In 2011, the Packers had one of the best seasons in NFL history. They scored the 2nd most points in a season in NFL history and went 15-1, just the 6th team to win 15 or more regular season games since the NFL moved to a 16 game schedule in 1978. However, it was highly unlikely they’d do it again. It’s very tough to maintain that level of greatness with anything in football. For example, the previous 5 teams to win 15 or more games won an average of 11.2 the following season. Not bad at all, but only the 1986 Bears were even close to what they were the previous season (14-2, giving them the most wins by a team in a 2 year stretch).
The Packers also had a ridiculous turnover margin, going +24 in turnovers. That type of thing is really unsustainable. For example, teams with 20 or fewer turnovers on average turn the ball over 25.5 times the following season, while teams that turn the ball over 35 or more times turn the ball over 28.1 times the following season. Teams with 20 or fewer takeaways take the ball away an average of 25.3 times the following season, while teams with 35 or more takeaways take the ball away an average of 27.3 times the following season. Teams with a turnover differential of +15 or higher have a turnover differential of +3.6 the following season, while teams with a turnover differential of -15 have a turnover differential of +1.5 the following season.
Sure enough, the Packers regressed both in turnover margin and win total in 2012, winning 11 games and posting a +7 turnover margin. However, now going into 2013, there’s reason to believe they can improve on last year’s record (aside from the obvious they should have won in Seattle week 2 reason). The first is actually turnovers. The Packers should be better in that aspect next season as they produced that +7 turnover margin despite recovering just 42.5% of fumbles that hit the ground during their games. They were +10 in interceptions, but -3 in fumbles. They could be at +10 or better in turnovers in 2013.
The reason they’re somewhat of an exception to the turnover rule is Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers has the lowest interception rate in NFL history among quarterbacks who have thrown as many pass attempts as he has, throwing one on 1.7% of his attempts (if you exclude his first year a starter it’s even better at 1.3%). That’s not a fluke and obviously having a quarterback like that under center is going to allow you to consistently win the turnover battle. Don’t expect them to be at +24 again. That just isn’t a reasonable expectation. However, they do have 2nd the best turnover margin in the NFL over the past 6 seasons (+12.7), behind only New England (15.5). No other team is better than +6.5 (Atlanta).
The 2nd reason why they should be even better in 2013 is that they should have fewer injuries. I know it sounds ridiculous saying that with Bryan Bulaga out for the season (more on him in the offensive line section), but they were dead last in adjusted games lost last season, losing the equivalent of close to 4 key players for the close season more than the average team. Bulaga’s injury hurts and they might not be even a league average team in injuries next season, but they won’t be as awful. This still looks like one of the best teams in the NFL.
In his last 45 games, including playoffs, Aaron Rodgers has completed 1026 of 1510 (67.9%) for 12738 yards (8.4 YPA), 122 touchdowns, and 20 interceptions. He’s also rushed for 901 yards and 8 touchdowns on 175 carries in those games. He’s gone 35-10 in those 45 games, winning an MVP and a Super Bowl in the process. He’s the best quarterback in the NFL and will continue to keep this team in Super Bowl contention.
Part of the reason why the Packers fell from the 2nd best scoring offense in NFL history in 2011 to the 5th best scoring offense in the NFL in 2012 (scoring 7.9 fewer points per game in the process) was that Rodgers took 51 sacks (most in the NFL), taking a sack on 8.0% of his drop backs, as opposed to 2011, when he took 36 sacks, taking a sack on 6.2% of his drop backs. However, the Packers’ offensive line didn’t really play that much worse in 2012 than it did in 2011.
In 2011, Rodgers was pressured on 27.4% of his drop backs and, in 2012, he was pressured on 29.9% of his drop backs. However, Rodgers took a sack on just 22.6% of those pressured drop backs in 2011, but was 4th worst in the NFL taking a sack on 26.2% of pressured drop backs in 2012. Rodgers has never been great at feeling the pressure and avoiding sacks, especially in comparison to guys like Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, Eli Manning, and Tom Brady. It’s his weakness as a quarterback, but if he can bounce back in that aspect in 2013, he’ll take fewer sacks. He was as much to blame in 2012 as his offensive line, maybe even more so.
