It was, to put it lightly, an up-and-down season for the Packers and their loyal fan base. A blistering 6-0 start was followed up by a three game losing streak. They lost all three divisional home matchups, something previously thought impossible with Aaron Rodgers throwing the ball. Rodgers also managed to pull off two of the most incredible, Hail Mary-capped comebacks in recent memory, only to have the season fittingly end a few plays after the latter.
I understand the Packer fan base is incredibly spoiled to have two all-time great quarterbacks back to back, but that doesn’t make this season any less difficult to swallow. It’s all relative, and you can take your relativity and shove it up your you know what if you can’t understand the heartbreak that comes from a season like this. With great players comes great expectations, ones the Packers simply have not lived up to in the past five seasons, two of which they’ve been led by the league’s MVP.
Sure, there are some positives to take away from the 2015-2016 season, especially defensively. But this season proved the Packers have several weaknesses, ones that absolutely must be addressed if this team wants to take the leap from great to elite. Rodgers is 32 after all; it’s now or never. Let’s look at several ways the team can improve the roster to avoid the same antagonizing defeat they suffered in Arizona.
This is the most obvious talking point, although I think it’s been blown slightly out of proportion. People seem to forget that Sam Barrington broke his foot in the first game of the season, and he’s exactly the kind of rangy linebacker this defense needed this season. Jake Ryan took a lot of flack for his play, some of which was deserved, but overall he had a pretty solid rookie season. He averaged over six tackles per game once he became the starter, he’s a solid tackler, and he clearly has natural run-stopping instincts.
But it wasn’t the running game that was the issue this year. Ryan looked completely lost in pass coverage this year, and in the same way AJ Hawk couldn’t, Ryan simply can’t cover running backs one-on-one. Barrington will help take some of the pressure off which will hopefully allow Clay to play many more snaps at outside linebacker, but there is no absolutely no depth behind Barrington and Ryan, and there’s no guarantee Ryan is ready to be a full-time starter. If the Packers are going to go the route of the draft, which they do almost exclusively, then they should target a rangy linebacker in the first three rounds, one who can at least be counted on in passing situations to spell Ryan.
Don’t get me wrong, Richard Rodgers, for better or worse, will forever live in Packer lore for catching this Hail Mary. Rodgers has very good hands, he runs solid routes, and his blocking his fine for a second-year player who played receiver in college. But he’s so damn slow. It’s hard to know what his true potential is at this point, but to me he profiles more as a solid second tight end than a starter in a high-powered, up-tempo offense like Green Bay (usually) runs. This offense needs speed, and Rodgers doesn’t have it.
Fixing the hole at tight end is a tricky game. The Packers don’t often dabble in free agency, and most of the options on the market are on the market because they’re either old or washed up. There are a few solid options, though. Ladarius Green is the cream of this year’s tight end crop, but he’ll likely command far more money than Ted Thompson is willing to spend. Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener are both unrestricted free agents, and it seems unlikely that the Colts will re-sign both, but they’ve both dealt with drops in their careers which is the last thing the Packers’ need right now.
That leaves a few options. Drafting a tight end in the first three rounds is a risky business, and that’s the offensive position with the slowest learning curve. The Packers can do nothing and hope for a bounce back year from Andrew Quarless, but he has an obvious ceiling that hardly moves the needle for this offense. Thompson will probably just draft a high-ceiling guy in the middle rounds unless a stud falls to him in the first two, but there’s one player the Packers should look at: Vernon Davis.
Davis is 31, but he’s still one of the most athletic players at the position, and guys like Antonio Gates and Tony Gonzalez have proved good tight ends can stay effective in their thirties. Davis’s value is at an all-time low after his down year, and it’s unlikely the Broncos will resign him. He’s the exact kind of tight end this offense needs with his ability to take the top off the defense in the seam, and with an offseason to learn the system, he could be a steal at his current value. It’s probably a pipe dream, but then again so was Julius Peppers.
Offensive Line Depth
This is my final point of emphasis, though if you wanted to talk about the secondary and/or the play calling, I would completely understand. Those topics will have to wait for another day. As good as the Packers’ offensive line can be, this year showed how a shaky lack of depth at the position can have negative ripples across the entire offense. Sitton and Lang have been around for a while and can only take so much wear and tear, Bakhtiari is solid but still gets penalized a lot, and Bulaga is the most injury-prone of the group. Not to mention JC Tretter is the only competent backup lineman on the roster, and he’s limited in his versatility. Don Barclay is atrocious and Josh Walker looked completely lost in the Arizona game.
This is the easiest problem to fix. Ted Thompson found Corey Linsley in the fifth round, and I trust him to make several mid-to-late round picks on linemen to help stabilize this group. Knowing his history, he’ll find someone good enough to solve this issue. I’m also intrigued by Matt Rotheram, an undrafted free agent on the Packers’ practice squad who drew rave reviews in training camp last year and was recently signed to a Futures contract by the Packers.
I’m sure some of you are thinking, what about wide receiver? The Packers receivers struggled to gain separation for most of the season, and Cobb and Adams both suffered from the dropsies as well. The intent of this piece is to legitimately evaluate the Packers’ needs after a somewhat disappointing season, not to overreact. And I think that’s an overreaction, because the Packers’ receiving corps is perfectly fine.
We’ve now learned it’s damn near impossible to overstate Jordy Nelson’s importance to this team. His return adds a deep threat, a chain mover, a guy who makes plays after the catch and a leader for the young players. But it also takes way less pressure and attention off Cobb, James Jones and Adams, which will allow all three to play at a higher level, Cobb in particular. Not to mention the fact that third-round pick Ty Montgomery will also be back, and he’s already in the discussion for the third receiver role next year. A group of Jordy, Cobb, Montgomery, Adams, Abbrederis, Janis and possibly Jones is all of the sudden deep, versatile, explosive and ready to take this team back to the top, along with #12 of course.
Now we turn our attention to the NFL draft on April 28th. I’ll see you then.