NFL1000 Week 14 Notebook: Are the Green Bay Packers Super Bowl Contenders?

NFL1000 ScoutsFeatured ColumnistDecember 11, 2017

NFL1000 Week 14 Notebook: Are the Green Bay Packers Super Bowl Contenders?

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    Dylan Buell/Getty Images

    The biggest story of Week 14's Sunday was the potential season-ending knee injury that Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz suffered. 

    We'll have to wait for tests to confirm the severity of the injury, but according to ESPN's Adam Schefter and NFL Network's Ian Rapoport, the Eagles fear Wentz tore his ACL. Moving from Wentz to backup Nick Foles or a free agent off the streetColin Kaepernick, anyone?would be a serious downgrade because there's no replacing Wentz's MVP-level play, which he showed against the Los Angeles Rams in Sunday's 43-35 victory until he was hurt. Heck, he showed it after he was hurt, as he threw a touchdown pass after the injury happened.

    If Wentz is out for the season, it opens up an NFL that was all kinds of wild Sunday. The Green Bay Packers and Buffalo Bills won in overtime, and the Bills did it in a full-scale snowstorm at home. The Carolina Panthers knocked the Minnesota Vikings down a peg by winning the way they like to wingreat defense and an unstoppable running attack. The 2017 Seattle Seahawks were beaten soundly by the 2013 version of their defense, which now resides in Jacksonville. Given Blake Bortles' performance against Seattle, is it time to consider the Jags a first-tier playoff contender?

    Other teams such as the Oakland Raiders, Tennessee Titans and Cincinnati Bengals left observers scratching their heads at the disparity between talent and results. Meanwhile, the Washington Redskins laid an egg in their worst game of the season, a 30-13 thrashing at the hands of the Los Angeles Chargers, who appear poised to run away with the AFC West.

    It was an action-packed Week 14 in the NFL, and B/R's NFL1000 scouts were all over the tape in every game.

    Our team:

    Lead scout: Doug Farrar
    Quarterbacks: Mark Schofield
    Running backs/fullbacks: Mark Bullock
    Receivers/tight ends: Marcus Mosher
    Offensive line: Ethan Young
    Defensive line: Justis Mosqueda
    Linebackers: Derrik Klassen
    Secondary: Ian Wharton

    Here's what our scouts found most fascinating during Sunday's Week 14 action.

Are the Green Bay Packers Legit Super Bowl Contenders?

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    Bruce Kluckhohn/Associated Press

    When the Green Bay Packers beat the Cleveland Browns 27-21 in overtime on Sunday, it marked the third time this season that they had overcome a deficit of 14 or more points to come away with a victory. Per the Elias Sports Bureau (via Jason Wahlers, the Packers' director of public relations), that's a team record. Not bad for a franchise that has been in existence since 1921.

    The win pushed the Packers up to 7-6 on the season, and with Aaron Rodgers perhaps on the precipice of returning from his collarbone injury, it raises the question: If Rodgers is able to return this season, would the Packers be as tough an out as any other NFC team?

    Nobody questions Rodgers' talent or his ability to raise the Packers above personnel and play-calling issues. He's done it before with teams that were underequipped at receiver, running back, offensive line and defense. He's done it before with head coach Mike McCarthy designing routes and calling pass plays that looked to be stolen from the Miami Dolphins' 1973 playbook. They were 4-2 this season with Rodgers as the starter before he was hurt, and he was operating on a similar plane to prior seasons.

    With backup Brett Hundley under center, some of Rodgers' teammates have been compensating for his absence in recent weeks. Few left tackles are playing as well as David Bakhtiari, the run game is slowly rounding into shape with fourth-round rookie Jamaal Williams, and receiver Davante Adams has played well despite the obvious drop-off at quarterback.

    The only thing that would prevent the Packers from turning on the jets with Rodgers in charge is a defense that has frequently played at a subpar level, appearing confused on coverage assignments and struggling to get a consistent pass rush going.