In 2012, the Packers ranked 13th in pass block efficiency and actually graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 6th ranked pass blocking offensive line. This was largely the same as it was in 2011, when they graded out 8th on ProFootballFocus and ranked 10th in pass block efficiency. Their weakness has always been run blocking, as they graded out 20th in that aspect in 2011 and 29th in 2012. Unfortunately, this year’s offensive line probably won’t be much better than it has been in the past few years.
The big loss was Bryan Bulaga, who is out for the season with a torn ACL. It’s not a huge loss, as Bulaga missed 8 games with injury last season anyway and he actually graded out below average, but it’s still a big loss because of what he could have been in 2013. Bulaga was ProFootballFocus’ 8th ranked offensive tackle in 2011, so there was a good chance for a bounce back year had he stayed healthy. The Packers were also moving him to the left side to have their best tackle protecting Rodgers’ blindside. That would have allowed Marshall Newhouse to move to right tackle. Newhouse was horrific in his first season as a starter in 2011, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ worst ranked tackle, and, while he was better in his 2nd season as a starter in 2012, he still graded out below average and belonged on the right side.
With Bulaga out, it’s unclear if that’s still the plan. The Packers are giving David Bakhtiari the first crack at the blindside job, with Newhouse at right tackle, but it’s unclear if that will remain the case week 1. Bakhtiari is a mere 4th round rookie. Don Barclay could also be in the mix for a starting job, but he struggled mightily in 4 starts at right tackle in Bulaga’s absence down the stretch in 2012, as a rookie undrafted free agent. Derek Sherrod could also be in the mix. The 2011 1st round pick has been limited to 115 snaps in 2 seasons because of a broken leg suffered in December of 2011. He still hasn’t healed completely, so it’s uncertain if he’ll ever be the same again. He’s yet to be cleared for practice, but the Packers are holding out hope that he can give them a contribution this season at some point at a position of need.
Things are better on the inside of the offensive line. Evan Dietrich-Smith takes over at center for Jeff Saturday, who was a shadow of his former self last season and has since retired. Dietrich-Smith graded out above average in 6 starts on the interior of the offensive line last season, including 2 in place of a benched Saturday at center (the other 4 were at left guard). We’ll see if he can keep that kind of play up for an entire season.
At guard, TJ Lang graded out below average overall last season, but only because he struggled mightily in 4 starts at right tackle, where he was so bad they had to move him back to guard. He graded out above average as a guard, however, as he did in 2011, his first season as a starter, when he actually graded out a ProFootballFocus’ 21st ranked guard. Expected to stay full-time at guard in 2013, he should once again be a solid starter.
Opposite him, Josh Sitton is one of the best guards in the NFL. Since taking over as a starter in 2009, Sitton has graded out as a top-8 guard on ProFootballFocus in all 4 seasons, the only guard who has shown that kind of consistency. The one concern at guard is that the Packers flipped their guards this off-season, moving Lang from left to right guard and Sitton from right to left. On paper, this move makes sense because Sitton is the superior pass protector and they need his help on the more important left side, but there’s a chance they may not be able to adjust their technique. It’s a risk considering they’re established guards. Still, guard is the strength of an otherwise iffy offensive line, though they should allow fewer sacks if Rodgers can do a better job of avoiding them.
The other weakness on the Packers’ offense in 2012 was their lack of a running game. Part of this was their inability to run block, but they really lacked talent at the position. The Packers averaged just 3.9 yards per carry, 22nd in the NFL, and even that number doesn’t tell the whole story as that counts Rodgers’ 54 scrambles for 259 yards (4.8 yards per carry). 3 different backs, Alex Green, Cedric Benson, and James Starks had 70 or more carries and none of the 3 averaged more than 3.6 yards per carry. DuJuan Harris was a bit of a revelation for them as the starter down the stretch, averaging 4.6 yards per carry, but that was on just 34 carries and, in 2 starts in the post-season, he rushed for just 100 yards on 28 carries, just 3.6 yards per carry.
In order to fix the problem, the Packers drafted Eddie Lacy in the 2nd round and Johnathan Franklin in the 4th round. Franklin has struggled in Training Camp and has not proven to be the capable passing down complement for Lacy they were expecting, falling back into the pack of Alex Green, DuJuan Harris, and James Starks (who won’t all make the final roster). Lacy, however, has impressed and seems to have a firm grip on the lead back job. He’s arguably the most talented runner they’ve had since Ryan Grant and could be even better than him long term. It’s tough to count on rookies, but there will be plenty of running room with defenses forced to respect the deep ball. They should be a better running team in 2013 than they were in 2012.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
The Packers lost Greg Jennings this off-season, but in the past 2 seasons, he’s missed 11 games with injury and was limited to 103 catches for 1315 yards and 13 touchdowns total. The Packers were counting on a bounce back season from Jordy Nelson to make up for it. Jordy Nelson caught 68 passes for 1263 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2011 and was off to an equally good season in 2012. Nelson caught 40 passes for 532 receiving yards and 5 touchdowns in the first 7 games of last season. That’s 91 catches for 1216 yards and 11 touchdowns over 16 games.
