Power Ranking the Green Bay Packers' 10 Best Moves of 2014 Offseason
To most observers, the Green Bay Packers have had a pretty good offseason. The team has seen some familiar faces go, both on the team and on the coaching staff, but the Packers have also added some exceptional talent to the roster via the draft and by other means.
The same holds true with their coaching changes.
Ted Thompson even dipped his toes into pure free agency this offseason when he signed Julius Peppers. The last time Thompson made a move like that was back in 2006, when he signed Charles Woodson and Ryan Pickett.
In this slideshow, I'm going to list 10 of the best moves the Packers have made heading into training camp, which will open in about a month.
Not Offering a Contract to Safety M.D. Jennings
The biggest eyesore for anyone watching the Packers last season was the play of the safeties. Morgan Burnett did not have a good year at one safety spot, but to me, M.D. Jennings was even worse at the other safety position.
For one thing, not one of the safeties had an interception, and that hasn't happened for the team in over 60 years.
Both Burnett and Jennings missed a number of tackles, plus were involved in communication issues within the secondary which caused a number of big passing plays to occur.
Jennings also allowed a team-high 4.5 touchdown passes last season, plus he always seemed to be late in coverage.
That's why it was refreshing for the team to not tender a contract offer to Jennings this offseason, as he was a restricted free agent. Because of that decision by the Packers, Jennings was allowed to look for work elsewhere, and he ended signing with the Bears.
I believe with Jennings now gone, it's basically a case of addition by subtraction for the team's depth chart, especially after drafting Ha Ha Clinton-Dix in Round 1 of the 2014 NFL draft. The Packers also plan to utilize Micah Hyde at safety as well.
Adding Some New Coaches to the Staff
The Packers lost three familiar names on the coaching staff this offseason. Outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene, quarterbacks coach Ben McAdoo and assistant offensive line coach Joel Hilgenberg all moved on.
Greene and McAdoo were on Mike McCarthy's staff when the Packers won Super Bowl XLV, while Hilgenberg joined the staff in 2011.
The Packers did add some capable replacements however, plus they added another coach to aid on special teams.
McCarthy moved running backs coach Alex Van Pelt over to coach quarterbacks in 2014, and the hired Sam Gash to coach the backs. Gash played in the NFL for 13 years for a number of teams as a fullback, plus he has coached in the league since 2006.
McCarthy also moved Scott McCurley from defensive quality control to be the assistant linebacker coach. McCurley has been with the Packers since 2007 in both quality control and coaching administration.
The Packers also hired Steve Marshall to be the assistant offensive line coach. Marshall has a six-year coaching background in the NFL, plus he coached in college as well, including a stop in Colorado where he coached left tackle David Bakhtiari for awhile.
The special teams units received a boost when it was announced that Ron Zook was hired to assist Shawn Slocum in coaching that group. Zook is a no-nonsense type of coach, whether as an assistant coach or a head coach.
Zook was the head coach at both Florida and Illinois, plus he has six years of experience in the NFL as an assistant coach.
The coaching profession can get stale sometimes for coaches, as it leads to long hours at the facility and time away from the family. That's why both Greene and Hilgenberg left the Packers, as a matter of fact.
The new coaches that McCarthy has added to his staff should help invigorate things on the practice field. So should the positional changes that were made within the staff with both Van Pelt and McCurley.
Expanding the Role of Micah Hyde
Micah Hyde had a very good rookie season for the Packers, as he mostly played the slot-corner position for the team because of the hamstring injury to Casey Hayward, which caused No. 29 to miss most of the 2013 season.
Hyde proved to be a very good tackler and was solid in coverage. No. 33 was also a very good performer on special teams, both returning kicks and covering kicks.
Hyde played in all 16 games and had 61 tackles, three passes defended, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery.
In returns, Hyde averaged 12.3 yards per punt return and had a 93-yard touchdown, while he averaged 24.1 per return on kickoffs.
Hyde will be getting a lot of playing time in 2014. It probably won't be at slot-corner if Hayward is healthy, but he will push all players in the secondary for playing time, whether it's at cornerback or safety.
At the early OTAs and minicamp, Hyde was playing one of the starting safety positions opposite Morgan Burnett.
The Return of Offensive Tackle Bryan Bulaga and Running Back DuJuan Harris
Bryan Bulaga has to be chomping at the bit heading into the 2014 season. No. 75 has basically missed a year and a half of football over the past two seasons due to hip and knee injuries.
When healthy, Bulaga is one of the best offensive linemen that the Packers have. Bulaga started as a rookie in 2010 after veteran Mark Tauscher was injured. In fact, Bulaga ended up being the youngest starter ever in a Super Bowl, when he started at right tackle in Super Bowl XLV.
