7 Offseason Moves the Packers Must Make to Compete in 2014-15
Even though the Green Bay Packers ended up winning the NFC North division after a heart-stopping 33-28 victory over the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field on Sunday, the team also showed a number of weaknesses in their effort.
The 8-7-1 Packers will try and mask those weaknesses when they take on the 12-4 San Francisco 49ers at Lambeau Field on Sunday in an NFC Wild Card Game.
No matter what happens in that game and in the postseason in general, the Packers and general manager Ted Thompson have to reflect on some of the issues that hurt the Packers during the 2013 campaign.
Thompson and company then have to make every effort to upgrade the various situations that need to be resolved.
I am going to discuss seven moves that I believe the Packers must make going into the 2014 season.
Actually Utilize Free Agency
The NFL salary cap is expected to go up 2.6 percent to $126.3 million in 2014 after being at $123 million in 2013.
Even though Ted Thompson has avoided free agency like the plague for the most part over his time as general manager of the Packers, it's possible that he might just dip his toes in the free agency waters in 2014.
At least according to Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Now the Packers did just give massive contract extensions to both quarterback Aaron Rodgers and outside linebacker Clay Matthews this past offseason, plus have a number of their own players who will be unrestricted free agents in 2014, but it would be nice if the Packers could land someone of substance in free agency.
There is no one who would help more than safety Jairus Byrd of the Buffalo Bills.
Byrd is a very talented safety, who has had contract squabbles with the Bills and was given the franchise designation in 2013.
Byrd hurt his foot early in training camp for the Bills in 2013 but came back to play in 11 games.
He had four interceptions for 85 yards, which landed him a spot in the Pro Bowl. By the way, that's four more interceptions than the entire safety group of the Packers had in 2013.
In his five-year career in the NFL, Byrd has 22 interceptions for 409 yards and two touchdowns.
Byrd will want to be paid big money—he wanted to be the highest-paid safety in football last year according to Josh Alper of Pro Football Talk—so it will take some creative work by Russ Ball (vice president of player finance for the Packers) to get a deal done.
Re-Sign Some of Their Own Free Agents
As I mentioned in the previous slide, the Packers have a number of their own players who will be unrestricted free agents in 2014.
The list includes tight ends Jermichael Finley and Andrew Quarless; defensive linemen B.J. Raji, Ryan Pickett, C.J. Wilson and Johnny Jolly; fullback John Kuhn; cornerback Sam Shields; wide receiver James Jones; center Evan Dietrich-Smith; outside linebacker Mike Neal; running back James Starks; inside linebackers Jamari Lattimore and Robert Francois and quarterback Matt Flynn.
That includes quite a few players, plus a few more who I will talk about in another slide.
If I'm Ted Thompson, there are a few on this list who need to be focused on more than the others.
The Packers have already put a contract offer out to Raji, but he has rejected their offer according to ESPN's Rob Demovsky. For what it's worth, Raji is represented by David Dunn, who also happens to be the agent for both Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews.
Keep that in mind, especially knowing that both Rodgers (highest-paid player in the NFL) and Matthews (highest-paid outside linebacker in the NFL) received huge contract extensions this past offseason.
The Packers should not do the same with Raji. His play does not warrant it. Either he accepts their current offer or he moves on.
The two priorities to me would be re-signing Shields and Dietrich-Smith. After that, I would concentrate on Jones, Neal and Quarless.
Kuhn will probably be back as he has proven his worth to the Packers in many instances, especially during the game-winning drive against the Bears on Sunday.
I also expect the Packers to re-sign Flynn as well, as he basically saved the 2013 season for the team with his play down the stretch until Rodgers returned for the last game of the year.
Upgrade the Safety Position
The safeties of the Green Bay Packers did not intercept a pass in 2013.
That has not happened for the team since the 1950s. That also tells you a lot about the playmaking ability of the current safety group.
Think about the championship Green Bay teams of the past. Think about safeties like Nick Collins, LeRoy Butler and Willie Wood. All ball hawks and solid tacklers.
That was not the case at the position this past season.
Morgan Burnett signed a contract extension in the offseason and has not had a very good year. Burnett had a hamstring issue that caused him to miss the first three games of the year, and since then has been part of some blown coverages and shoddy tackling.
The other safety position has been worse.
M.D. Jennings beat out Jerron McMillian there, but what does that prove? McMillian ended up getting cut later in the 2013 season, while Jennings is always a second or two late in coverage and has had his share of missed tackles.
Jennings has been sharing time with Sean Richardson of late, and although Richardson is a much better tackler, he is not great in coverage.
Another option in 2014 would be to move Micah Hyde to the safety position.
Hyde has primarily had to play the slot corner position this season as Casey Hayward has missed most of the season due to a hamstring injury, which eventually put him on injured reserve.
Hyde is a sure tackler and would be a big upgrade over Jennings.
