Green Bay Packers 2014 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Packers have been killed by injuries over the past few seasons. They had the 3rd most adjusted games lost in 2013, the most adjusted games lost in 2012, and the most adjusted games lost in 2010. They’ve still had success in spite of that, going 11-5 in 2012, going 10-6 and winning the Super Bowl in 2010. In 2011, when they had an average amount of injuries (16th), they went 15-1, though they were unfortunately knocked out in their first playoff game.

However, last season, they were unable to be successful in spite of all the injuries they suffered, going 8-7-1, making it to the post-season, but doing so with the worst record among playoff teams. That’s because their stabilizer, quarterback Aaron Rodgers, missed essentially 8 games (he had 2 attempts in their week 9 game against the Bears before breaking his collarbone). The Packers went 6-2 in the 8 regular season games that Rodgers played and then they lost by a mere field goal in their playoff game against the 49ers with Rodgers. That’s opposed to 2-5-1 in the 8 games that Rodgers missed.

In the 8 games that Rodgers played, the Packers moved the chains at a 77.78% rate, which would have been 3rd best in the NFL. In their other 8 games, they moved the chains at a 72.33% rate, which would have been 13th best in the NFL. They needed that explosive offense because their defense allowed opponents to move the chains at a 74.60% rate, 25th in the NFL. If they have an average amount of injuries and keep Rodgers on the field all season, they should be a much improved team on both sides of the ball and once again be one of the best teams in the NFL. They have the talent. I’m confident that they should have fewer injuries this season as injuries tend to even out in the long run.

Obviously Aaron Rodgers is the important one to keep healthy. Even if they have an absurd amount of injuries again, the Packers should be an improved team as long as Rodgers stays healthy all year, though they’ll need the rest of the team to stay healthy around Rodgers as well if they are going to make another Super Bowl run. Over the past 5 seasons, Rodgers has played 71 games (only missing 2 games combined from 2009-2012) and completed 66.5% of his passes for an average of 8.40 YPA, 159 touchdowns, and 38 interceptions, a QB rating of 108.2. He’s also rushed for 1308 yards and 14 touchdowns on 266 carries, an average of 4.92 YPC.

He was Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked quarterback last season despite missing half the season, with no one grading out higher at the position and playing fewer snaps. From 2009-2012, he was a top-5 quarterback on Pro Football Focus in all 4 seasons. Only Drew Brees also did that. As long as he’s on the field (and his injury history is pretty limited), Aaron Rodgers is one of the best quarterbacks in the game, if not the best. If the Packers can stay healthy around him, they have the talent to be a Super Bowl contender. Their Super Bowl odds of 14-1 might be worth a play.

Grade: A

Running Backs

As I mentioned earlier, the Packers’ offense was significantly worse without Aaron Rodgers on the field, moving the chains at a 72.33% rate, close to 6% lower than their rate with Rodgers in the lineup. However, that rate still would have been 13th best in the NFL over the course of a full season. They were still able to move the chains decently well even with the likes of Scott Tolzien, Seneca Wallace, and Matt Flynn, below average backup caliber quarterbacks, on the field. Part of that is their offensive coaching staff, led by head coach Mike McCarthy, but it also has to do with how good their offensive supporting cast is.

A big part of that supporting cast was running back Eddie Lacy. Lacy rushed for 1178 yards and 11 touchdowns on 284 attempts, an average of 4.15 YPC. He also added 35 catches for 257 yards, en route to winning Offensive Rookie of the Year. That YPC doesn’t seem terribly impressive, but he consistently carried the load, got positive yardage, and moved the chains. He had 73 first downs on 319 targets, including 61 first downs on 284 carries. He was 5th among running backs in rushing first downs.

He also graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked running back, grading out above average as both a runner and a pass catcher. On top of that, he played his best football when Aaron Rodgers was out of the lineup, helping to carry this team. He rushed for 666 yards and 7 touchdowns on 151 carries, an average of 4.41 YPC, and added 21 catches for 164 yards in the 8 games Rodgers missed. In their other 8 games, he rushed for 512 yards and 4 touchdowns on 133 carries, an average of 3.85 YPC, and added 14 catches for 103 yards. Going into his 2nd year in the league, Lacy could be even better, after playing most of his rookie year through an ankle injury. A full season of Aaron Rodgers will give him more running room and touchdown opportunities and if he runs like he did when Rodgers was out last year, he’ll give the Packers an incredibly potent balanced offense.

