The Packers have had some disappointing seasons in the 8 seasons since their last Super Bowl appearance, but none more disappointing than 2018. The Packers have had seasons where underwhelming defenses and running games have caused them to lose earlier than expected in the post-season. They’ve had seasons where they’ve struggled because Aaron Rodgers has missed time with injury. But until last season, they had never had a season where Aaron Rodgers played all 16 games, the defense and running game weren’t bad, and they still didn’t make a playoff run.
In fact, they didn’t even make it to the post-season at all, finishing 6-9-1. Their defense ranked 16th in first down rate allowed, their running game ranked 2nd in the NFL in YPC (5.01), but they still finished just 20th in first down rate differential because an underperforming passing game held back their offense, which ranked just 16th in first down rate. Aaron Rodgers has been one of the best quarterbacks in the league for the past decade, but he finished just 26th in the NFL in completion percentage (62.3%), 17th in yards per attempt (7.44), and 13th in passing touchdowns (25) last season. The fact that he threw only 2 interceptions is impressive, but he had another 6 interceptions dropped and even with only 2 interceptions he still finished just 13th in QB rating (97.6).
Rodgers wasn’t fully healthy, even though he started all 16 games, as he played the whole season through a knee injury he suffered week 1. That likely wasn’t the only reason for his decline though, especially since he was still able to be as effective on the ground as he usually is, averaging 6.26 YPC on 43 carries with 2 touchdowns. This passing game looked very disjointed all season long and no stat shows that better than Rodgers’ 51 thrown away passes, 21 more than any quarterback in the league (his 2 interceptions are less impressive when you realize that he threw 8.5% of his passes out of play). Rodgers threw the ball away on 22.7% of his pressured dropbacks and had the 2nd worst completion percentage in the league under pressure as a result. That had a significant effect on his passing production.
Head coach Mike McCarthy took the blame for the Packers’ offensive failure last season, getting fired in the middle of his 13th season with the team after an embarrassing home week 13 loss to the league worst Cardinals. McCarthy deserves a lot of the blame, as he ran bland schemes that did not best suit Aaron Rodgers’ skillset, an issue that caused conflict between the two. Rodgers probably deserves some of the blame as well, but the fact remains that McCarthy was the Packers’ coach for 13 seasons and had either Brett Favre or Aaron Rodgers for all 13 seasons and made just one Super Bowl. His time was going to come at some point and after that embarrassing loss to Arizona seemed like as good of a time as any to pull the plug.
The Packers replaced McCarthy this off-season with up and coming offensive mind Matt LaFleur. LaFleur only was a play caller for one season, last season with the Titans, and failed to get a productive season out of Marcus Mariota, but he worked under Mike Shanahan with the Falcons and Sean McVay with the Rams and is highly regarded throughout the league. How he and Rodgers will coexist remains to be seen, however, and the Packers might have been better off hiring a veteran defensive minded head coach like Vic Fangio and letting Rodgers have more control over the offense.
Rodgers should be healthier in 2019, but he is getting up there in age, going into his age 36 season, and he’s taken more of a beating than most quarterbacks who play well into their late 30s. It’s possible last season was the start of a decline for him, something the Packers are not prepared for, with only failed Browns starter Deshone Kizer behind Rodgers on the depth chart. It’s also just as possible that Rodgers stays healthy in 2019 and bounces back in a new offensive scheme. If that happens, and the Packers continue to have a solid running game and defense, they could easily be right back in Super Bowl contention.
Along with the Packers’ uncreative offensive scheme and Aaron Rodgers’ injury, an inexperienced receiving corps was a big part of why this passing game underperformed in 2019. With his former #1 receiver Jordy Nelson let go last off-season and his former #2 receiver Randall Cobb limited to 466 snaps by injury, Rodgers locked on to new #1 receiver Davante Adams, targeting him 169 times (26.4% of the Packers’ pass attempts), 2nd most in the NFL. When his first option couldn’t get open and the pass protection broke down, Rodgers frequently threw the ball away rather than trying to force it to one of the young receivers, which is why he had so many throwaways. No other wide receiver even had half as many targets as Adams.
