Ranking the 2014 Impact of Green Bay Packers' Free-Agent Signings So Far
The Green Bay Packers have retained five players from 2013 and added two outside free agents, and all but two are on defense. Free agency may not yet be over for Ted Thompson, and, of course, the Packers still have needs that would be best addressed through the draft, such as safety, linebacker and a No. 4 receiver.
Of the seven players who will join or return to the Packers in 2014, some will have more pronounced roles than others. Some, such as Sam Shields, will have the weight of bolstering an entire unit placed upon them; others, like James Starks, will support starters.
Ranked from the biggest impact they'll have on the team next season to the smallest, the following slides examine how Thompson has put the team in a position to improve in key areas with the signings and re-signings.
Julius Peppers should have the biggest impact of any of the Packers' free-agent signings or re-signings this offseason...and he doesn't necessarily have to lead the team in sacks or tackles to do it.
The added pressure Peppers brings, whether he's lined up at end or at outside linebacker, can help in knocking down quarterbacks and shoring up the run defense. But Peppers' sheer existence on the field in 2014 will improve the entire front seven, giving the Packers the opportunity to run new and complex rush packages.
Peppers can line up on the same side as Clay Matthews, making either of them impossible to double-team. He can also line up opposite Matthews for a double threat.
Likely, Peppers will line up at the 7-technique elephant position Mike McCarthy has talked about implementing this offseason, which would continue to allow the Packers to run a 3-4 with heavy 4-3 elements.
If Peppers plays at 7-technique, he'll be able to hone his technique as a pass-rushing defensive end in Chicago, with the added ability, in a 3-4, to become a two-gapper who can be let loose. That will be asking him to do a little more than Chicago used him for, and if it pays off, the Packers' possible formations will increase many times over.
Because of the opportunities he provides not only when he's brought in to rush the passer, but for the entire front seven, Peppers could have the single greatest impact of any of the Packers' signings this offseason.
Re-signings are based on the projected value of a player moving forward more often than a reflection of past performance, and that's certainly true of Sam Shields' new deal worth $39 million over four years.
Shields was Green Bay's leader in interceptions in 2013, with four, and creating takeaways was one of the Packers' biggest challenges last season. Shields' career high in interceptions is four, and if he can set a new career high next season as the Packers prioritize turnover opportunities, he'll have an integral role in reviving the secondary.
It hasn't been Tramon Williams, but Shields who has been tasked with covering the top receivers the Packers have faced in the last couple of seasons, and he has proven himself as a solid cover corner.
Moreover, Thompson understands that the key to the postseason is building your team around your division, and in the NFC North, retaining a quality corner is essential.
The Packers will call on Shields to shadow the league's elite receivers once again in 2014, as they prepare to face Calvin Johnson and Brandon Marshall twice each, in addition to Julio Jones, Mike Wallace, Eric Decker, DeSean Jackson (for now) and Vincent Jackson.
On the whole, B.J. Raji has been a more effective nose tackle than defensive end, and the Packers' decision to move him back to nose in 2014, combined with signing him to a one-year prove-it deal, should prove highly motivating to him. Don't expect Raji to resemble the player he was in 2013 next season; he'll be far improved.
In Raji's most efficient season, 2010, he had 39 tackles, 6.5 sacks and three passes defended at nose tackle.
But many also point out that in 2011, still starting at nose, his numbers fell to 22 tackles, 3.0 sacks and two passes defended. He went from the No. 8 nose tackle in the league, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required), in 2010 to last in the league in 2011.
What caused Raji's decline, and do the Packers need to be concerned about a repeat in 2014? Raji's 2011 slump was part of an overall defensive slump after the Super Bowl win; the entire defense struggled to achieve the same level of productivity.
The unit went from No. 3 in sacks in 2010 to No. 32 in 2011, sorely missing Cullen Jenkins.
Raji's slump was part of a larger trend, and reducing his snaps became a priority for Dom Capers in 2012 and beyond. Of course, that demonstrably reduced Raji's motivation, as his role primarly became to keep linebackers clean and his green lights to rush the passer became fewer and farther between.
