Minnesota Vikings at Green Bay Packers: 2020 Week 8 NFL Pick

Minnesota Vikings (1-5) at Green Bay Packers (5-1)

The Vikings have just one win, but there is reason to believe they’ll be a lot better than that going forward, coming out of last week’s bye. In many ways, they remind me of last year’s Atlanta Falcons, who started 1-7, but won 6 of their final 8 after their bye week. The Falcons had a first down rate differential of +1.33% in their first 8 games, but had a turnover margin of -11 that was the 2nd worst in the league at the time, which made winning any games very difficult. 

Fortunately for those Falcons (and these Vikings), per play success stats like first down rate tend to be much more consistent and predictive in the long run than stats like turnover margin that only tell what happened on a small percentage of a team’s snaps. The Falcons weren’t drastically better in first down rate differential over their 6-2 stretch at +2.02%, but their turnover margin improved to +6, making it much easier for the Falcons to win games. 

If anything, the Vikings have been better this season than the Falcons were last year during their 1-7 stretch, as the Vikings rank 4th in the NFL this season with a +2.73% first down rate differential, adjusted for schedule. The Vikings haven’t been killed by the turnover margin quite as much as last year’s Falcons, but they still rank 3rd worst in the league at -7, as they’ve recovered just 35.71% of fumbles, while quarterback Kirk Cousins has thrown interceptions at a rate 2.5 times higher than his career average and over 3 times higher than his previous 3 seasons. Both of those things are unlikely to continue. Also unlikely to continue is the Vikings allowing 19 of 19 field goals against and their -31.8% 4th down conversion rate disparity. 

It’s not hard to see how that has led to the Vikings losing otherwise winnable games, as they were a failed 4th down conversation away from clinching the game in Seattle and lost by 1 to the Titans in a game in which the Titans made 6 of 6 field goals, including a trio from 50+ and a 55-yard game winner. The Vikings could easily be 3-3 right now, despite a relatively tough schedule, and that doesn’t even take into account that the Vikings fared much better on a per play basis than the final score suggests in losses in Green Bay and Atlanta, or that the Vikings were missing top offensive player Dalvin Cook before the bye in that Atlanta loss and have been without guard Pat Elflein since week 1. Both players are expected to return this week.

The Vikings’ defense is a real concern, especially with defensive end Yannick Ngakoue being traded and several injuries to their cornerback depth, and I definitely don’t think they’re as good as their raw first down rate stats would suggest, but even with their defensive problems, I still have them as a middle of the pack team in my roster rankings and defense tends to be much more inconsistent on a week-to-week basis than offense. Like last year’s Atlanta Falcons, the Vikings are an offensive led team, which makes their chances of improving significantly going forward much better than if they were a defensive led team. 

The Falcons made a statement right away out of their bye last season, winning convincingly by score of 26-9 as 13.5-point underdogs in New Orleans in one of the biggest upsets of the season. The Vikings have a chance to do something similar this week in Green Bay (though it wouldn’t be quite as big of an upset) and even if they don’t I like their chances of keeping this one close. The Vikings lost by 9 to the Packers in Minnesota back in week 1, but that was a weird game where the Packers out snapped the Vikings 76-49 because they won the turnover battle by 1, they converted a 4th down, they forced a safety immediately after their failed 4th down conversion, and they stopped the Vikings on a 4th down try of their own. 

On a per snap basis, the Vikings won the first down rate battle by 10.23% and the yards per play battle by 0.9, which tends to be much more predictive than things like turnovers and 4th down performance. On the season, in addition to their edge in schedule adjusted first down rate differential (+2.73% vs. -0.05%), the Vikings also are just behind the Packers in net yards per play (0.3 vs. 0.2) and DVOA (10th vs. 18th). This game is in Lambeau, but with no fans in attendance, that doesn’t make much of a difference, so my calculated line is just Green Bay -4 and that’s before taking into account any situational factors.

Not only are these two teams closer than their records would suggest, but the Packers are also in a tough spot, having to turn around and play again in 4 days in San Francisco against a 49ers team that beat them twice easily last year and ended their season in the NFC Championship game. Favorites cover at just a 44.0% rate all-time before a Thursday night game and for the Packers the look ahead effect could be even greater, given that they’ve already beaten the Vikings once this year and have likely been looking forward to their nationally televised revenge game with the 49ers since the schedule came out. 

The Vikings, meanwhile, should be totally focused, coming out of a bye, with a much easier game against the Lions on deck. Underdogs cover at a 62.7% rate before being favorites when their opponents will next be underdogs and even that doesn’t hold true in this matchup, the logic still stands that the Vikings will be much more focused for this game than their opponents. On top of that, divisional home favorites of 3.5+ are 36-48 ATS over the past 30 seasons against a team they’ve already beaten and, for what it’s worth, underdogs are 9-5 ATS over the past 30 years off of a bye when their opponents will next play on a short week, although that’s obviously a small sample size. 

The Packers have a lot of injury uncertainty, with key players like left tackle David Bakhiari, safety Darnell Savage, and wide receiver Allen Lazard being legitimately questionable for this matchup, but even if they all play, I like the Vikings enough to make this my Pick of the Week and if all three of those players don’t play, there’s a good chance the Vikings could pull the straight up upset. I am glad I was able to lock this in at 7 earlier in the week because sharp action has pushed this line down to 6. I would still like the Vikings at 6, but not as much and at that number, the injury inactives will be more important.

Green Bay Packers 30 Minnesota Vikings 28

Pick against the spread: Minnesota +7

Confidence: Pick of the Week

Green Bay Packers at Houston Texans: 2020 Week 7 NFL Pick

Green Bay Packers (4-1) at Houston Texans (1-5)

The Texans are just 1-5, but they’ve faced arguably the toughest schedule in the league, with 4 games against teams with 1 loss or fewer (Chiefs, Ravens, Steelers, Titans), and they’ve still played three of their five losses within one score, including 4th quarter leads over the undefeated Steelers and Titans. Of their two games against teams with losing records, one was against a Vikings team that is significantly better than its record and the other was an easy win over the Jaguars. I didn’t think the Texans were any better than a middling team entering the season, but I don’t think they’re much worse now. Adjusting for schedule, they have a first down rate differential of -1.06%.

