Green Bay Packers 2016 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

Aaron Rodgers was on top of the quarterback world following the 2014 season, as Rodgers completed 65.6% of his passes for an average of 8.43 YPA, 38 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions, en route to his 2nd career MVP award. Rodgers finished the season #1 among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus and the Packers boasted the league’s best offense, finishing #1 in rate of moving the chains. 2015 was a different story, however. Rodgers completed just 60.7% of his passes for an average of 6.68 YPA (both career lows), 31 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions and the Packers finished just 16th in rate of moving the chains.

What happened? Well, part of that is Rodgers himself, as he fell from #1 to #12 among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus, the lowest he’s been since 2008. Part of it was his supporting cast, which was close to perfect in 2014. The Packers didn’t have any big off-season losses on offense between 2014 and 2015, but they had the 3rd fewest offensive adjusted games lost to injury in 2014, which did not continue in 2015, as they finished 15th. Rodgers didn’t miss a game, but there were rumors that he was playing hurt, which would seem to be substantiated by the fact that Rodgers had knee surgery in January after the season ended. He’s going into his age 33 season, but he’s a good bet to bounce back and a be a top-5 quarterback again in 2015.

Grade: A-

Receiving Corps

Easily the Packers’ biggest offensive injury last season happened before the season even began, when #1 wide receiver Jordy Nelson tore his ACL in the pre-season and missed the entire season. Nelson combined for 183 catches for 2833 yards and 21 touchdowns between 2013 and 2014, finishing #2 among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus in both seasons. He was missed immensely and his return is the equivalent of signing a high level free agent. He may have lost a step, going into his age 31 season and coming off of a serious injury, but 90% of Jordy Nelson is still a top-10 wide receiver in the NFL.

In Nelson’s absence, 2014 2nd round pick Davante Adams was horrible, forcing the Packers to start veteran James Jones for most of the season; Jones is an ex-Packer who was brought in after being a final cut of the Giants. He didn’t have a bad year, but his best ability at this point in his career is his chemistry with Aaron Rodgers. The Packers decided against bringing him back as a free agent, ahead of his age 32 season in 2016, and he was eventually signed by the Chargers, where he is no lock to make the final roster.

Randall Cobb led Packer receivers in snaps played last season, but he too had a down year in 2015, grading out just about average. He’s been better in the past, finishing 11th among wide receivers in 2012 and 9th in 2014 (with a season lost to a broken leg in between) and a shoulder injury is likely to blame for his relative struggles in 2015. Like Rodgers, he has a good chance to have a bounce back year this year. His star isn’t shining quite as bright now as it was last off-season, when he signed a 4-year, 40 million dollar deal, but he’s still one of the best #2 receivers in the league and forms a fearsome duo with Jordy Nelson when both are healthy.

The #3 receiver role is still up for grabs. The Packers were expecting Davante Adams to be that guy by now, but he’s been so bad through 2 years in the league that he might not even make the final roster. He finished the 2014 season 99th among 110 eligible wide receivers on 738 snaps and then ended last year 109th out of 121 eligible on 763 snaps. The Packers used a 5th round pick on Trevor Davis out of the University of California and still have last year’s 3rd round pick Ty Montgomery (a running back/wide receiver/returner combo) and they could definitely keep Adams off the final roster, but neither are real candidates for the #3 job; Davis is too raw and Montgomery is not a traditional wide receiver.

Instead, it’ll be between Jared Abbrederis and Jeff Janis competing with Adams for the #3 receiver job. Janis was a 7th rounder in 2014 and flashed on 176 snaps last season, including a 7/145/2 performance on 35 pass snaps in their playoff loss to the Cardinals. Abbrederis was a 5th round pick in 2014, but Janis is probably the favorite, as both are inexperienced and Janis has outplayed Abbrederis is limited action through 2 years. Adams, the highest drafted receiver from that Packers’ 2014 draft, is probably the worst of the three players right now, but he still has a chance to turn that around.

One thing the Packers have never really had in the Aaron Rodgers era is a good pass catching tight end. They still don’t have one, but they do have a pair of solid pass catchers, after signing Jared Cook as a free agent. Cook is coming off the worst year of his career, leading to his release by the Rams, but was a solid tight end in the first 6 seasons of his career, prior to 2015, including a 2014 season in which he was Pro Football Focus 16th ranked tight end. Still only going into his age 29 season, he was a solid buy low signing on a 1-year deal by the Packers this off-season.

Cook will compete with incumbent starter Richard Rodgers for playing time, though it’s possible both see a similar amount of snaps. Rodgers was the better of the two players last season, finishing 17th among tight ends on Pro Football Focus, after struggling mightily on 491 snaps as a 3rd round rookie in 2014. The one issue with Cook and Rodgers is they are similar players and neither one of them is much of a run blocker. With Cook coming in, Nelson coming back, and Cobb likely bouncing back, it’s an improved receiving corps overall on a passing offense that should be improved overall.