Raji and the line were dominant in 2010, and the front seven the Packers are building around him as the anchor in 2014 is shaping up to be an elite unit in 2014.
James Starks' value to the Packers in 2014 may not show up so much on the stat sheet, but his re-signing was one of the biggest boons to the Packers offense so far this offseason.
Starks provides a necessary one-two punch in the backfield when paired with Eddie Lacy, and the bruising back will need a talented reliever if he's going to come anything close to his 2013 average carries per game of 21 (discounting Week 2 versus Washington).
Though he only started one game in 2013, the Packers frequently alternate Starks and Lacy on series. Starks also led all running backs with more than 80 carries in yards per carry, with 5.5, and no doubt the Packers will call upon him again in 2014 to help in marching down the field.
With a healthy Aaron Rodgers bolstering the pass game and Johnathan Franklin returning from injured reserve, the Packers running game in comparison to their passing game should be as strong as it's been over a decade in 2014.
Though Starks may not break 500 yards next season, he'll be a huge part of that backfield.
Mike Neal was rewarded with a new contract this offseason after an unexpected position change to outside linebacker in 2013, for which he lost 30 pounds, paid off, and he ended the season with 47 tackles and five sacks.
Now, in 2014, Neal could find his duties changing slightly again, and it could increase his effectiveness on the field, as was the case in 2013.
Neal excelled in rushing the passer last season, but he struggled with missed tackles and actually graded out as Pro Football Focus' worst 3-4 outside linebacker against the run. However, his impact in 2014 could be significantly higher if the Packers choose to use him in more of a hybrid role.
Dom Capers and Mike McCarthy didn't intend for Neal to spend so much time on the outside in 2013, per ESPN Wisconsin's Jason Wilde, instead planning to have him split his snaps at outside linebacker and defensive end. But injuries to Matthews and Nick Perry forced Neal to play the most snaps at outside linebacker of any player in 2013, by far, according to Pro Football Focus.
Next season, expect to see Neal rushing the passer from the 3-technique position in defensive sub-packages, which is what he does best, according to McCarthy and per Wilde. That'll mean another year with a high sacks total for Neal and a better interior rush for the Packers in 2014.
Will Andrew Quarless have a larger impact on Green Bay's offense in 2014 than he did in 2013, after Jermichael Finley's neck injury? Even if he does, will it be enough to earn him the nod for the starting tight end spot?
Quarless played in all 16 games in 2013, and started 10, all after Finley's injury in Week 7. Before Finley's injury, Quarless had four receptions for 21 yards and zero touchdowns; after, he scored two touchdowns with 28 receptions and 291 yards.
Late in the season, as the Packers fell into a rhythm under Matt Flynn and made a last-ditch effort at a playoff push, Quarless really began to shine, especially in Weeks 14 and 15, in which he scored the two touchdowns and posted stat lines of six receptions for 66 yards consecutively.
Quarless showed improvement as a pass-catcher but struggled with blocking. What the Packers will need especially from a starting tight end in 2014 is a red-zone threat for Aaron Rodgers, as Green Bay struggled with red-zone efficiency in 2013.
Though he made strides at the end of 2013, from what we've seen so far, Quarless won't be a game-changer for Green Bay's offense, but he'll certainly be reliable.
It's not fair to expect much impact from Letroy Guion in 2014, and that's OK—he was most likely brought on to be a reserve player for a team potentially losing two down linemen this offseason.
Guion will make the smallest splash of any of Green Bay's free-agent signings or re-signings this offseason, but he'll provide much-needed depth.
With Raji moving back to nose tackle, Guion could spend some time relieving him at that position, as well as the rest of the interior.
Guion had 21 tackles and one sack (against the Packers) with the Minnesota Vikings in 2013. Next season, when he does get some snaps, he'll be expected to keep the linebackers and the potential elephant ends clean and not much else.