The Packers also got great play from backup running back James Starks last season, as he rushed for 493 yards and 3 touchdowns on 89 carries, an average of 5.54 YPC. The Packers brought him back as a free agent in the same role. He’s dealt with injuries dating back to his collegiate career at the University of Buffalo, which is why the talented runner fell to the 6th round in 2010. He’s averaged 4.43 YPC for his career, but he’s also never played more than 13 games in a season. As long as he’s healthy, he should provide them a solid backup running back, but he’s frequently hurt.

Grade: A-

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

Part of the Packers’ strong offensive supporting cast was their strong receiving corps. Jordy Nelson was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked wide receiver last season. Nelson caught 85 passes on 120 targets (70.8%) for 1314 yards and 8 touchdowns on 645 routes run, an average of 2.04 yards per route run. He was outstanding in the 8 games that Rodgers played last season, catching 49 passes on 67 targets (73.1%) for 810 yards and 8 touchdowns on 327 routes run, an average of 2.48 yards per route run. However, he was still alright when Rodgers was out of the lineup, catching 36 passes on 53 targets (67.9%) for 504 yards and a touchdown on 318 routes run, an average of 1.54 yards per route run. Last year was a career high for him in catches and yards and he should have another strong year this year.

Nelson may see fewer targets this season because Randall Cobb is coming back from injury. The dynamic slot man was limited to 340 snaps last season because of a broken leg. A 2011 2nd round pick, Cobb caught 25 passes on 31 targets (80.6%) for 375 yards and a touchdown on 174 routes run, an average of 2.16 yards per route run. He then had a breakout year in 2012, catching 80 passes on 102 targets (78.4%) for 954 yards and 8 touchdowns on 422 routes run, an average of 2.26 yards per route run. He was Pro Football Focus’ #11 ranked wide receiver that season. He looked on his way to a similar season in 2013, but injuries derailed that, limiting him to 6 games. He caught 31 passes on 40 targets (77.5%) for 433 yards and 4 touchdowns on 209 routes run, an average of 2.07 yards per route run. Going into his contract year this year, without much of an injury history, he should have another year similar to 2012.

Jarrett Boykin stepped up in Cobb’s absence, catching 49 passes on 75 targets (65.3%) for 681 yards on 410 routes run, an average of 1.66 yards per route run. Boykin was a 2012 7th round pick and only played 96 snaps as a rookie. James Jones is gone so Boykin will probably replace him and his production. He had 59 catches on 88 targets (67.0%) for 817 yards on 527 routes run (1.55 yards per route run) and 3 touchdowns last season. Boykin is expected to be the 3rd receiver behind Nelson and Cobb. He’ll get some competition from 2nd round rookie Davante Adams, but most likely Adams won’t see a big role until 2015. Both Cobb and Nelson are free agents this off-season and the Packers seem unlikely to re-sign both, so that’s why they brought in Adams.

Jermichael Finley is another guy who got knocked out with a serious injury, going down with a neck injury after 259 snaps. That injury was career threatening and he’s still available as a free agent because of concern about his spinal fusion surgery. Andrew Quarless led Packer tight ends in snaps played last season with 703. The Packers re-signed Quarless to compete for the starting job. Quarless has graded out below average in 2 of the 3 seasons he’s played since being drafted in the 5th round in 2010. He’s also missed 21 games in 4 seasons. He’ll compete with 3rd round rookie Richard Rodgers, who is reportedly impressing in off-season practice. Most likely, Quarless, the superior blocker, will work as an inline blocking tight end, while Rodgers functions as a pass catching tight end. It’s a strong receiving corps.

Grade: A-

Offensive Line

The issue offensively for the Packers is their offensive line, which is clearly their weakest unit. Things could be worse this season as they lost center Evan Dietrich-Smith to free agency this off-season. Evan Dietrich-Smith took over as the starting center from Jeff Saturday late in the 2012 season and played solid in limited action. He then graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked center in 2013 in his first full season as a starter. Either JC Tretter, a collegiate offensive tackle and a 2013 4th round pick who missed his whole rookie year with injury, or 5th round rookie Corey Lindley will be the starter this season. It’s a position of weakness.