Grade: A-

Running Backs

Along with Aaron Rodgers and Randall Cobb, another player who had a disappointing season in 2015 is running back Eddie Lacy. After finishing in the top-5 among running backs on Pro Football Focus in the first two years of his career in 2013 and 2014, totalling 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, Lacy rushed for just 758 yards and 3 touchdowns on 187 carries (4.05 YPC), added just 20 catches for 188 yards and another 2 touchdowns through the air, and fell to 20th among running backs on Pro Football Focus in 2015.

That’s not horrible and the fact that that’s considered a down year for him is just a reminder of how good he is when he’s right, but he was very frustrating for the Packers coaching staff because he had really good games (4 games averaging 5.0+ yards per carry) and really bad games (7 games averaging 3.0 or fewer yards per carry). With Lacy struggling, backup James Starks had almost as many touches as Lacy, but wasn’t any more effective, rushing for 601 yards and 2 touchdowns on 148 carries (4.06 YPC) and adding 43 catches for 392 yards and 3 touchdowns through the air. Starks is one of the league’s better backup running backs, but the Packers obviously would prefer Eddie Lacy return to form. He dealt with a combination of weight and injury issues (likely related) in 2015, but is reportedly in much better shape, after spending all off-season working out. If the Packers can be closer to 2014 than 2015 on offense, that should add a couple wins to this team’s total and put them right at the top among the league’s best teams.

Grade: A-

Offensive Line

While the Packers’ offense should be better with Rodgers, Lacy, Nelson, and Cobb all returning close to 2014 form, the Packers suffered a significant loss this off-season when they shockingly made starting left guard Josh Sitton a final cut. Sitton was going into his age 30 season, but was a top-8 guard on Pro Football Focus in 7 straight seasons, only missed 2 games with injury over that time period, and was owed just 6.85 million in 2016. It’s a huge loss for this team and a move I simply don’t understand.

The Packers used a second round pick on Indiana offensive tackle Jason Spriggs and could start him at right tackle as a rookie, moving projected starting right tackle Bryan Bulaga inside to left guard, even though he’s never played there in the NFL. Bulaga has also always had injury issues, missing 32 games with injury in 6 years in the league (including 4 last season) and not playing in all 16 games since his rookie year. He’s a solid right tackle when healthy though, grading out above average in 3 of his last 4 seasons (excluding a 2013 season where he didn’t play a snap because of a torn ACL). He maxed out as Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked offensive tackle in 2011 and finished 34th among offensive tackles last season. It’s almost a guarantee he’ll miss a couple games with injury again though and it remains to be seen how he plays at guard.

In addition to losing Sitton, the Packers will also be without center Corey Linsley for the first 6 games of the season at least, thanks to a hamstring injury. Linsley is a great player when healthy, making 29 starts at center in 2 years in the league and finishing 5th and 10th at the position in 2014 and 2015 respectively, greatly exceeding his draft slot in the 5th round. He’ll be missed, but the Packers have enough talent returning at least close to form around him to make up for it, even without Sitton. He should also be back at some point this season and the Packers have a solid replacement in JC Tretter, a 2013 4th round pick who flashed on 373 snaps in his first career action at center. The collegiate offensive tackle is still unproven, but should be an adequate replacement to start the season.

Left tackle David Bakhtiari and right tackle round out this offensive line. A 4th rounder in 2013, Bakhtiari struggled in the first 2 seasons of his career, grading out 62nd among 76 eligible offensive tackles in 2013 and then 53rd out of 84 eligible in 2014, but leaped all the way to 26th in a breakout 3rd year in the league in 2015. He should be a solid left tackle for the Packers again this season, though it’s worth noting he’s a one-year wonder. Lang, meanwhile, has graded out above average in all 5 of those seasons, including 15th, 3rd, and 5th place finishes among guards on Pro Football Focus in the past 3 seasons respectively. It’s still a strong offensive line, but losing Sitton hurts, as does Linsley’s injury.

Grade: B+

Defensive Line

While essentially everyone returns on offense, the Packers did have a few losses on defense this off-season, including defensive lineman BJ Raji. Raji, a 2009 1st round pick, looked like a promising young defensive end following the 2012 season, in which he finished 7th among 3-4 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus. In fact, the Packers offered him a 5-year, 40 million dollar extension that he turned down ahead of the final year of his rookie deal. That would prove to be a mistake though.

