In case there was any doubt, Aaron Rodgers is the best quarterback in football, something he proved last season. With Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, and Drew Brees aging and Andrew Luck not quite there yet, Rodgers could keep that title for a couple years, at least. In 2014, Rodgers completed 65.6% of his passes for an average of 8.43 YPA, 38 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions, quarterbacked a team that moved the chains at a 79.38% rate, best in the NFL, graded out #1 among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus, won the NFL’s MVP, and came close to knocking off the Seahawks in Seattle in the NFC Championship game and going to the Super Bowl.
It was about as good of a return from injury as the Packers could have expected from Rodgers after he missed 7 games and most of an 8th game with a broken collarbone in 2013. The Packers went 2-6 without Rodgers in 2013 and they are 18-6 with him over the past 2 seasons combined. Even in 2013, when injuries limited him to 592 snaps, he still graded out 8th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out better at the position. Since 2009, Rodgers has graded out 4th, 5th, 2nd, 3rd, 8th, and 1st respectively among quarterbacks, with his only season out of the top-5 coming in an injury shortened season.
Over that time period, Rodgers has only missed 9 games with injury, so he’s usually durable. He’s completed 66.3% of his passes, for an average of 8.41 YPA, 197 touchdowns, and 43 interceptions since 2009, winning 64 of 86 games (74.4%). He’s also added 1577 yards and 16 touchdowns on 309 carries on the ground (5.10 YPC), as he simply doesn’t have a weakness in his game. He’s going into his age 32 season in 2015, but that’s nothing for a top level quarterback. Plenty have had great success at that age and beyond. He could easily be the best quarterback in the NFL again, led the NFL’s top offense again, and pick up his 3rd MVP. He’s one of the best players in the NFL regardless of position.
As well as Rodgers played last season, he only wasn’t the only reason for the Packers’ offensive success. The Packers have done a great job of surrounding Rodgers with good offensive talent. An offense that used to be so reliant on their quarterback and receivers has gotten significantly “tougher,” to use a cliché, over the past few seasons, meaning that now they have a strong running game and offensive line. The Packers return 11 of 11 starters from 2014 and look poised for strong offensive play once again. Their only real obstacle to being the #1 offense again is injuries, as the Packers really had none offensively last season, having the 3rd fewest offensive adjusted games lost to injury. Of course, top offenses like Dallas (4th), Denver (5th), and Pittsburgh (3rd) also had no offensive injuries last season, so the Packers aren’t alone. Ironically, only the Saints (2nd) had a strong offensive performance despite some offensive injuries.
Eddie Lacy has proven to be a great complement for Aaron Rodgers in the backfield. In 2 years in the NFL since the Packers drafted him in the 2nd round in 2013, Lacy has missed just 1 game with injury and rushed for 2317 yards and 20 touchdowns on 530 carries (4.37 YPC), while adding 77 catches for 684 yards and another 4 scores through the air. Certainly, Rodgers’ presence helps Lacy, but Lacy also helps Rodgers and is a fantastic running back in his own right. He graded out 5th among running backs on Pro Football Focus as a rookie in 2013, winning Offensive Rookie of the Year, and then finished 3rd in 2014. He joins Marshawn Lynch as the only running back in the NFL to grade out in the top-5 in each of the last 2 seasons. Only going into his age 25 season at a position where youth is such an asset, Lacy is one of the best running backs in the game.
James Starks will be his primary backup. A 2010 6th round pick, Starks flashed some starting running back potential early in his career, but injuries eventually did him in, as he missed 26 games with injury in his first 3 years in the NFL from 2010-2012, which led to the Packers’ selection of Eddie Lacy in the 2013 NFL Draft. Starks has injury problems dating back to his collegiate days, which is why he fell to the 6th round, but he’s played in 29 of 32 games over the past 2 seasons as Lacy’s backup, including all 16 for the first time in his career last season. His career numbers aren’t bad, as he’s rushed for 1760 yards and 7 touchdowns on 407 carries (4.32 YPC), while adding 63 catches for 491 yards and another score through the air. He’s graded out above average on Pro Football Focus in 3 of 5 seasons in the NFL and is a solid backup. Obviously, any injury to Lacy would be a huge loss for this team, but Starks isn’t a bad 2nd option.