However, a hamstring problem cost him 4 games and limited him in others. There was definitely bounce back potential, but he recently needed knee surgery and, however minor it was, it’s never what you want to hear. His status for week 1 is now up in the air. I still expect a bounce back year somewhat, but it hurts his stock. Fortunately, the Packers have other good receivers.
Randall Cobb and James Jones play in 3-wide receiver sets with Nelson. Cobb was the better of the two. Not only did he produce more, catching 80 passes for 954 yards, as opposed to 64 catches for 784 for Jones, he also did it on fewer snaps. Cobb, working as the #3 wide receiver and slot specialist, played just 422 pass snaps, as opposed to 610 for Jones. As a result, Cobb was 11th in the NFL among eligible wide receivers averaging 2.26 yards per route run, while Jones was actually 66th out of 81 eligible, averaging just 1.29 yards per route run.
Jones was better in QB rating when thrown to, but only because he caught a ridiculous 14 touchdowns on his 64 catches, a rate that is impossible for anyone to sustain. Cobb was still no slouch in this aspect, ranking 11th in the NFL in QB rating when thrown to, catching those 80 passes on 102 targets (78.4%) with 8 touchdowns to 3 interceptions. Jones “only” caught 64 of 93 targets (68.8%) but ranked 6th in the NFL in QB rating when thrown to on the strength of 14 touchdowns to 2 interceptions.
Cobb also graded out 11th among wide receivers on ProFootballFocus. He should see a bigger role this season, in his 3rd year in the league, a common breakout year for receivers, and he has a very good chance to go over 1000 yards receiving. He also contributes a little bit as a runner, rushing for 132 yards on 10 touches. The 2011 2nd round pick might be a healthier Percy Harvin. His one flaw at this point in his career is drops, as he dropped 11 passes last season, which was half of the incompletions Rodgers threw to him. He could emerge as an elite wide receiver if he cuts down on the drops and becomes more consistent on the outside.
Jones, meanwhile, is pretty much an average starting wide receiver that Rodgers makes look better. The one issue the Packers have at wide receiver is depth. Jarrett Boykin, a 2012 undrafted free agent who caught 5 passes for 27 yards on 96 snaps (55 pass snaps) as a rookie, is the #4 receiver. That’s an issue considering how much the Packers love using 3-wide receiver sets and considering Nelson’s injury status.
The other weapon Rodgers has to work with is Jermichael Finley. The athletic tight end closed last season very well, catching 26 catches for 279 yards in the final 5 games of the season, but we’ve seen in the past he’s capable of being dominant for a short stretch of time. What we haven’t seen is him maintain that level of play over a full season, as his 2011 season, in which he caught 55 passes for 767 yards and 8 touchdowns, remains his best season in 5 years in the league. I don’t expect anything different from him as a pass catcher in 2013 and he’s a poor run blocker.
Like wide receiver, the issue at tight end is depth. Tom Crabtree left as a free agent and it’ll either be Andrew Quarless or DJ Williams as the #2 tight end. Quarless graded out alright on 593 snaps in 2010-2011, his first 2 years in the league after being drafted in the 5th round in 2010, but he missed all of 2012 with a torn ACL. Williams, meanwhile, was a 2011 5th round pick and has graded out alright on just 348 career snaps.
The Packers spent their 1st round pick on Datone Jones and they’ll be counting on him to add some much needed pass rush from their 3-man defensive line, as the Packers ranked 28th in pass rush grade on ProFootballFocus last season. Jones is part of why they should be better rushing the passer in 2013. The rookie will start opposite BJ Raji. Raji struggled mightily in 2011, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ dead last ranked defensive tackle. However, they started playing him more at 5-techique defensive end in base packages in 2012 (while keeping him as a defensive tackle in sub packages) and overall cut the big man’s snaps, down from 885 to 658.
