Green Bay Packers 2017 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Packers started last season a very disappointing 4-6, leading to Aaron Rodgers famously saying after their 6th loss that he thought they could run the table. Rodgers wasn’t quite right, but they gave it a good run, winning their next 8 games, including 2 playoff games, before falling short in the NFC Championship game in Atlanta. Rodgers himself was a huge part of the turnaround, completing a ridiculous 71.0% of his passes for an average of 8.34 yards per attempt, 15 touchdowns, and no interceptions in the Packers’ final 6 regular season games.

That came after he completed an uncharacteristic 63.2% of his passes for an average of 6.73 yards per attempt, 25 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions over the Packers’ first 10 games. As a result, the Packers moved the chains at a 40.60% rate over those final 6 games, as opposed to 37.91% in their first 10 games. There are a lot of reasons why Rodgers and this offense started clicking down the stretch, but a big one had to be wide receiver Jordy Nelson, who looked a little sluggish to start the season in his return from a torn ACL, but returned to form down the stretch. Nelson caught 44 passes for 594 yards and 5 touchdowns in his final 6 games, after 53 catches for 663 yards and 9 touchdowns in his first 10 games.

Rodgers’ worst season as a starter came in 2015 when he was without Jordy Nelson, as he completed just 60.7% of his passes for an average of 6.68 yards per attempt, 31 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions. Both his completion percentage and YPA were career lows. When Nelson returned and Rodgers was still disappointing by his standards, some started to question if he was losing it a little bit as he was getting into his mid 30s, but he proved down the stretch that those questions were premature.

He finished last season 3rd among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus, his 6th top-5 finish in the last 8 seasons and his 8th top-8 finish in 9 seasons as a starter (135 starts). Even in his worst season in 2015, he still finished 12th at his position. Now going into his age 34 season, it’s always possible he could start to decline, but we’ve seen plenty of examples of quarterbacks playing at a high level into their mid 30s in recent years, so he should remain one of the top quarterbacks in the league for at least another couple seasons, even if he does decline a little bit. The Packers are obviously in great hands with him as their signal caller.

Grade: A

Receiving Corps

I already mentioned how important #1 receiver Jordy Nelson is to this offense. He “only” finished 14th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus last season, but he was their 2nd ranked wide receiver in both 2013 and 2014, before missing all of 2015 with injury. Now in his 30s, there was some concern that he’d never be the same player again, but he showed he had a lot left in the tank down the stretch last season and should have another couple strong seasons left in him. Even if he declines a little bit, going into his age 32 season, he’ll still be one of the better wide receivers in the league.

At one point, Nelson and fellow receiver Randall Cobb were arguably the best receiving duo in the league. In 2014, they combined for 2,806 receiving yards, most in the league by any two teammates, with Cobb going for 91/1287/12. After that season, the Packers locked Cobb up long-term on a 4-year, 40 million dollar deal as a free agent, but he hasn’t been the same since. He’s still finished above average on Pro Football Focus in each of the last 2 seasons, but he hasn’t come close to his #9 rank from 2014 and he averaged just a 70/720/5 slash line. He’s only missed 3 total games with injury, but has been limited in many others. Still only going into his age 27 season, there’s some bounce back potential for him if he can stay healthy, as he’s been a top-12 wide receiver in his last 2 healthy seasons, but those seasons were back in 2012 and 2014, so injuries are definitely a major concern for him going forward.

Last season, Cobb actually fell to 3rd on the depth chart, with Jordy Nelson (1015) and Davante Adams (915) both playing significantly more snaps than Cobb (681). The Packers use 3-wide receiver sets with regularity, so there will still be plenty of opportunity for Cobb to play if he opens the season as the #3 receiver, but Adams is probably ahead of him on the depth chart for now. Adams’ leap up the depth chart was pretty surprising, considering he was not considered a lock to even be the 3rd receiver at this time last year, after back-to-back abysmal seasons to start his career in 2014 and 2015.

