Ranking Strength of Every Green Bay Packers' Positional Unit
The Green Bay Packers just conducted their first OTA prior to the 2014 NFL season. There is plenty of optimism, as it appears that the Packers have an excellent rookie draft class, as well as some very talented undrafted rookie signings.
In addition to that, the Packers did something that Ted Thompson rarely does—they dipped their toes in free agency and came away with defensive end/outside linebacker Julius Peppers. Peppers, who will wear No. 56, has 119 career sacks along with 40 forced fumbles in his career.
The Packers also signed defensive tackle Letroy Guion in free agency.
Still, when one tries to grade the positional units of the Packers, the job is not that hard. Not based on last season.
That is is how I graded these units, based on how they did in the 2013 season.
Do I expect improvement from the units in 2014? Absolutely.
That is why I also graded the potential for each of the units this season.
Grade for performance in 2013: D
Grade for potential in 2014: B
The Packers were fourth in the NFL in rushing defense prior to their Week 9 game versus the Bears last season. After that game, the run-defense of the Packers went on a free fall the rest of the season, as the Packers ended up ranked 25th in the NFL in that category.
Because of that situation, the Packers decided to part ways with players like Ryan Pickett, Johnny Jolly (for now) and C.J. Wilson.
The team did bring back B.J. Raji on a one-year deal. Raji will go back and solely play nose tackle, which is his best position. Raji will be joined by Datone Jones, Mike Daniels, Jerel Worthy, Josh Boyd, Letroy Guion and rookie Khyri Thornton along the line.
The Packers are also expected to use a number of different innovative schemes, which will allow players like Julius Peppers, Mike Neal and Nick Perry to line up on the defensive line, as well as play outside linebacker.
I expect this group to be much better in 2014. But it all starts with stopping the run.
Grade for performance in 2013: D+
Grade for potential in 2014: B+
In 2013, the putrid play of the safeties for the Packers was an eyesore all season long. Not one of the safeties had an interception, plus they missed a large number of tackles.
The tackling wasn't much better at cornerback either, plus the second-year cornerback Casey Hayward missed almost the entire 2013 season due to hamstring woes. This was after picking off six passes in his rookie year in 2012 and playing the slot-corner position quite capably.
The Packers were ranked 24th overall in pass defense when it was all said and done. Opposing quarterbacks had a rating of 95.9 against the defensive backs of the Packers. The Packers only had 11 interceptions all season long.
If not for the solid play of Sam Shields and Micah Hyde, as well as the late-season surge of Tramon Williams, the grade I gave would be lower.
Things should get a lot better in 2014 with the addition of first-round pick Ha Ha Clinton-Dix of Alabama. He will play safety opposite Morgan Burnett, who needs to bounce back and play like he did in 2011 and 2012. If he doesn't, Hyde is being looked at for safety this year to push him for playing time.
Hayward is expected to be completely healthy this season, so the depth at cornerback will be solid. Besides Hayward, Shields and Williams, the Packers also have Davon House, Jarrett Bush and Hyde to play if needed.
Hyde will be the wild card. No. 33 is expected to see a lot of playing time one way or the other, so all the defensive backs will have to perform at a high level if they expect to see the field, whether at cornerback or safety.
Grade for performance in 2013: C-
Grade for potential in 2014: B+
In 2014, the linebacker group as a whole did not have a very good year. Now, it is true that inside linebacker A.J. Hawk had one of the best seasons (118 tackles, 5 sacks, 1 interception, 1 forced fumble and 1 fumble recovery) of his career and that Mike Neal was finally able to stay healthy and have five sacks, but overall is was a down year.
The main reason was the playing status of the team's best linebacker, Clay Matthews. Matthews did have 7.5 sacks, but was only able to play in 11 games due to a broken thumb. As a team, the Packers did have 44 sacks, which was good for eighth in the NFL.
Overall, the unit was not very solid in run support, and the other inside linebacker position, played by both Brad Jones and Jamari Lattimore, underachieved. Do not be surprised to see second-year linebacker Sam Barrington end up as a starter this year on the inside.
Because of the injury to Matthews, as well as the broken foot suffered by Nick Perry (four sacks), the Packers used Neal and rookies like Andy Mulumba and Nate Palmer at outside linebacker.
Right now, it appears that the Packers will use Julius Peppers as a bookend to Matthews at outside linebacker. But that situation is fluid, as Peppers, Neal and Perry could all be used on the defensive line at times too.
The team did add a couple of talented linebackers recently, when the Packers drafted Carl Bradford of Arizona State in the fourth round of the 2014 NFL draft, plus signed undrafted rookie Adrian Hubbard of Alabama.
I expect Bradford to get a lot of opportunities to play, both outside and inside at linebacker.
Again, I expect big improvement, but the key to the success of the unit will be to stay healthy in 2014.
Grade for performance in 2013: C+
Grade for potential in 2014: B+
The offensive line did not get off to a good start in 2013, as early in training camp offensive tackle Bryan Bulaga suffered a season-ending knee injury. Bulaga was slated to start at left tackle, so the Packers had to move rookie David Bakhtiari over to man the position.
Overall, Bakhtiari had a very solid rookie campaign. Josh Sitton moved over from right guard to play left guard and had another very good season, both in run blocking and pass blocking. Right guard T.J. Lang was also solid, while second-year offensive lineman Don Barclay became the starter at right tackle.
Barclay is a very solid run-blocker, but struggles against edge-rushers in pass blocking. The center position was manned by Evan Dietrich-Smith, who had a decent year, but ended up leaving the team via free agency this offseason.
Overall, the unit did a solid job, as the Packers finished third in total offense in the NFL, plus were ranked in the top 10 in both rushing and passing. The offensive line did allow 45 sacks, which was the ninth-most in the league.