The Texans have another tough game this week with the 4-1 Packers coming to town, but I would argue the Packers are behind all four of the aforementioned teams with one loss or fewer. The Packers’ blowout defeat in Tampa Bay last week is a significantly worse loss than any loss by any of the four other teams and even going into that game the Packers ranked just 11th in first down rate differential at +2.63%, due to a defense that ranks among the worst in the league in first down rate allowed. Now, the Packers aren’t far ahead of the Texans in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at +0.14%.

Making matters worse, the Packers will be without stud left tackle David Bakhtiari, talented safety Darnell Savage, and possibly running back Aaron Jones. Jones’ absence wouldn’t be as big of a deal as most think because the Packers are deep at running back, but I still have this game close to 50/50 regardless of whether or not Jones plays, so we’re getting great line value with the Texans at +3.5. They might not pull the straight up upset, but about a quarter of games are decided by a field goal or less, so I like getting the 3.5 point cushion. This figures to be a shootout and the most likely outcome is either side winning by a field goal, two scenarios that would both lead to a Texans cover.

Green Bay Packers 34 Houston Texans 33

Pick against the spread: Houston +3.5

Confidence: Medium

Green Bay Packers at Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 2020 Week 6 NFL Pick

Green Bay Packers (5-0) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-2)

The Buccaneers have a pair of losses in their first five games, but they still rank 2nd in the NFL in first down rate differential at +5.19%. They won the first down rate battle by 8.18% in their first loss to the Saints (losing the game primarily due to a -3 turnover margin, which was not going to happen every week) and they only lost the first down rate battle for the first time all season last week, finishing at -4.21% in a narrow 1-point loss in Chicago. The Buccaneers can definitely keep this up going forward and it should translate to more wins on the scoreboard than it has in their first 5 games, but how they achieve their success might be different.

In their first 5 games, the Buccaneers have been heavily reliant on a 3rd ranked defense that has allowed a 32.46% first down rate, while their offense has actually been pretty mediocre, with a 21st ranked first down rate of 37.65%. Going forward, their defense probably won’t be quite as good, due to the loss of stud defensive lineman Vita Vea with an injury, but their offense should be significantly improved, as not only does new quarterback Tom Brady now have more familiarity with this offense, but he also has arguably the top wide receiver duo in the league in Mike Evans and Chris Godwin both finally healthy at the same time. That should at least offset the loss of Vea and if this team can be more balanced and consistently good on both sides of the ball, this is going to be a very tough team to beat.

The Packers, meanwhile, have set the standard for offense so far this season, leading the league with a 45.98% first down rate, but their defense has been a major concern, allowing a 43.35% first down rate, 30th in the NFL. It hasn’t caused them to lose any games yet, but the Packers’ wins have been closer than they should have been, given the otherworldly level the offense is playing at. The defense should be better going forward, even if only by default, but their offense might regress by default as well and even if it doesn’t, the Packers still figure to drop a few games because of their defense, especially in games like this against another top level team.

Given that, we’re getting great value with the Buccaneers as home underdogs. They’re only 1-point underdogs, but if we give the Buccaneers 2 points for being at home with partial fans, that suggests the Packers are three points better than the Buccaneers, when in reality these two teams should be considered at least even. I actually have the Buccaneers slightly ahead of the Packers right now, but even if we call it even, we’re still getting good value with the Buccaneers.

A week ago, this line favored Tampa Bay by a field goal on the early line, which is still currently my calculated line, and it’s unclear why the line moved so drastically, as the Packers had a bye week and Buccaneers could have easily gotten into field goal range for the win at the end in the game against the Bears. I suspect if that had happened, we wouldn’t have such a drastic line movement. The Vea injury could be part of the reason for the line movement, but, as I mentioned, the Buccaneers having their wide receivers healthy is equally important, if not more so.

Tom Brady has also always traditionally done well in situations like this where his team is doubted. His record off of a loss is famous at this point, but his ATS record off of a loss is even more incredible at 43-22 and that becomes 20-3 ATS if you look only at instances where Brady is an underdog or favorite of fewer than 3 points, which is the case here. He’s also a ridiculous 38-11 ATS against teams with a better record than his, including 27-9 ATS in week 5 or later (when records are more likely to be indicative of talent level). 

Those numbers were accumulated in New England with Bill Belichick and Brady is now in his age 43 season, but it stands to reason that Brady still will be at his best when his back is up against the wall, even if that best isn’t quite what it was in his prime. This is one of several games I am considering for Pick of the Week (including BOTH Monday games). I will have a final decision on my Pick of the Week tomorrow after I review the Monday games more thoroughly, but the Buccaneers are worth a big bet either way.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 34 Green Bay Packers 31 Upset Pick +100

Pick against the spread: Tampa Bay +1

Confidence: High

Atlanta Falcons at Green Bay Packers: 2020 Week 4 NFL Pick

Atlanta Falcons (0-3) at Green Bay Packers (3-0)

The Packers won last week in New Orleans to push their record to 3-0. Making that more impressive is the fact that they were without top wide receiver Davante Adams and top defensive lineman Kenny Clark, who has actually missed each of the past two seasons. Both players are expected to return this week after getting limited practices in every day this week, but that’s not a guarantee and the Packers have other key players who are questionable, with both center Corey Linsley and cornerback Jaire Alexander missing practice on Friday. On top of that, top linebacker Christian Kirksey, blocking tight end Marcedes Lewis, and starting wide receiver Allen Lazard are expected to miss their first game of the season this week.

I can’t bet the Packers confidently given all their injury questions, but if they have most or all of their questionable players in the lineup, I think they’re worth a bet. Not only would we be getting some line value with the Packers (my calculated line is Green Bay -10 if Green Bay’s questionables are active), but the Packers are in a great spot at home as big favorites before a bye. Since 2002, home favorites of 7+ are 63-25 ATS before a bye. I’m leaving this as a low confidence pick for now, but if the Packers are relatively healthy, this line is too low. Even if they’re missing key players, it wouldn’t be a surprise if they were still able to take care of business before a bye against this underwhelming Falcons team.