As I mentioned, the Packers have a strong offensive line too. They ranked 1st in team pass blocking grade on Pro Football Focus last season and 17th in team run blocking grade. Their only real weakness is left tackle David Bakhtiari, who has made all 32 starts over the past 2 seasons since the Packers took him in the 4th round in 2013, but has largely played like a 4th round pick, grading out 62nd among 76 eligible offensive tackles as a rookie and then 53rd out of 84 eligible last season. He’ll start again in 2015, largely out of necessity, but the Packers are good enough across the rest of the line to make up for it.
They might have the best guard combination in the NFL in Josh Sitton and TJ Lang. Sitton is the better of the two and arguably one of the best guards in the NFL. The 2008 4th round pick has made 94 of 96 starts since 2009 and graded out 8th, 5th, 2nd, 6th, 2nd, and 4th respectively in the 6 seasons since then. No other guard has graded out in the top-8 in each of the last 6 seasons, or even come close to that. He’s graded out above average in every season he’s been in the league and, only going into his age 29 with minimal injury history, he’s still in the prime of his career. He should be dominant again in 2015.
Lang isn’t quite as proven, but he’s had a very impressive career as well, and the 2009 4th round pick is only going into his age 28 season, so he too is still in the prime of his career. He’s made 63 of 64 starts over the past 4 seasons, including 6 at right tackle. He’s struggled at right tackle, but he’s graded out above average at guard in all 4 seasons that he’s been the primary starter from 2011-2014, including 22nd in 2011, 15th in 2013, and 3rd last season. He and Sitton are a great combination, and one that is incredibly durable.
The Packers got a great center to go in between Lang and Sitton last off-season, drafting Corey Linsley in the 2014 draft. You wouldn’t expect a 5th rounder like Linsley to have the kind of rookie year that he did last year, but he exceeded all expectations, making 16 starts, grading out 5th among centers, and having one of the year’s best rookie seasons by an offensive player, regardless of position. He’s still a one-year wonder and I don’t think he’s at the point where the fact that the whole league let him drop to the 5th round is irrelevant, but he definitely looks like a steal and could easily be a long-term, above average starter.
Rounding out at the offensive line at right tackle is Bryan Bulaga, who the Packers re-signed to a 5-year, 33.75 million dollar deal ahead of free agency this off-season. Bulaga has been a starter for the Packers since they drafted him in the 1st round in 2010, making his debut as a starter in week 5 of 2010. However, despite that, he’s only made 48 starts in 5 seasons, as he’s missed 30 games with injuries over that time period, including all of 2013 with a torn ACL. When on the field, he’s been up and down. He struggled mightily as a rookie, grading out 71st out of 78 eligible in 2010, but he ranked 7th among offensive tackles on 12 starts in 2011. In 2012, he graded out below average in 9 starts before missing all of 2013, but he returned in 2014 to make 15 starts and grade out 16th among offensive tackles. He’s a risky player and the deal they gave him to stay was a risky deal as a result, but it’s good that the Packers kept him for continuity reasons, even if it’s very tough to count on him being as healthy or as good as he was last season. It’s an overall strong offensive line again though.
Along with Bryan Bulaga, the Packers also re-signed Randall Cobb ahead of free agency this off-season, settling on a 4-year, 40 million dollar deal with the wide receiver, after a long negotiation period that seemed like it would end with Cobb taking more money elsewhere. The Packers upped their offer from 9 million annually to 10 million annually at the last second and Cobb took less money to stay in Green Bay, passing on a 5-year, 55 million dollar deal from the Oakland Raiders. It’s the kind of compromise where both sides win.
In Oakland, Cobb would have likely struggled to put up numbers on a losing team and could have easily been cut midway through his contract for not putting up numbers comparable to his large salary. In Green Bay, he’s much more likely to be kept for the duration of the contract and he’ll hit free agency again in 4 years going into his age 29 season with a chance at another big payday. Even though he took less money to return to Green Bay, this deal likely maximizes his career earnings potential. Because of that and the obvious increased chance of getting a ring in Green Bay, Cobb was the real winner, but the Packers have to be pretty happy with the deal too.
