The Packers started last season 4-1 and looked on their way to another year contending for the Super Bowl, but Aaron Rodgers suffered a broken collarbone in week 6 against Minnesota, which effectively ended their season. Through 5 games, the Packers picked up first downs at a 41.19% rate, 2nd in the NFL at the time and best in the NFL if they had done it over the entire season. Rodgers completed 66.7% of his passes for an average of 7.23 YPA, 13 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions in those 5 games and ranked as Pro Football Focus #4 quarterback through 5 weeks.
The rest of the way, the Packers moved the chains at a mere 31.42% rate, which would have been 25th in the NFL over the whole season. Backup Brett Hundley was a major disappointment, completing 60.8% of his passes for an average of just 5.81 YPA, 9 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions and finishing as PFF’s 32nd ranked quarterback out of 40 eligible. Rodgers returned week 15, but was not at 100% in a season ending loss in Carolina and then was shut down for the season the following week, with the Packers eliminated from the post-season. Hundley then started the final 2 weeks of the season and the Packers finished at 7-9, missing the post-season for the first time since Rodgers’ first season as a starter in 2008.
The Packers weren’t even as good as that suggests, as they went 3-0 in games that went to overtime, 6-2 in games decided by 8 points or fewer, and finished 24th in first down rate differential at -2.02%. Their defense was part of the problem, as they allowed opponents to pick up first downs at a 36.55% rate, 3rd highest in the NFL, but if Rodgers were healthy all season they likely still would have made the post-season, despite their defensive issues.
Whether or not they bounce back in 2018 is all dependant on Rodgers’ health. In 142 career starts since 2008, Rodgers has completed 65.2% of his passes for an average of 7.89 YPA, 312 touchdowns, and 77 interceptions, while adding 2,623 yards and 25 touchdowns on 514 carries (5.10 YPC). He has the highest QB rating of any quarterback in the NFL over that time period at 104.2 and the highest career QB rating all-time. On PFF, he finished in the top-8 in quarterbacks in his first 9 seasons as a starter from 2008-2016, prior to last season.
The concern isn’t just that he’s coming off of a broken collarbone, but he also broke the other collarbone back in 2013 and he’s now going into his age 35 season. We’ve seen talented quarterbacks continue playing well into their late 30s, but Rodgers takes more punishment than the average quarterback because he takes off and runs about 58 times per 16 games. Last year’s collarbone injury was even more serious than the 2013 injury because it was to his throwing shoulder and he did not remotely look right in his return in Carolina.
Rodgers should have the kind of season we’ve come to expect from him again in 2018, but there’s a little bit more uncertainty with him going into this season than normal. His backup situation is also still a concern. A 5th round pick in 2015, Hundley at one time looked like one of the more promising backups in the league because of how well he performed in the pre-season, but he was exposed in his first extended regular season starting experience. The Packers brought in DeShone Kizer from the Browns this off-season to provide competition for Hundley.
Kizer was a 2nd round choice of the Browns in 2017, but he was horrendous in 15 rookie year starts, completing 53.6% of his passes for an average of 6.08 YPA, 11 touchdowns, and 22 interceptions, while finishing as PFF’s worst ranked quarterback, so the Browns replaced him with Tyrod Taylor and Baker Mayfield and sent him to the Packers for defensive back Damarious Randall and a swap of mid round picks. Kizer is still young, going into his age 22 season, and could really benefit from a couple years on the bench developing behind Aaron Rodgers, but he could easily struggle again if pressed into action in 2018. The Packers will obviously be hoping that doesn’t happen.
Even though the Rodgers injury was the main reason why the Packers missed the post-season last season, they still had other issues and decided to basically clean house personnel wise this off-season, after being arguably the most stable organization in the NFL behind the Patriots over the past decade. The Packers did not renew contracts for offensive coordinator Edgar Bennett and quarterback coach Alex Van Pelt and fired defensive coordinator Dom Capers, who was the longest tenured coordinator in the NFL at 9 years.
They also removed Ted Thompson from the general manager role and promoted Brian Gutekunst to replace him. Thompson was once regarded as one of the top GMs in the league for building the Packers almost entirely through the draft, but their draft picks had not been as good in recent years and he was frequently criticized for not doing enough to improve the roster in free agency. Gutekunst seemed to have a different philosophy this off-season.