No matter what, the Packers must focus on getting more safety help, either through the 2014 NFL draft or through free agency.
Upgrade the Inside Linebacker Position
Even though A.J. Hawk has had perhaps the best season since he has been in Green Bay, the Packers need to upgrade the inside linebacker position.
For one thing, Hawk will soon be 30 years old. Secondly, the other inside linebacker position has not seen great play, especially during the last half of 2013.
Brad Jones and Jamari Lattimore have both had some solid moments, but both have also had issues. They have been hampered by injuries at times, plus they have had their share of blown assignments, Lattimore especially.
Jones signed a contract extension this past offseason but, like Morgan Burnett, has not returned much of an investment on that new deal.
The Packers need an inside linebacker who is a tackling machine near the line of scrimmage. Someone like C.J. Mosley of Alabama or Chris Borland of Wisconsin.
It also would help if the inside linebacker would be an asset in coverage like Mosley has proven to be for the Crimson Tide this year.
Bottom line, the Packers need a difference maker at inside linebacker.
Hawk has done that somewhat with his 118 overall tackles, five sacks, one interception, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery, but more help is needed.
Keep Both Matt Flynn and Scott Tolzien as Backup Quarterbacks
If the Green Bay Packers have learned one very valuable lesson in 2013, it's that you have to have a quality backup quarterback on hand.
In training camp, the Packers had both Graham Harrell and B.J. Coleman competing for the backup job behind Aaron Rodgers. After seeing that neither Harrell or Coleman were the answer, the Packers brought in veteran Vince Young for a look.
Finally, the Packers decided to sign veteran Seneca Wallace to the roster and Scott Tolzien to the practice squad.
After Rodgers fractured his clavicle in Week 9, Wallace came in, but he quickly suffered a groin injury in his first start.
After moving up to the roster, Tolzien showed flashes at quarterback as he threw for 717 yards, but also threw five costly interceptions compared to just one touchdown pass.
After Wallace was put on injured reserve, the Packers brought back veteran Matt Flynn, who had been traded by the Seahawks this offseason to the Raiders before eventually being released. Flynn then signed with the Bills, where he was also released.
But after Tolzien sputtered in his second start against the Vikings, Flynn came into the game and forged a tie after being down 23-7. Flynn ended up 2-2 as a starter and basically saved the season for the Packers until Rodgers was able to come back to start the final week of the season.
Overall, Flynn threw seven touchdown passes versus four picks for 1,146 yards.
Flynn will be an unrestricted free agent in 2014, but the Packers should re-sign him without a doubt, and also keep Tolzien on hand as well.
Don't Re-Sign Some Players
The Packers have three players who will be unrestricted free agents in 2014 that the team should not tender an offer to.
They would be offensive lineman Marshall Newhouse, safety M.D. Jennings and quarterback Seneca Wallace.
Wallace is an easy choice as there would not be any room for him, especially if the Packers re-sign Matt Flynn to go with Scott Tolzien at backup quarterback.
Newhouse and Jennings are another story. Both players have been given ample opportunities to prove themselves.
Both have been starters and both have been less than mediocre.
Newhouse's performance has been just dreadful at times this season. He had an opportunity to become a starter in training camp, but was beaten out by both rookie David Bakhtiari and second-year offensive lineman Don Barclay.
The depth should be much better in 2014 for the offensive line as starting left offensive tackle Bryan Bulaga will be back.
The Packers should also get some help next year from J.C. Tretter and former first-round pick Derek Sherrod as both had to overcome leg injuries this year before they were brought up to the roster this season.
The Packers have given Newhouse four years to improve, and he has gotten worse, not better.
Jennings just doesn't make plays. Yes, he did return a fumble for a touchdown this season, but other than that he has been a liability for the defense.
It's time to turn the page on both Newhouse and Jennings.
More Second-Round Magic Would Be Nice
Say what you want about Ted Thompson's modus operandi in running the Packers—using a draft and development system in putting together the organization—but there is one place he truly shines.
That is selecting players in the second round of the NFL draft.
This is not to say he hasn't done well in other rounds.
The best draft selection Thompson ever made was his first as general manager of the Packers. That would be quarterback Aaron Rodgers in the first round.
Thompson followed that up by selecting safety Nick Collins. Collins had a sparkling career as a Packer before a neck injury brought his career to a halt in 2011.
Thompson seems to do very well in the second round for some reason. Let's take a look at a list of some of the players Thompson has selected in the second round.
A pretty good list, huh?
Lacy will probably garner the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year award in 2013 as he rushed for 1,178 yards and 11 touchdowns. Lacy also caught 35 passes for 257 yards.
If Lacy gets the award, he will become the first Packer to receive that award since running back John Brockington in 1971.
The bottom line is Thompson has to continue to do well in all rounds of the NFL draft, but it sure would help if he continues to bring in a player (or players) like he has in the past in the second round of the 2014 NFL draft.