the 2013 season, there was talk of Randall Cobb perhaps catching 100 passes this season. Then there's Jordy Nelson, who seems to get better every year.
Then there is Jones. The third threat of the Big Three.
All Jones did last year was catch 14 touchdown passes, which was tops in the NFL. This season, Jones injured his knee in the same game in which Cobb suffered a leg injury, which has kept No. 18 off the field ever since.
Jones missed two games himself because of his injury, but he still has caught 41 passes for 643 yards and two touchdowns. His stats are down a bit, mostly because Aaron Rodgers has missed five games.
Still, when Rodgers is under center, he loves going to No. 89, both in the regular season and the postseason. In his regular-season career, Jones has 292 receptions for 4,131 yards and 36 touchdowns. In the postseason, Jones has 26 catches for 390 yards and four touchdowns.
Jones should be one of the players in the front of the line for getting a contract extension.
The Packers will have two other starters on offense who will be unrestricted free agents in 2014. Both fullback John Kuhn and center Evan Dietrich-Smith are in that category. The Packers like both Kuhn and Dietrich-Smith, but they won't break the bank to re-sign them.
Bring Back Matt Flynn
When the the 2013 preseason ended and the Packers ending up releasing all three of the quarterbacks (Graham Harrell, B.J. Coleman and Vince Young) who backed up Aaron Rodgers in training camp, I was at the front of the line saying the Packers needed to draft a quality quarterback in the 2014 draft.
My thinking has changed a bit since then.
First the Packers signed Seneca Wallace. They also signed former Badger Scott Tolzien to their practice squad, and then later to the roster.
Then after Rodgers fractured his clavicle, Wallace was hurt a week later. That made Tolzien the starter, and the Packers also signed former Packer Matt Flynn to be Tolzien's backup.
Tolzien flashed a lot of potential in the two games he started, but he was also prone to mistakes. He threw five interceptions compared to just one touchdown pass. Tolzien also threw for 717 yards, which is outstanding.
But because Tolzien had trouble moving the team against the Minnesota Vikings, the Packers decided to put Flynn into the game with the team trailing the Vikings 23-7 in the third quarter. Flynn brought the Packers all the way back; they tied the Vikings and forced overtime. The game ended in a 26-26 tie.
But Flynn showed enough to be named the starting quarterback. He had a very tough day against the Detroit Lions on Thanksgiving, getting sacked seven times as the Packers were throttled 40-10. But No. 10 bounced back and had a very nice performance versus the Atlanta Falcons in the next game, when he completed 24-of-32 passes for 258 yards and a touchdown.
Flynn is starting to look like the guy who was the backup to Rodgers for four seasons from 2008 to 2011. Flynn was a quality backup then as well. I'm sure most fans remember the game in which he threw six touchdown passes and threw for 480 yards in the last game of the 2011.
That game set Flynn up for a big free-agent contract, which he received from the Seattle Seahawks. But Flynn was beaten out by rookie sensation Russell Wilson in 2012 and then was traded to the Oakland Raiders this season. The Raiders ended up releasing Flynn, and he signed with the Buffalo Bills, who also ended up releasing him.
Then he came back to Green Bay, where he is looking a lot like the Flynn from 2010 and 2011 who performed so well. I talked to scout Chris Landry about him recently, and Landry said that the offensive system the Packers run is perfect for Flynn.
I expect Flynn to stick with the Packers for the 2014 season as the backup to Rodgers. Flynn knows what it's like to be away from the Green Bay organization, and the results were not good.
Plus, Tolzien has a lot of upside to compete for a job on the roster.
The Packers still might draft a quarterback, but it won't be a priority because of Flynn and Tolzien.
A Return Man Is Needed in the 2014 Draft
The Packers have certainly struggled in the return game during the 2013 season. The bright spot was the 93-yard punt return for a touchdown by rookie Micah Hyde against the Minnesota Vikings.
Other than that, the return game has struggled, especially on kickoffs.
Hyde does have a 12.7 average on 20 punt returns, but a lot of that came from the 93-yard return.
Hyde also leads the Packers in kickoff returns; he has returned 16 kicks for 346 yards, which is a 21.6-yard average. As a team, the Packers have only averaged 18.8 yards a kickoff return, which is last in the NFL.
The Packers had a good return game the previous two seasons, primarily because of Randall Cobb, who returned one kickoff for a touchdown and three punts for touchdowns. Cobb had a healthy 26.5 average on kickoff returns and a 10.3 average on punt returns.
After Cobb suffered a leg injury last season, the Packers went with Jeremy Ross, who flashed some real potential.
However, Ross fumbled a punt in the playoff game against the San Francisco 49ers, and that was the turning point of that game, which the Packers lost 45-31.
Ross never recovered this season. He had a paltry 12.5-yard average on six kickoff returns, which included a fumble, plus only a 10-yard average on three punt returns.
The Packers cut Ross after the game versus the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 3 after his fumble, which led to a touchdown.
They may have cut Ross too soon. He has had a great season with the rival Detroit Lions. He has a 33.5-yard average and a touchdown on 10 kickoff returns and a 19.9-yard average and a touchdown on eight punt returns for Detroit.
The Packers need to look for a return specialist in the 2014 NFL draft. They need someone like wide receiver Christion Jones of Alabama, who has returned two punts for touchdowns this season and one kickoff return for another touchdown.
Re-Sign Sam Shields
Sam Shields will be an unrestricted free agent in 2014. The Packers have struggled in the secondary this season, especially at the safety position, but Shields has more talent than any cornerback on the roster at the present time.
The Packers are ranked 21st in pass defense currently, plus the secondary only has six interceptions as a group. Shields has two of them, as does fellow cornerback Tramon Williams.
Shields leads the team with 13 passes defended. He has become a much better tackler over the past two seasons, but everyone on the team has missed way too many tackles this year.
Williams leads all cornerbacks with 63 tackles. Plus Williams has 2.5 sacks, the two picks and 10 passes defended.
But Williams is 30 years old and has not been the same player he was in 2010, when he was named to the Pro Bowl and had an exceptional postseason.
Shields, on the other hand, just turned 26 years old, and he has more upside than any cornerback on the team.
In his four-year career with the Packers, Shields has 11 interceptions in the regular season and four more in the postseason.