Adams finished the 2014 season 99th among 110 eligible wide receivers on 738 snaps and then ended the 2015 season 109th out of 121 eligible on 763 snaps. In 2016, he leaped up to 49th among wide receivers, slightly above average, and caught 75 passes for 997 yards and 12 touchdowns as the de facto #2 receiver. He’s only a one-year wonder and could regress in 2017, but it’s also possible the former second round pick has turned a corner and will continue developing into a solid receiver going forward. Not 25 until December, Adams definitely has youth on his side. In his final year of his rookie deal, Adams could command a big salary in free agency next off-season if he has another good year, which could make the Packers have to choose between him and Cobb (9.5 million dollar non-guaranteed salary in 2018) next off-season.

In addition to three talented pass catchers at wide receiver, the Packers also signed a talented pass catcher at tight end in Martellus Bennett in free agency this off-season, bringing him in on a 3-year, 21 million deal. He’ll replace free agent departure Jared Cook, who was a valuable weapon for Rodgers down the stretch, but missed most of the season with injury. Bennett is also a huge upgrade over Cook as a run blocker. The big 6-6 275 pounder moves well for his size and has graded out above average on Pro Football Focus in all 9 seasons in the league, including three top-10 finishes in the past 5 seasons. Going into his age 30 season, Bennett’s best days might be behind him at this point, but he’s still coming off a 10th place finish among tight ends in 2016 and should be a valuable player for them for another couple years.

In addition, the Packers signed another veteran tight end in free agency too, bringing in ex-Ram Lance Kendricks on a 2-year, 4 million. Kendricks is plenty experienced, with 79 starts in 93 games in 6 seasons in the league since going in the 2nd round in 2011, but isn’t a very good player, grading out above average on Pro Football Focus just once in those 6 seasons and never recording more than 50 catches in a season. That career high in catches came last season, when he turned them into just 499 yards and 2 touchdowns. A mediocre run blocker as well, Kendricks finished 54th out of 63 eligible tight ends on Pro Football Focus on 830 snaps last season.

In Green Bay, he’ll play a much smaller role and will compete with incumbent Richard Rodgers for the #2 tight end job. Rodgers also has experience, with 23 starts in 48 games in 3 seasons in the league, but has also graded out below average in 2 of 3 seasons, including 53rd out of 63 eligible tight ends on 604 snaps last season. Even though neither player is great, both are solid depth behind Bennett and the Packers might have the most experienced tight end group in the league. Rodgers should have plenty of options again in 2017.

Grade: A

Running Backs

The Packers averaged an impressive 4.55 yards per carry average last season, 7th best in the league, but didn’t have a consistent runner all year after Eddie Lacy got hurt after 5 games. In fact, the 71 carries Lacy had in those 5 games were just less than the 77 carries that Ty Montgomery led the team with, and he began the year as a wide receiver. As a result, the Packers ran the ball just 374 times, 4th fewest in the league, and 67 of those carries were quarterback runs by Aaron Rodgers. Including quarterbacks runs and sacks, the Packers ran 725 plays for Rodgers last year, as opposed to 304 carries by running backs or wide receivers, which made them much more one-dimensional than they would have liked. Also, much of their success on the ground on a per carry basis came from the fact that teams were expecting the pass and didn’t put a lot of guys in the box.

Given all that and that Eddie Lacy signed with the Seahawks this off-season, running back was a major position of need for the Packers this off-season. They didn’t add a running back in free agency or use a high pick on a back, but they did take 3 backs late in the draft, with the highest drafted one coming off the board in the 4th round. Fourth round pick Jamaal Williams probably has the best shot at a big rookie year role, but, with Lacy, James Starks, Don Jackson, and Christine Michael all no longer with the team, Ty Montgomery and fullback Aaron Ripkowski are the only backs on the team with any career carries, so 5th round pick Aaron Jones and 7th round pick Devante Mays both have a shot at playing time in 2017 too.

Williams is a powerful runner who runs bigger than his listed 6-0 212, but doesn’t have great burst and doesn’t contribute in the passing game. There’s a reason he fell to the 4th round, but he could end up being a solid two-down back for them long-term. He’ll complement converted receiver Ty Montgomery well. A 2015 3rd round pick, Montgomery impressed in limited action as a runner last season, rushing for 457 yards and 3 touchdowns on 77 carries (5.94 YPC), and also added 44 catches for 348 yards. He ranked 18th among running backs on Pro Football Focus on 392 snaps.