Update: Both Clark and Adams are out again for the Packers. The line has dropped to 5 to compensate, but my calculated line dropped to 6.5, so we’re not getting much value. The Packers are still my pick, but I’m leaving this as a low confidence pick.

Green Bay Packers 34 Atlanta Falcons 27

Pick against the spread: Green Bay -5

Confidence: Low

Green Bay Packers at New Orleans Saints: 2020 Week 3 NFL Pick

Green Bay Packers (2-0) at New Orleans Saints (1-1)

The Saints lost in Las Vegas to the Raiders last week and it seems to be a common narrative this week that the sky is falling in New Orleans. Drew Brees’ production has been questionable through two games and some are wondering if the 41-year-old might be done, with some media conversations discussing whether or not the Saints would be better off starting backup Jameis Winston instead of the future Hall-of-Famer. That reaction is noticeable in this line, which shifted from 5.5 on the early line last week to 3 this week.

The part that is usually left out of that discussion is that the Saints pretty much always do this to start the season. Since 2010, they are just 4-17-1 ATS in the first two weeks of the season, as opposed to 85-53-2 ATS in weeks 3-17. Over the previous three seasons, the Saints won more regular season games than any team in the league, but they were just 2-4 in the first two weeks of the season, including a pair of losses to eventual non-playoff qualifiers. The Saints losing their 2018 home opener to the eventual 5-win Buccaneers didn’t mean the sky was falling that season, so I wouldn’t be so sure that losing to a competent Raiders team in their first game in their new stadium means the sky is falling this season.

Brees’ age can’t be ignored and neither can the fact that he is without his top wide receiver Michael Thomas for at least another week, but I had the Saints as my highest rated team coming into the season and they still rank 3rd in my roster rankings despite a slow start and the absence of Michael Thomas, so the Saints could end up being very undervalued going forward if they can get over their early season struggles like they always do.

I wouldn’t assume that week 3 is a magic week for the Saints (even if they are 7-3 ATS in week 3 since 2010) or that the Saints are going to get hot like they normally do until Thomas can return and the Packers are a quality opponent as well, but the Packers are without top wide receiver Davante Adams and could be without top defensive lineman Kenny Clark for another week as well, so they’re not at full strength either. If both of those guys are out, I still have the Saints as 5-point favorites in this game even without Thomas, so there would be enough line value for the Saints to be worth a bet. I’ll leave this as a low confidence pick for now, but I may update this tomorrow.

Update: Clark’s status is unclear, but I think this line might move up to 3.5 by gametime if he’s ruled out, so I am going to lock this in at -3 while I can. I am comfortable betting on the Saints either way because Clark could be hobbled if he plays.

New Orleans Saints 33 Green Bay Packers 27

Pick against the spread: New Orleans -3

Confidence: Medium

Detroit Lions at Green Bay Packers: 2020 Week 2 NFL Pick

Detroit Lions (0-1) at Green Bay Packers (1-0)

The Lions held a 23-6 lead at the beginning of the 4th quarter last week against the Bears last week, but ended up giving up three straight touchdowns to lose by a score of 27-23. It was an impressive comeback by the Bears, who did nothing on offense for the first three quarters of the game, but it’s worth noting it came against a Lions defense that was missing its top three cornerbacks, with Jeff Okudah inactive with injury and Desmond Trufant and Justin Coleman suffering injuries of their own mid-game.

Okudah, the 3rd overall pick in April’s draft, will make his debut in this game, but both Trufant and Coleman are out, leaving Okudah with a tough assignment as the top cornerback in his first career game. The Lions will likely start 2019 5th round pick Amani Oruwariye opposite him and he’s shown promise in limited action in his career, but even if their young cornerbacks hold up outside, the Lions’ depth at cornerback is very questionable. The Lions will also be short-handed on offense, without a pair of starters on the offensive line (left guard Joe Dahl and right tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai) and top receiver Kenny Golladay.

The Packers will be without top defensive lineman Kenny Clark in this one and he was clearly missed down the stretch against the Vikings, but overall the Packers are in much better injury shape. This line is right around where it should be though, favoring the Packers by 6.5 points at Lambeau with minimal homefield advantage. This is one of the toughest calls of the week, but I’m taking the Lions only because these teams both tend to play a lot of close games. The Packers won 8 of their 13 games last year by one score or less, while the Lions had 8 of their 12 losses come by one score or less, blowing a league leading four 4th quarterback leads. Even if the Lions can’t keep it close throughout, they have a good chance to get a backdoor cover late.

Green Bay Packers 30 Detroit Lions 24

Pick against the spread: Detroit +6.5

Confidence: None

Green Bay Packers at Minnesota Vikings: 2020 Week 1 NFL Pick

Green Bay Packers (0-0) at Minnesota Vikings (0-0)

When these two teams met last season, the Packers won both matchups, outscoring the Vikings by 18 points and winning the first down rate battle by 10.32% between the two games. The Packers also won more games overall, winning the NFC North at 13-3, with the Vikings settling for a wild card at 10-6. However, overall, the Vikings actually outplayed the Packers on the year, with edges in first down rate differential (+3.34% vs. +1.15%), point differential (+104 vs. +63), and DVOA (+15.4% vs. +7.7%). 

There is a lot of talk about how the Packers didn’t do anything notable to improve their weaknesses this season, but the Vikings had a much worse off-season and are missing key contributors from last season. On offense, they traded away Stefon Diggs, who was their top wide receiver last season, and replaced him with a rookie first round pick. On defense, defensive end Everson Griffen and defensive tackle Linval Joseph left in free agency. The Vikings brought in Yannick Ngakoue and Michael Pierce to replace them, but the latter opted out of the season, while the former will start the season as a replacement for other starting defensive end Danielle Hunter, one of the top edge defenders in the league, who will miss at least the first 3 weeks of the season with injury. Without him, the Vikings have a very underwhelming defensive line, with Ngakoue as their only real threat.

