Reassessing Packers' Offseason Plan and Breaking Down What's Left to Address
The Green Bay Packers had some clear personnel matters and on-field adjustments to address this offseason, some made obvious by flaws revealed last season and some simply a matter of necessity after the team faced losing up to 20 free agents.
Some aspects of the Packers' offseason plan have been accomplished, including securing an anchor for the defensive line by re-signing B.J. Raji and moving him back to nose tackle, strengthening the pass rush by acquiring veteran free agent Julius Peppers, re-signing Mike Neal and ensuring their best cover corner, Sam Shields, didn't sign with another team.
Still, some of those priorities still need to be addressed, including bolstering the safety position after a disappointing 2013 showing and the departure of M.D. Jennings, having a game-ready backup in place behind Aaron Rodgers and making sure to lock down key players entering contract years now with extensions, such as Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb.
The following slides touch on these needs and others, providing an in-depth look at what Green Bay still needs to accomplish this offseason.
Address the Safety Position
Safety is the most obvious position the Packers needed to address this offseason that remains unimproved after free-agent signings. Their remaining strategy has to be to address the position in the draft, shift the roster around to fill the starting spot opposite Morgan Burnett or a combination of the two.
Moving Micah Hyde to safety is a likely place to start. Green Bay is deep at corner; Casey Hayward, Jarrett Bush and Davon House are all ready to start if need be and are reliable options in nickel and dime packages.
After letting M.D. Jennings walk in free agency, the Packers currently have just three safeties on the roster. According to ESPN's Rob Demovsky, Mike McCarthy wants to see Hyde utilized "as an every-down player" in Green Bay's defense.
"We're going to give Micah the opportunity to play on all three downs -- whether that's corner, nickel, dime, safety," McCarthy said at the NFL owners meetings last week, per Demovsky. "That's the versatility I think he brings to our football team."
If Green Bay drafts a safety early, that player could serve as the second starter alongside Burnett, with Hyde being utilized heavily in sub-packages—perhaps playing some snaps at slot corner.
Opinion differs on whether the Packers need a free safety or a strong safety; while the scheme is in desperate need of a ball hawk, the lines have become more fluid.
Burnett has been called a natural strong safety, but he came in as the 66th-ranked safety against the run among those who played at least 25 percent of snaps in 2013, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
However, he tied for having the third-most passes defended among all NFL safeties, and especially toward the end of 2013, when he was moved to free safety to accommodate Sean Richardson playing down close to the line, he proved he can play either spot.
The Packers shouldn't feel compelled to take a free safety in the draft, but rather, as is Ted Thompson's way, select the safety with the highest value available. Between Burnett's flexibility and Hyde's potential at the position, Green Bay would have countless ways to slot in a rookie.
Address the Backup Quarterback Position
Green Bay's failure to address the backup quarterback position last offseason was a painful but necessary lesson, as the Packers struggled to find a game-ready No. 2 to take Aaron Rodgers' place after his injury.
This offseason, Ted Thompson and the Packers must be sure that they're prepared for the worst-case scenario, with an experienced signal-caller ready to step in behind center next season if necessary.
This time, Mike McCarthy appears to be planning ahead. According to Jason Wilde of ESPN Wisconsin, McCarthy said on March 25 that he'd "like to have Matt [Flynn] back," in 2014 and hopes the financials work out.
Though his his return to Green Bay in Week 12 of the 2013 season started off shakily, Flynn averaged 229.2 yards, 1.4 touchdowns and a completion percentage of 60.7 percent over five games.
The journeyman quarterback struggled to keep a spot on the rosters of the Seattle Seahawks, Oakland Raiders and Buffalo Bills, and it's likely the Packers won't have to outbid many (if any) other teams in order to keep him. But his knowledge of Green Bay's offense and his natural fit in McCarthy's system make him an excellent second-stringer.
If the Packers can get a short-term deal done with Flynn for the right price, expect him to be Rodgers' immediate backup in 2014, while Scott Tolzien continues to develop.
Extend the Contracts of Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb
The Packers offense thrives off its wide receiving corps, a group of players who can line up all over the field and each be a reliable option for Aaron Rodgers when he runs through his progressions. The fact that Green Bay had James Jones entering free agency this offseason and Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb both heading into a contract year was certainly at the forefront of Ted Thompson's thoughts this past season.