    Should Hundley finish out the season, things become far more complicated. McCarthy has thrown in a few of the run-pass options and option plays that are best tailored to Hundley's skill set, and Hundley looked good against Cleveland's defense, completing 35 of 46 passes for 265 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. Hundley's field-reading still needs some work, but he shows at times the potential to be a high-level backup and spot starter.

    Unfortunately, given Green Bay's struggles on defense, that wouldn't be enough to put the Pack into serious contention for a deep playoff run. If it happens this season, it will happen as most of the team's playoff runs have happened over the last decadeon the (healthy) shoulders of Aaron Rodgers to a disproportionate degree.

    —NFL1000 Lead Scout Doug Farrar    

Josh Gordon's Unprecedented Comeback Is Saving DeShone Kizer

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    Jason Miller/Getty Images

    It was impressive when quarterback Steve DeBerg came out of retirement to help the Atlanta Falcons make it to their first Super Bowl in 1998, as he had last played for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1993. But the then-44-year-old DeBerg completed just 30 of 59 passes for 369 yards, three touchdowns and a pick as Chris Chandler's backup.

    Making any NFL impact after that kind of layoff is impressive. But what Cleveland Browns receiver Josh Gordon is doing after two full seasons away from the game due to various violations of the NFL's substance abuse policy isdare we sayunprecedented.

    Gordon's talents were clear before he lost his way, as he led the league with 1,646 receiving yards in 2013 despite playing with a quarterback rotation of Jason Campbell, Brandon Weeden and Brian Hoyer. He has always presented a ridiculous physical mismatch with a rare combination of raw size and speed, which has allowed him to dominate opposing defenders with a route-running awareness that was raw at best.

    When Gordon found his way back on the field in Week 12 for the first time since Dec. 21, 2014, he torched the Los Angeles Chargers' outstanding pass defense for four catches and 85 yards. He would have been even more productive had rookie quarterback DeShone Kizer been more consistently accurate.

    Against the Green Bay Packers in a heartbreaking 27-21 overtime loss Sunday, Gordon showed not only is he still a force with which to be reckoned, but that he also can make Kizer a better player. He caught three passes for 69 yards and his first touchdown of the season, a first-quarter score in which he blew through Green Bay's confused coverage on an easy post. Gordon's most impressive catch the week before was one in which Kizer threw a ball high enough for him to jump for it, and Gordon physically overwhelmed cornerback Casey Hayward, who's played at a Defensive Player of the Year level all season.

    It's rare for a player to come back into the NFL after a long layoff and perform as if he never left; it's even more unusual when that player had relied more on physical gifts than on-field acumen. Let's hope Gordon is able to keep himself together off the field, because he is a special player.

    —NFL1000 Lead Scout Doug Farrar    

What Has Happened to Derek Carr?

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    Ed Zurga/Associated Press

    In 2016, Derek Carr was a legitimate MVP candidate. The Oakland Raiders got off to a 11-3 start before he broke his leg against the Indianapolis Colts in Week 16. He finished 2016 with an Adjusted Net Yards Per Attempt of 7.20, per Pro Football Reference, which placed him seventh in the league. Carr was confidently pushing the football downfield and not making many mistakes, as his interception percentage of 1.1 percent was tied with Aaron Rodgers for fourth-best in the league.

    The 2017 season has been a far different story for Carr.

    Early in the season, it seemed as though Carr was easing his way back into action, perhaps concerned about re-injuring his leg. He also suffered a transverse back fracture against the Denver Broncos that sidelined him for the Raiders' Week 5 contest against the Baltimore Ravens. That means there's an injury factor to consider.

    There is also a scheme factor. In B/R's NFL1000 Week 7 Quarterback Rankings, Doug Farrar argued first-year offensive coordinator Todd Downing's focus on the quick passing game, perhaps as a way to protect his quarterback, was holding the Raiders back. In some of their more successful games, such as their earlier victory over the Kansas City Chiefs, a downfield-heavy approach served Carr and Oakland well. But they could not maintain that over the course of the season.

    In the end, however, the quarterback needs to execute regardless of the scheme. Carr has thrown 10 interceptions this season—including two more Sunday against the Chiefsand his interception percentage of 2.1 percent heading into Sunday put him in the middle of the pack.