The Packers didn’t get Cobb quite as cheaply as they would have liked, but they still got a discount over what he would have gotten on the open market and a solid value. While it’s not hard to get good production out of receivers when you have Aaron Rodgers under center, Cobb is still a very valuable part of this offense. Cobb didn’t see a ton of playing time as a 2nd round rookie in 2011 and he missed 10 games with a broken leg in 2013. However, in his other two seasons, he put up 80/954/8 (in 2012) and then 91/1287/12 (in 2014). Cobb was Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked wide receiver in 2012 and then 9th in 2014. Other than the leg injury, he doesn’t have much of an injury history and he’s only going into his age 25 season so he could keep getting better.
Cobb will once again be a starter at wide receiver opposite Jordy Nelson. Much like Sitton and Lang at guard, Nelson and Cobb are among the best wide receiver duos in the NFL. Obviously, having Rodgers under center is great for both of them, but in their own right they’re both great wide receivers and both a big part of the reason why this offense works so well. Nelson, a 2008 2nd round pick, has graded out above average in 4 straight seasons, including 2nd in 2013 and then 2nd again in 2014, and is only going into his age 30 season in 2015.
Davante Adams worked as the 3rd receiver in 2014 as a 2nd round rookie. He was drafted with Cobb’s impending free agency in mind, but now gets stuck behind Cobb and Nelson indefinitely with Cobb returning long-term. It’s a tough situation for Adams, but it’s for the best for the Packers. Adams struggled as a rookie in 2014, grading out 99th out of 110 eligible wide receivers. It’s not uncommon for a rookie wideout to struggle and that rough rookie year doesn’t doom his career, but he’s far from someone you can trust with a significant role. Bringing Cobb back was well worth it.
Adams will work solely in sub packages outside, moving Cobb to the slot in 3-wide sets. While he’ll be blocked for serious playing time barring injury, he still gets to catch passes for Aaron Rodgers with great help around him, so if he ever figures his game out, he can put up pretty decent numbers, like guys like James Jones did before him. This offense is a well-oiled machine in all facets and you can put up decent numbers even if you’re just along for the ride.
I mentioned earlier that 11 of 11 starters return for the Packers from their #1 offense in 2014. That might not end up being completely the case if they decide to cut tight end Andrew Quarless (11 starts in 2014), after he was arrested in an incident where he allegedly fired a firearm in public while involved in a fight. That happened just a few days ago so it’s unclear what the Packers response will be, but it could be to cut him, and, even if they don’t cut him, he could be suspended.
It wouldn’t be a huge loss. The 2010 5th round pick has graded out just once in 5 seasons in the NFL and he only played 60.2% of the Packers’ offensive snaps last season, despite playing in all 16 games. The 323 receiving yards he had last season were a career high. It’s possible the Packers were planning on moving him into more of a situational role this year anyway, in favor of having 2014 3rd round pick Richard Rodgers becoming the new starting tight end. He struggled mightily on 491 snaps as a rookie, but it could be worth seeing what he has, especially if Quarless’ off-the-field situation looks bad. Rodgers could be better in his 2nd year in the league, but he has a long way to go if he’s going to turn the tight end position into a strength. 6th round pick Kennard Backman could be the #2 tight end if Quarless gets cut. The Packers’ lack of a good tertiary receiving option/tight end is the only weakness on an offense that could once again be the best in the NFL, barring major injuries.
While things were great on offense for the Packers last season, that was not the case at all on defense, where they allowed opponents to move the chains at a 74.75% rate, 27th in the NFL. That’s why they “only” finished in 6th in rate of moving the chains differential despite an outstanding offense. Returning essentially the same offense for this season, the Packers could be the Super Bowl Champion in 2015 if their defense is better. That is going to be easier said than done though.
One of the things the Packers are banking on improving their defense is the return of BJ Raji from injury, after he missed all of last season with a torn biceps. However, Raji is overrated and not the nearly consistently dominant player people think he is. At best, he’s inconsistent. At worst, he’s a liability. He graded out 7th among 3-4 defensive ends in 2012, but graded out dead last at his position in 2013 and then missed all of last season. The 2009 1st round pick has graded out above average just once in 6 seasons in the NFL and his stock isn’t looking up, going into his age 29 season already and coming off of a significant injury. Besides, it’s not like the Packers had a ridiculous amount of defensive injuries last season or anything. They had more on defense than they had on offense, but they still had the 11th fewest adjusted games lost on defense so they won’t be able to count on better health to make them a better defense.