It seemed to do the trick. He graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 7th ranked 3-4 defensive end in 2012, grading out above average both rushing the passer and stopping the run. He didn’t have a sack, but he had 1 hit and 22 hurries on 366 pass rush snaps, a solid 6.3% rate. He’s now graded out above average in 2 of 3 seasons as a starter. He should continue to be an above average starter in 2013, but he’ll remain on a snap count.
Mike Daniels, Mike Neal, and CJ Wilson are the reserves at 5-technique. Neal graded out above average on 266 snaps, excelling as a pass rusher, while Wilson graded out above average on 280 snaps, excelling as a run stopper. Daniels didn’t really excel as anything on 231 snaps, grading out slightly below average overall, but the 2012 4th round pick seems to have leaped Neal on the depth chart. He’ll be a situational pass rusher, while Neal is on the roster bubble. Jerel Worthy was a starter at 5-technique last season as a 2nd round rookie, but he struggled mightily, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 3rd worst 3-4 defensive end. He also tore his ACL in January and might not play at all this season. If he does, it’ll be as a situational player.
At nose tackle, Ryan Pickett will start. He doesn’t get any pass rush, but, as a nose tackle, that’s not his job description. He graded out above average overall and excelled as a run stuffer. He’ll come off the field in sub packages for a 5th defensive back and, because of how often the Packers use sub packages, he might not be a true starter this season. Overall, it’s an improved defensive line.
One of the other reasons why the Packers should be a better pass rush team in 2013 is that they should have better health at the rush linebacker position. As I mentioned, the Packers were killed by injuries in 2012 and rush linebacker might have been hit the worst of any position. Everyone knows about Clay Matthews. He missed 4 games with injury last season, but still graded out as ProFootballFocus’ #2 ranked 3-4 outside linebacker. He excelled as a pass rusher, with 14 sacks, 11 hits, and 24 hurries on 382 pass rush snaps, a 12.8% pass rush rate, but he also played the run well. He’s been a top-6 rush linebacker on ProFootballFocus in 4 seasons since being drafted in the 1st round in 2009. Having him around for a full season will help their pass rush.
The same can be about Nick Perry, their 2012 1st round pick. He went down with a season ending wrist injury week 6, after just 211 snaps, but he graded out above average on those snaps. He could be a solid starter in his 2nd year in the league. Either way, he’ll undoubtedly be better than Erik Walden, who played in his absence last season. He’s graded out as ProFootballFocus’ worst ranked rush linebacker in each of the last 2 seasons. He’s the reason they drafted Perry.
He’s gone so Packer fans don’t have to worry about him seeing the field anymore, even if someone were to get hurt. It’s the definition of addition by subtraction. Depth is still a concern as Nate Palmer is a 6th round rookie and Andy Mulumba is an undrafted rookie. Dezman Moses is the only veteran and he struggled mightily as an undrafted rookie last year. Still, it’s a better situation than last year.
The Packers also had injuries at middle linebacker, losing Desmond Bishop for the season at middle linebacker after the season started. However, Brad Jones played so well in his absence (after original replacement DJ Smith also went down for the season) that Bishop was cut this off-season. In just 10 starts, Jones finished the season as ProFootballFocus’ 10th ranked middle linebacker. He could be even better in his first full season as a starter in 2013. He’ll start next to AJ Hawk, a mediocre linebacker who seems to have 9 lives with the Packers, taking another pay cut to remain with the team this off-season. He comes off the field in dime packages for a 6th defensive back, which the Packers used more than any other team in the NFL last season (33% of snaps).
The Packers frequently play 5 and 6 defensive backs at once for two reasons. One, they frequently play with a lead, putting the opponent in pass mode. Two, they have a bunch of talented defensive backs. Their cornerback trio of Tramon Williams, Sam Shields, Casey Hayward is among the best in the NFL. Tramon Williams started all 16 games at cornerback last season, but he was the worst of the trio last season, grading out just about average. He was ProFootballFocus’ 9th ranked cornerback in 2009 and 8th ranked in 2010, but he hasn’t been the same since suffering nerve damage in his shoulder early in the 2011 season. He says his shoulder is finally healed, but he’s been sidelined with a knee injury all pre-season and he shouldn’t feel secure as a starter.