The Packers were so pleased with his play at right tackle over the years that they were going to move him to left tackle in 2013 to protect the blindside of quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
But Bulaga tore up his knee during their annual Family Night scrimmage and his 2013 season was lost. The good news is that rookie David Bakhtiari filled in very capably at left tackle last season. That means Bulaga can return to right tackle this season.
If he plays anything like he did before his recent injuries, the Packers will be very pleased.
The same holds true for running back DuJuan Harris. Harris missed all of the 2013 season because of a knee injury. In 2012, he turned out to be the best running back on the Packers, with his performance late in the season and in the playoffs.
Harris rushed for 157 yards and two touchdowns in the last four games of 2012, then he carried that success into the postseason with 100 yards rushing, seven catches for 64 yards, and two touchdowns on the ground over two games (stats courtesy of ESPN.com).
With the recent release of Johnathan Franklin due to his neck injury, Harris looks to be the third cog in the running back rotation in 2014 behind Eddie Lacy and James Starks.
Very Good Rookie Class (on Paper) Assembled by Ted Thompson
There's no question about it, the Packers are a draft and develop team under general manager Ted Thompson and head coach Mike McCarthy.
That certainly is the case for this Packers roster. Of the current 89-man squad, Thompson has drafted 41 of those players, while he has signed 43 others who were either "street" free agents or undrafted rookies.
In 2014, Thompson has done more of the same. The 2014 draft class appears to be very solid, with the choices of safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (Round 1), wide receiver Davante Adams (Round 2), defensive lineman Khyri Thornton (Round 3), tight end Richard Rodgers (Round 3), linebacker Carl Bradford (Round 4), center Corey Linsley (Round 5), wide receiver Jared Abbrederis (Round 5), cornerback Demetri Goodson (Round 6) and wide receiver Jeff Janis (Round 7).
In addition to those choices, the Packers also signed some very talented undrafted rookies. Among them are: linebackers Adrian Hubbard, Joe Thomas, Jake Doughty, and Jayrone Elliott; tight end Colt Lyerla; and running backs Rajion Neal and LaDarius Perkins.
I don't know how many rookies will make the final 53-man roster of the Packers as training camp comes to a close, but I would not be surprised if as many as 12 make the team.
Going Wide Receiver Crazy in the 2014 NFL Draft
Going into the 2014 NFL draft, the Packers had lost veteran James Jones via free agency, plus they were looking at the possibility that both Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb would become unrestricted free agents in 2015.
That's why many expected the Packers to select at least one wide receiver in the draft, maybe even two.
But Ted Thompson surprised everyone by drafting three wide receivers, all of them quite talented.
I'm speaking of Davante Adams (Round 2), Jared Abbrederis (Round 5) and Jeff Janis (Round 7).
In his last two years at Fresno State, Adams put up some mind-boggling statistics, as he had 233 receptions for 3,031 yards and 38 touchdowns.
At Wisconsin, Abbrederis had 202 catches for 3,140 yards and 23 touchdowns. No. 84 was also a very accomplished return man for the Badgers, as he averaged 10.7 yards per return on punts (including a touchdown) and 25.8 yards per return on kickoffs.
Janis dominated the D-II level at Saginaw Valley State, with 83 receptions for 1,572 yards and 14 touchdowns last season.
Their depth at the wide receiver spot is overflowing now. Beside the three draft picks, as well as veterans like Nelson, Cobb and Jarrett Boykin, the Packers also have a number of other young receivers on their roster, including Chris Harper, Myles White, Kevin Dorsey and Alex Gillett.
The competition in training camp will be fun to watch at the wideout position with all the talent there.
I expect the Packers to keep six wide receivers on the roster in 2014.
Re-Signing Some Key Veteran Free Agents
The Packers had 17 players who were unrestricted free agents this offseason. They obviously couldn't keep them all, but the team did re-sign a number of them.
Those include Sam Shields, Mike Neal, Andrew Quarless, B.J. Raji, James Starks, John Kuhn and Matt Flynn.
Re-signing Shields was a no-brainer, as he's the fastest player on the Packers and has developed into a very solid cornerback (13 career picks).
Neal had the finest season (five sacks) of his career in 2013 and played in all 16 games of the season last year at both outside linebacker and defensive end.
Quarless played as well as he ever did for the Packers last season, with 32 catches for 312 yards and two touchdowns, and he looked as though he was finally over the devastating knee injury he suffered late in the 2011 season.
Raji did not have a good season in 2013. That being said, the Packers will be moving him to the nose tackle position exclusively, as that is the place where he has had the most success (39 tackles and 6.5 sacks in 2010) in his brief NFL career.
