Ranking Green Bay Packers' Top Offseason Moves Following 2014 NFL Draft
The offseason moves general manager Ted Thompson made satisfied nearly all of the Green Bay Packers' most pressing needs heading into the 2014 season. On Monday, we ranked the importance of the Packers' remaining offseason tasks; now let's take a look at the best moves the team made through free agency and the draft.
Though the Packers under Thompson have usually had a quiet free agency and a busier draft, trading and accumulating picks often, this year their approach was slightly different. Thompson made the splashy Julius Peppers free-agent signing and, for the first time during his tenure in Green Bay, did not make a single trade in the draft.
Thompson's offseason strategy filled a number of holes for Green Bay, but most notable was the one at free safety. It also helped replenish depth in an offseason where the Packers have so far re-signed just six of their free agents.
Short-term impact was strongly considered when creating the rankings, but each of these signings also bode well for the long-term health of the franchise.
The following five most impactful offseason moves are ranked in ascending order, leading up to what is sure to be a defensive game-changer in 2014.
Re-Signing James Starks in Free Agency
The value in re-signing James Starks may not show up so much on the stat sheet in 2014, but nevertheless, it was one of the most important moves the Packers made to fortify their offense in 2014.
When paired with Eddie Lacy, Starks provides a necessary one-two punch in the backfield. Lacy's bruising style of play and the fact that he averaged 21 carries a game in 2013 (excluding Week 2 versus Washington) mean that in order to protect their burgeoning run game, the Packers need a trusty reliever behind him.
Starks only started one game in 2013, but the Packers frequently alternate him and Lacy on drives. Starks also led all running backs in the NFL in yards per carry with 5.5 (among those with 80-plus carries). His ability to drive the offense down the field will help get Aaron Rodgers and the rest of the offense into the red zone.
With a healthy Johnathan Franklin and DuJuan Harris returning from injured reserve and joining Starks and Lacy in the backfield, the Packers running game should be as strong as it's been in more than a decade in 2014.
Starks may rack up only half as many yards as Lacy next season, but his contribution to that backfield and to keeping Lacy fresh will be huge. It was shrewd of Thompson to re-sign Starks, considering how important his role will be.
Drafting 4 Pass-Catchers
After letting James Jones walk in free agency, most people expected Thompson to draft a wide receiver and a tight end relatively high. After all, after losing Donald Driver, Greg Jennings and likely Jermichael Finley in the last two years, the Packers vaunted receiving corps was looking a little light.
Rather than select one wide receiver and one tight end, Thompson took a total of four pass-catchers for the first time ever during his tenure in Green Bay.
It's very likely that rookie wide receivers Davante Adams (Round 2), Jared Abbrederis (Round 5) and Jeff Janis (Round 7) and tight end Richard Rodgers (Round 3) will all make the 53-man roster. The Packers have kept six receivers on the roster in recent seasons, and their rookies could make up half the depth chart.
And each of their new weapons adds a different dimension to the corps.
Expect Adams to be Green Bay's No. 4 receiver after Nelson, Cobb and Boykin, receiving the majority of snaps among the rookies when the Packers run four-wide sets. He was highly productive at Fresno State and also ran the full route tree, a necessity in Green Bay's scheme centering on concepts rather than locked X, Z and Y players.
Thompson surely had Abbrederis' return skills in mind when he drafted him in the fifth round. At Wisconsin, Abbrederis returned 55 punts for 587 yards and a score, per Sports-Reference.com.
And at 6'3" and 219 pounds, rookie Janis would be Green Bay's most physical receiver; Nelson is 6'3", 216 pounds and plays lighter and with more finesse.
The rookie receivers will have to beat out Chris Harper, Myles White and Kevin Dorsey to earn a roster spot, while the pool at tight end for Richard Rodgers is even deeper—especially with the added competition of Colt Lyerla.
Still, Thompson gave Aaron Rodgers all the weapons he needs in this year's draft, uncharacteristically drafting for need in a year when the team really, well, needed it.
Re-Signing Sam Shields
Though the Packers secondary performed poorly in 2013, Sam Shields was a consistent high point. His new deal worth $39 million over four years is certainly a rich one, but Thompson is paying for future production.
Shields was Green Bay's leader in interceptions with four when creating takeaways was one of the Packers' biggest challenges last season. His 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 help push the secondary to improve.
Shields also posted career highs in tackles, with 51, and passes defended, with 16, in 2013.
Not Tramon Williams, but Shields has been tasked with covering the top receivers Green Bay has played in the last few years, proving himself a solid cover corner.
In re-signing Shields to an extremely competitive deal, Thompson displayed an understanding that the key to the postseason is building a team around the division. In the NFC North, with all its offensive weapons, retaining a quality corner is a must.
Signing Julius Peppers in Free Agency
Had it not been for one very important defensive position the Packers addressed in Round 1 of the draft, Julius Peppers would have likely had the biggest impact of any of the Packers' offseason additions.
As it stands, though, Peppers still adds a whole new dimension to the Packers front seven.
Peppers' pressure ability, whether he's lined up at end or at outside linebacker, can aid in getting after quarterbacks and solidifying the run defense. But his presence alone gives the Packers the opportunity to run new and complex rush packages.
Dom Capers can line Peppers up on the same side as Clay Matthews, making each of them impossible to double-team. He can also line him up opposite Matthews for a double threat.
It's probable 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 the technique he perfected 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. If he can adjust to the new demands of the position, the Packers' possible formations will increase dramatically.
Drafting Ha Ha Clinton-Dix in Round 1
Drafting Ha Ha Clinton-Dix was the move everyone wanted Ted Thompson to make all offseason—perhaps even in the second half of the regular season, as it became clear that Green Bay's 2013 safety personnel were not producing turnovers or tackles effectively.
Incredibly, Clinton-Dix fell into Thompson's lap at No 21, and by selecting him, Thompson gave the 24th-ranked pass defense a chance to contend in 2014.
Clinton-Dix is just the ball hawk the Packers have needed since they lost Nick Collins in 2011. A rangy playmaker, he will immediately help resolve the safety group's biggest issue last season—not producing a single interception.
A reliable tackler whose technique is well-developed, Clinton-Dix will also go a long way toward correcting the secondary's issues with missed tackles in 2013.
Clinton-Dix is a true all-purpose safety. "He's shown an ability to cover down in the slot, he's good in support, physical player. Also can play well in the back end," Thompson said, per the Journal Sentinel's Rob Reischel. "We think he's got very, very good ball skills."
No other single addition or re-signing this offseason purports to have as much of a meaningful impact on the team as drafting Clinton-Dix. McCarthy has given Dom Capers a weapon to improve not just the secondary, but the entire defense—and if Capers can develop him into the next Collins, he may keep his job that much longer.
Expect Capers to put Clinton-Dix in position to come away with a lot of big plays in 2014.