Randall Cobb was not re-signed this off-season and the Packers did not bring in a replacement, so they’ll be counting on their young receivers to take a step forward. 2018 5th round pick Marquez Valdes-Scantling seems to have the best shot to do so. He was their de facto #2 receiver in 2018, finishing 2nd among Packer wide receivers with a 38/581/2 slash line and 691 snaps played. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see him have a bit of a 2nd year leap as he gains more experience with Rodgers.
The Packers also have Geronimo Allison coming back, after being limited to a 20/303/2 slash line in 5 games by injury in 2018. The 2016 undrafted free agent is still unproven and his 302 receiving yards last season were a career high, but he was also on a 76/1156/8 pace through 4 games before getting hurt last season and his familiarity with Rodgers, now going into his 4th season with the team, works in his benefit. He could be Randall Cobb’s replacement on the slot and has plenty of opportunity to be productive in this offense.
In addition to taking Valdez-Scantling in the 5th round, the Packers also used 4th and 6th round picks in 2018 on wide receivers, taking J’Mon Moore and Equanimeous St. Brown respectively. Moore didn’t show much as a rookie, with just 2 catches, but St. Brown had a 21/328/0 slash line while playing 358 snaps and looks likely to open the 2019 season as the 4th receiver. If other receivers struggle, he could earn a bigger role in a still unsettled group behind Davante Adams.
Adams figures to continue to see the lion’s share of the targets once and will likely be among the league leaders in targets again. Despite facing plenty of double teams, Adams produced in a big way last season, with a 111/1386/13 slash line, setting new career highs across the board. Adams is a one-year wonder in terms of being as productive as he was last season, but he also had a 75/997/12 slash line in 2016, despite being the #2 receiver behind Jordy Nelson, and he had a 74/885/10 slash line in 2017, despite playing most of the year with a backup quarterback. Still only in his age 27 season, Adams figures to continue being one of the most productive receivers in the league again in 2019.
The Packers are also counting on getting more out of tight end Jimmy Graham, who they made the highest paid tight end in the league with a 3-year, 30 million dollar deal last off-season, but he’s going into his age 33 season and seems to be on the decline. Graham averaged a 90/1116/12 slash line per 16 games in his final 4 seasons in New Orleans and even averaged a 67/905/5 slash line per 16 games in his first 2 seasons in Seattle, but that average has dropped to 56/578/6 over the past 2 seasons and he’s not an effective run blocker either. I don’t expect him to be that much more productive in 2019 than 2018 and he could keep declining.
With Graham owed a non-guaranteed 8 million in 2020, this could easily be his final season in Green Bay, so they used a 3rd round pick on Texas A&M’s Jace Sternberger. He’s unlikely to have a significant rookie year role though, especially since he’s very raw as a blocker. He’ll likely be the third tight end behind Graham and veteran blocking specialist Marcedes Lewis. This is still an unsettled receiving corps, but there’s some upside.
As mentioned, the Packers were one of the better running teams in the league last season. Part of that was Aaron Rodgers averaging 6.26 yards per carry on 43 carries, but lead back Aaron Jones also averaged 5.47 yards per carry on 133 carries. Despite that, Jones still barely got more carries than Jamaal Williams, who averaged just 3.83 yards per carry on 121 carries. Jones also finished 6th in the NFL with a 55% carry success rate, while Williams was 32nd out of 47 qualifiers at 45%. Jones saw more playing time as the season went on, but never went over 17 carries in a game.
In an effort to handle a bigger load, Aaron Jones has gotten into better shape this off-season. That could also help him avoid injuries, as he’s been limited to just 24 games in 2 seasons in the league. The 2017 5th round pick has a 5.50 YPC average on 214 career carries and has legitimate breakout potential now in his 3rd season in the league if his new found stamina is for real. Williams, a 4th round pick in 2017, will likely remain involved as a change of pace back, despite just a 3.72 YPC average on 274 career carries.
Williams is also a little bit better of a pass catcher with 52 career catches to 35 for Jones, and could be their primary passing down back. Neither back will be a big part of the passing game, however. Despite that, if Jones breaks out a dominant an early down runner, not having a good passing down back isn’t that big of a deal. If Jones does break out, the Packers would be wise to lean more on the running game after a very uneven 693/333 pass to run split in 2019.