Starks had a very nice year complementing Eddie Lacy, who was the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. Starks had 493 yards rushing and three touchdowns.
Kuhn doesn't flash on the stat sheet, but he does the little things very well, both at fullback and on special teams. It was Kuhn's block on Julius Peppers which allowed quarterback Aaron Rodgers to be able to throw the game-winning touchdown pass to Randall Cobb in Week 17 in Chicago, earning the Packers the NFC North crown.
Flynn basically saved the Packers' season in 2013. While Rodgers was out with a fractured clavicle, Flynn resuscitated the Packers when it looked like their season was basically over. For the season, Flynn was 2-2 as a starter and threw seven touchdown passes versus four picks for 1,146 yards.
Becoming More Innovative on Defense
In the first two years that Dom Capers was defensive coordinator for the Packers, the team finished second and fifth in the NFL in total defense. But over the last three seasons, the Packers have seen their defense drop down to being ranked 32nd, 11th and 25th.
At the core of success in the 3-4 defensive scheme run by Capers is a good pass rush. Without getting consistent pressure on the quarterbacks, the whole scheme suffers.
That is why Capers is thinking out of the box a bit. Last season, he used Mike Neal as a hybrid—as both an outside linebacker and a defensive lineman. Where Neal lined up from play to play was based on down, distance and available personnel.
Rookie Datone Jones played primarily defensive end last season for the Packers, but also received some time at outside linebacker because of injuries.
Expect to see more of the same this season. Besides using Neal the same way as last year, expect to see Julius Peppers and Nick Perry doing the same thing. Sometimes they will play outside linebacker and other times they may be on the defensive line.
Perry played the "elephant" defensive end position in college at USC, so he will be very familiar playing in that spot in Green Bay.
In addition to that, rookie Carl Bradford played both defensive end and outside linebacker at Arizona State.
With the depth that the Packers have accumulated on both the D-line and at outside linebacker, Capers can rotate players to keep them fresh, plus he can get his best players on the field in passing situations.
It won't matter where they line up.
Drafting Safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix
As early as January, while I compiling data of prospects for the 2014 NFL draft, I had my eye on safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix of Alabama. That focus was reaffirmed when I talked to scout Chris Landry about him that month. Landry had this to say about the former Crimson Tide star:
"Clinton-Dix is the best of the bunch (safeties). He's got really good size. I think he's got good range. I think he's physical and I think he's got the ability to make plays on the ball."
Landry didn't think Clinton-Dix would be available for the Packers at pick No. 21 due to his talent and track record at Alabama.
But somehow the draft fell just right for the Packers in Round 1, and they were able to select Clinton-Dix after all. Landry was surprised when I talked to him the day after:
"I didn't really think Clinton-Dix would be there for you, but I thought about you last night and I knew Packer fans like yourself have got to be really happy. This is a perfect example of a guy who knows how to run a draft in Ted Thompson, that works that draft board and good players fall to you. And you knew that the player was going to be a good one, and I thought it might be another guy from Alabama [C.J. Mosley], but this one's a great one and was a really good pick for them."
Bottom line, the Packers should be thrilled with the addition of Clinton-Dix, especially knowing how badly their safeties played last season.
Signing Julius Peppers as a Free Agent
Call it my Nostradamus moment, but I just had a feeling that Julius Peppers and the Packers would be a good fit. I wrote about that scenario just a few days before the Packers actually signed Peppers.
Yes, Peppers is 34, but he still can bring it in terms of rushing the quarterback. Last season for the Bears, Peppers had 7.5 sacks. In his career, Peppers has 119 sacks, plus has forced a whopping 40 fumbles in his career as a defensive end.
Peppers also has a history with defensive line coach Mike Trgovac of the Packers. Trgovac was Peppers' defensive line coach in 2002 and defensive coordinator from 2003-08 when Peppers was with the Panthers.
The 6'7", 287-pound Peppers is slated to move around quite a bit on defense for the Packers this upcoming season. At times, he will be used as an outside linebacker. Other times he will play defensive end.
With the addition of No. 56 to the Packers, that will allow other players like Clay Matthews, Mike Neal, Mike Daniels, Datone Jones and Nick Perry to get more shots at the quarterback.
And getting to the quarterback, in both sacks and pressure, is the number one goal of the historically successful 3-4 scheme put together by Dom Capers over the years, whether it was in Pittsburgh, Carolina, Houston or Green Bay.
If you have difficulty putting consistent pressure on the quarterback in Capers' defense, the entire scheme will have issues stopping opposing offenses.
That's why signing Peppers was huge.