His most prominent move was letting go of Jordy Nelson, Rodgers’ long-time #1 receiver who had been with the Packers since they drafted him in 2008, and replacing him with free agent acquisition Jimmy Graham, who signed a 3-year, 30 million dollar deal. That contract was bigger than any contract given to an outside free agent by Thompson in 13 seasons on the job and the fact that they released Nelson to free up the money to do it just shows the stark contrast in strategy. Thompson was always immensely loyal to players who had developed through the system.
It’s unclear if this new strategy will pan out though. Nelson had a very underwhelming 53/482/6 slash line last season and averaged 0.95 yards per route run on 506 routes (6th lowest in the NFL), but that was mostly because he was never able to get on the same page with Hundley. In the 4 games he played with Rodgers where both were healthy, he caught 19 passes for 230 yards and 6 touchdowns, a 76/920/24 slash line over 16 games, and he still earned an average grade from Pro Football Focus on the season, despite the underwhelming statistical performance.
His age was becoming a concern, going into his age 33 season, but he topped 1000 yards in his previous 4 healthy seasons prior to last season and he was always Rodgers’ go to guy. Rodgers expressed dissatisfaction with some of the changes the Packers made this off-season and that he was not consulted on them, specifically getting rid of Nelson and quarterback coach Alex Van Pelt. Nelson’s salary of 10.25 million might have been too much to pay, but it would have made more sense to come to an agreement with him on a new, cheaper deal than to let him go and bring in Graham instead.
A few years ago, Rodgers to Graham would have been one of the most deadly combinations in the league, but Graham is arguably just as washed up as Nelson is and the Packers made him the highest paid tight end in the NFL in average annual salary. He’s only going into his age 32 season, but he suffered a torn patellar tendon in 2015, so he has a pretty significant injury history, and he’s coming off the first negatively graded season on PFF of his 8-year NFL career. He finished tied for 2nd in the NFL with 10 receiving touchdowns, so the 6-7 265 pounder was a threat around the goal line, but he also had just 57 catches for 520 yards on 98 targets (5.31 yards per target) and showed comparatively less explosiveness than we’ve seen from him in recent years.
Graham finished 3rd among tight ends on PFF as recently as 2016, when he put up a 65/923/6 slash line, so he has some bounce back potential and he’ll be an upgrade over Lance Kendricks, who led all Packer tight ends in snaps with 468 in 2017 and finished as PFF’s 63rd ranked tight end out of 72 eligible, but the Packers still overpaid a declining player. The Packers also added blocking tight end Marcedes Lewis in free agency. He’ll slot in as the #2 tight end and is like a 6th offensive lineman at 6-6 270, but he hasn’t topped 25 catches in a season since 2012 and is now going into his age 34 season, so he won’t be a factor in the passing game.
The Packers also gave a big contract to #1 receiver Davante Adams, signing him to a 4-year, 58 million dollar extension last December, before he was scheduled to hit free agency this off-season. Adams is now the 7th highest paid wide receiver in the NFL in average annual salary, but he has a much better chance of being worth his contract than Graham. A 2nd round pick in 2014, Adams was a slow developer and struggled mightily in his first 2 seasons in the league, including a 2015 season in which he finished 118th among 119 eligible wide receivers on PFF, but he developed into a capable starter in 2016, posting a 75/997/12 slash line and then took his game to a new level in his contract year in 2017.
Adams was Green Bay’s only pass catcher who was not affected by the switch to Hundley, as Adams caught 46 passes for 543 yards and 5 touchdowns in 8 games with Hundley and had a team leading 74/885/10 slash line on the season in just 14 games. He was also PFF’s 12th ranked wide receiver and Green Bay’s only wide receiver to earn a positive grade from PFF on the season. He’s a bit of a one-year wonder as a top level receiver, but he doesn’t earn turn 26 until December and could keep getting better. Now the clear #1 target with Nelson gone, Adams could have a massive statistical year in 2018 if Rodgers stays healthy.