Built more like a running back than a wide receiver at 6-0 216, Montgomery played both positions in college at Stanford and is transitioning to running back full time this season. The rookie Williams could lead this team in carries, but Montgomery will probably have more touches because he has a good chance to catch 50-60 balls. Running back is still a weakness for this team, but Montgomery and Williams both have potential and complement each other well, so there’s definitely upside here.

Grade: C

Offensive Line

The Packers used to have arguably the best guard duo in the NFL in TJ Lang and Josh Sitton, but they have lost both of them over the past 2 off-seasons. First, there was their strange decision to release Sitton, one of the best interior linemen in the league, at final cuts, ahead of the final year of his contract, to save 6.85 million last off-season. Then this off-season they allowed Lang to walk as a free agent, even though he was signed to a pretty reasonable 3-year, 28.5 million dollar deal. Not only did they lose both of those talented players, but now both are with division rivals, as Sitton signed with the Bears close to immediately after being released last year, while Lang is now with the Lions.

Former backup Lane Taylor took over for Sitton last season and did a decent job, considering he went undrafted in 2013 and had made just 2 career starts in 3 seasons prior to last season. He wasn’t great, finishing 41st out of 72 eligible guards on Pro Football Focus, and he was certainly a downgrade from Sitton, who finished 10th with the Bears last season, but he was serviceable and made all 16 starts. With Lang now gone too, Taylor is locked into a starting role going forward.

Lang, meanwhile, was Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked guard last season, so he too will be very tough to replace. The Packers signed 11-year veteran Jahri Evans as a potential stopgap starter this off-season and he will compete with utilityman backup Don Barclay and 2016 2nd round pick Jason Spriggs. Evans is a 4-time All-Pro with 169 career starts, but is going into his age 35 season and well past his prime. He did make all 16 starts and finish 36th among guards in 2016, so he could be serviceable for another year, but that’s far from a guarantee.

Evans is probably a better option than Barclay though, as Barclay has struggled whenever he’s been counted on in 5 seasons in the league. His only season as a starter came in 2013, when he made 14 starts at right tackle. He finished that season 57th out of 76 eligible offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus. Barclay is versatile and can play anywhere on the offensive line, but he’s not a starting caliber player. Spriggs, meanwhile, was a high pick, but played tackle in college and might not be the best fit at guard. He made 2 spot starts at right guard last season, but was pretty underwhelming. He’s probably their most talented option if they feel he can make the switch, but I think it’s more likely he starts the year as the swing tackle again.

Lang and Sitton are not the only offensive linemen that the Packers have lost as they also lost center JC Tretter on a 3-year, 16.5 million dollar deal to the Browns in free agency this off-season. Tretter isn’t as big of a loss as the other two, but he’s a versatile, starting caliber player who could have replaced Lang at right guard if they had kept him. Tretter made 7 starts at center last year for the Packers and finished 9th at his position on Pro Football Focus, before going down for the season with a knee injury.

Fortunately, his injury coincided with the return of regular center Corey Linsley from injury and Linsley played well in the final 9 starts of the season, finishing 12th among centers. A mere 5th round pick in 2014, Linsley has played well through 3 seasons in the league, finishing in the top-12 among centers in all 3 seasons, but injuries have been an issue for him in the past 2 seasons, as he’s missed a combined 10 games. They will need him to stay healthy and play at a high level in 2017 to offset the losses of Lang and Tretter. If he can’t, the Packers don’t have another good option on the roster.

While they lost Sitton, Lang, and Tretter, the Packers did keep one offensive lineman whose contract was set to expire during the 2017 off-season, locking up left tackle David Bakhtiari on a 4-year, 48 million dollar extension last off-season, ahead of the final year of his rookie deal. Despite being a mere 4th round pick, Bakhtiari was a rare rookie that started at left tackle week 1 and he has made 62 of a possible 64 starts in 4 seasons since, missing just 2 games due to injury.

