Every year since the Packers won the Super Bowl in 2010, we’ve been saying that if the Packers can stay healthy, they’re going to be tough to beat. They had the most adjusted games lost in 2012 and even in 2010, they had the 3rd most adjusted games lost, despite winning the Super Bowl (they were 17th in 2011, which was when they started 13-0). They’ll probably be very high in adjusted games lost in 2013 after the numbers come out as injuries derailed their defense.
The biggest injury though was to quarterback Aaron Rodgers. They’ve been able to survive all sorts of other injuries over the past few years, to win the Super Bowl in 2010, despite a 10-6 regular season, to go 11-5 and win a playoff game in 2012, but they couldn’t live without Aaron Rodgers this season. They went 6-2 in regular season games he played and 2-5-1 in the other 8 games, with awful quarterback play behind Aaron Rodgers until ex-backup Matt Flynn returned to stabilize things somewhat.
However, as we say every year, the Packers will be very, very good if they can stay healthy in 2014. Adjusted games lost tends to be inconsistent on a year-to-year basis and if the Packers can have an average amount of injuries and keep Rodgers out there all 16 games, they have the talent to win 11, 12, 13 games again and challenge for the Super Bowl. They have a few things to clean up defensively, but that unit is a lot different when it’s healthy.
AJ Hawk has stuck around with the Packers through rumors that he’d be a cap casualty for several straight off-seasons, often restructuring or taking a pay cut. However, this might be the end of the line for him. Hawk was awful last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 48th ranked middle linebacker out of 55 eligible and now he’s going into his age 30 season so he’s probably not getting any better any time soon. The Packers can save 1.9 million on the cap by cutting him. They should do that and find an upgrade. Opposite him at middle linebacker, Brad Jones struggled in his 2nd season as a starter in 2013, after getting a fairly lucrative contract the off-season before. There’s been talk he could be a cap casualty, though he should be safe for another season. Either way, middle linebacker is a big problem position for the Packers.
MD Jennings and Jerron McMillan were supposed to compete for the starting safety job opposite Morgan Burnett going into 2013. McMillan was the week 1 starter, but he was so bad he didn’t even finish the season on the team. He played 196 snaps and would have been Pro Football Focus’ 10th worst ranked safety if he were eligible, despite his very limited playing time. No safety played fewer snaps and graded out worse than him. Jennings took over as the starter, but he wasn’t a whole lot better, finishing as Pro Football Focus’ 67th ranked safety out of 86 eligible. They need an upgrade at that position.
Jermichael Finley is a free agent this off-season and he’s also a serious health risk going forward after needing neck fusion surgery. He’s also never really lived up to his promise, struggling with drops, missing 26 games in 6 seasons, and never surpassing 61 catches or 767 receiving yards despite playing with Aaron Rodgers. Andrew Quarless filled in as the starter for him and he’s not that good either. He’s a mediocre blocker who has never surpassed 32 catches for 312 yards and 2 touchdowns despite leading the team in snaps played by a tight end in 2 of the past 4 seasons because of injuries to Finley. They’ll probably look at tight ends early in the draft.
Clay Matthews and Nick Perry can form a fierce pass rush duo when they’re both healthy, but Nick Perry has missed 15 of 32 games since being drafted in the first round in 2012, while Clay Matthews has also missed 9 games over the past two seasons. Their primary reserves at the position in 2013 were Mike Neal, a converted defensive lineman, Andy Mulumba, an undrafted rookie, and Nate Palmer, a 6th round rookie. They all predictably struggled when counted on. Mike Neal was Pro Football Focus’ 3rd worst ranked 3-4 outside linebacker and Mulumba was their 7th worst, despite playing just 304 snaps. Palmer, meanwhile, didn’t qualify because he only played 200 snaps, but he would have been their 8th worst if he had, despite his limited playing time. No one played fewer snaps than him and graded out worse.