    On Sunday against the Chiefs, Carr's first interception came when a breakdown in protection caused a passing attempt to pop into the air. His second came on a post route in the direction of Johnny Holton that Holton deflected, which resulted in the pick. Neither play can solely be put on Carr, but both are emblematic of an offense that has struggled to execute as needed over the course of the season.

    —NFL1000 QB Scout, Mark Bullock

Has Mitchell Trubisky Started to Turn the Corner?

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    Frank Victores/Associated Press

    Development is not linear. Young quarterbacks do not make the same developmental leaps from year to year, week to week or even from drive to drive. They sometimes take steps backward, or even regress.

    But developmental arc is trending upward for Chicago Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, and his Week 14 outing against the Cincinnati Bengals was another step in his growth as an NFL quarterback.

    He flashed the athleticism that helped make him the No. 2 overall pick, such as his touchdown run on a zone-read play where he made the right decision to pull the ball and keep it himself for a touchdown. Or his athletic flip to Benny Cunningham on a 3rd-and-12 play that nearly picked up a first down. Trubisky tried to climb the pocket and was grabbed, but while he was airborne, he somehow managed to find Cunningham and flip the ball to him. Plays like those certainly will make highlight reels.

    But in terms of his development, a number of plays stand out, most notably the next play after the flip to Cunningham. Facing a 4th-and-3, Trubisky dropped back to throw and then found fellow rookie Adam Shaheen for a first down on a deep out route. It was late in his progression, but Trubisky got to the read and made the throw with impressive anticipation as well. Plays like those, where he shows processing speed and anticipation, are evidence that his development is progressing and he has turned the corner.

    The Bears made a long-term investment when they traded up for Trubisky. Days like Sunday, where he combined his athleticism with his mental growth, show the investment may well pay off.

    —NFL1000 QB Scout, Mark Bullock

Chiefs Get Kareem Hunt Back on Track with Option Offense

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    Peter Aiken/Getty Images

    After a high-flying start to the season, rookie running back Kareem Hunt and the Chiefs offense have been brought back down to earth, losing six of their last seven going into Sunday's game against the Raiders. They've failed to get Hunt going for most of that stretch and lacked the creativity that helped their offense get off to such an explosive start.

    On Sunday, however, the Chiefs recaptured some of the creativity that made the offense so hard to defend early in the year.

    Hunt had 25 carries for 116 yards and a touchdown, which marked his first 100-yard game since Week 5. The Chiefs did a better job with misdirection than they have in recent weeks, too.

    Late in the third quarter, for example, they faced a 2nd-and-3 situation on the Oakland 31-yard line. Hunt joined quarterback Alex Smith in the backfield on an outside zone run to the right. The Chiefs had tight end Travis Kelce peel off into the flat to the left, holding a linebacker on the back side, while the threat of Smith keeping the ball held the back-side defensive end. This took two defenders out of the play. The Chiefs offensive line washed out the rest of the defense, and Hunt made a simple cutback into the vacated space for 17 yards.

    Hunt wasn't entirely reliant on the schemes creating yards for him, either. On one run at the start of the second quarter, he took to the handoff on an inside run to the left. As he approached the line of scrimmage, he was faced with an unblocked linebacker in the hole, while the defensive end crashed inside. Hunt calmly bounced his run outside, which gave his blocker leverage on the crashing end, and he burst up the field for a nine-yard gain.

    It's a good sign for the Chiefs, who were starting to wobble in the race for the AFC West title as the Chargers continue to surge. But getting back to the creative offense based around Hunt and the run game proved to be successful for them in Week 14.

    —NFL1000 RB Scout, Mark Bullock

No Wide Receiver Is Doing More with Less Than DeAndre Hopkins

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    Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press

    When you think of the elite wide receivers currently in the league, they are almost all paired with great quarterbacks. Antonio Brown and Julio Jones are widely considered the best receivers in the game right now, and they're playing with Ben Roethlisberger and Matt Ryan, respectively. Both Brown and Jones also have continuity with their respective signal-callers, as they have played with Big Ben and Ryan for most of their careers. That matters for receivers, especially when it comes to production.