He struggled as a rookie, but has improved in every season since, going from 62nd, to 53rd, to 26th, to 4th among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus in the last 4 seasons respectively and is still only going into his age 26 season. Only the 5th highest paid offensive tackle in the league in terms of average annual salary, the extension the Packers gave him was money well spent, especially considering significantly inferior players like Eric Fisher, Matt Kalil, and Russell Okung have all gotten contracts worth 11+ million annually in the past calendar year.

Rounding out the offensive line is right tackle Bryan Bulaga, who made 16 starts for the first time in his career in 2016 and had one of his better seasons, finishing 15th among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus. A 2010 1st round pick, Bulaga has made 76 starts in 6 healthy seasons in the league (he missed all of 2013 with a torn ACL) and has finished above average 4 times in 6 seasons. Health has always been a concern for him though and, with Spriggs waiting in the wings behind him, I wouldn’t be shocked if the Packers let him go after the season, rather than paying him the 13.5 million he’ll be owed in 2018 and 2019. If he plays like he did last season again though, it’ll be hard to let him go. The Packers are pretty set at both tackle and center, but are much weaker at guard than they are used to.

Grade: B+

Defensive Line

While the Packers’ offense was much improved over their final 6 games of the regular season, their defense actually allowed the exact same first down rate (37.69%) in their final 6 games as they did in their first 10 games. On the season, they finished 26th in first down rate allowed. They forced more turnovers in the final 6 games (15 vs. 10), but, outside of takeaways, they still had a major problem getting off the field and, unfortunately for them, turnover margins tend to be inconsistent on a week-to-week basis. They are going to need the defense to force more punts this season if they are going to continue to win like they did down the stretch in 2016.

It wasn’t all bad on defense for the Packers in 2016 though, as defensive lineman Mike Daniels remains one of the best players in the league at his position. A steal in the 4th round in 2012, Daniels took over as a starter and has been a top-8 player at the 3-4 defensive end position in all 4 seasons, including back-to-back #3 ranks in 2015 and 2016. Only going into his age 28 season, I see no reason why his strong play couldn’t continue into 2017. He also hasn’t missed a single game with injury since his rookie year. He’s their most valuable defensive player.

The Packers also have 2016 1st round pick Kenny Clark, who figures to have a bigger role in his 2nd year in the league in 2017, after flashing on 335 snaps as a rookie. Clark is big enough to play nose tackle in base packages at 6-2 314, but also moves well enough to play in sub packages. They used a high pick on him, so they will probably use him in more of an every down role, especially since they don’t have another every down defensive lineman outside of Daniels. Last season, they frequently rushed outside linebackers Julius Peppers and Datone Jones from the interior in sub packages because they had the size to do it, but both players are no longer with the team, which frees up snaps for Clark. About 500-600 snaps for Clark seems likely (Daniels played 664 snaps last season). Not 22 until October, Clark has a monstrous upside and is a breakout candidate for 2017.

Clark isn’t the only 2nd year defensive lineman who should have a bigger role in 2017, as 2016 4th round Dean Lowry flashed on 158 snaps as a rookie and will probably see more playing time in his 2nd year in the league as a result. The 6-6 296 pound Lowry is a better pass rusher than run stopper, but showed a little bit of both last season. He’ll probably play a rotational role and rush the passer from the interior in sub packages with some regularity. The Packers like to rotate defensive linemen, so there’s definitely going to be playing time for Lowry. We’ll see how his play translates to a larger role.

In base packages, veteran journeyman Ricky Jean-Francois will compete with 3rd round rookie Montravius Adams and veteran holdover Letroy Guion for the 3rd defensive lineman role. Jean-Francois, signed from the Redskins this off-season, is probably the favorite. He’s best as a rotational player, but has 36 career starts in 109 career games and has graded out above average in 3 straight seasons. He only played 385 snaps in 2015 and 442 snaps in 2016 and he’s going into his age 31 season, but he should be an upgrade over Guion, who finished below average on 449 snaps last season.