The Packers drafted Bryan Bulaga and Derek Sherrod in the first round in 2010 and 2011 to be their bookend tackles of the future, but they played a combined 6 snaps this season, all by Sherrod, who was playing for the first time since 2011 and has played a combined 121 snaps in 3 seasons. Bulaga will be back from injury next season, his contract year, but Sherrod might never turn it around. Don Barclay and David Bakhtiari were the starters this season and both struggled.
Sam Shields is a free agent, while Tramon Williams could be cap casualty going into his age 31 contract year. That would leave them thin at the position if both left. They should use a mid to late round pick for depth purposes on a developmental cornerback.
BJ Raji and Ryan Pickett are both free agents this off-season. Mike Daniels is one starter on the defensive line at 5-technique defensive end and 2013 1st round pick Datone Jones will have a bigger role in 2014, but they’d really hurt for depth if both Raji and Pickett left and they’d also have no one to play on the nose. Pickett is also going into his age 35 season and nearing the end of the line.
Evan Dietrich-Smith is a free agent. If he’s not retained, they’ll need to find a new starting center.
Key Free Agents
CB Sam Shields
Sam Shields burst onto the scene as an undrafted rookie in 2010, serving a huge role in the Packers’ Super Bowl season when injuries hit. He struggled in 2011, but graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 15th ranked cornerback in 2012, despite missing 6 games with injury and then he was about average in 2013. Overall, he’s an above average cornerback who will get a lucrative contract on the open market.
C Evan Dietrich-Smith
Dietrich-Smith took over as the starting center from Jeff Saturday late in the 2012 season and played solid in limited action and then graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked center in 2013 in his first full season as a starter. He’s still just a one year wonder, but he should be paid pretty well for a center on the open market. My guess is the Packers will try hard to retain him.
WR James Jones
James Jones has been a featured wide receiver in an explosive pass offense for the past 2 seasons and hasn’t really done much with it, totaling 784 receiving yards on 664 routes run in 2012 and 817 receiving yards on 544 routes run in 2013. The 14 touchdowns he caught in 2012 are an outlier as he’s totaled 23 touchdowns in his other 6 seasons in the league combined. The Packers seem prepared to move on from him with Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, and Jarrett Boykin as their top 3 receivers and Jones will undoubtedly be overpaid by a receiver needy team on the open market. He’s a marginal starting receiver that the Packers made look better than he was.
DE BJ Raji
BJ Raji has been very inconsistent in his career in 4 years as a starter. He was very good in 2010, especially in the playoffs on their Super Bowl run, but struggled mightily in 2011, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ worst ranked defensive tackle that season. In 2012, he was better, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked 3-4 defensive end and ended up turning down a contract that would have paid him 8 million dollars yearly. However, the 2009 1st round pick struggled in 2013, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd worst ranked 3-4 defensive end. He’s unlikely to get nearly that much money on the open market now, but he’ll probably still be overpaid. He’s an overrated player. He can play all 3 defensive line positions in a 3-4 and he could probably play 4-3 defensive tackle, but he’s way too inconsistent.
RB James Starks
James Starks has definitely flashed, but he’s been plagued by the same thing that plagued him in college and what dropped him down to the 6th round of the draft in 2010, injuries. He’s never played more than 13 games in a season or had more than 133 carries in a season and he’s missed 29 of 64 possible games in 4 seasons. However, he’s rushed for 1427 yards and 5 touchdowns on 322 carries, a solid 4.4 yards per carry average, along with 45 catches for 341 yards and another score, and he really carved out a niche as Eddie Lacy’s backup in 2013, averaging 5.5 yards per carry on 89 carries and “only” missing 3 games. He’ll sign on somewhere as a backup, perhaps back in Green Bay.
FB John Kuhn
John Kuhn has been a solid fullback in Green Bay for years, grading out above average on Pro Football Focus in every season except one since 2008, maxing out as their 3rd ranked fullback in 2008 and again in 2013, perfect timing in his contract year. Fullbacks don’t usually get paid much, but the Packers will still probably try to bring him back on a fairly lucrative deal for a fullback because of his versatility as a runner, pass catcher, and blocker.