It’s not all losses for the Packers upfront though, as they get Bryan Bulaga back from an injury that cost him the entire season. He’s missed 23 games in the past 2 seasons combined and 27 games over the past 3 seasons combined so he’s still an injury concern. He’ll slot back in at right tackle, where he graded out below average on 587 snaps in 2012. He could continue to struggle as he returns from injury. He was Pro Football Focus’ 71st ranked offensive tackle out of 78 eligible as a rookie in 2010, but he was 7th in 2011, so it’s tough to know what to expect from him, if he can even stay healthy. He should be an upgrade over Don Barclay, who started at right tackle and graded out 57th out of 76 eligible offensive tackles last season.

The Packers got poor play from both tackle spots last season, but unfortunately they were unable to upgrade the blindside this off-season. 2013 4th round pick David Bakhtiari struggled mightily as a rookie, grading out 62nd out of 76 eligible rookies, even worse than Barclay. He could be better in his 2nd year in the league, but there are also reasons why he fell to the mid rounds so there’s obviously no guarantee. He’s one of the worst blindside protectors in the league.

Fortunately, things are much better at guard, where left guard Josh Sitton and right guard TJ Lang graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd and 15th ranked guard respectively in 2014. Sitton has done this kind of thing before and he’s one of the best guards in the NFL. He’s been a top-8 guard in each of the past 5 seasons, something no other guard has done. Lang has been more inconsistent. A 3-year starter with the versatility to play any position other than center if needed (but he’s best at guard), Lang graded out below average in 2012, but ranked 22nd in 2011. Last season was his first full year at right guard and that might just be the best spot for him, so he could easily have another strong year, but his history of inconsistency is worth mentioning. There’s definitely some talent here, but it’s their weakest offensive unit.

Grade: B-

Defensive Line

As I mentioned earlier, the Packers had a lot of issues defensively last year, but a big part of that was that they had key players miss significant time with injury. They should be better this year. The biggest bright spot on their weak defense last season was the emergence of 2nd year player Mike Daniels at 5-technique. The 2012 4th round pick was Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked 3-4 defensive end last season on 517 snaps. The 6-0 294 pounder was primarily an interior pass rusher in sub packages and he should primarily be that again, though he will probably see more snaps. He played 275 snaps in the Packers’ final 8 games. He’s still a one year wonder, grading out below average on 231 snaps as a rookie, but he could easily have another strong year.

Datone Jones was the Packers’ 2013 first round pick. He struggled on 263 snaps as a rookie. If he had been eligible, he would have been Pro Football Focus’ 9th worst ranked 3-4 defensive end, despite his limited playing time. No one graded out lower and played fewer snaps at his position. He’ll have a bigger role in 2014 and the Packers are expecting him to be a lot better in the 2nd year in the league, which he very well could be. He’s very unproven though.

BJ Raji will start at nose tackle. Raji reportedly turned down a 5-year, 40 million dollar extension from the Packers before last season. If that’s true, he has to be kicking himself hard, as he ended up re-signing for 4 million over 1 year. The Packers originally offered Raji that 1-year, 4 million dollar deal before the start of the off-season, but he turned it down in favor of hitting the open market. Clearly, the open market did not prove to be as lucrative as he expected as he was forced to settle for that one-year deal. It was a rough off-season for him.

However, that’s what happens when you have as bad of a season as Raji had last year, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ worst ranked 3-4 defensive end last season. This type of thing is nothing new for him. Sure, he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked 3-4 defensive end in 2012 (with 3 games at nose tackle in which he was about average), but he has a history of inconsistency. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd worst ranked defensive tackle in 2011, but in 2010, he was their 35th ranked defensive tackle before a dominant post-season on the Packers’ Super Bowl run. It’s really tough to know what to expect from him. The 6-1 337 pounder will probably only be a base package player this year. He can rush the passer from time to time, but the Packers have other guys capable of doing so better. The Packers also drafted Khryi Thornton in the 3rd round and the 6-3 304 pounder could contribute in base packages.

