The Ever Reliable Green Bay Packers
Despite making the Divisional round of the playoffs and a 10-6 record, 2015 will go down as a bit of a lost Season for a Green Bay team that has rarely struggled to get results over the last couple of decades.
Not winning the Division was a big deal to Packers fans, as Minnesota leapfrogged them to a NFC North title. When you look at the season though, it probably wasn’t the record that got the Packers fans concerned but more the manner that it went down, with more than a few hiccups having cheese heads tear their hair out. The season loss of Jordy Nelson and Eddie Lacy gaining a decent amount of weight saw them struggle a little on offence to find viable ways of moving the ball, even with a large amount of last minute heroics from Aaron Rodgers. Cobb struggled to step up as a number 1 receiver, Davante Adams failed to live up to the pre-season hype and Eddie Lacy struggled to move the ball on the ground, making the Packers incredibly 1 dimensional. Without Aaron Rodgers things would have been a lot worse. Rodgers took massive hits, whilst looking downfield to find no one open, but still managed a few moments of magic, that got them a few last minute victories. In the end though Rodgers’ unbelievable play wasn’t enough to take them past the Cardinals in one of the all-time great playoff games. Proof once again that Green Bay really hung in there despite having a huge amount of issues thrown at them. Issues that could all go away in 2016…
Same Ol’ Green Bay
The Packers had an uneventful off season, which will come as no surprise to anyone who knows how they do business. In free agency they picked up Jared Cook… and that’s about it, who with the help of Rodgers should help the Packers at tight end, a serious area of need. Other than that though they only really re-signed players that they wanted to keep, with Mason Crosby, James Starks, Nick Perry and Letroy Guion all signing for the team. Mike Daniels, a stand out piece on defence signed a 4 year $41m contract, which is relatively modest when compared to the 3-4 defensive ends that hit free agency.
Green Bay’s draft strategy seemed quite familiar too, seemingly getting value all through the draft and picking up eventual replacements for some of the older players, starting with the offensive line. Rodgers was sacked 46 times (3rd most in his career), compared to 28 the year before and lost a total of 318 yards (most in his career). This was clearly an area of need and McCarthy followed through on his promise to add big bodies to the unit, with Jason Spriggs (2nd round) checking in 6’6, 305 pounds and Kyle Murphy (6th round) topping 6’4 314 pounds. Both are raw talents, but in typical Packers tradition, they probably won’t have to see the field this year, short of a number of big name injuries. With their 1st round pick the Packers opted for Kenny Clark ahead of Andrew Billings as a replacement for BJ Raji, who hit free agency and putting pressure on defensive tackle Letroy Guion to have a much needed break out season, with zero hiccups (Guion missed 3 games last year thanks to drug offences). Dean Lowry was a player picked up in the 4th under the guise of adding depth to the defensive line. One misstep from Datone Jones however and we could see a potential position battle take place on the other side of Mike Daniels. In 3rd round pick Kyler Fackrell they picked up a versatile outside line-backer that we could see used in sub packages, or if they quickly decide to move Clay Matthews back to the inside. Regardless Fackrell adds some much needed depth to their defence. What this typically reads like is that the Packers had a sensible draft, where they added depth and potential starters from day 1 -3.
The biggest changes from 2015 to 2016 for Green Bay will be already members of the team. Eddie Lacy has slimmed down massively after a season of cruel jokes from fans and an inability to get anything going on the field. The new streamlined Lacy has raised eyebrows and I would be very surprised if we don’t see a return to form for the newly focused running back. Jordy Nelson is a player of immense talent, but with the other weapons in the Packers arsenal, I was convinced they could win a Super bowl without him. I was clearly wrong, with the loss of him and Lacy being key in the effectiveness of an offence that seemed to lose its bite. Now he should be back, fit as ever but there are definitely still some concerns in my mind about Jordy…
How Does it Play Out
Let’s start with Jordy Nelson. Whilst I have faith in his ability to make clutch catches, I would be lying if I was to say that a combination of a few bad injuries and him nearing the tar pits in terms of age didn’t have me a little concerned that he might have lost a step. Jordy as the standout receiver has put his body on the line a number of times and at some point it’s got to catch up with him. I have concerns about Lacy too. Physically he looks in about as good shape as anyone in the league, but there is definitely a mental aspect to the position he plays. Maybe a season of missed holes and missed opportunities could be too much for him to recover from.
That being said, when I’m not playing devil’s advocate, I do actually think Lacy will return to form, with a new hunger (no pun intended), to succeed on the field. Nelson as well, even if he does lose a step, he’s still clutch as a receiving threat. He’s not someone the defence can simply ignore meaning more mismatches for Devante Adams, Randall Cobb, the bevy of young receivers they have and new acquisition Jared Cook. Nelson at his worst can be a welcome distraction for Rodgers to exploit.
Whilst the key returns of both Lacy to health and Nelson from injury are important, I believe it’s the additions in the trenches that could make the Packers a super bowl contender. Depth to the line-backer group has been a welcome addition after at times struggling to field 4 healthy line-backers. The question about whether Clay Matthews plays better on the inside or the outside seems somewhat irrelevant when you can play him against the mismatch, thanks to depth new found depth at line-backer. Jason Sprigg and Kyle Murphy might not see the field this year, but at least they’re there if any of the starters get injured. We should see less of Rodgers running for dear life and more running because it’s the prudent thing to do.
So far I haven’t even mentioned the secondary yet. But it’s hard to ignore that it could be a real strength, with a group of young players that should improve on a decent performance last year. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, in my opinion has the ability that we could be talking about him as a top 5 safety next year. Clinton- Dix stands out against a unit with Morgan Burnett, Sam Shields and an up and coming Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins. These guys could cause major problems for the receiver groups in the NFC North.
Then there’s Aaron Rodgers. With all the pieces in place he is the best QB in the league by a fair margin. Now with his favourite weapon back, a (hopefully) more effective running back, improvements to the offensive line and a standout tight end for the 1st time in years, Rodgers has all the tools he needs to succeed. That alone makes Green Bay very dangerous.
I’m going to close up with a word of caution for Green Bay however. There is a chance that the old system that has served them so well by making little or no splash in free agency could possibly be a little conservative and if the pieces simply aren’t there in the draft it leaves the team potentially a little weak. I don’t think this is something we’ll see this year, but with a number of top players beginning to get old it could be a concern in a couple of years, especially when the Vikings and Bears have done such a good job bringing in free agency talent and big name players in the draft. I think on the whole the system works but every now and then I’d like to see them throw a little caution to the wind.
Green Bay have as per usual a great side, but could have a potential challenger for the NFC North title in the Vikings, who won it last year as the Packers experienced a little bit of a hiccup. This season however it will come down to pure talent. The Vikings look like a legitimate force and in my opinion could see the Packers finish in the number 2 spot, still making the playoffs in the wild card, which is where I think they’ll shine. For me this team is a playoff goliath, built with clutch players that can win games against top talent. The Packers might take the long way round to get there, but they could very well be a Super bowl contender.