DT Ryan Pickett
Ryan Pickett has been a quality run stopping rotational defensive lineman for the Packers since 2006, grading out about average on Pro Football Focus since 2008. However, he’s going into his age 35 season so he’s near the end of the line. He’ll probably be looking at one year deals this off-season if he wants to continue playing.
TE Jermichael Finley
Jermichael Finley is a free agent this off-season and he’s also a serious health risk going forward after needing neck fusion surgery. He’s also never really lived up to his promise, struggling with drops, missing 26 games in 6 seasons, and never surpassing 61 catches or 767 receiving yards despite playing with Aaron Rodgers. He’ll have to settle for one year prove it deals on the open market this off-season.
TE Andrew Quarless
Quarless is a mediocre blocker who has never surpassed 32 catches for 312 yards and 2 touchdowns despite leading the team in snaps played by a tight end in 2 of the past 4 seasons because of injuries to Jermichael Finley. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 44th ranked tight end out of 64 eligible in 2013. He’ll have to settle for short-term deals as a depth tight end somewhere.
OLB Mike Neal
Mike Neal was a 2nd round pick of the Packers’ in 2010 and played a total of 489 snaps from 2010-2012, but the Packers liked what he brought as a situational interior pass rusher and decided to convert him to rush linebacker, where they had a need, to get him more space to rush. That turned out to be a disaster as the 6-3 280 pounder fit like a square peg in a round hole there, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd worst ranked 3-4 outside linebacker and leading the team in snaps played by a rush linebacker thanks to injuries to Clay Matthews and Nick Perry. Neal will have a hard time finding a fit this off-season as a free agent.
QB Matt Flynn
Matt Flynn turned two strong starts in place of an injured Aaron Rodgers into a fairly lucrative contract with the Seahawks, but he lost his starting job in the pre-season to then unproven 3rd round rookie Russell Wilson and got sent to Oakland the next season. In Oakland, he lost his starting job in the pre-season to Terrelle Pryor and then cut got mid-season in favor of the terrible duo of Pryor and Matt McGloin. He then went to Buffalo, where he never played, before ending up back in Green Bay as Rodgers’ backup again, when Rodgers was hurt. Flynn wasn’t great, but he was definitely better than anyone else they trotted out in Rodgers’ absence, completing 61.4% of his passes for an average of 6.90 YPA, 7 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions. He’s proven to struggle mightily outside of Green Bay’s system, but the Packers should still bring him back on a cheap deal to backup Rodgers because they don’t have anyone else better.
Cap Casualty Candidates
MLB AJ Hawk
AJ Hawk has stuck around with the Packers through rumors that he’d be a cap casualty for several straight seasons, often restructuring or taking a pay cut. However, this might be the end of the line for him. Hawk was awful last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 48th ranked middle linebacker out of 55 eligible and now he’s going into his age 30 season so he’s probably not getting any better any time soon. The Packers can save 1.9 million on the cap by cutting him.
CB Jarrett Bush
Jarrett Bush is pretty much a non-factor defensively, playing 119 snaps in 2013 and 631 snaps over the past 4 seasons combined. He’s good on special teams, but the Packers could still cut him to save 1.7 million on the cap. That doesn’t seem worth it for a special teamer.
CB Tramon Williams
Tramon Williams is going into his age 31 season and not worth the 7.5 million the Packers could save on the cap and in cash by cutting him ahead of his contract year in 2014. However, he’s also probably the Packers’ best cornerback, especially if they can’t retain Sam Shields, so they may still keep him around, even at that rate, without a real cap problem. Extending him to bring his cap number down is another option.
MLB Brad Jones
Brad Jones struggled in his 2nd season as a starter in 2013, after getting a fairly lucrative contract the off-season before, worth 11.75 million over 3 seasons. There’s been talk he could be a cap casualty, though he should be safe for another season. He earned that contract by grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked middle linebacker in 2012, though he’s still a one year wonder. Cutting him, in the unlikely case that they do, would save them 2.925 million in cash and 1.925 million on the cap.