The Packers are missing an offensive lineman to do injury, but have arguably the deepest offensive line in the league, with 6 capable starters on the roster. Overall, I give the Packers a 3.5 point edge over the Vikings based on the current state of their rosters. This is technically a road game for the Packers, but the Vikings won’t have any fans in the stadium due to pandemic restrictions and the Packers don’t have to travel far. This line favors the Vikings by 2.5 points, but my calculated line is the opposite favoring the Packers by 2.5. I don’t love line value between -3/+3 because so few games are decided by 2 or fewer points, but the Packers are worth a small bet at +2.5 and there’s good value with the money line at +120 as well. If this line moves up to +3, I will increase this bet.

Green Bay Packers 23 Minnesota Vikings 20 Upset Pick +120

Pick against the spread: Green Bay +2.5

Confidence: Medium

Green Bay Packers 2020 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Packers went 13-3 and went to the NFC Championship last year, but they weren’t as good as that suggests. For one, their point differential of +63 is not only more in line with a 9-10 win team than a 13 win team, but it’s also the lowest point differential ever for a team with 13 or more wins. That’s despite the fact that the Packers had a +12 turnover margin, something they won’t necessarily be able to count on going forward, given how unpredictable turnovers are week-to-week and year-to-year. 

With a quarterback like Aaron Rodgers under center who rarely turns it over, the Packers are always going to have a better chance to win the turnover battle than the average team, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be at +12 again. In fact, the Packers are just +10 in turnover margin in their previous 4 seasons combined. For a team that went 8-1 in games decided by 8 points or fewer in 2019, even a slight difference in turnover margin could have affected their win total by at least a couple games.

In terms of first down rate differential, the Packers ranked 14th at +1.15%, with their offense ranking 16th in first down rate at 35.69% and their defense ranking 12th in first down rate allowed at 34.54%. That’s actually not far off from 2018, when the Packers ranked 20th in first down rate differential at -0.81%, with their offense ranking 16th in first down rate at 36.16% and their defense ranking 16th in first down rate allowed at 36.97%, in a season in which they ended up at just 6-9-1. The Packers aren’t necessarily going to regress that much in terms of win total in 2020, but they figure to have a hard time winning as many games as last season if they don’t significantly improve their level of play.

Perhaps most concerningly for the Packers last season was how they fared against the NFC’s top team the San Francisco 49ers, who beat them twice by scores of 37-8 and 37-20, doing so the second time in the NFC Championship, en route to a Super Bowl appearance. The Packers may have won the same amount of games as the 49ers last season, but those two games showed they have a long way to go to catch the top team in the conference.

Aaron Rodgers still played at a high level in 2019, finishing 8th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus, but he’s now going into his age 37 season and, if you look at his recent history, it’s clear he’s at least somewhat past his prime, finishing outside of the top-5 quarterbacks on PFF in 4 of the past 5 seasons, including each of the past three seasons. Over those past three seasons, Rodgers has completed just 62.6% of his passes and averaged 7.21 yards per attempt, down from career averages of 64.6% and 7.75. 

His 67/12 TD/INT ratio over the past three seasons is still very impressive, but his passing touchdown totals of 25 and 26 over the past two seasons are the two lowest single season totals of his career in a full season and his interception rate has been kept low by being overly conservative with the ball, with an average of 2.92 throwaways per game over the past 3 seasons, including a league leading 98 throwaways over the past two seasons. Rodgers’ 0.9% interception rate over the past 3 seasons is less impressive when you realize he’s thrown 8.1% of his passes out of play over that stretch. Obviously you don’t want your quarterback forcing things too often, but it’s hard to consistently sustain drives when you throw that many passes out of play and, with as much throwing ability as Rodgers has, he should be more willing to throw into tight windows.

Rodgers should still remain an above average quarterback at the very least in 2020, but his best days are likely behind him and even the Packers seem to be thinking about life without him, trading up to use the 26th overall pick on Utah State quarterback Jordan Love. Love drew some comparisons to Patrick Mahomes as a prospect, but that’s hardly a guarantee he ever develops like Mahomes, so the Packers are taking a big risk using a first round pick on him rather than someone who can help the team win now. The same could be said of taking Aaron Rodgers originally back in 2005, but Rodgers fell into the Packers’ lap, while Love was traded up for, and the Packers actually fell to 4-12 the season after taking Rodgers. 

That’s not necessarily going to happen again in 2020, but it’s clear that the Love selection was about the long-term, not the short-term. Now the clock starts to tick for Rodgers, who is guaranteed 43.55 million over the next two seasons, but theoretically could be traded at any point if the Packers like how Love is developing behind the scenes. Realistically, I would expect Rodgers to be elsewhere by the 2022 season because the Packers will want to evaluate Love under center before deciding whether or not to pick up his 5th year option for 2024, a decision they’ll have to make after the 2022 season. For now, Rodgers is a good but declining quarterback at the helm of a team that is solid, but not nearly as good as their record last season suggests.

Grade: A-

Receiving Corps

Part of the problem for Rodgers over the past few years has been his receiving corps, as he’s lacked a consistent pass catcher aside from Davante Adams. In that sense, it’s understandable that Rodgers would throw so many balls out of play entirely, but his offensive line is giving him plenty of time to throw, so he needs to do a better job of trying to throw guys open. Rodgers’ need for receiver help just makes the Packers’ decision to use their first round pick on a replacement for him instead all the more questionable and, on top of that, the Packers didn’t make any free agent additions outside of taking a 1-year, 2.5 million dollar flyer on Devin Funchess. 

Funchess was limited to a 44/549/4 slash line in 2018 and missed all but one game with injury last season, but his 63/840/8 slash line in 2017 shows his upside, he’s earned an average or better grade from PFF in all 5 seasons in the league, and he is still relatively young in his age 26 season. Funchess was signed to a 1-year, 10 million dollar deal in free agency by the Colts just last off-season before his injury-ruined 2019 campaign, so the Packers are getting a good value by getting him for a fraction of that price.