Letroy Guion started in Raji’s absence last season and he was arguably better. That doesn’t mean he was good, but he was still probably better than Raji would have. Guion has graded out below average in 6 of 7 seasons in the league since he was drafted in the 5th round in 2008, including 4 straight seasons, a 2012 season in which he ranked 85th out of 85 eligible defensive tackles and a 2013 season in which he ranked 60th out of 69 eligible. He wasn’t good last season and he could be even worse this season. With Raji likely taking back the nose tackle job from the undersized 6-4 303 Guion, I expect him to see the majority of his playing time as a rotational player at 3-4 defensive end. I don’t expect him to be an asset.
The Packers are hoping that 2013 1st round pick Datone Jones can nail down one of the starting jobs at defensive end. His career hasn’t been off to a good start. Despite plenty of opportunity, he’s played just 586 snaps in the first 2 seasons of his career combined. He graded out below average in 2013 as a rookie, struggling mightily in limited action, and, while he graded out above average in 2014, he still struggled against the run. The 6-4 285 pounder is a solid situational pass rusher, but he might just not have the size to hold up every down on the defensive line in a 3-4. He’s also suspended for the first game of the season because of marijuana. Josh Boyd is also in the mix for rotational snaps on the defensive line. The 2013 5th round pick has played just 495 snaps in the first 2 seasons of his career combined and hasn’t shown much potential, grading out below average in both seasons. The 6-3 310 pounder was used primarily in base packages against the run last season, but he isn’t very good against the run, or as a pass rusher for that matter.
The only redeeming part of this defensive line is Mike Daniels. Daniels was drafted in the 4th round in 2012 and, after 231 underwhelming snaps as a rookie, Daniels has blossomed into a strong interior defensive lineman, with upside only going into his age 26 season. Daniels graded out 6th among 3-4 defensive ends in 2013 and followed that up by grading out 8th at the positon in 2014. The 6-0 294 pounder is a better pass rusher than run stopper, but is far from a liability in either area. Going into the final year of his rookie deal in 2015, Daniels would stand to make a lot of money next off-season if he can continue his strong play. He’s the only bright spot on a weak defensive line and one of the few bright spots on this weak defense.
One of the other ways the Packers expect to be better this season is with better play at middle linebacker, a position that was a huge weakness for them last season. AJ Hawk, Sam Barrington, Jamari Lattimore, and Brad Jones all graded out below average last year and Hawk and Jones both graded out among the 10 worst middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus. That, combined with their horrible defensive line, was the source of their issues against the run and a big part of the reason why this defense was so bad last season.
Things got so bad last season that they had to move Clay Matthews inside to middle linebacker in base packages and it seems like they’re planning on doing that even more this season, in an effort to turn around their defense. Hawk, Jones, and Lattimore are gone, but Sam Barrington remains and the likes of Carl Bradford and Jake Ryan don’t exactly seem like starting caliber going into 2015. The former is a 2014 4th round pick who didn’t play a snap as a rookie, while the latter was drafted in the 4th round in this past draft. Barrington, meanwhile, has played 367 nondescript snaps in 2 seasons in the league since the Packers took him in the 7th round in 2013. At least one of that trio, if not two, will have a significant role at middle linebacker for the Packers this season. That’s a problem.
Despite the Packers’ lack of talent at middle linebacker, I still don’t think moving Matthews inside to play regular snaps is the right move. Even though it’s only in base packages, it still reduces his chances at rushing the passer, which is really where he’s best. He’s solid in coverage, but he’s better moving forward than backward. He also struggled against the run last season, largely due to the significant amount of time he spent out of position. On top of that, Matthews himself reportedly doesn’t like playing middle linebacker because he has such great pass rush ability and sacks get contracts. This move doesn’t make sense all around.