Offensive line play was also part of the problem last season. In addition to Rodgers’ 51 throwaways under pressure, he also took 49 sacks. That’s not entirely the offensive line’s fault, but that’s 15.5% of Rodgers’ 646 dropbacks that ended in a throwaway or sack, which is not the recipe for an effective offense. If their receiving corps takes a step forward and the offensive scheme is better, that will help, but they need their offensive line to take a step forward as well.
The problem was primarily their guard play. Left guard Lane Taylor made 14 starts and Byron Bell (9 starts), Justin McCray (5 starts), and Lucas Patrick (2 starts) all saw action at right guard, but they were all underwhelming at best. The Packers addressed the right guard position in free agency, giving Billy Turner a 4-year, 28 million dollar deal, but Taylor returns and looks likely to start, despite allowing a team high 8 sacks last season.
Taylor has been better in the past, but has primarily been a reserve in his career, with 47 starts in 6 seasons in the league, and now he’s going into his age 30 season. He’ll likely continue being an underwhelming starter, with his biggest competition being second round rookie Elgton Jenkins, who wouldn’t necessarily be an upgrade. In addition, free agent acquisition Billy Turner isn’t a lock to be any better at right guard, despite his salary. A 3rd round pick in 2014, Turner never developed into a starter on his rookie deal, struggling in 14 starts in his first 4 seasons in the league, but he ended up starting for the Broncos last season when injuries struck and wasn’t bad. He made 7 starts at left guard and 4 starts at right tackle and his versatility is an asset, but he’s a one-year wonder in terms of being even an average starter and is already in his age 28 season. He was an overpay in free agency.
Left tackle David Bakhtiari was not the problem last season and, in fact, is one of the best left tackles in the entire NFL. A 4th round pick in 2013, he’s started 90 of 96 games in 6 seasons in the league and has been especially good in the past 3 seasons, finishing in the top-7 among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus in all 3 seasons, including a first place finish in 2018. Still only going into his age 28 season, I see no reason to expect a dropoff from him.
This line will be bookended on the other side by right tackle Bryan Bulaga, who is going into his 10th season with the team. Bulaga was PFF’s 20th ranked offensive tackle in 2018 and has been an above average starter for years, but injuries and age are becoming a concern. He’s missed 45 games over the past 8 seasons and is now going into his age 30 season. He could start to decline in 2019 and could easily get injured again, in which case he’d likely be replaced by swing tackle Jason Spriggs again.
Center Corey Linsley also remains as a starter. Despite only being a 5th round pick, Linsley has been a starter since his rookie season in 2014 (70 of 80 starts in 5 seasons in the league) and has finished in the top-15 among centers on PFF in 4 of 5 seasons, including a career best 6th in 2018. Still only going into his age 28, he should continue playing at a high level in 2019. Guard is still a position of weakness, but this is not a bad offensive line.
Firing Mike McCarthy last season was not the only major personnel change the Packers have made in the past couple years. They also relieved GM Ted Thompson of his duties after 13 years on the job and moved forward with new GM Brian Gutekunst last off-season. Thompson was notorious for sitting out free agency, in order to save his cap space to re-sign homegrown talent and to collect compensation picks. That strategy worked well when the Packers were consistently hitting on draft picks, but their drafts weren’t as good towards the end of Thompson’s tenure.
With Gutekunst in charge now, the Packers have been much more aggressive in free agency. They added Jimmy Graham on offense last off-season and then they added Billy Turner this off-season, but their biggest investments this off-season came on defense, where they added a trio of starters in Za’Darius Smith, Preston Smith, and safety Adrian Amos on big contracts. Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith are edge defenders and fill a big need for the Packers who had just one edge defender with more than 3.5 sacks last season. They let long-time Packer Clay Matthews leave as a free agent and then released fellow veteran Nick Perry ahead of a 10.737 million dollar non-guaranteed salary in order to replace them with Za’Darius and Preston, who will form a 3-man rotation with Kyler Fackrell, their leading sack man last season with 10.5 sacks.
Both the Preston Smith and Za’Darius Smith signings look like overpays though, at 52 million over 4 years and 66 million over 4 years respectively, as neither has ever had a double digit sack season. Za’Darius came close last season with 8.5 sacks and he added 18 hits and a 13.1% pressure rate, but he struggled against the run and is a one-year wonder, with 10 sacks, 19 hits, and a 9.2% pressure rate in the first 3 seasons of his career. The 2015 4th round pick is still only going into his age 27 season and could keep playing well, but the Packers are taking a big risk paying him like an elite pass rusher.