Marques Valdez-Scantling (542 snaps), Geronimo Allison (638 snaps), and Allen Lazard (479 snaps) all saw significant action behind Adams last season, but Valdez-Scantling and Allison both struggled mightily, finishing 92nd and 97th respectively out of 101 qualifying wide receivers on Pro Football Focus, so Funchess has a good chance to earn playing time in three wide receiver sets with Adams and likely Allen Lazard, a 2018 undrafted free agent who flashed with 1.62 yards per route run in the first significant action of his career in 2019. Lazard is still very raw and unproven, but he likely has more upside than any of the Packers’ other options, with Allison signing with the Lions this off-season and Valdes-Scantling underwhelming on 1,233 career snaps (1.28 yards per route run) since the Packers took him in the 5th round in 2018.

Adams is still their only reliable pass catcher and should remain their top pass catcher. He “only” had a 83/997/5 slash line last season, but he was limited to 678 snaps in 12 games by injury and was very effective on a per snap basis, ranking 6th among wide receivers in yards per route run (2.33) and 10th among wide receivers on PFF in overall grade. Adams has only topped 1000 yards in 1 of his 6 seasons in the league, but he’s come within 3 yards of 1000 in 2 of those seasons and has only been the clear cut #1 option with a healthy Aaron Rodgers over the past 2 seasons. His 111/1386/13 slash line in 2018 shows the kind of upside he has when he and Rodgers are healthy and, overall, Adams has finished in the top-13 among wide receivers on PFF in each of the past three seasons. Without other reliable options in this passing game, Adams figures to be one of the most targeted receivers in the league this season.

Tight end is also a position of concern. Last year starter’s Jimmy Graham is gone and, even though he struggled, finishing 36th out of 44 qualifying tight ends on 622 snaps on PFF, the Packers don’t have a proven replacement for him. Marcedes Lewis remains as a dominant blocking tight end, but he’s going into his age 36 season and has caught just 18 passes over the past two seasons, so he’s basically a 6th offensive lineman more than anything at this point in his career. 

Robert Tonyan played 193 snaps last season and caught 10 passes, but the 2017 undrafted free agent has played just 260 nondescript snaps in his career and is hardly a reliable option. Instead, it’s more likely that 2019 3rd round pick Jace Sternberger opens the year as the primary pass catching tight end, but he was limited to 60 snaps in 5 games as a rookie due to injury and ineffectiveness and didn’t catch a single pass in the regular season, so he’s obviously a projection to a much bigger role. The Packers also used a 3rd round pick on Josiah Deguara in this year’s draft and he could be in the mix for playing time as well. This offense will likely struggle to find a consistent 2nd option in the passing game again, but there is a little bit more talent than last year.

Grade: B-

Running Backs

Without a consistent #2 passing option last season, running back Aaron Jones actually ranked 2nd on the team with 68 targets and he turned those into a 49/474/3 slash line. With not much changing this off-season, Jones figures to be relied on heavily in the passing game again. Jones also was very involved as a runner, rushing for 1,084 yards and 16 touchdowns on 236 carries (4.59 YPC), and, overall, he finished as Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked running back on the season.

A 5th round pick in 2017, Jones had always shown this kind of potential prior to last season. His 4.30 yards per target on 53 targets prior to last season was unimpressive, but he’s hardly the first running back to improve his passing down abilities after a couple years in the league, and he’s always shown promise as a runner, rushing for 5.50 YPC on 214 carries prior to breaking out in a bigger role in 2019. Jones is technically a one-year wonder and his history of conditioning and durability problems are still worth mentioning, but it definitely wouldn’t be a surprise to see him repeat his strong 2019 season.

The question now becomes whether or not the Packers will lock Jones up long-term, ahead of the final year of his rookie deal in 2020. The Packers used a 2nd round pick (62nd overall) on Boston College running back AJ Dillon, at the expense of potentially adding a wide receiver or help on defense, and, while the Packers like to rotate running backs, giving #2 back Jamaal Williams 146 touches last season, Dillon’s draft slot suggests the Packers view him as a long-term lead back, which probably makes it unlikely they’ll break the bank to keep Jones off the open market.

In the short-term, Dillon is more of a threat to Jamaal Williams’ role than to Jones’ in 2020. A 4th round pick in 2017, Williams has been underwhelming overall in his career, averaging 3.88 yards per carry and 6.04 yards per target, but he wasn’t bad last season, rushing for 4.30 YPC and 1 touchdown on 107 carries and putting up a 39/253/5 slash line on 45 targets, while earning PFF’s 11th ranked running back grade overall, so there’s no guarantee Dillon is able to beat him out for the #2 role as a rookie. This is a deep backfield, but Jones remains the clear cut lead back after an impressive 2019 season.

Grade: A

Offensive Line

As I mentioned, Rodgers’ offensive line gives him plenty of time to throw, as even though Rodgers ranked 6th in the NFL with 2.92 seconds per dropback last season, he was still pressured on a below average 34.5% of his dropbacks. That was also the case in 2018, when he held the ball 2.95 seconds per dropback (5th in the NFL), but was pressured on a below average 33.0% of his dropbacks. Given that, he should have enough time to be able to throw guys open down the field.

Overall, the Packers ranked 1st among offensive lines on Pro Football Focus in pass protecting grade in 2018 and 4th in 2019 and they also fared well as run blockers in 2019, ranking 6th in that aspect. The Packers lost right tackle Bryan Bulaga in free agency and he was PFF’s 13th ranked offensive tackle in 16 starts last season, but he’s not as big of a loss as it would seem, as he can either be replaced by free agent acquisition Ricky Wagner or by pushing right guard Billy Turner out to right tackle and replacing him at right guard with experienced reserve Lane Taylor.

Taylor opened last season as the Packers’ starting left guard, where he had earned solid grades over 45 starts over the previous 3 seasons, but went down for the season with an injury after week 2 and second round rookie Elgton Jenkins, who finished 20th among guards on PFF in 14 starts his absence, seems to have locked that job down permanently. Taylor is now going into his age 31 season, but he’s an experienced starter who finished 29th among guards on PFF as recently as 2018, so if he does make it back into the starting lineup at right guard with Turner moving to right tackle, he should continue being at least a serviceable starter.

