With just two teams remaining this season the other 30 NFL establishments fade away into the background to be forgotten. Head Coaches and General Managers work frantically after their season is over to ensure that they are not forgotten so easily in a years’ time.
Tinkering and overhauling is now underway and for the Green Bay Packers, a team who has been on the cusp of Super Bowl contention for the last three years, they have a huge offseason ahead of them. If they are to get a second ring in the Aaron Rodgers era and quieten debates of wasting the talents of the quarterback in the last ten years here is what they must do:
- Better special teams play
This may not seem like a huge deal but teams this year showed that big kick and punt returns change momentum in a big way. Green Bay get very little from their special teams outside of Jeff Janis. The Packers had just 151 yards on punt returns in the 2016 season ranking 29th amongst NFL teams. With Dom Capers’ defense struggling throughout the season it would have helped the paly calling if the special teams unit could pin opposing offenses back inside their own ten or five yard line.
Green Bay lack a return specialist – look at the impact Tyreek Hill had this season for the Kansas City Chiefs not to mention Devin Hester’s impact as recently as his stint with the Seattle Seahawks (if the Seahawks did not kill themselves with penalties on his returns). Green Bay have not had a kick return or punt return touchdown since week 11 of the 2014 season when Micah Hyde took off for 75-yards against the Philadelphia Eagles.
In a year where all the focus was on Green Bay’s porous defense and their offense catching fire – their special teams unit was sneaky bad and they would do well to improve it ahead of the 2017 season.
- Clear the murky Running Back position
Eddie Lacy is a free agent to be as is Christian Michael, whom they picked up off waivers after Seattle discarded him, Ty Montgomery impressed when making the switch from wide out to running back but his success needs an asterisk affixed to it, After taking over as the permanent back the second year pro averaged just under eight attempts per game with a 16 attempt performance against the Chicago Bears in week 15 inflating the statistic even further. During the post season Montgomery averaged a meagre 3.6 yards-per-carry on 25 rushing attempts.
For Lacy the situation is much more complex, plagued by injuries and weight issues the past two seasons the former Alabama bruiser has showcased his ability to be a true three down back when healthy and at the right weight. Unfortunately, Lacy has proved to be unreliable when maintaining a healthy weight for a running back. For all the hype in the 2015 offseason that he had slimmed down by almost 25 pounds rumours started to circulate that by October he had put the weight back on. The dilemma facing Green Bay and perhaps Packers fans, too, is that Lacy is obviously talented and it is not hard to imagine him changing franchises, getting a fresh start and fulfilling his potential as a workhorse back.
The draft class is deep at the running back position this year, but Green Bay have more pressing needs on their team. Free Agency also does not offer a glamourous alternative at the position. Maybe Lacy gets one more year with Montgomery as the change of pace mismatch back.
- Re-sign key cogs
Ted Thompson is good at this part at least. Randall Cobb and Mike Daniels got paid last offseason and this year Thompson must try and find a way to give money to: TJ Lang, who is coming off a Pro Bowl season, Micah Hyde, Nick Perry, who led the team in sacks this year, Jared Cook (word out of Green Bay is he is a priority this offseason) and there are question marks over Julius Peppers, Datone Jones and the aforementioned Lacy.
Last season Thompson let Casey Hayward walk out of the door and Packers fans had to watch him flourish in San Diego while their secondary floundered. They can’t afford to make the same mistake with Hyde who has been a consistent performer for the Pack. Green Bay can ill afford to lose members in a secondary which was historically bad last year.
Josh Sitton was a surprise cut last offseason after an All-Pro season so there is evidence that Thompson and Mike McCarthy are not afraid to let go of players coming off playing at a high level – it is all about timing. Lang is consistently underappreciated and will have teams clamouring for his services if Green Bay do not see his true value.
Nick Perry picked up the slack from Clay Matthews this season and in his ‘prove it’ season he racked up double digit sacks. He should now get paid.
Cook showed that, when healthy, he can expand the Green Bay offense and is a nightmare for linebackers and safeties. A priority this offseason and if he can stay healthy for 16 games we may see Rodgers produce his late season magic from the September – which would be terrifying.
- Re-tool the defense
The last time the Packers spent a first round pick on offense was 2011. Since then they have drafted 23 players on defense and while they have got steals in Mike Daniels and Pro Bowl calibre players in Ha-ha Clinton-Dix it is hard to recall any of the 23 picks having a monumental impact on this defense. This unit needs a lot of work – better coaching, maybe even new coaching (that won’t happen Dom Capers will be in Green Bay until Rapture.)
Clay Matthews, often the building block of the defense, has had two seasons wrecked by injury and ineffectiveness. Julius Peppers is weighing up retirement but even if the former Carolina Panther returns he will be 37-years-old and no more than a situational pass rusher.
The back end needs serious work. Sam Shields went on IR after suffering a concussion and Damarious Randall had all confidence sucked from him after returning from injury. Randall constantly gave wide receivers a free release off the line and was often blown by when getting into a foot race. Undrafted Free Agent Ladarious Gunter had a nightmare postseason being burned by both Dez Bryant and Julio Jones with both receivers going off for over 100 receiving yards.
Capers’ defense got to a point where they were so vulnerable against the pass they seldom played the run. Even with two safeties constantly over the top to help out their demoralised corners the secondary got picked on.
Green Bay’s sack total was surprisingly good with them finishing sixth overall with 40 total quarterback takedowns. However, considering that opposition offenses were forced to pass to try and keep pace with Rodgers it made teeing off on signal callers a touch easier. However, pass rush is a need. Matthews has dropped off former first round pick Datone Jones has been a bust and Kyler Fackrell is still quite raw.
- Be aggressive in Free Agency
When your franchise quarterback goes public with subtle tones of wanting the organisation to be more proactive in their recruitment, you know it is a real issue. Rodgers said the Packers ‘need to reload a little’ and he is not wrong. Injuries exposed the severe lack of depth across the board. We are not long removed from thinking the Packers’ roster was the deepest in the league and now it is perhaps one of the thinnest.
But depth for the sake of depth does not solve anything. Thompson must get the Packers strength in depth whereby there is only a small drop off between starter and back up.
In 2014 offseason, Green Bay made similar noises with over $30m in cap space available to splash out. To their credit, they did bring in Peppers and Letroy Guion who have both been welcome additions to the roster and with Cook joining last offseason it is a head scratcher as to why Thompson does not dive into Free Agency more frequently as he can clearly identify pieces to fill holes in the jigsaw.
There is a real sense that the Packers are just one or two players away from getting back to another Super Bowl and there is now also a sense that Aaron Rodgers’ window is closing. He ended the season playing at a historic level but the fact that questions were even asked about his window and that he is now 33-years-old shows that we are all starting to think about Green Bay making the most out of their all-world signal caller. The Denver Broncos loaded up on defense for Peyton Manning’s final run going all in for one more Lombardi. While Rodgers is nowhere near the desperation of 2015 Manning it may not be a bad idea for the Packers brass to look over what the Broncos did to give Rodgers the best shot to get another ring.