In electing not to re-sign Jones, Thompson tacitly confirmed that he'll plan to extend Nelson and/or Cobb's contracts this offseason, and he'll certainly need a large portion of Green Bay's remaining cap room (about $13 million after re-signing John Kuhn) to do it
Even if Green Bay backloads new contracts for Kuhn and Cobb in anticipation of the league salary cap rising by another $10 million in 2015 and in each season beyond, those two deals could take the majority of the Packers' remaining cap space.
It would be wise for the Packers to convert a portion of Nelson's $3.050 million 2014 base salary into a signing bonus and prorate it over the life of a potential new deal—one which will probably be lucrative for Nelson.
Nelson agreed to an extension worth $13.35 million over three years in 2011, earning an average of $4.8 million a year. He finished the 2013 season ranked as Pro Football Focus' No. 2 wide receiver in the league due to his high catch percentage, low penalty rate and high number of touchdowns per reception (subscription required).
Nelson's payday is overdue, and Green Bay can minimize the impact by building the majority of the cap hit into the final years.
A new deal for Cobb may not be as lucrative, due to recent precedent for receivers who play primarily out of the slot, most notably Victor Cruz. Last July, Cruz agreed to a five-year, $43 million extension with the New York Giants—well below what outside receivers (like Mike Wallace) got in that same offseason.
It wouldn't be surprising to see the Packers offer Cobb a four- or five-year extension worth less than $40 million overall.
Evaluate Current Tight End Situation
Andrew Quarless' two-year, $3 million deal seems to indicate that the Packers are willing to give him a chance to prove himself a true starter in 2014. Quarless stepped in to start at the end of the 2013 season after Jermichael Finley's neck injury in Week 7.
Between Weeks 8 and 17, Quarless had 28 receptions for 291 yards and two touchdowns (scored in back-to-back games).
However, don't be surprised if the Packers draft a tight end in the early rounds to compete with Quarless for the starting job. The Packers met with nearly every top draft prospect in this year's draft prior to or at the combine—players like Eric Ebron, Jace Amaro, Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Troy Niklas and C.J. Fiedorowicz, per ESPN's Rob Demovsky.
Re-signing Quarless may mean the Packers don't go after a first- or second-round prospect, but there will still be talent on the board in the mid-rounds.
Green Bay struggled in red-zone production last season, especially after Finley went out. Aaron Rodgers needs a go-to threat in the end zone, and though Quarless experienced a surge in production in Weeks 14 and 15, he consistently struggled with blocking and hasn't proven he can be a legitimate scoring threat.
Speaking of Finley, McCarthy still hasn't ruled out his possible return. Per Jamey Eisenberg of CBS Sports, he said the team was "absolutely" interested in bringing Finley back, but he acknowledged that it all depends on his recovery progress.
It seems like a long shot, but of course, if Finley returns, the Packers aren't likely to select a tight end in the draft.
Behind Quarless, Brandon Bostick, Ryan Taylor and Jake Stoneburner will compete for roster depth.
Re-Examine Current Backfield Behind Eddie Lacy
The Packers clearly liked what they saw with Eddie Lacy and James Starks as a one-two punch in the backfield last season, and they made re-signing Starks a priority this offseason.
While Starks will be called upon to spell Lacy in 2014, perhaps as often as every other drive, how the rest of Green Bay's backfield will be utilized is still a little unclear.
Franklin didn't have a breakout rookie year due in part to fumbling the ball two weeks in a row, which landed him some time on the bench, and being placed on injured reserve after suffering a concussion in late November.
Still, the fourth-rounder was a high investment in the 2013 offseason and has high-potential. He should get a few of snaps per game in 2014 to prove what he can do when he's healthy.
DuJuan Harris will also return from injured reserve in 2014. Harris will be entering a contract year, and while there has been no indication that the Packers will cut him, it also seems unlikely they'll keep four running backs on the active roster, plus newly re-signed fullback John Kuhn.
Once groomed to be the Packers starter last season, before his injury and before Lacy's emergence, Harris may now be facing a third- or fourth-string situation. The Packers also brought back running back Michael Hill, though, he's likely to land on the practice squad.
With all that depth in the backfield, the Packers will have to figure out how the pieces fit together.