Turner playing right tackle is not a guarantee however, as he’s been a solid starting guard over the past two seasons, including a 30th ranked finish among guards on PFF in 16 starts in last season, but generally he hasn’t been as good in his 5 career starts at tackle, while free agent acquisition Ricky Wagner earned an average or better grade at right tackle in 5 straight seasons (73 starts) prior to falling to 66th out of 89 qualifiers in 12 starts last season, including a pair of seasons in the top-19 among offensive tackles (2014 and 2017). Wagner’s age is a concern in his age 31 season, but even if his best days are behind him, he could still have some bounce back potential to be a serviceable starter. I would trust him more than Turner given their histories, but it’s really possible any two of Lane Taylor, Billy Turner, and Ricky Wagner will start on the right side this season.

Along with Elgton Jenkins being locked in at left guard, left tackle David Bakhtiari and center Corey Linsley are also locked in as starters. They’ve been fixtures at their respective spots over the years and have both played at a high level. Bakhtiari has earned an above average grade from PFF in all 7 seasons in the league (106 starts), including 4 straight seasons in the top-11 among offensive tackles, while Linsley has finished with at least an average grade in all 6 seasons in the league (86 starts), including a pair of seasons in the top-7 (2014 and 2018) and a 14th ranked finish in 2019. Both are still in their primes in their age 29 seasons, so I would expect more of the same from both this season. Even with some uncertainty on the right side, this is a talented offensive line and they have three at least capable starters for two spots on that right side.

Grade: A-

Edge Defenders

The Packers went on a big defensive spending spree last off-season, signing three outside defensive free agents to contracts worth at least 9 million annually, including a pair of edge defenders in Za’Darius Smith (4 years/66 million) and Preston Smith (4 years/52 million). Overall, the spending spree didn’t achieve the goal of making this a top flight defense, as they only improved from a 16th ranked first down rate allowed of 36.97% in 2018 to a 12th ranked first down rate allowed of 34.54% in 2019, but that’s not necessarily the fault of the free agent class and the signing of Za’Darius Smith obviously proved to be a smart move in year one, as he finished as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked edge defender on the season and was a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate.

Za’Darius Smith saw his snap count increase in each of his first 4 seasons in the league with the Ravens prior to joining the Packers last season, from 407 as a rookie to 691 in 2018, and he developed into a good pass rusher as well, with a 10.5% pressure rate over those 4 seasons and 8.5 sacks, 18 hits, and a 13.1% pressure rate as PFF’s 15th ranked edge defender in pass rush grade in 2018, but Smith’s 2019 season was still a huge leap forward. 

Playing a career high 872 snaps, Smith totaled 13.5 sacks, 24 hits, and a ridiculous 17.1% pressure rate, while taking a big step forward against the run, something he struggled with in Baltimore. Smith is a one-year wonder as a top level player and may struggle to repeat his career best season, but he’s still very much in his prime in his age 28 season and even if he regresses a little bit he should still be among the best players in the league at his position, at least as a pass rusher.

Preston Smith wasn’t as good of a signing. He had an impressive sack total with 12, but wasn’t as good as that suggests, as he benefited significantly from Za’Darius being consistently disruptive opposite him and finished as just PFF’s 59th ranked edge defender overall. Smith only had 4 sacks in 2018, but actually finished significantly better on PFF, ranking 22nd among edge defenders, finishing with a 11.3% pressure rate, and playing well against the run. That remains his highest graded season in 5 seasons in the league, so he’s unlikely to ever become a dominant player, but he should remain at least a slightly above average starter.

The Packers also used a first round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft on Rashan Gary, who primarily played on the edge as a rookie. He was limited to just 244 mediocre snaps though and the Packers are obviously going to be expecting more from him in his second season in the league. Not only is he a former high draft pick, but with top edge reserve Kyler Fackrell (415 snaps in 2019) no longer with the team and no other obvious option on the roster, Gary will be needed for a significant reserve role on the edge.

Gary will primarily play on the edge in base packages and he may also see some action as a situational pass rusher on the interior in sub packages at 6-4 277, if he can show he’s one of the Packers’ four best rushers. A boom or bust prospect coming out of the draft, Gary has a questionable future after a down rookie year, but could easily take a step forward and become a good rotational 3rd edge defender. Za’Darius Smith elevates this position group significantly by himself and it’s a solid group overall.

Grade: A-

Interior Defenders

Regardless of how much Rashan Gary sees action on the interior in passing situations, Kenny Clark will still be the top interior pass rusher and their top interior defender overall. A first round pick in 2016, Clark had a solid rookie year and then broke out as one of the top interior defenders in the league over the past three seasons, finishing in the top-13 among interior defenders on Pro Football Focus in all 3 seasons. Also a strong run stuffer, Clark has totaled 16.5 sacks, 12 hits, and a 10.9% pressure rate over the past three seasons and, still not even 25 until October, it’s possible he could keep getting better. Even if he has peaked, he should remain one of the top players at his position for years to come if he can continue avoiding injuries (just 4 games missed in his career).

For the first three years of his career, Clark played inside with Mike Daniels in passing situations and they were one of the better pass rushing duos in the league, even as recently as 2018, when Daniels had a 13.7% pressure rate. However, Daniels was let go in a cost cutting move last off-season and they lacked a consistent #2 interior rusher without him, which hurt this defense. Dean Lowry ranked second at the position in snaps with 637 and was an above average run stopper, but he hardly got any pass rush, with 0 sacks, 2 hits, and a 6.3% pressure rate all season. A 2016 4th round pick who has averaged 609 snaps per game over the past three seasons, last season was largely par for the course for Lowry. He’ll likely still have a big role, but he’s not the interior pass rusher they need.

Tyler Lancaster (381 snaps), Montravius Adams (187 snaps), Keke Kingsley (94 snaps) all saw action last season too, but they combined for just a 2.1% pressure rate and didn’t play well in general. All three remain though and could see similar roles. Kingsley is a 2019 5th round pick who barely played as a rookie, Adams has played just 465 snaps total since being drafted in the 3rd round in 2017, while Lancaster, probably the best by default, has shown some promise as a run stopper in 2 seasons (653 snaps) since going undrafted in 2018. He’ll probably be the primary starter in base packages with Clark and Lowry, with Gary likely working as a situational interior rusher with some regularity and Adams and Kingsley providing deep reserves. This is a generally underwhelming group, but Clark elevates this group significantly by himself.