One of those better pass rushers is Mike Neal, a 6-3 294 pounder. The Packers will be moving him back to his old role as a situational interior pass rusher after a failed experiment playing him at outside linebacker, which seemed doomed from the start. He was Pro Football Focus’ 3rd worst ranked 3-4 outside linebacker last season. However, he graded out above average as a defensive linemen in 2 out of 3 seasons from 2010-2012, doing so on 266 snaps in 2012 and he should have a situational interior pass rush role this season. The Packers also have Jerel Worthy, a 2012 2nd round pick. Worthy struggled as a rookie, grading out 30th out of 34 eligible on 467 snaps played, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out lower. He then tore his ACL late in the season and was limited to 12 snaps in 2013 by a combination of his ACL and his previous struggles. He could have a role this season, but he might just be a bust.

The Packers big off-season signing was Julius Peppers, who they gave a 3-year, 26 million dollar deal upon the potential future Hall-of-Famer’s release from Chicago. He’s had a great career, but his best days are behind him, so this was an overpay, even if only 8.5 million over 1 season is guaranteed. A once dominant edge rusher, who graded out above average on Pro Football Focus in every season from 2008-2012 and in the top-10 among 4-3 defensive end in every season from 2008-2011, Peppers has graded out 17th and 40th among 4-3 defensive ends over the last 2 seasons respectively. Last season, he actually graded out below average and that 40th place finish came out of just 52 eligible at the position. Peppers will play a versatile role as a 3-4 outside linebacker, a 3-4 defensive end, an a sub package edge rusher and interior rusher, at 6-5 283. He’s also never played in a 3-4, which is another minor concern.

Grade: B

Linebackers

Part of the reason why the Packers brought in Peppers was to provide depth at the edge rusher position. Clay Matthews has missed 9 games over the past 2 seasons, while Nick Perry has missed 15 games over the past 2 seasons. Last year, they missed a combined 10 games, part of the Packers’ consistent, season long injury problems, and Mike Neal led the position in snaps played with 746 snaps, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd worst ranked 3-4 outside linebacker.

At the same time, rookies Andy Mulumba and Nate Palmer had to play 304 snaps and 200 snaps respectively. Both struggled mightily, as is to be expected since they were an undrafted rookie and a 6th round rookie respectively. Mulumba was Pro Football Focus’ 36th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker out of 42 eligible, despite his limited snap count, while Palmer was Pro Football Focus’ 9th worst ranked 3-4 outside linebacker regardless of snap count. Assuming Matthews and Perry can stay healthier this season, and Julius Peppers doesn’t see his abilities completely fall off the cliff, the Packers should get better play from the edge rusher spots.

When Matthews is healthy, he’s one of the better edge rushers in the NFL. The 2009 1st round pick graded out as a top-6 3-4 outside linebacker in every season from 2009-2012, including #1 in 2012. No other 3-4 outside linebacker did the same thing. He struggled last season by his standards, even when on the field, on 571 snaps, playing through injury and grading out just about average. However, if he’s healthy, he could easily have another dominant year this year, only going into his age 28 season. That would be a big boost to this defense.

Nick Perry, meanwhile, is supposedly very talented, going in the first round in 2012, but he hasn’t been able to be healthy enough to show it yet. He’s played a combined 585 snaps in 17 games in 2 seasons in the league and generally graded out about average. If he can stay healthy, he could have a breakout year in his 3rd year in the league, but that’s a big if. His injury history is a big part of the reason why they brought in Peppers. As I mentioned, they should get better play from the edge rusher spots this season.

AJ Hawk and Brad Jones remain as starters at middle linebacker. Jones had issues with injuries last season as well, missing 4 games and playing a total of 594 snaps. Jones struggled, grading out below average when he played. He was much better in 2012, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked middle linebacker, making 10 starts and playing 687 snaps, but he’s still a one year wonder. The 2009 7th round pick played a combined 763 snaps from 2009-2011 and wasn’t particularly impressive, grading out below average in all 3 seasons. In the only good season he’s had in the league, he still only made 10 starts. He could have a bounce back year in a healthier season, but there are no guarantees.