    That is not the case, however, for DeAndre Hopkins in Houston.

    Not only does Hopkins not have a great quarterback throwing him the ball, but you could argue that he's had bottom-five play from his quarterbacks since rookie Deshaun Watson went down with a torn ACL prior to Week 9.

    When he was paired with Watson, Hopkins was outstanding. In his seven games with Watson, the 2015 Pro Bowler caught seven touchdowns and exceeded 600 receiving yards. But even without his young franchise quarterback under center, Hopkins has still been a star.

    On Sunday, Hopkins proved again why he's still one of the most underrated receivers in the league. With Tom Savage and T.J. Yates throwing him the ball, Hopkins racked up 149 yards on 11 receptions and scored twice. He also drew multiple pass interference calls to help move the Texans' bland offense. He was, by far, the most dominant player on the field.

    Despite playing with three different quarterbacks this season, Hopkins has already exceeded 1,200 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns on 88 receptions. Hopkins should be a first-team All-Pro this season, and remember him when you have discussions about who the best receiver is in the NFL today.

    —NFL1000 WR Scout, Marcus Mosher

Falcons O-Line Quietly Raising Atlanta's Offense

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    Despite the Falcons' lack of record-breaking success this season coming off a historic 2016 campaign, their offensive line has quietly had a solid year. It has been a well-rounded unit as well, keeping Matt Ryan clean in pass protection and opening up big holes on the ground for the Falcons' dynamic backs, especially as of late.

    Several players deserve recognition this season. Alex Mack is the engine that drives the unit, and he has had another tremendous year. His ability to explode off the ball and set a firm base when sliding has been huge for this unit, with all the outside zone and stretch play-action they run. The tackle duo of Jake Matthews and Ryan Schraeder is key for making this scheme work as well, as they hold the edge on the long developing runs that the Falcons build their offense on. Ben Garland likewise deserves praise for his performance over the last few weeks, as he has filled in admirably in Andy Levitre's stead since he went down.

    This group may not be recapturing the magic of the 2016 season, but it remains a solid group. Atlanta could upgrade the unit this offseason, most notably at guard, where Levitre is beginning to rack up wear and tear and right guard Wes Schweitzer continues to struggle. But overall, this unit has been one of the NFL's strongest.

    Both of the Falcons' main backs rank among the top 15 league-wide in yards per carry, while pass protection, Atlanta had the seventh-best Sack Rate Allowed over Release Expectation (per NFL NextGen Stats) coming into the weekand it only gave up one sack against New Orleans, which was purely the fault of play design. That showcases just how well-rounded this unit is.

    —NFL1000 OL Scout, Ethan Young

Dallas Cowboys Defense Suffering Without DL David Irving

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    Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

    Despite only playing eight games this season, David Irving has had an incredible impact on the Dallas Cowboys' defensive line in 2017. If not for DeMarcus Lawrence developing into a Pro Bowl pass-rusher, the big story in Dallas this year would be Irving's successful conversion to defensive tackle.

    Entering the week, Lawrence had posted a team-high 22 tackles at or behind the line of scrimmage. Surprisingly, Irving is second on the team with 13 even though he has played in only eight games. 

    In other words, penetration in Dallas revolves almost solely around Irving and Lawrence.

    Irving missed Sunday's game against the New York Giants due to a concussion, and his absence was evident throughout the day. While the Cowboys won 30-10, they allowed quarterback Eli Manning to throw 46 times without bringing him down for a single sack.

    On the ground, the Cowboys only made two plays at or behind the line of scrimmage on 29 carries. One was a two-yard loss by Giants running back Wayne Gallman, with newly signed defensive end Datone Jones and linebacker Anthony Hitchens splitting the tackle. The other play behind the line was a nine-yard loss by Giants receiver Sterling Shepard, who was tackled by linebacker Sean Lee.