Randall Cobb remains as the #2 receiver. Like Jordy Nelson, he’s highly paid and coming off of an underwhelming season, but the Packers decided to keep him at a 9.5 million dollar non-guaranteed salary. Cobb is much younger than Nelson, only going into his age 28 season, but he’s also hasn’t topped 1000 yards in a season since 2014 and has averaged just a 68/697/5 slash line in 3 seasons since re-signing on a 4-year, 40 million dollar deal, as he had basically fallen to third on the depth chart the past 2 seasons with Adams emerging. With Nelson gone, Cobb should have a bigger role in 2018 and is young enough to still have a bounce back season, now in the contract year of that 4-year deal, but he’s been limited by nagging injuries and has been a middling receiver over the past 3 seasons.
With Nelson gone and Cobb going into the final year of his contract, the Packers used 3 draft picks on wide receivers, taking Missouri’s J’Mon Moore in the 4th round, South Florida’s Marquez Valdes-Scantling in the 5th round, and Notre Dame’s Equanimeous St. Brown in the 6th round, but none of those players are likely to have much of an impact as a rookie. The Packers also used a 5th round pick on Trevor Davis in 2016 and DeAngelo Yancey in 2017, but Davis has played just 192 underwhelming snaps in 2 seasons in the league, while Yancey spent his entire rookie season on the practice squad.
Instead, it’ll likely be 2016 undrafted free agent Geronimo Allison working as the 3rd receiver behind Adams and Cobb. Allison has been their 4th receiver in each of his first 2 seasons in the league, playing 183 snaps as a rookie and 343 snaps last season. He hasn’t played all that well, but the Packers like him and he’s worked with the first team in 3-wide receiver sets all off-season. He might not put up huge numbers and could be pushed for playing time down the stretch if any of their other young receivers develop, but he’s likely to open the season as the 3rd receiver. This is not quite the same receiving corps Rodgers is used to having.
The isn’t the same offensive line Rodgers is used to having either. After losing left guard Josh Sitton two off-seasons ago and right guard TJ Lang last off-season, the Packers did not bring back replacement right guard Jahri Evans this off-season, ahead of his age 35 season. The Packers also have a shaky situation at right tackle, where Bryan Bulaga is rehabbing from a November torn ACL. Bulaga also missed time with an ankle injury last season and played just 232 snaps all season.
In his place, the Packers started several different players, with Justin McCray leading the way with 6 starts. McCray also made a start at left tackle and 2 at left guard, but he struggled pretty much wherever he played. He finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 68th ranked offensive tackle out of 83 eligible. McCray is a 2014 undrafted free agent who never played an offensive snap before last season, but the Packers still seem to like him and are expected to start him at right guard this season, in place of Evans. Despite his age, Evans was not bad last season, so McCray could be a serious downgrade.
Bulaga is expected to start week 1, but that’s not a guarantee. Not only is he coming off of the ACL tear and the ankle injury, but he’s had injury issues throughout his career. He’s made all 16 starts just once in 8 seasons in the league and has missed 43 games in his career. He’s only going into his age 29 season, but he may be falling apart physically. He’s also been really inconsistent in his career, finishing 5th among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus in 2011, 16th in 2014, and 14th in 2016, but earning negative grades in his other seasons. He could have another strong season in 2018, but that’s far from a guarantee.
His backup is likely to be 2016 2nd round pick Jason Spriggs. Spriggs came into the league with a lot of upside and was projected by some to be a late first round pick, but he struggled mightily on 238 snaps as a rookie and then could not take advantage of Bulaga’s absence last season because he missed 9 games with injuries of his own. He did made 5 starts down the stretch last season, but he was once again underwhelming. One possibility if Spriggs performs well in practice would be starting him at right tackle and moving Bulaga to right guard, but, for now, it looks like McCray is locked in at right guard and they are shooting to have Bulaga back at right tackle for week 1.
At left guard, Lane Taylor is entering his 3rd season as the starter since taking over for Josh Sitton. He’s made 31 starts in the past 2 seasons, after making just 2 starts in his first 3 seasons with the Packers, with whom he signed as an undrafted free agent in 2013. Taylor hasn’t been all that good, finishing slightly below average on PFF in both seasons, but the Packers like him enough to continue starting him. They gave him a 3-year, 16.5 million dollar extension last off-season, which is about the market rate for an average veteran starting guard.