Preston Smith, meanwhile, is also coming off a career best year, even if it doesn’t show in his sack total (4 sacks, after 20.5 in his first 3 seasons in the league). He added 11 hits and an 11.3% pressure rate, played the run well, and finished 20th among edge defenders on Pro Football Focus. He’s a more complete player than Za’Darius and is more proven, but only had a 9.7% pressure rate in the first 3 seasons of his career, so he’s kind of a one-year wonder as well. Like with Za’Darius, Preston is in his age 27 season and the Packers are hoping he keeps getting better. The Smiths should be a solid starting duo for a team that had a weak spot on the edge last season, but it’s unlikely they’ll be the players the Packers are paying them to be.
On top of that, Kyler Fackrell wasn’t as good as his sack total last season suggested, adding just 2 hits and a 9.4% pressure rate, while struggling against the run. The 2016 3rd round pick has always struggled against the run, but he has a solid 10.4% pressure rate for his career and could be a solid situational pass rusher. He’s unlikely to come close to matching the 11 sacks he had last season though.
Reggie Gilbert, a 2016 undrafted free agent, who played nondescript 487 snaps in the first significant action of his career last season, could also see snaps as the 4th edge defender, but the Packers are probably hoping he doesn’t have as big of a role as last season, after making a pair of big off-season additions at the position. They might have not have a standout edge defender, but this is a solid group.
The Packers’ solid defensive performance last season was made more impressive by the amount of injuries they endured, finishing with the 3rd most adjusted games lost to injury on defense in the league. Injuries affected all levels of their defense. On the defensive line, interior defenders Kenny Clark and Mike Daniels are two of their best defensive players and they were limited to 10 games and 13 games respectively.
Clark was dominant when on the field before his season ending elbow injury, finishing in the top-9 among interior defenders on Pro Football Focus for the 2nd straight season. He plays nose tackle in base packages and is a dominant run stuffer, but he’s also much more than that, with 10.5 sacks, 8 hits, and a 10.2% pressure rate in the past 2 seasons. A first round pick in 2016, Clark also flashed as a rookie and, still only going into his age 24 season, has a massive ceiling. It wouldn’t be a surprise if he kept getting better and at the very least he should remain one of the top interior defenders in the league for years to come if he stays healthy.
Daniels, on the other hand, could be on the decline, going into his age 30 season, after an injury plagued 2018 season. Not only did Daniels missed 6 games with injury, but he wasn’t as good as he normally is either, earning middling grades from PFF, after 3 straight seasons in the top-30 among interior defenders from 2015-2017. It’s entirely possible he bounces back in 2019, still not totally over the hill, and that his down 2018 season was purely the result of numerous injuries, but the Packers reportedly plan to scale his snaps back this season (43.1 snaps per game over the past 5 seasons) and this could easily be his final season in a Green Bay uniform, hitting free agency next off-season. After making several big free agent signings this off-season, the Packers don’t have much long-term financial flexibility.
Likely with the Mike Daniels situation in mind, the Packers used the 12th overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft on Michigan’s Rashan Gary, who could be Daniels’ long-term replacement. Gary is a freak athlete with a massive upside, but underwhelming college production and a questionable shoulder injury dropped Gary out of the top-10. He could prove to be a steal for the Packers, but he’s the definition of a boom or bust prospect. He’ll likely be a rotational player as a rookie.
With Daniels missing time last season, Dean Lowry was 2nd on the team in defensive line snaps played with 698. He’ll likely have a smaller role in 2019 and isn’t a great pass rusher (8.7% career pressure rate), but the 2016 4th round pick has developed into a strong run stuffer and should continue having a role as a base package defensive end. 2017 3rd round pick Montravious Adams could also be in the mix, but he’s played just 278 underwhelming snaps in 2 seasons in the league and probably isn’t a lock for the final roster. With Clark and Daniels healthy and Gary coming in, this is a very strong group.