Still, when you consider the team had to play half the season without quarterback Aaron Rodgers (fractured clavicle), as well as rookie running back Eddie Lacy winning the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year Award, all in all it was a decent year for the line.
The line should be better this year, with Bulaga expected to take over at right tackle. JC Tretter will get the first shot at replacing Dietrich-Smith at center. The Packers love the quickness of Tretter.
The depth should be better as well, as Marshall Newhouse is gone, plus players like Barclay, Derek Sherrod and rookie center Corey Linsley of Ohio State will all push for playing time.
Wide Receiver/Tight End
Grade for performance in 2013: B
Grade for potential in 2014: A
Even with injuries at their positions and also at quarterback, the receiver corp as a whole had a better than average year in catching the ball.
The receivers were led by Jordy Nelson, who had the best season of his career. Nelson had 85 receptions for 1,314 yards and eight touchdowns and caught just about everything thrown in his direction.
James Jones chipped in with 59 catches for 817 yards and three touchdowns. Jones ended up leaving the Packers this offseason via free agency.
Randall Cobb only played in six games because of a broken leg, but he was electric when he played, as he had 31 receptions for 433 yards and four touchdowns. Second-year receiver Jarrett Boykin had a breakthrough year, as he had 49 catches for 681 yards and three touchdowns.
Rookie receiver Myles White also had seven receptions.
At tight end, Jermichael Finley was having the best season of his career, as he had 25 catches for 300 yards and three touchdowns in six games, before suffering a season-ending neck injury.
Andrew Quarless filled in capably for Finley, as he had 32 catches for 312 yards and two touchdowns. Brandon Bostick also flashed some ability at tight end, with seven catches for 120 yards and a touchdown before he went on injured reserve (foot).
Ryan Taylor also got a few looks at tight end, but that was mostly in running situations.
The Packers ended up finishing sixth in the NFL in passing in 2013.
The outlook at both wide receiver and tight end is very promising in 2014. The Packers buffered the loss of Jones to free agency by drafting three talented wide receivers (Davante Adams, Jared Abbrederis and Jeff Janis) in the 2014 NFL draft. All three could make the final roster this year.
There are still questions about the availability of Finley because of his neck injury, but the Packers look well-stocked at tight end anyway. The team still has all of their tight ends, besides Finley, available to play in 2014 (which includes Jake Stoneburner), plus the Packers drafted Richard Rodgers of Cal in the third round and signed undrafted rookie Colt Lyerla.
Scout Chris Landry told me that Lyerla is as talented as any of the tight ends in the recent NFL draft, but his success depends on whether he can stay out of trouble off the field.
Grade for performance in 2013: B+
Grade for potential in 2014: A
In 2013, the Packers had their best rushing offense in a decade. It was led by the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, Eddie Lacy, who rushed for 1,178 yards and 11 touchdowns. Going into last season, the Packers had not had a running back rush for over 1,000 yards since 2009 and had gone 43 games without an 100-yard rusher during a game.
Lacy reached 1,000 yards rushing, plus gained over 100 yards four times and narrowly missed on a couple of other occasions.
Lacy was helped out by James Starks, who had the best season of his career, as he had 493 yards rushing and three touchdowns. Johnathan Franklin showed flashes as well, especially in the game against the Bengals when he rushed for over 100 yards, but he eventually ended up on injured reserve (neck).
As a unit, the Packers finished seventh in the NFL in rushing.
Injured reserve was where DuJuan Harris ended up as well, due to a knee injury in training camp. But Lacy and Starks carried the load quite well, as well as some occasional short rushes from fullback John Kuhn.
The backs, as a group, also were pretty good in the passing game, as they had 62 receptions for 457 yards and one touchdown.
Everyone will be back in 2014 and that means the depth at running back will be excellent. Lacy and Starks will continue to get most of the work, but the battle between Harris and Franklin for the third running back position will be interesting to watch.
Kuhn is the best blocking-back on the team. He also is very good in blitz pickups, plus he catches the ball well.
Grade for performance in 2013: B+
Grade for potential in 2014: A+
There is no doubt that Aaron Rodgers is one of the elite quarterbacks in the NFL. The Packers found that out when Rodgers had to miss almost half the season due to a fractured clavicle. The Packers were 6-3 in games that Rodgers started, and only 2-4-1 in the games he did not start.
Rodgers still had his normal stat line overall, as he threw 17 touchdown passes versus six interceptions for 2,536 yards, in just a little over eight games. That adds up to a quarterback rating of 104.9.
When Rodgers was injured in Week 9, the Packers went to veteran Seneca Wallace to fill the void, but he also was injured the very next week with a groin injury that ended his season.
Scott Tolzien then became the starter, and while he put up some nice passing yardage (717 yards in three games), he also made a number of mistakes, which included throwing five picks compared to just one touchdown pass.
Then, Matt Flynn came to the rescue. The Packers signed him after placing Wallace on injured reserve. Flynn bailed out Tolzien and the Packers against the Vikings, when the Packers trailed 23-7 in the third quarter. Flynn was able to at least forge a 26-26 tie against Minnesota.
Basically, Flynn saved the season for the Packers until Rodgers was able to come back in Week 17. For the year, Flynn threw seven touchdown passes versus four picks for 1,146 yards.
In 2014, Rodgers will be backed up again by Flynn and Tolzien. The Packers also signed undrafted free agent Chase Rettig of Boston College.
Last season, the Packers learned the hard way how important it is to have a quality backup at quarterback. Even with the musical chairs being played at times at the position, the Packers still finished third in the NFL in total offense.
In 2014, they have the situation covered nicely, with the return of Flynn to backup the top-rated quarterback in NFL history, Aaron Rodgers.