AJ Hawk, meanwhile, is a mainstay, missing a combined 2 games in 8 seasons since being drafted 5th overall in 2006. Hawk has been a bust in that he’s never lived up to where he was drafted, but he keeps staying around. I don’t know he keeps staying around though, as he’s graded out below average in every season but 1 since 2007, including 47th out of 55 eligible last season. He’s always been better in coverage than against the run and he struggled mightily against the run last season, grading out 4th worst at his position in pure run grade. Now going into his age 30 season, he’s not getting any better any time soon. There’s a chance that Jamari Lattimore could push him for snaps at some point this season. Lattimore is inexperienced (310 career snaps) and went undrafted in 2011, but he flashed on 272 snaps last season, grading out slightly above average.

Grade: B-

Secondary

One of the biggest re-additions from injury for the Packers going into 2014 (along with Clay Matthews, Aaron Rodgers, and Randall Cobb) is cornerback Casey Hayward, a 2012 2nd round pick who I argued should have been Defensive Rookie of the Year 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.

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. Hayward played 88 snaps last season thanks to hamstring problems and their secondary suffered as a result. He’ll return to the slot this season and could turn into a starter if needed.

He could be needed to become a starter, especially if he continues to play well. The Packers re-signed Sam Shields to a 4-year, 39 million dollar deal this off-season, but that was a massive overpay. He was Pro Football Focus’ 51st ranked cornerback this past season (though he was 35th in pure coverage grade). Shields has definitely flashed in the past, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 15th ranked cornerback in 2012 and dominating down the stretch as an undrafted rookie in 2010 on the Packers’ Super Bowl run. However, he also graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 92nd ranked cornerback in 2011 and then there was last year. He’s also never played a full 16 game season, missing 11 games in 4 seasons, including 6 games missed in his dominant 2012 season. That’s a very inconsistent history.

Tramon Williams had a better season last season than Shields, grading out as Pro Football Focus 39th ranked cornerback, above average, but he’s going into his age 31 season. He’s shown decline over the past few seasons, since grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked cornerback in 2009, 8th ranked cornerback in 2010 and 8th ranked cornerback in coverage grade in 2011 (25th overall). He was Pro Football Focus’ 61st ranked cornerback in 2012 (though he was 29th in coverage grade) and then 39th last season. He might have another season as an above average starter in him, but it’s possible that Hayward is just their best cornerback.

The Packers used their first round pick in this past draft on HaHa Clinton-Dix and he should give them an upgrade at one safety spot over the combination of Jerron McMillian and MD Jennings that manned that position last season. The former was their week 1 starter, but was so bad that he ended up getting benched and then cut, despite a very minimal salary. He played 196 snaps, but he would have graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 10th worst safety last season despite his very limited playing time, if he was eligible. No one played fewer snaps and graded out worse. The latter, Jennings, took over as the starter from there on out, playing 809 snaps, but he wasn’t much better, grading out 70th at his position out of 86 eligible. Clinton-Dix should be at least a decent starter as a rookie.

Morgan Burnett returns as the other starting safety and he too struggled last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 63rd ranked safety out of 86 eligible. He could bounce back though, based on his history as a starter. The 2010 3rd round pick graded out above average in his first 2 seasons as a starter in 2011 and 2012, ranking 15th in 2012 and 31st in 2011. His potential bounce back season is another reason why the Packers should be an improved defensive team this year.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

Simply having Aaron Rodgers healthy this season should make the Packers one of the better teams in the NFL again this season. Rodgers went 46-16 as a starter from 2009-2012, missing a combined 2 games (one was because the Packers had already clinched the #1 seed in the NFC) and then he was 6-2 last season in games in which he started and finished. He’s so talented and has such a strong offensive supporting cast that the Packers can push to be the best offensive team in the league if Rodgers is healthy all year, which he should be.

However, if they can have at least average health around Rodgers, that could take them to the next level. Losing guys like Randall Cobb, Clay Matthews, and Casey Hayward to significant injuries last season around Rodgers also really hurt them. On paper, this is one of the more talented teams in the NFL, provided they can stay healthy. The Broncos showed last season that even an average defense, when paired with a dominant offense, can make for a dominant football team. I’ll have an official prediction for them after I finish every team’s preview.

Prediction: 12-4 2nd in NFC North

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