Early Stat Projections for Green Bay Packers' Top Impact Players
Green Bay Packers fans used to watching quarterback Aaron Rodgers and his array of receiving weapons put up video-game numbers the last few years—and seeing Clay Matthews prey on opponents when the defense took the field—had a hard time swallowing the 2013 season.
Yes, emerging star Eddie Lacy had the second-most rushing touchdowns among running backs, with 11, Jordy Nelson tied for the fourth-most receptions of 20-plus yards and, despite missing the better part of eight games, Aaron Rodgers was No. 5 among quarterbacks in yards per game (with 282 on average).
But on the whole in 2013, Green Bay's top impact players underperformed, due to a butterfly effect of injuries at key positions. After only starting nine games, Rodgers posted career lows in passing yards and touchdowns since becoming the starter in 2008. Due to a twice-injured thumb, Matthews missed five games and posted career lows in total tackles and passes defended.
But in 2014, theoretically, a healthy Rodgers will return to lead top receiving weapons Randall Cobb and Nelson and will be joined by a well-rested Lacy. On the defensive side of the ball, Matthews will be freed up by the presence of Julius Peppers to do some work, and Sam Shields should be motivated to prove he was worth his massive four-year, $39 million deal.
Let's take a quick break from projecting how 2014 draft prospects would perform in Green Bay's system and break down how its top players on the current roster could contribute next season.
QB Aaron Rodgers
Aaron Rodgers opened the 2013 season poised to continue the statistical dominance he has displayed since becoming the Packers' starter in 2008.
When he set a career high with 480 passing yards in Week 2 versus Washington (tying the franchise record set by Matt Flynn in 2012) and threw four touchdowns, completing a whopping 81 percent of his attempts, he was on track to outperform his insane 2011 stat line.
Of course, a fractured collarbone in Week 9 changed all that, and Rodgers finished with his fewest yards ever since becoming the full-time starter in 2008.
Extrapolating his average passing stats in the eight full games he played in 2013 to arrive at an estimated season stat line leaves glaring room for error, but since we're already doing some predicting, that gives us 5,074 passing yards and 34 touchdowns for 2013.
That would have been a career high in passing yards and the third-highest number of touchdowns in his career.
We'll never know the season Rodgers would have had in 2013 had he not missed half of it, but considering the track he was on before his injury and the strong comeback he had in Week 17, coupled with the balance the offense has found with the emergence of Lacy, it's not hard to imagine Rodgers having one of the best seasons of his career in 2014.
On one hand, Rodgers could have feasibly had 5,000 yards in 2011—he finished just 357 yards short, with 4,643 but rested in Week 17—and he still has his favorite downfield weapon in Nelson, who consistently brings in receptions of 20-plus yards.
On the other hand, Lacy, who was Green Bay's first 1,000-yard rusher since Ryan Grant in 2009, will be taking some of the pressure off Rodgers' arm to move the Packers down the field. A 5,000-yard season may be in Rodgers' future, but next year, especially without star pass-catching tight end Jermichael Finley and receiver James Jones, expect the Packers' offensive attack to be more balanced.
Projected 2014 Stats: 4,362 passing yards, 38 TDs, 7 INTs, 65.3 percent completion percentage, 8.10 YPA
WR Jordy Nelson
If he had the choice, he surely would have taken a full 16 games with Rodgers—but with an impressive stat sheet, despite backup quarterbacks throwing to him for half a season, Jordy Nelson finally had the opportunity to prove in 2013 that he's not just a product of a system helmed by Rodgers.
In fact, 2013 was Nelson's turn to make the quarterback look good, rather than the other way around. A 46-yard bomb from Matt Flynn in Week 14 here; a 34-yard reception from Scott Tolzien there—many of the 22 catches of 20 yards or more Nelson made were not thrown by Rodgers.