Raji’s play severely declined in 2013, as he finished dead last among defensive tackles, which forced him to take a cheap one-year deal back in Green Bay. Raji then missed the entire 2014 season with a torn biceps, forcing him to take another 1-year deal with the Packers. Raji seemed healthy in 2015, playing in 15 games and, though he graded out below average, he wasn’t horrible either. He played 444 snaps in the regular season, 2nd most on the Packers’ defensive line, playing both nose tackle and defensive end. However, Raji decided to retire this off-season, ahead of his age 30 season.

The Packers replaced him with another 1st round defensive lineman, taking Kenny Clark out of UCLA. The 6-3 314 pound Clark isn’t as big as Raji, but he too can play both defensive end and nose tackle. The same is true of veteran Letroy Guion, who played alright on 330 snaps last season. Guion has plenty of starting experience (51 starts in 8 seasons in the NFL), but is better suited for a solely rotational role, as he has graded out below average in 6 of those 8 NFL seasons.

Mike Daniels is easily the Packers’ best defensive lineman, as he’s one of the best defensive linemen in the entire NFL. A 2012 4th round pick, Daniels emerged as a starter in 2013 and has finished 6th, 8th, and 3rd among 3-4 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus in the past 3 seasons respectively. The Packers re-signed him for 42 million over 4 years in December. Considering Fletcher Cox, a comparable player, just got 103 million over 6 years from the Eagles, while Malik Jackson, another comparable player, got 90 million over 6 years from the Jaguars, it’s clear the Packers got good value when they re-signed Daniels.

Datone Jones was 3rd on the defensive line in snaps played last season with 364, but he’s expected to move from defensive end to outside linebacker this season. The Packers brought in another defensive lineman through the draft, taking Dean Lowry, a defensive end out of Northwestern, in the 4th round. Lowry could see immediate action in a rotational role, while 3rd year player Mike Pennel should see an increased role this season. Pennel, a 2014 undrafted free agent, flashed on 287 snaps last season, though he will miss the first 4 games of the season after failing a drug test, a big blow to the Packers defensive line depth. There are some promising young players on this defensive line, including 1st round pick Kenny Clark, but it’s an uninspiring group outside of Daniels.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

As I mentioned, Datone Jones will be moving to outside linebacker this season. A 2013 1st round pick, Jones was undersized as a 3-4 defensive end at 6-4 285 and was never able to carve out more than a sub package role at the position. The 364 snaps he played last season were a career high and about 75% of them came against pass plays. He’s graded out above average in the last 2 seasons on limited snaps though, flashing as a pass rusher, so he could be a good fit as a 3-4 outside linebacker in base packages, if he can get his weight down into the 270-275 pound range.

Also moving to outside linebacker this season is Clay Matthews, who spent most of last season at middle linebacker. It’s far from an unfamiliar position for Matthews though, as the 2009 1st round pick spent the first 6 seasons of his career at outside linebacker prior to last season and was once one of the league’s best at the position. He played middle linebacker largely out of desperation last season and is expected to play only outside linebacker this season. It’s a wise move, as Matthews struggled out of position last season, particularly against the run.

He’s far more valuable to the Packers as an outside linebacker. Matthews was a top-6 3-4 outside linebacker in each of the first four seasons of his career, from 2009-2012. He’s going into his age 30 season and probably isn’t quite the same player anymore, after an injury plagued 2013 season, a 2014 season in which he fell to 18th among 3-4 outside linebackers, and a 2015 season where he finished 40th among 97 eligible linebackers at middle linebacker. Still, a return to his natural position should be good for him and the whole Packers’ defense.

Matthews will start opposite Julius Peppers. Peppers is the active all-time leader in sacks with 136 (9th all-time) and a likely future Hall-of-Famer, but he’s going into his age 36 season, making him one of the league’s oldest defensive players. That’s somewhat concerning. Peppers looked done following a 2013 season in which he finished 40th among 52 eligible 4-3 defensive ends and subsequently got cut by the Bears. Peppers bounced back in his first year in Green Bay, finishing 7th among 3-4 outside linebackers, but he fell much closer to the middle of the pack in 2015. His ability to play at a high level going forward is in doubt at this point.

Fortunately, the Packers have great overall depth at the position. I already mentioned Datone Jones, but Kyler Fackrell and Nick Perry will also be in the mix for snaps. Fackrell was a 3rd round pick by the Packers in the 2016 NFL draft, while Perry is a former 1st round pick (2012), who was brought back on a one-year deal this off-season. Perry has been a bust through 4 years in the league, as evidenced by the fact that the Packers declined his 5th year option. Instead, they brought him back for his 5th season for substantially less, 5 million. Injuries have always been an issue for him, as he’s missed 18 games in 4 seasons in the league.