Matthews graded out 18th among 3-4 outside linebackers overall last season, doing his best work as a pass rusher, ranking 16th at the position in that aspect. That’s pretty good, but he’s been much better in the past when he’s played a more traditional role. Prior to an injury plagued 2013 season, Matthews graded 6th, 6th, 5th, and 1st respectively among 3-4 outside linebackers from his rookie year in 2009 to 2012 and was one of the best defensive players in the game, primarily rushing the passer off the edge. The Packers shouldn’t mess with that.
One of the probable reasons why the Packers seem to want to experiment with Matthews inside is because they think their depth at outside linebacker is better than their depth at inside linebacker. That’s true, but it’s largely by default. Mike Neal was their 3rd outside linebacker last season, seeing a lot of playing time with Matthews sometimes playing inside in base packages and Julius Peppers sometimes playing defensive tackle in sub packages. He was horrible though, grading out dead last among 3-4 outside linebackers in 2014, after grading out 40th out of 42 eligible in 2013.
The 2010 2nd round pick was better earlier in his career at 3-4 defensive end, but the Packers moved him to 3-4 outside linebacker two off-seasons ago and insist on keeping him there despite his struggles. The 6-3 294 pounder is not a natural fit for the position at all. He’s expectedly decent against the run, but doesn’t generate any pass rush. Maybe Nick Perry, their 2012 1st round pick, can beat him out for the #3 job, but that would require him to stay healthy, as he’s missed 16 games in 3 seasons in the league. Even when on the field, he hasn’t been good. He has graded out below average in 2 of 3 seasons in the league, maxed out at 376 snaps in 2013, and averaged just 24.5 snaps played per game (32.9% of snaps) in 2014 as the clear 4th outside linebacker. The Packers have essentially admitted he’s a bust by declining his 5th year option for 2016, despite the fact that it’s guaranteed for injury only. Neither he nor Neal is good to have playing a regular role off the edge.
Julius Peppers is the other primary outside linebacker besides Matthews. Other than Matthews and Daniels, he’s one of just a few redeeming parts of this weak front 7. He primarily plays 3-4 outside linebacker and rushes the passer off the edge, but has the size at 6-5 283 to rush the passer from the interior in sub packages, which he did occasionally in 2014. Peppers’ career looked like it was coming to a close at this time last year, after he got cut by the Bears following a 2013 season in which he graded out 40th out of 52 eligible among 4-3 defensive ends.
While Green Bay picked him up and gave him a good amount of money, his future still looked bleak going into his age 34 season. Peppers proved a lot of people wrong by grading out 7th among 3-4 outside linebackers in his first year at the position in 2014, after spending the rest of his career at 4-3 defensive end. However, he’s unlikely to repeat that in his age 35 season in 2015 and could see his abilities fall off a cliff. Even though he’s only graded out below average once in Pro Football Focus’ 8 year history and even though he’s likely Hall of Fame bound with 125.5 career sacks (16th most all-time), he’s hard to trust this season. Peppers and Matthews make a good 3-4 outside linebacker duo, but the former is getting pretty old and the latter is having his position fiddled with. They certainly aren’t enough alone to boost this mediocre linebacking corps or this mediocre front 7.
Given how bad the Packers’ middle linebackers were last season, I actually had them taking middle linebackers with their first 2 picks in the draft in my final mock draft. Taking two guys at the same position with your first two picks in a draft is rare, but the Packers had a serious need there, few pressing needs elsewhere, and the value made sense both times. The Packers didn’t draft a middle linebacker with either of those two picks, but they did double up on a position, taking a pair of cornerbacks in Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins. As a result, they didn’t address the middle linebacker position until the 4th round, as they added a return man/depth receiver in Ty Montgomery in the 3rd round.
The secondary wasn’t nearly as big of a need as middle linebacker, but the two picks do make sense, after the Packers lost Tramon Williams (1032 snaps) and Davon House (411 snaps) to free agency. Williams was good, but aging, going into his age 32 season and House was unproven. However, those two losses did leave them thin at the position. Prior to the draft, Sam Shields, Casey Hayward, and Micah Hyde were their top-3 cornerbacks, which is fine, but not ideal and they had no proven depth whatsoever.