Center Corey Linsley has started on this offensive line for 4 years, and was a key cog on this line during their dominant days, but he had a down year in 2017, finishing 27th among 38 eligible centers. A 5th round pick in 2014, Linsley earned positive grades in each of his first 3 seasons in the league, finishing in the top-8 among centers in both 2014 and 2016. He missed 10 games from 2015-2016 though, and, while he did play all 16 games in 2017, he did not perform up to his usual standard. The Packers don’t seem to have any concerns about him long-term though, giving him a 3-year, 25.5 million dollar extension in December, keeping him off the open market as a free agent this off-season. He could easily have a bounce back season in 2018, still only in his age 27 season.
Left tackle David Bakhtiari was the only Green Bay offensive lineman to earn a positive grade from PFF last season, although he played well enough to elevate this whole offensive line. He finished as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked offensive tackle, especially excelling in pass protection, allowing just 1 sack and 2 quarterback hits all season, though he did miss 4 games with injury. A 4th round pick in 2013, Bakhtiari struggled early in his career, but he’s gotten better every season, has 74 career starts under his belt, and has finished 2nd among offensive tackles in each of the last 2 seasons. Only going into his age 27 season, he is still in the prime of his career. With Joe Thomas retiring, he’s arguably the best left tackle in the NFL. He elevates an otherwise underwhelming offensive line.
The Packers also struggled for consistency on the ground last season. They averaged 4.47 yards per carry, 5th in the NFL, but a lot of that is because of quarterback runs and they went through 3 different starting running backs over the course of the season. Ty Montgomery began the season as the starter, but was limited to 71 carries in 8 games by rib and wrist injuries. 5th round rookie Aaron Jones was the next man up and had 62 carries in 4 starts, but then he injured his knee and saw just 19 carries the rest of the way. 4th round rookie Jamaal Williams finished the season as the starter and totaled 153 carries on the season, most on the team. Montgomery and Jones are both back healthy, so the Packers will have close to a wide open competition for roles at running back. All three backs have their strengths, but they all have their weaknesses as well.
Jones had the highest YPC average last season and it wasn’t close, as he averaged 5.53 yards per carry on 81 carries, but he’s useless on passing downs, averaging 1.22 yards per target on 18 targets and struggling mightily as a pass protector, and he’s suspended for the first 2 games of the 2018 season after an off-season marijuana arrest. He also wasn’t as good as his rookie year YPC suggests, as he had a large chunk of his yardage on just a few carries. He totaled 182 yards on his 8 longest carries (40.6% of his total rushing yardage) and averaged just 3.64 yards per attempt on his other 73 carries. Undersized at 5-9 206, Jones might just be a good change of pace back long-term.
Williams was probably their most complete running back. He only averaged 3.63 yards per carry on 153 carries, but he was a very consistent runner. He only managed 1 carry longer than 15 yards all season, which kept his average down, but he ranked 14th in carry success rate at 48%, despite playing on a terrible offense, so, all things considered, he did a good job of keeping this offense on schedule. He also added a 25/262/2 slash line on 34 targets and held up as a pass protector. He lacks explosive top level speed at 6-0 213, but could be a strong chain mover on what should be a much better offense in 2018 with Rodgers.
Montgomery, meanwhile, is a converted wide receiver who is their best passing down option. The 2015 3rd round pick has averaged 4.93 yards per carry on 151 career carries, but he’s never topped 77 carries in a season and is unproven as a lead back. Last year, in his first real attempt at being a lead back, he averaged just 3.85 yards per carry and dealt with several injuries. With Williams and Jones showing promise in his absence, Montgomery is unlikely to reclaim the lead back job barring injuries to the other two and will likely spend 2018 as a situational backup, focusing on passing downs. The Packers have options at running back, but probably don’t have one running back who is going to run away with the job.
Even with Dom Capers gone, the Packers will remain a base 3-4 defense under new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine. As bad as this defense was last season, they still had a strong defensive line, as most of their issues were in coverage. This season, they could be even better with the addition of Muhammad Wilkerson in free agency. A few years ago, Wilkerson was one of the better defensive linemen in the league, finishing 3rd, 2nd, and 5th among 3-4 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus in 2012, 2014, and 2015 respectively, but then the Jets gave him a 5-year, 86 million dollar extension and he was never the same, seemingly losing all motivation after getting paid and frequently showing up late for practice.