Guion is still with the team, but is suspended for the first 4 games of the season and is no guarantee to make the final roster. He’s graded out below average in 7 of 9 seasons in the league and is going into his age 30 season now. Adams, meanwhile, was regarded as raw coming out of Auburn and may have to have essentially a rookie redshirt year. He has the upside to develop into an every down player though. With second year players Kenny Clark and Noah Lowry likely taking a step forward, this is an improved defensive line and one with solid depth.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

As I mentioned, the Packers lost outside linebackers Julius Peppers and Datone Jones in free agency. They played 587 and 548 snaps respectively last season, so, even though they both rushed the passer from the interior regularly, their departures leave them pretty thin at the outside linebacker position. Fortunately, the Packers did re-sign one of their outside linebackers this off-season, bringing back Nick Perry on a 5-year, 59.925 million deal. Perry led all Packer outside linebackers in snaps with 606 last season and also led the team with 11 sacks, so he was obviously important to keep. He finished last season 8th among 3-4 outside linebackers on Pro Football Focus.

The amount the Packers had to pay to keep him is not ideal though, considering he’s a one-year wonder. Prior to 2016, he had just 12.5 career sacks in 4 seasons in the league and had never played more than 374 snaps in a season. He was a first round pick in 2012, so he has always had talent, and he did flash on occasion in limited action prior to 2016, but he missed 18 games with injury and was never anything more than a rotational player when healthy. Certainly, he never did anything like he did in 2016.

It’s possible he’s turned the corner as a player and will have more seasons like 2016 ahead of him, but it’s a very risky signing considering his history. Although only his 18.5 million dollar signing bonus was guarantee, he will make 20.725 million in the first year, 27.925 million over the first 2 years, and 38.925 million over the first 3 years, so it would be very tough for the Packers to get out of this deal anytime soon if they wanted to do so, without incurring a major cap hit. If they were to cut him after 2 years, they would only free up about 3.6 million in cap space.

The Packers are obviously hoping Nick Perry can repeat his 2016 season and they are also obviously hoping Clay Matthews can be healthier and have a bounce back season at the other outside linebacker spot. Like with Perry, that’s far from a guarantee. Matthews was at one point one of the best defensive players in the league, finishing in the top-6 among 3-4 outside linebackers on Pro Football Focus in each of the first 4 seasons in his career from 2009-2012, after going in the first round in 2009.

However, his play has steadily declined in recent years, culminating with the worst season of his career in 2016, when he was limited to a career low 479 snaps in 12 games and finished as Pro Football Focus’ 7th worst ranked 3-4 outside linebacker. He should be better by default in 2017, but his best days seem long behind him. He has missed 13 games with injury in the past 5 seasons and played through serious injuries in countless other games and is now going into his age 31 season. Matthews is as tough as they come, but he seems to be breaking down. Owed a non-guaranteed 11.4 million in the final year of his contract in 2018, this could be Matthews’ final season in Green Bay unless he shows his old form.

With Peppers and Jones gone, Perry and Matthews will be relied on heavily in 2017 and, barring injury, will probably play more snaps than they did last season. However, since neither player is particularly reliable or durable, the Packers’ depth at the position is critical. Many thought the Packers would address the outside linebacker position early in the draft, but didn’t use a pick on the position until they took Wisconsin’s Vince Biegel with the first pick in the 4th round. Biegel is currently dealing with a foot injury that could cost him a big chunk of the off-season, which would put him very much behind the 8-ball as a rookie.

When healthy, Biegel will compete with 2016 3rd round pick Kyler Fackrell and 2014 undrafted free agent Jayrone Elliott for playing time behind Matthews and Perry. Elliott has never played more than 174 snaps in 3 seasons in the league, playing primarily special teams, and has never shown much potential either, but will probably have a larger role in 2017 out of necessity. Fackrell, meanwhile, flashed on 161 snaps last season and will probably be the 3rd outside linebacker. He has upside and could be a future starter, but he’s obviously unproven.

At middle linebacker, the Packers have three young players who will compete for 2 starting spots, 2015 4th round pick Jake Ryan, 2016 4th round pick Blake Martinez, and 2014 undrafted free agent Joe Thomas. Ryan was the best of the three in 2016, grading out just below average, while Martinez and Thomas finished 65th and 68th respectively among 87 linebackers on Pro Football Focus. Ryan is a one-year wonder who struggled on 260 snaps as a rookie, but he seemed to take a step forward in his 2nd year in the league in 2016, playing well both in coverage and against the run. He’s likely locked into one of the two starting jobs.