Nelson also managed to set a career high in receiving yards in 2013, with 1,314. That feat may have been made more difficult with Rodgers' absence, but it was made easier with Randall Cobb and Jermichael Finley's. Cobb and Finley each missed 10 games in 2013, and James Jones missed another two.
In 2013 Nelson emerged as the backup quarterbacks' go-to target and kept Green Bay's passing attack potent by lining up all over the field. He spent more time at slot receiver than ever before, with 57 targets there in 2013, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required), as compared to 6 in 2012, 10 in 2011 and 27 in 2010.
Running routes out of the slot in addition to on the outside gave Nelson the opportunity to make more plays of fewer yards, which, combined with his longer bombs on the outside, made for a very productive season. In fact, of Nelson's eight touchdowns in 2013, which were his second-most ever, three were out of the slot.
Cobb will reprise his role as Green Bay's primary slot receiver in 2014, but Nelson displayed a great amount of versatility in 2013. He was targeted almost twice as much as an in any other season and had a career high 85 receptions. Now that Mike McCarthy has seen that, and after losing Jones in free agency, don't be surprised to see the Packers give Nelson an even bigger role in 2014.
Projected 2014 Stats: 86 receptions, 1,378 yards, 9 TDs
RB Eddie Lacy
Eddie Lacy's Rookie of the Year-winning 2013 season happened despite less-than-ideal circumstances. He battled an ankle injury and, in the coldest games, asthma toward the end of the season and faced nearly eight full games without Rodgers—and with stacked boxes, as a result.
In fact, opponents played seven or more defenders in the box almost twice as much in Rodgers' absence.
With Rodgers back behind center and (presumably) healthy for 16 games in 2014, could Lacy have an even bigger year than his 1,178-yard, 11-touchdown 2013 season?
Certainly Green Bay won't have to use Lacy as much as it did in Rodgers' absence, during which the Packers leaned on Lacy like a crutch—a rookie who was a more consistent offensive weapon than anyone lining up in Rodgers' stead.
Even though Rodgers will be back in action, and despite the fact that the Packers re-signed James Starks, Lacy has proven too productive to hold back. His 11 touchdowns were the second-most among all running backs in the league, and he was the only rookie in the top 10 in scoring.
Looking forward to his health over his career, perhaps the Packers will try to rein in his 284 carries in 2013, which were the fifth-most among running backs. But Lacy should still easily have a 1,000-yard season in 2014. Starks will likely continue to be used as part of a one-two punch in the backfield with Lacy, spelling him on alternating drives.
Though opponents would surely love to game-plan to contain Lacy, with Rodgers on the field, it's not likely they'll be able to slow him down.
Projected 2014 Stats: 276 attempts, 1,063 rushing yards, 302 receiving yards, 10 TDs, 4.3 YPA
OLB Clay Matthews
What would a 16-game Clay Matthews season look like? It's only happened once, in his rookie year in 2009. That year, back before opponents planned around him and quarterbacks watched him out of the corner of their eyes on every snap, Matthews had 37 total tackles, 10 sacks, a forced fumble and seven passes defended.
In 2013, Matthews played 11 games, the fewest of his career to date. He had career lows in total tackles, with 26, and passes defended, with one. He posted his fourth-lowest sack total, with 7.5. Yet, playing just one game more in 2012, Matthews nearly doubled his sack total, with 13.
Two questions will prove important before Matthews' 2014 season. The first is, will the arrival of Peppers lead to better numbers for Matthews, freeing him up as teams have to contend with both of them? The second is, have injuries been the only factor affecting his production?
It's often the case that teams give their star players mega-contracts not to reward past production but to encourage future, even better production. That's certainly what Green Bay is hoping for from Sam Shields this season, and it's what they undoubtedly had hoped for out of Matthews in 2013 after he became the highest-paid linebacker in the NFL last offseason.
Granted, no one predicted that Matthews would miss five games in 2013. But maybe they could have; Matthews missed four games in 2012 with a hamstring injury, which also plagued him during training camp prior to the 2010 and 2011 seasons. It was also revealed after the Packers' Super Bowl-winning 2010 season that Matthews had played on a broken shin for half the year.