Grade: B

Linebackers

Along with the loss of Mike Daniels last off-season, another reason why the Packers’ defense didn’t improve drastically from 2018 to 2019 despite key off-season additions is that they got a significantly down year from every down off ball linebacker Blake Martinez, as he finished 58th out of 100 qualifying off ball linebackers on Pro Football Focus, after finishing 17th the season before. Martinez especially struggled against the run, finishing 79th out of 100 qualifying off ball linebackers in that aspect, but he struggled in coverage as well. 

Despite his down contract year, Martinez got 10.25 million annually from the Giants in free agency this off-season, and the Packers will replace him with free agent acquisition Christian Kirksey. A 3rd round pick of the Browns in 2014, Kirksey was a solid player in his first 4 seasons in the league, playing part-time in his first two seasons and then every down in 32 starts in the next two seasons, topping out 28th among off ball linebackers as a part-time player in 2015 and 35th as a full-time player in 2016. However, injuries have limited him to 586 snaps in 9 games over the past 2 seasons, so, even though he’s still only in his age 28 season, he has a somewhat uncertain future. If he isn’t a diminished player after the injuries and can stay on the field, he should be a solid starter, but he was a risky signing on a 2-year, 13 million dollar deal that pays him 7 million for 2020.

The Packers frequently use three safeties at the same time with one of them lining up near the line of scrimmage as a linebacker, especially in sub packages, so they don’t have much need for other off ball linebackers besides Kirksey, but their lack of depth is concerning, especially given Kirksey’s injury history. BJ Goodson (254 snaps) and Oren Burks (57 snaps) were the only other true off ball linebackers to see any action last season and Goodson is no longer with the team, which will likely force Burks into a nominal starting role in base packages. 

They won’t need much from Burks in that role, but he’s struggled mightily on 183 career snaps since the Packers took him in the 3rd round in 2018, so he could easily continue struggling, and the Packers’ only other possible alternative is 2019 7th round pick Ty Summers, who didn’t play a defensive snap as a rookie. As much as the Packers were criticized for taking Jordan Love over a wide receiver, the Packers probably would have been better off using the 27th overall pick on off ball linebacker Patrick Queen, who went one pick later, rather than taking a quarterback or a wide receiver. Without a significant investment at the position in the draft, the Packers will really need to hope Kirksey can avoid a third straight injury plagued season because they will have the worst linebacking corps in the NFL without him.

Grade: D

Secondary

Along with the two Smithes on the edge that they added last off-season on big free agent deals, the Packers also added safety Adrian Amos from the divisional rival Bears on a 4-year, 36 million dollar deal. That’s a lot of money, but it’s arguably a bargain when you compare him to similar safeties, as Amos made 56 starts in 4 seasons in Chicago and earned an above average grade from Pro Football Focus in all 4 seasons, including a 3rd ranked finish in 2017 and a 10th ranked finish in 2018. 

Amos didn’t disappoint in his first season in Green Bay, finishing 17th among safeties on PFF, and, still in his age 27 season without much injury history (4 of 80 possible games missed in 5 seasons in the league), Amos is likely to continue playing at a similarly high level in 2020. He’ll continue starting in base packages next to Darnell Savage, who was also added last off-season in a significant investment, going 21st overall in the 2019 NFL Draft, and he also didn’t disappoint, making 14 starts and earning a slightly above average grade on PFF (44th overall). Now going into his second season in the league, with a high upside, he could easily take a step forward in his second season in the league.

The Packers also used a first round pick in 2018 on a defensive back, taking Jaire Alexander 18th overall. Despite his youth and inexperience, he’s been the Packers’ top cornerback in two seasons in the league (27 starts), finishing 32nd among cornerbacks in 2018 and 26th in 2019. Still only in his age 23 season in his 3rd season in the league, he could easily keep getting better and develop into one of the top cornerbacks in the league a few years down the line.

The only questionable one of the Packers’ four every down secondary starters is #2 cornerback Kevin King. King was drafted high in the 2nd round in 2017 (33rd overall), but he missed more games than he played in his first 2 seasons (17 of 32 games missed) and, while he stayed relatively healthy last season (805 snaps in 15 games), he was pretty underwhelming, finishing 72nd out of 135 qualifying cornerbacks on PFF. Still only going into his age 25 season, King has upside, but there’s no guarantee he’ll improve or even stay healthy.

Reserve roles are also up for grabs and there should be plenty of reserve snaps to go around, given how often the Packers are in sub packages. Tramon Williams played 761 snaps as the 3rd cornerback last year and excelled on the slot, but wasn’t brought back ahead of his age 37 season. Chandon Sullivan flashed on 350 snaps in the first significant action of his career last season, after going undrafted in 2018, playing both on the slot and some safety. Josh Jackson also saw snaps as a hybrid player last season and, though he only played 102 snaps last season after struggling on 721 snaps as a rookie (102nd out of 131 qualifying cornerbacks), he’s a 2018 2nd round pick who still has some upside, so he could easily earn a role. Bringing back Tramon Williams is also an option, though he’d also be a question mark even his advanced age.

Sullivan and/or Jackson could also see some action at safety, where Will Redmond (271 snaps) and Raven Greene (70 snaps) also remain as reserves. Redmond and Greene have struggled throughout their careers, Redmond on 276 snaps since going in the 3rd round in 2016 and Greene on 115 snaps since going undrafted in 2018, but they should be in the mix for snaps for lack of another option. The Packers have some talented players in this secondary, but their questionable depth is a concern, especially given how often they’re in sub packages.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Packers were not as good as their record in 2019 and don’t seem to be noticeably more talented than last season, failing to address significant needs in the receiving corps and at linebacker. They won’t need to win 13 games to win the NFC North again and they’ll definitely remain in the mix for a wild card spot even if they can’t win the division for the second straight season, but I would put New Orleans, San Francisco, and even Dallas and possibly Tampa Bay ahead of the Packers right now. Given that, it’s going to be a tough path out of the NFC to a Super Bowl appearance. I will have an official prediction closer to the start of the season.