After accumulating 38 sacks and 56 quarterback hits in 5 seasons on his rookie deal, he had just 8 sacks and 11 quarterback hits in 2 seasons on his extension, before being let go this off-season when the guaranteed money on his contract expired. The Jets ended up paying him 37 million for 2 years. The Packers, on the other hand, are getting him on a 1-year deal worth just 5 million with another 2.75 million available in incentives. Still only in his age 29 season, Wilkerson has bounce back potential if he’s motivated, which he should be, given that he’ll want to earn his incentives and get a big multi-year deal in free agency next off-season. He also reunites with Pettine, his defensive coordinator with the Jets in his first 2 seasons in the league, including his dominant 2012 season
Wilkerson will start on this base 3-man defensive line with Kenny Clark and Mike Daniels and rotate with them inside in sub packages. Clark and Daniels led this defensive line with 684 snaps and 629 snaps respectively in 2017 and were two of the better defensive linemen in the league, finishing 14th and 17th respectively among interior defensive linemen on PFF. Clark is a one-year wonder, as he only played 332 snaps as a rookie in 2016, but he’s a former first round pick who is still only going into his age 23 season, so he could easily develop into one of the top defensive linemen in the league. The 6-3 317 pounder plays nose tackle in base packages and also added 4.5 sacks, 4 hits, and 22 hurries on 344 pass rush snaps.
Daniels, on the other hand, is much more proven, finishing in the top-7 among 3-4 defensive ends in all 5 seasons as a starter, since the 2012 4th round pick first entered the starting lineup in 2013. The 6-0 305 pounder is more of a pass rusher than Clark, totaling 25 sacks and 36 hits in those 5 seasons, but he’s also a good run stuffer as well. Still in the prime of his career in his age 29 season, I see no reason why he can’t continue playing well in 2018. He missed 2 games with injury last season, but those were the first games he missed since his rookie season.
Dean Lowry was the 3rd starter last season, but he only played 493 snaps and primarily played on run snaps. The 2016 4th round pick hasn’t gotten much pass rush in 2 seasons in the league, with 4 sacks, 1 hit, and 26 hurries on 322 pass rush snaps, but he’s developed into an above average run stuffer. He’ll fit in well as a situational reserve. The Packers also have 2017 3rd round pick Montravius Adams. He played just 65 snaps as a rookie, but could easily have a bigger role as a reserve in 2018. This is a very deep defensive line and the addition of Muhammad Wilkerson could make them arguably the best 3-man defensive line in the league.
The Packers don’t have quite the same depth at outside linebacker, where Clay Matthews and Nick Perry start as every down edge defenders. Matthews and Perry are coming off of strong seasons, but both are injury prone and they have little proven depth behind him them on the depth chart. 2016 3rd round pick Kyler Fackrell struggled as the 3rd outside linebacker last season, finishing 35th out of 46 eligible 3-4 outside linebackers on Pro Football Focus on 446 snaps, and he wasn’t much better in limited action (159 snaps) as a rookie either. He’ll be pushed for his role by 2017 4th round pick Vince Biegel, who flashed on 121 snaps as a rookie, after missing the first half of the year with a broken foot. Both Biegel and Fackrell have upside, but they are also unproven.
Matthews is a big name player, but the 8.5 sack, 11 quarterback hit season he had in 2017 has not been the recent norm for him. After 4 straight strong seasons to start his career from 2009-2012, totaling 42.5 sacks and 57 quarterback hits, Matthews finished below average on PFF in 3 of 4 seasons from 2013-2016, totaling 30 sacks and 28 quarterback hits. Injuries were a big part of the problem, as he missed 9 games and was limited in several others. Even in a bounce back year in 2017, he still missed a couple games with injury. He finished 9th among 3-4 outside linebackers on PFF last season, but, going into his age 32 season, with his recent injury history, he’s far from a guarantee to repeat that.
Perry has had even more injury problems. He’s missed 24 of 96 games in 6 seasons in the league and has never once played all 16 games in a season. As a result, the 2012 1st round pick took a while to develop, but, after 4 straight negative grades to begin his career, Perry has finished 9th and 15th among 3-4 outside linebackers on PFF in each of the past 2 seasons, totaling 18 sacks and 11 hits, while playing good run defense as well. He could continue playing well, but he’s also likely to miss time again with injury and, even though he’s only going into his age 28 season, he may break down quicker than a normal player because of all of the injuries he’s sustained.