That leaves Martinez and Thomas to compete for the other job, though the other job is probably a two-down job. The Packers like to drop safety Morgan Burnett (6-1 209) down to linebacker in sub packages and used a 2nd round pick on safety Josh Jones, so they definitely have the safety depth to do it. Given that it’s a two-down job, Martinez is probably the favorite because, while he looked lost in coverage last season, he played the run pretty well, while Thomas struggled both in coverage and against the run. That leaves Thomas in a backup role, where he belongs. Prior to 2016, he had never made a start in 2 seasons in the league. It’s overall a pretty underwhelming linebacker group.

Grade: C

Secondary

While Morgan Burnett will play a lot of linebacker in sub packages, in base packages he will form one of the best safety duos in the league with fellow starting safety HaHa Clinton-Dix. In 2015, Burnett and Clinton-Dix finished 4th and 8th respectively among safeties on Pro Football Focus and, in 2016, they “fell” to 15th and 20th respectively. Burnett is a veteran, going into his 8th season in the league, but has last 2 seasons have been his best and he’s finished above average on Pro Football Focus in 5 of 6 seasons as a starter (86 starts).

Clinton-Dix, meanwhile, is going into just his 4th season in the league, after getting drafted in the first round in 2014. Clinton-Dix showed himself to be a capable starter in 10 starts as a rookie, but has taken his game to the next level in the past 2 seasons and has made all 32 starts over that time period. Only going into his age 25 season, Clinton-Dix is one of the best young safeties in the league. Also, as I mentioned, the Packers used a 2nd round pick on North Carolina State’s Josh Jones, who will be the 3rd safety and play in sub packages when Burnett moves to linebacker. Jones has good upside and great athleticism, but missed 13 tackles in his final season in college, so he’s far from a sure thing.

Jones was not the only defensive back the Packers used a 2nd round pick on, as they took Washington cornerback Kevin King 33rd overall, the first pick of the second round, after moving down from 29 with the Browns. The 6-3 King has great size and length and fills a big need at cornerback. Despite using a first and a second round pick on cornerbacks Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins in 2015, the Packers still had major depth issues in 2016 with Randall missing 6 games, Rollins missing 3, and Sam Shields missing 15. As a result, the Packers were led in snaps played at cornerback by Ladarius Gunter (867 snaps) and Micah Hyde (827 snaps).

The problem got even worse this off-season with Hyde signing with the Bills in free agency and Shields being released because of lingering concussion symptoms. The Packers signed veteran Davon House in free agency, but King has a good chance to beat him out for the #3 job and could also push both Randall and Rollins for starting jobs. House has been a capable player throughout his career and has started 34 games in 6 seasons in the league, but is coming off of a season in which he struggled on just 272 snaps with the Jaguars. It’s a homecoming for House, who spent the first 4 seasons of his career in Green Bay (2011-2014), but King is a much more talented player who should be considered the favorite for the job.

Randall and Rollins are also talented players, but both are coming off of bad years, finishing 108th and 84th respectively among 111 eligible cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus. Both were better as a rookie, especially Rollins, who finished 20th among cornerbacks on 323 snaps, but both will have a lot to prove in their 3rd year in the league this season. They are not locks for starting jobs. Cornerback is not nearly as solid of a position as safety for the Packers, but the Packers’ talented safeties should mask their issues at cornerback somewhat.

Grade: B-

Conclusion

As long as the Packers have Aaron Rodgers playing like he does, they are always going to be a Super Bowl threat. Whether or not they have the talent around him to actually make a deep run remains to be seen. They should be better in the secondary and on the defensive line than they were last season, but they still have major issues in the linebacking corps and at running back and they lost top interior offensive lineman TJ Lang in free agency, which can’t be overlooked. Overall, they should play better than they did last season, but last season was their worst regular season in years, so that’s not saying a ton. They are going to be a Super Bowl contender once again, but there are at least 4-5 teams that I think have better shots than them. I will have an exact win total after I finish every team’s season previews.

Prediction: TBD

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