No one is questioning Matthews' toughness. He returned from a Bennett's fracture in his right thumb after just four games because he wanted to contribute, and it's notable that he was able to record 5.5 of his sacks and 12 of his total tackles with a club or cast.
But this training camp, he'll be dealing with recovering from having re-injured his thumb in Week 16. It remains to be seen whether the double-fracture to the same thumb will permanently limit his dexterity and strength in seasons to come.
The stat predictions below assume that the arrival of Peppers will help Matthews' production, but even so, Dom Capers is going to be designing rush packages designed to give Matthews, Peppers, Mike Neal and Nick Perry opportunities, which could eat into Matthews' final numbers. But even if he never again plays 16 games, Matthews is still a tough, determined player who uses more than just his hands to make plays.
Projected 2014 Stats: 35 total tackles, 8.5 sacks, 3 forced fumbles, 4 passes defended
WR Randall Cobb
Jordy Nelson spent a lot of time in the slot in 2013 during Cobb's 10-game absence, but after the Packers lost Jones in free agency, Cobb will become Green Bay's go-to slot receiver as Nelson will be needed on the outside.
At the same time, however, if the Packers don't draft a starting-caliber wide receiver, they may need to get creative by lining Cobb, Nelson and Jarrett Boykin up all around the field, meaning Cobb could be closer than ever to his first career 1,000-yard season.
In Cobb's best season, 2012, he had 80 receptions, 954 yards and eight touchdowns. He finished that season as Pro Football Focus' No. 11 receiver overall, just below slot receiver Percy Harvin and ahead of Victor Cruz. His high rating was due in part to his high catch rate—78.4 percent, the second-best among all wide receivers, per Pro Football Focus—as well as his high number of tackles evaded, with 15.
That's what Cobb's role is all about. He's not asked to have the most receiving yards or touchdowns in the league—or even among his own teammates—but he excels in being elusive, in having reliable hands and in giving Rodgers options in his progressions.
Even so, expect 2014 to be a big season for Cobb. If Green Bay does not renegotiate his deal this offseason, it will be a contract year for him, and he'll be motivated to earn something a little closer to what the New York Giants pay Cruz.
Especially with the loss of red-zone threat Jermichael Finley, Rodgers will have fewer targets in the end zone, meaning that each member of Green Bay's receiving corps may have increased opportunities to score.
Projected 2014 Stats: 94 receptions, 980 yards, 9 TDs
CB Sam Shields
The Packers were definitely looking toward future production when they offered Shields a four-year, $39 million deal this offseason—and whether it goes down as a savvy move to retain a young, system-developed player or a gross overpayment largely depends on Shields' 2014 season.
While not a shutdown corner in the vein of Richard Sherman or Darrelle Revis, Shields' production had been above-average until 2013. In 2012, his three interceptions were low among cornerbacks, but he was the No. 15 corner in the league, per Pro Football Focus, due to the low catch rate he allowed and the 69.8 passer rating he allowed opposing quarterbacks.
Shields improved his interceptions in 2013, tying for fourth-most among all corners with four. His allowed quarterback rating rose slightly, but it was not by much—but his missed tackles spiked at nine, per Pro Football Focus. That's an unacceptable amount for a corner being paid what Green Bay is paying Shields.
Shields tied his career high in interceptions in 2013, having also notched four in 2011, but he'll have to show he's motivated after his new deal by setting a new high in 2014. He did set a new career high in total tackles last season, with 51, which partially contributed to his increase in whiffs.
Shields does some things that don't always show up in a stat line very well, but the two biggest problems that plagued the Packers secondary in 2013 were missed tackles and failure to produce interceptions.
Shields could, and should, do more to elevate the secondary in those two areas in 2014.
Projected 2014 Stats: 5 INTs, 53 total tackles, 5 missed tackles, 15 passes defended