Middle linebacker is where the Packers defense will be most different under new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine. While ex-defensive coordinator Dom Capers liked using 3 or 4 safeties on the field at a time in sub packages, including one that plays around the line of scrimmage as a 2nd linebacker, Pettine prefers to let his linebackers handle most of the snaps at linebacker. Safeties Morgan Burnett (6-1 209) and Josh Jones (6-2 220) played 339 snaps and 358 snaps respectively at linebacker last season, but Burnett was allowed to leave as a free agent this off-season, while Jones is expected to be an every down safety in his 2nd season in the league.
Blake Martinez and Jake Ryan were their top-2 middle linebackers in terms of snaps played last season, with 978 and 506 respectively, but neither player is trustworthy in coverage. A 4th round pick in 2016, Martinez flashed as a run stuffer on 439 snaps as a rookie, but was exposed in coverage as an every down player (93.1% of the snaps in 16 starts) in 2017. He dominated against the run, finishing 4th among middle linebackers in run grade, but he finished 46th out of 52 eligible at his position in coverage grade.
Ryan, meanwhile, is 2015 4th round pick who earned the first positive coverage grade of his career in 2017. He hasn’t been tested much in coverage though, as he’s largely been a two-down player through 3 seasons in the league. Despite making the start in 27 of 43 career games, he’s played just 54.3% of the snaps in those 43 games and just 51.1% of the snaps last season in 14 games. He’s a capable run stuffer who has earned positive run stopping grades in each of his first three seasons in the league, but he could be overstretched in an every down role.
Given the issues Martinez and Ryan have in coverage, the Packers were smart to use a 3rd round pick on Vanderbilt linebacker Oren Burks. Burks is undersized at 6-3 233, but he’s incredibly athletic and capable of contributing immediately in the passing game. Expect him to earn a role in sub packages. Despite his youth, he’s their best option to cover tight ends and running backs out of the backfield. This is a young linebacking corps, but there is upside here.
As mentioned, the Packers frequently used 3 and 4 safeties in sub packages last season under Dom Capers. Not only did Burnett and Jones frequently line up as linebackers last season, but they also saw significant snaps as slot cornerbacks, playing 244 snaps and 86 snaps respectively. HaHa Clinton-Dix, Morgan Burnett, and Josh Jones all saw significant snaps overall last season, playing 1,043 snaps, 730 snaps, and 724 snaps respectively. Reserves Kentrell Brice and Marwin Evans also saw time, playing 289 snaps and 150 snaps respectively. In 2018, with Pettine as the defensive coordinator and Burnett gone, they figure to be a lot more traditional with their safeties, playing Jones and Clinton-Dix every down at safety.
Letting Burnett go this off-season not only signaled a shift in defensive style, but in front office approach. Burnett had been with the Packers for 8 years and was still a capable starter, but the Packers let him sign in Pittsburgh on a very reasonable 3-year, 14.35 million dollar deal and used the money they saved elsewhere. Had Ted Thompson still been GM, they may have been more loyal to him. Burnett is getting up there in age and had missed time with injury in recent years and the Packers liked Jones and Clinton-Dix more as every down safeties, but Burnett was a versatile chess piece for this defense and will likely be missed.
Clinton-Dix has been an every down safety for the Packers for 3 seasons, topping 1000 snaps in all 3 years. A first round pick in 2014, Clinton-Dix has played all 64 games in 4 seasons in the league and has started every game since week 7 of his rookie season. He struggled a bit as a rookie, but has earned positive grades in each of the past 3 seasons, with his best season coming in 2015, when he was Pro Football Focus’ 16th ranked safety. Only in his age 26 season, it’s possible his best football is still ahead of him. He’ll make 5.957 million in the final year of his 5-year rookie deal this season and figures to get a raise from that on his next contract. They may extend him before the start of the season.
Jones, on the other hand, was not an every down safety last season, lining up all over the place. He also struggled, finishing 78th among 89 eligible safeties on the season, but the 2017 2nd round pick still has a high upside and could benefit from sticking to one position in his 2nd season in the league. Reserves Kentrell Brice and Marwin Evans also return, but neither was all that impressive in their limited action last season, so Jones is likely locked in as the starter even if he continues to struggle.