    That lack of pressure could be an issue moving forward if Irving remains sidelined. Over the last two years, no team has a worse yards-per-carry mark on positive runs than the Giants. Between Manning coming off of a benching and the Giants' inability to run the ball, New York couldn't take advantage of what Dallas' defensive line looked like without Irving, but someone down the road could.

    With the Oakland Raiders, Seattle Seahawks and Philadelphia Eagles on the Cowboys' remaining slate, it's make-or-break time for Dallas' playoff hopes. If the 7-6 Cowboys can't quickly figure out how to generate more penetration, their season will slip away.

    —NFL1000 DL Scout, Justis Mosqueda

Reuben Foster Looks Like the Future of the 49ers Defense

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    Rookie linebackers should not be able to transform a defense.

    For one, rookies generally do not revitalize their unit right away, but linebacker is also not a position of great value. The linebacker position does not typically hold the same weight as a pass-rusher or a shutdown cornerback.

    Every so often, however, there is a talent special enough to break that rule and become an immediate star. Reuben Foster has done that with the San Francisco 49ers.

    Foster has unlocked a fairly talented 49ers front seven. The defensive line is loaded with young playmakers, but at times, they have been on their own trying to keep this defense afloat. When Foster is healthy and on the field, he changes that.

    Foster proved to be an elite run defender as soon as he took the field this season. It is rare to see a rookie linebacker play with the awareness and confidence he displays. Foster is always the first linebacker to trigger and make his way toward the ball. His ability to diagnose plays so quickly allows him to beat offensive linemen to their landmarks, enabling him to ruin plays before they can get going.

    When taking on blockers, Foster shows an impressive level of tenacity to go along with outstanding fundamentals. It may be cliche to harp on an Alabama defensive product being so technically sound, but Foster is truly as smooth as they come.

    Foster is equally useful on passing downs, too. The range and zone awareness he provides in the middle of the 49ers defense is highly valuable. Though Foster is not quite Bobby Wagner or Luke Kuechly, he gives the 49ers a similar presence in coverage. Being able to trust a linebacker to carry down the seam and punish underneath crossing routes opens up the rest of the defense. Additionally, Foster can be a brutalizing blitz piece when need be. He even saw some snaps as a defensive end at Alabama, and he could be used there if defensive coordinator Robert Saleh wanted to spice things up for a play or two.

    The ceiling is sky-high for Foster. There has not been a rookie linebacker of his caliber since Kuechly in 2011. If Foster can stay healthy moving forward, he will assert himself as a star in this league.

    —NFL1000 LB Scout, Derrik Klassen

Seahawks Secondary Shows Potential Fatal Flaws Against Jaguars

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    Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

    The Seattle Seahawks haven't had to deal with as many changes in their secondary as they have this season due to injuries to the cornerback position. With star Richard Sherman out with a ruptured Achilles, the burden of containing opposing offenses has been left to an unassuming cast. After playing well against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 13, the unit struggled to limit Blake Bortles and the Jacksonville Jaguars as its potentially fatal flaws were exposed.

    Now left with Byron Maxwell, rookie Shaquill Griffin and Justin Coleman as their top three corners, there's a tremendous amount of pressure on two players who haven't been able to stick elsewhere in Maxwell and Coleman, and a first-year player in Griffin who returned from injury in Week 13. The Jaguars were aggressive in attacking Maxwell in the run game as well, though he responded with a team-leading nine solo tackles.

    Where the Seahawks struggled was in exhibiting the same sharp focus in zone drops, picking up one another and creating a blanket of defenders. Jaguars rookie receiver Dede Westbrook's touchdown came on a Cover 2 call to Maxwell's side of the field, and fellow rookie Keelan Cole's 75-yarder was a coverage bust with Earl Thomas failing to properly rotate to the left hash mark. Players who are unfamiliar with the veterans on this roster are more likely to cause mistakes, which plagued the unit Sunday.

    With just three weeks left in the regular season, it's crucial for the corners and safeties to develop more of a symbiotic relationship. That's a difficult task for talent more suited to be quality role players, but for a team with Super Bowl aspirations and expectations, anything less will be a failure.

    — NFL1000 DB scout Ian Wharton