At middle linebacker in the Packers’ 3-4 defense, the Packers have one of two starting spots locked down, with Blake Martinez coming off of a season in which he made all 16 starts and finished 17th among off ball linebackers on Pro Football Focus. It was a career best year for him, but the 2016 4th round pick has gotten better in every season in the league and is still only going into his age 25 season. He could easily continue playing at a high level in 2019, which also happens to be the final year of his rookie deal. Assuming he has another strong year, someone will pay him as one of the top linebackers in the league next off-season.
The other middle linebacker spot is a big question mark though. Antonio Morrison and Oren Burks were 2nd and 3rd on the team in snaps by a middle linebacker last season and both struggled on just 302 snaps and 126 snaps respectively. The Packers frequently used 3 safeties at once in obvious passing situations, dropping one of the safeties down closer to the line of scrimmage as a coverage linebacker, most commonly Josh Jones. With the Packers adding a pair of safeties this off-season, Jones is expected to move full-time to linebacker and the 6-2 220 pounder should remain a coverage specialist. The 2017 2nd round pick hasn’t shown much in 2 seasons in the league, but his ability to play in the box and cover backs and tight ends is valuable for a team that is so thin at linebacker.
With Jones working as a coverage specialist and Antonio Morrison no longer with the team, that makes Oren Burks the favorite to be the base package starter opposite Martinez. He was a 3rd round pick in 2018 and has upside, but his rookie season was horrible, as he was one of PFF’s lowest rated off ball linebackers, despite seeing very limited action. It wouldn’t be hard for him to be better in 2019, but he could still be a below average starter even if he does take a step forward. It’s a surprise the Packers did not address this position until the 7th round in the draft (TCU’s Ty Summers), especially with Martinez going into the final year of his rookie deal.
The Packers’ most injury plagued position group last season was probably their secondary. As a result, they started 5 different players at cornerback, 6 different players at safety, while Tramon Williams, their only 16 game starter, made starts at both positions (9 at cornerback, 7 at safety). Williams wasn’t bad last season, but he’s going into his age 36 season and the Packers are hoping he’ll be a reserve in what could be a much improved group.
At safety, the Packers added first round pick Darnell Savage (21st overall) and Adrian Amos, their third big off-season signing, who comes over from rival Chicago on a 4-year, 36 million dollar deal. Amos flew under the radar in a strong safety class in free agency, but he’s been one of the best safeties in the league over the past couple seasons. Only a 5th round pick in 2015, Amos made 56 starts in 4 seasons in Chicago, earning an above average grade from Pro Football Focus in all 4 seasons, including top-11 finishes in each of the past 2 seasons. In addition to filling a big need for them, Amos’ addition also weakens a division rival, so this was probably their best off-season move. He’ll start alongside Darnell Savage, a versatile safety who figures to be a week 1 starter as a rookie.
At cornerback, the Packers didn’t make any big additions, but they’re hoping for better health, after starters Kevin King and Jaire Alexander were limited to 6 games and 13 games respectively last season. King dealt with injury problems as a rookie as well and the 2017 2nd round pick has missed more games (17) than he’s played (15) in his career. He also hasn’t played very well when on the field either, but he’s still only going into his age 24 season and still has potential if he can ever make it through a full season healthy. If not, they’d likely turn back to Tramon Williams.
Jaire Alexander and 3rd cornerback Josh Jackson are both young as well, going in the 1st and 2nd rounds respectively in 2018. Alexander went 18th overall and finished as PFF’s 32nd ranked cornerback in 11 rookie year starts, while Jackson was serviceable on playing 721 snaps in 16 games (10 starts). Both could easily take a step forward in their 2nd year in the league in 2019. This young cornerback group has a lot of potential if they can stay healthy and this secondary looks much improved overall.
This team has a lot of potential if the passing game bounces back in a new offensive system, with young receivers going into their second year in the league. They should be able to run the ball and their defense was solid last season and could be even better this season, due to better health and several free agent additions. A bounce back from their passing game is not a guarantee though, due to Rodgers’ age, the inexperience of their receiving corps, and a potential clash looming between Rodgers and new head coach Matt LaFleur over play calling. On paper, this is one of the most talented teams in the league and this is one of the most complete teams Rodgers has ever had around him, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they disappointed.
Prediction: 12-4, 1st in NFC North