Cornerback was the big weakness on this defense in 2017 and it became even more of a need with Burnett leaving and Jones focusing on safety every down rather than covering the slot. The Packers also lost their leader in cornerback snaps from last season, Damarious Randall, when they sent him to the Browns in the Deshone Kizer trade, though he struggled in coverage and probably won’t be missed much. The Packers bring back Davon House and Josh Hawkins, their #2 and #3 cornerbacks last season in terms of snaps with 658 and 402 respectively, but they both struggled too, so the Packers were aggressive in adding cornerbacks this off-season.
The Packers signed veteran Tramon Williams to a 2-year, 10 million dollar deal in free agency and then used first and second round picks on cornerbacks, taking Louisville’s Jaire Alexander 18th overall and Iowa’s Josh Jackson 45th overall. They also have last year’s 2nd round pick Kevin King set to play a larger role in his 2nd season in the league, after playing just 380 snaps in 9 games in an injury plagued rookie season, and they have 2015 2nd round pick Quinten Rollins returning after missing the final 10 games of last season with an ankle injury. Hawkins is a 2016 undrafted free agent who has struggled on 410 career snaps, while House is a 7-year veteran journeyman who was guaranteed just 90K on the one-year deal he was re-signed to this off-season, so they’re likely competing for a spot at the bottom of the roster, now buried on a much deeper depth chart.
With so many new players in the mix, the Packers will likely have close to open competition, but Williams’ contract suggests he’s at least the favorite for one of the two starting jobs. A 2006 undrafted free agent, Williams actually spent 9 seasons in Green Bay from 2006-2014, before making stops in Cleveland and Arizona and returning this off-season. Williams has made 129 starts over the past 10 seasons and has been at least a capable starter in each season. His age is becoming a major concern, as he goes into his age 35 season, but he’s also coming off one of the better seasons of his career, finishing as PFF’s 14th ranked cornerback on 666 snaps with the Cardinals last season. The Packers are hoping he can continue to at least be a capable starter.
The Packers’ other cornerback options are on the other end of the spectrum age wise, as Jaire Alexander, Josh Jackson, Kevin King, and Quinten Rollins are going into their age 21, 22, 23, and 26 seasons respectively. Rollins is the veteran of the group, but he also has the least upside and is the least likely to earn a role on this defense. He was a 2nd round pick in 2015 and flashed on 334 snaps as a rookie, but he’s missed 15 games with injury in 3 seasons in the league and has not been the same player in the past 2 seasons, getting negative grades from PFF in both seasons. Even before his injury last season, he was just 4th on the depth chart. He’s not a roster lock if he doesn’t have a good off-season.
King is the only other cornerback that has an NFL experience, though he was underwhelming on 380 snaps in 9 games, while also missing time with a concussion and a shoulder injury. He still has a big upside though. The 33rd pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, King could have easily been a first round selection and could take a big leap forward in his 2nd season in the league if he can stay healthy and lock down a significant role. Alexander and Jackson also have big upsides, but they could be a bit raw as rookies and take a couple years to develop.
At the very least, this cornerback group is deeper and will be better prepared for injuries in 2018, but they could also be a lot better if one or two of their young players step up and Williams continues to play at a high level. At safety, losing Morgan Burnett hurts, but they could get a better year from second year player Josh Jones. The Packers will be counting on unproven young players in big roles in 2018, but they have a lot more upside than last year’s mediocre group. The Packers’ defense has the potential to be much better in 2018.
Last season, the Packers were one of the worst teams in the league without Rodgers, as backup Brett Hundley struggled and their defense could not stop anymore. Their only 3 wins after Rodgers got hurt came by 7 points or fewer, with 2 of them coming in overtime. Rodgers returns this season, but he enters the season with more uncertainty than usual, given his age and injury history, and he doesn’t quite have the same supporting cast he did a few years ago. They should be better defensively, especially in coverage, and are one of the better teams in the NFL overall, but they play in a division with a loaded Minnesota team and they play in easily the tougher of the two conferences, so a playoff berth is not a guarantee for them. I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.
Prediction: XX-XX XX in NFC North