Sam Shields was the other starter last year, but, like so many players on the Packers last season, he missed significant time with injury, missing 6 games. He played really well when we he was on the field last season, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 15th ranked cornerback, 8th in coverage grade, despite missing 6 games. He allowed just 21 catches on 44 attempts for 355 yards, 3 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions, while deflecting 7 passes and committing 5 penalties. It was his first season as a starter, in his 3rd year in the league, but he played alright overall as a reserve in 2010 and 2011 so he should remain an above average starter should he keep his starting job in 2013. Having him healthy for all or most of the season will be a big boost for this secondary.
Casey Hayward is the 3rd cornerback. As a 2nd round rookie in 2012, he was the Packers’ nickel cornerback, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t have an important role. Because the Packers are in their sub packages so frequently, Hayward played on 703 of the Packers’ 1118 regular season defensive snaps, around 63%. He also made 7 starts when injuries struck and overall graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 4th ranked cornerback (2nd in coverage grade)
Despite not being a full-time starter, only three players (Tarell Brown, Antoine Winfield, Cortland Finnegan) played more pass snaps and didn’t surrender a touchdown and Hayward’s interception total, 6, was double the high of anyone in that group. He also got his hands on 12 more balls, deflecting them, a number that was tied for the most among players who didn’t surrender a touchdown and was tied for 6th overall in the NFL. His 6 interceptions, meanwhile, were 4th in the NFL.
As you can imagine, when a player allows 0 touchdowns and picks off 6 passes, his QB rating against must be pretty low. That was exactly the case with Hayward. His 31.1 QB rating allowed was not only the best in the league among those eligible, but among players ineligible, only Darrelle Revis played more than 29 snaps and allowed a lower QB rating and he only played 93. Only Richard Sherman played more snaps than him and had a QB rating that even rivaled his and his was 10 points higher at 41.1.
It wasn’t just a great touchdown to interception ratio powering that low QB rating. Hayward allowed 33 completions all year, on 74 attempts, a 44.6% completion percentage. He surrendered just 456 yards, 6.2 YPA. He also was not penalized all year and played the run well, as well. He ranked 4th among eligible cornerbacks in run stop % and missed just 3 tackles all season. For all his efforts, he was ProFootballFocus’ 3rd ranked cornerback and was my choice for this year’s Defensive Rookie of the Year. He looks like a budding star. He’ll play the slot regardless of whether or not he wins a starting job outside, but I don’t see how you can keep him out of the starting lineup, even though Shields and Williams are both fine players.
At safety, Morgan Burnett remains. He’s graded out above average in 2 years as a starter and the 2010 3rd round pick was rewarded with a deserving 4 year, 24.75 million dollar extension this off-season, going into his contract year. Opposite him, Charles Woodson is gone, but he missed 9 games last year anyway. He’ll probably be replaced by MD Jennings, who graded out about average as a starter in Woodson’s absence last season, but he could be pushed by Jerron McMillian.
McMillian also graded out about average last season, doing so on 609 snaps, as a depth defensive back. He’ll be the dime back if he doesn’t beat Jennings out for the starting job. It’s a deep, versatile, and talented defensive backfield. They were 8th in the NFL, allowing 6.7 YPA last season and they should be even better this season if the front 7 gets more pass rush, which it should.
He’s not mentioned with the game’s elite coaches, but he should be. Mike McCarthy has a 74-38 career record and a Super Bowl ring and has been the architect and what’s become the league’s premier passing offense, serving as their play caller, in addition to Head Coach. McCarthy is one of the best offensive minds in the game.
The Packers remain one of the best teams in the NFL and should be one of the favorites for the Lombardi once again. They play in arguably the toughest division in football and Detroit and Chicago are both capable of beating them (though probably not in Green Bay), but they should sweep the season series against Minnesota. They could go 5-1 in the division, 4-2 at worst.
Outside of the division, they host Washington, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Atlanta, and Pittsburgh. They could easily win all 5 of those games. Cleveland and Philadelphia aren’t very good. Atlanta and Pittsburgh aren’t very good on the road and they should be heavily favored against the Redskins as well. I’ll give them 5-0 in those games and 4-2 in the division to even it out. On the road, they go to San Francisco, Cincinnati, Baltimore, New York (Giants), and Dallas. That’s a rough stretch, but none of those games are unwinnable. I have them finishing with 12 wins, which is the most I have anyone finishing with. Along with New England and San Francisco, they’re one of the best teams in the NFL.
Projection: 12-4 1st in NFC North