Perry played just 351 snaps last season and has never played more than 374 snaps in a season. He hasn’t been a bad player, grading out above average in 2 of 4 seasons, including last season (he finished tied with Peppers as Pro Football Focus 58th ranked edge defender). If he can stay healthy, he should be able to push for 500 snaps this season, but that’s a big if. With so much depth at outside linebacker, expect guys like Julius Peppers and Datone Jones who can rush the passer from the interior in sub packages to do so with some regularity, which would allow the Packers to essentially get 3 or 4 of their base package outside linebackers on the field at the same time in sub packages.

The reason Matthews can move back to outside linebacker this season is because the Packers middle linebacker depth is a little better this season. It’s still a problem position, but there isn’t the need to play Matthews out of position there anymore. The Packers used a 4th round pick on Stanford linebacker Blake Martinez and have 2015’s 4th round pick Jake Ryan possibly ready for a bigger role. The Packers also use a lot of dime packages and frequently play a 3rd safety down closer to the line of scrimmage instead of a 2nd middle linebacker in sub packages.

That being said, neither Blake Martinez nor Jake Ryan is a good option. Rookies, particularly ones drafted in the 4th round, are tough to rely on, as good as Martinez has reportedly looked in practice. Ryan, meanwhile, was just a 4th rounder last year and struggled on 260 snaps as a rookie. It’s a deeper and improved group of middle linebackers this season, but still not a great group. The Packers’ outside linebackers are easily the strength of the Packers’ linebacking corps.

Grade: C+

Secondary

As I mentioned, the Packers frequently use 3 safeties in sub packages, rather than 2 middle linebackers. Those three safeties last season were Morgan Burnett, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, and Micah Hyde and all 3 return for 2016. Burnett and Clinton-DIx start at the position, with Hyde serving in a situational role. Burnett and Clinton-Dix were arguably the best safety duo in the NFL last season, finishing 4th and 8th respectively among safeties on Pro Football Focus.

It was easily the best season of either of their careers, but neither of them were bad players prior. Clinton-Dix was a 1st round pick in 2014 and played alright as a rookie. Now he looks like one of the best young safeties in the NFL. Burnett is more experienced, making 71 starts over the past 5 seasons. Though he had never finished higher than 16th among safeties prior to last season, he still has graded out above average in 4 of those 5 seasons and could easily have another strong year in 2016. I wouldn’t be surprised if Clinton-Dix and Burnett both finished as top-10 safeties again this year. Hyde, meanwhile, is not nearly as good, but has played 1800 snaps (22 starts) in 3 seasons in the league (since being drafted in the 5th round in 2013) and has been an overall decent player. He’s especially good in coverage, where the Packers need him most.

Though the Packers love using 6 defensive backs in sub packages, it does hurt the Packers’ depth immensely that they lost cornerback Casey Hayward to the Chargers in free agency. Hayward made 11 starts last season and finished 16th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus. With Hayward out of the mix, Quinten Rollins and Damarious Randall, their 1st and 2nd round picks respectively in the 2015 NFL draft, will have to take on larger roles; those will be 2 of their top-3 cornerbacks along with veteran Sam Shields.

Fortunately, both looked good as rookies, particularly Rollins, who finished as Pro Football Focus’ 20th ranked cornerback on 323 snaps. Randall graded out slightly below average, but could be better in his 2nd year in the league. He’s expected to start opposite Shields with Rollins as the slot cornerback, but that could change this off-season. Shields is also a solid cornerback, finishing last season 25th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus. He’s missed 17 games with injury in 6 years in the league and has never played all 16 games in a season, but has finished in the top-30 among cornerbacks 3 times in those 6 seasons.

The Packers also like 3rd year player Demetri Goodson, a 6th round pick in 2014. He’s expected to be their 4th cornerback and is probably part of the reason why they were comfortable letting Hayward walk. Goodson has barely played in 2 seasons in the league though, so he’s a huge projection to any sort of larger role. That being said, he’s probably not bad depth. The biggest concern is that he, like defensive lineman Mike Pennell, is suspended for the first 4 weeks of the season, after violating the league’s PED policy. Even without Hayward, it’s still a strong secondary.

Grade: A-

Conclusion

Despite the bizarre decision to move on from long-time starting guard Josh Sitton this off-season, the Packers return 8 of 11 starters (9 when Linsley gets healthy) from a 2014 offense that was the best in the league and could easily have a bounce back year and be one of the best offenses in the league again, led by perennial MVP candidate Aaron Rodgers. The defense isn’t nearly as good as the offense, but they have plenty of talent on that side of the ball as well, making this one of the league’s more talented teams. The Packers surprisingly lost the division to the Minnesota Vikings last season, but, with Teddy Bridgewater out for the season, the Packers have a great chance to reclaim the division crown in 2016.

Prediction: 11-5 1st in NFC North

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