Final Update: The Packers are unlikely to win 13 games again, but I still have them as the top team in the NFC North. Outside of the division, the Packers will have a tough run through the NFC to the Super Bowl, but they’re borderline contenders, even after an underwhelming off-season.

Projection: 11-5 (1st in NFC North)

Green Bay Packers at San Francisco 49ers: 2019 NFC Championship Pick

Green Bay Packers (14-3) at San Francisco 49ers (14-3)

Like the Chiefs/Titans matchup in the AFC Championship, this NFC Championship matchup between the 49ers and the Packers is a rematch of a regular season game. Unlike the first Chiefs/Titans matchup, which few would have predicted would be an AFC Championship preview, the first 49ers/Packers matchup was an obvious potential NFC Championship preview, with the 49ers entering at 9-1 and the Packers entering at 8-2 in a game that wound up deciding the #1 seed in the NFC. 

Despite both teams having strong records, the first matchup was not close at all, with the 49ers winning at home by a final score of 37-8 in a game in which they won the first down rate battle by 15.87%. Favored by just a field goal the first time around, the 49ers are now 7.5-point home favorites in the rematch, as bettors remember the week 12 blowout well. History suggests that these rematches don’t always go the same way, however, and in fact in non-divisional same-site post-season rematches, the team that lost the first time is actually 33-20 ATS over the past 30 seasons. 

That being said, I think there is good reason to expect that the 49ers should win fairly easily again. Even though these teams have the same record, the 49ers had a much stronger season, holding the edge in the regular season in first down rate differential at +5.29% to +1.15% and in point differential at +169 to +63. The Packers’ point differential was the worst ever by a team that finished with 13 wins or more and ranked just 9th in the NFL, compared to 3rd for the 49ers. In first down rate differential, the difference was even more pronounced, with the 49ers ranking 2nd and the Packers ranking 14th. While the Packers are 9-1 in games decided by 8 points or fewer, the 49ers are just 5-3 in games decided by 8 points or fewer, winning 9 of their 14 games by more than 8 points, as opposed to just 5 for the Packers. 

That’s despite the fact that the 49ers were missing their top edge rusher Dee Ford and their top linebacker Kwon Alexander for most of the second half of the season. Alexander went down in the 49ers 8th game of the season in week 9 and missed the rest of the regular season, while Ford played just 73 snaps after week 9 and was inactive for the Packers game. Neither one is at 100% this week, but having both back in the lineup is significant. The 49ers allowed just a 24.67% first down rate in their first 7 games of the season with Alexander and Ford healthy, which would have been easily the best in the NFL if they kept it up all season. 

The 49ers had a relatively easy schedule over that stretch, but their strength of schedule suggested they should have allowed a 34.56% first down rate over those 7 games, so they performed significantly better than average. Last week, with Ford and Alexander back, the 49ers held a Vikings offense that finished 11th in the NFL in first down rate (higher than the Packers who finished 16th) to just 7 first downs and a 17.78% first down rate. This is the healthiest the 49ers have been since their dominant start and they are playing like it. 

The Packers are basically at full strength as well, but that’s been the case for most of the season. Meanwhile, in addition to the 49ers having Ford and Alexander back, the 49ers will also have tight end George Kittle and wide receivers Emmanuel Sanders and Deebo Samuel at full strength, which they didn’t have in the first matchup and, while they’re missing center Weston Richburg, they will have left tackle Joe Staley this time around, which is more important, especially since backup center Ben Garland has filled in well for Richburg. I’m hoping this line will fall to a touchdown before gametime, but I like the 49ers for a smaller bet even if it stays at 7.5.

San Francisco 49ers 27 Green Bay Packers 16

Pick against the spread: San Francisco -7.5

Confidence: Medium

Seattle Seahawks at Green Bay Packers: 2019 NFC Divisional Round Pick

Seattle Seahawks (12-5) at Green Bay Packers (13-3)

The Packers won 13 games and got a first round bye in the NFC, but they didn’t play as well as their record suggests, barely pulling out some close victories. They went 8-1 in games decided by 8 points or fewer and 4-0 in games decided by 5 points or fewer and ranked just 9th in the NFL in point differential at +63, the worst ever point differential by a team with 13 or more wins. Fortunately for the Packers, they open the post-season at home, where they are 43-22 ATS since 2011 in games that Aaron Rodgers starts and finishes, and they play a Seattle team that is also not as good as their record.

The Seahawks won 11 games, but just one by more than a touchdown and had a +6 point differential that is 14th in the NFL and 3rd worst ever by a team with 11 or more wins. While the Packers are around a 10 or 11 win caliber team that won 13 games because of close wins, the Seahawks are around an 8 or 9 win caliber team that won 11 games because of close wins. Two of the Seahawks’ wins came because the other team shanked makeable field goals that would have ended the game. If not for those two misses, the Seahawks easily could have missed the post-season entirely. They won their opening round playoff game in Philadelphia, but likely would have lost had Carson Wentz not gotten hurt in the first quarter, as the Josh McCown led Eagles got inside the Seahawks’ 30-yard line five times, but managed just three field goals and two failed 4th downs in a 17-9 loss. 

The Seahawks also are in much worse injury shape than the Packers. While the Packers are as healthy as any team left in the playoffs, the Seahawks are without linebacker Mychal Kendricks, running backs Chris Carson and Rashaad Penny, left guard Mike Iupati, and possibly defensive end Ezekiel Ansah, left tackle Duane Brown, and backup left tackle George Fant. Despite their injury situation and the Packers’ significant edge in point differential and first down rate differential (+1.15% vs. -1.17%), the Seahawks are only 4-point underdogs in this game in Lambeau, where the Packers are very tough to beat with Aaron Rodgers under center. I have this line calculated at Green Bay -7.5, so we’re getting great line value with the Packers at -4. This is my biggest play this week.

Green Bay Packers 31 Seattle Seahawks 23

Pick against the spread: Green Bay -4

Confidence: High