Even with the 2 rookies coming in, Sam Shields remains locked into one starting cornerback spot, overpaid on a 4-year, 39 million dollar deal the Packers gave him last off-season. He graded out below average in the first season of that deal and missed 2 games with injury. That shouldn’t be surprising though, as the 2010 undrafted free agent has never played a full 16 game season and has only once graded out higher than 30th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in his career. He’s certainly not a bad player and he’s a deserving starter, but he does get paid like something more than that.
Casey Hayward should be the starter opposite him. The 2012 2nd round pick graded out 4th among cornerbacks on 703 snaps as a rookie and some (including me) thought he should have been Defensive Rookie of the Year. However, he missed 13 games with injury in 2013 and fell down the depth chart, playing just 435 snaps in 2014, as the 4th cornerback. He still graded out 9th among cornerbacks on those 435 snaps though, making it 2 times in 3 years that no one has played fewer snaps and graded out better at the position than Heyward. Even in the season he largely missed with injury, he graded out above average. An every down starting job is long overdue and it looks like he’ll get his chance in 2015, which could lead to a big-time breakout year and an expensive contract next off-season.
Micah Hyde could be the 3rd cornerback, but he’ll have to hold off the rookie Randall. Randall, their first round pick, played both slot cornerback and safety in college at the University of Arizona, but it looks like he will focus on the slot cornerback job in the NFL. The Packers also reportedly think he has outside cornerback abilities, at least long-term, but he’d probably need Heyward to leave as a free agent to free up that kind of role.
Hyde, meanwhile, did play 720 snaps as the 3rd cornerback last season, but he graded out below average. He flashed on 428 snaps as a 5th round rookie in 2013, but couldn’t translate that to more playing time. They didn’t need to upgrade him with Randall, but they probably did and Randall could take Hyde’s job away as soon as week 1. Rollins, on the other hand, will need to wait until someone like Heyward leaves as a free agent to get a significant role and won’t do much outside provide great depth as the 5th cornerback as a rookie.
Randall is a collegiate safety and Rollins is a physical cornerback, one who plays bigger than his 5-11 195 frame, but neither of them will be able to find a path to regular playing time at the safety position anytime soon, as Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Morgan Burnett seem pretty entrenched there, entering their 2nd season together. Clinton-Dix did grade out below average as a 1st round rookie in 2014, but not by much and could easily be noticeably better in his 2nd year in the league. He has good upside and doesn’t seem like he’s going anywhere soon.
Burnett, meanwhile, is not the best safety in the league by any stretch of the any imagination, but he’s made 60 of 64 starts over the past 4 seasons and graded out above average in 3 of those 4 seasons, including 16th in 2014. Also important is the fact that Burnett is only going into his age 26 season and signed fairly cheaply long-term, owed just 13.25 million dollars over the next 3 seasons combined. He also isn’t going anywhere anytime quickly. They’re not the best safety duo in the league, but they’re a solid group that could be playing together for a while, at least in football years. It’s a solid and deep secondary, but not one that will be able to mask the flaws of the front 7 completely.
The Packers had the best offense in the NFL last season and return all 11 starters on a unit that doesn’t have a single player over 30 besides the quarterback Aaron Rodgers (who will be 32 later this year). They’ll probably have more injuries on offense this season, but, barring anything catastrophic, they have so much talent that they could still overcome a normal amount of injuries and be the best offensive team in the NFL again in 2015. If they can even be average defensively, this is probably the favorite to win the Super Bowl.
However, things are not nearly as good on defense as they are on offense. They had one of the worst defenses in the NFL last season and didn’t do much to fix it this off-season, aside from adding 2 cornerbacks in the first 2 rounds of the draft, neither of whom fill a big need and the latter of whom probably won’t see much, if any, defensive action as a rookie. They still have major needs on the defensive line and at middle linebacker and figure to struggle mightily against the run again this season, allowing opponents to mount long scoring drives once again.
They could even be worse this season with Tramon Williams gone, Julius Peppers going into his age 35 season, and Clay Matthews getting unnecessarily moved all around the formation. This is still the favorite in the NFC North and on a short list of Super Bowl contenders, but they do have a major weakness, one that will likely do them in sooner or later. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Packers after I’ve done all team’s previews.
Prediction: 12-4 1st in NFC North