Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The State of the Packers

This article is also on B/R.

To some, the season might be officially over after crowning the New Orleans Saints as champs. But football ain't dormant at this time, far from it. For all the pro-football teams and their hard core fans, there is no off-season. Most teams strive at all times of the year (during the season and off-season) to try make their team better; to find missing pieces; to give them that shot in the arm that would propel them to the next level. The off-season period for these teams are predominantly spent by having scouts analyze prospective college football players they could draft. This requires a lot of man hours (more than you can even imagine) as the body of work for these college players are very limited. Apart from their on-field abilities, teams will like to get a hang of the personality or character of prospective players. After all, we are talking about 20-22 year olds, and it is obvious how flaky and unpredictable people of that demography are, let alone try predict what kind of a character they would grow into. So, scouting involves a lot of psychological and personal background analysis apart from regular football stuff. At the same time, the front office folks have it a little easier trying to evaluate free agents or trades for players on other teams. After all, these players usually have a well documented body of work for everyone to look at and also the pool of players generally available through trades or as free agents is typically minuscule compared to the myriads of prospective college players that are available to be drafted (or maybe signed up later on as undrafted free agents). This post is to look at where the Packers stand this off-season, what are their pressing needs, holes they need to fill, and other concerning off-season issues.

Ready to launch

Last season can be grossly classified as a successful one for the Packers. After a rather sluggish start to the season they finished strong, winning 7 of their final 8 games to end the regular season at 11-5. In the wild card round of the playoffs, they put up a valiant effort (to be fair, not so valiant on defense though) only to lose the game in OT. The "glass half full" way of looking at the entire season as a whole is that they can only get better. They are a young team, in fact, the youngest in the league last year. One might like to think last year was their coming out party to the big stage in the playoffs; just getting their feet wet before swimming towards the shores of Championships, glory and dare I say, a potential dynasty. The Packers front office under Ted Thompson, have and follow a pretty conservative philosophy when it comes to team personnel. They do not indulge themselves into wage wars trying to overbid for "hot" free agents. They prefer to stay put every year at the start of free agency, and wait till the initial storm subsides and then go hunting for value deals. Ted also hates giving up too much in trades. On the contrary, he likes to stock pile draft picks whenever possible and then try to build his teams through the draft. So, it is fair to assume that any of the Packers' long term needs will have to be filled through the draft process. They might find that occasional free agent to fill a temporary need on the team, or to increase depth at a particular position. But, the brunt of the players will invariable have to come from the draft.

The Blind Side

To take the next step as a team, there are a number of holes to fill. None more important than the offensive line. Last season, the line had trouble keeping Aaron Rodgers off the ground for the most part in the first half of the season. Chad Clifton, the left tackle was plagued with injuries all through the season. His backup was TJ Lang, a rookie, who did hold his own, but is by no means a long term solution at left tackle. While Lang is indeed a talented lineman, some of his physical attributes makes him unsuitable for that position. The biggest shortfall being his arm length at 32 and 1/8 inches, supposedly, too short for a prototype left tackle. The left tackle is considered the most important position on the O line as that is the blind side of any right handed QB (and Aaron Rodgers is right handed indeed). Some people consider it to be the 2nd most important position on the entire field (after the QB of course), let alone the O line. A solid LT will go a long way in protecting Aaron Rodgers in the long run, in turn opening up the potentially explosive offense. As of today, the LT of the future (near or far) is not on the team roster. They might sign Clifton, a 10 year veteran, back as a stop-gap option at LT, and will have to draft a prospect to replace him in due time.

The other positions on the O line are all less shaky than left tackle, but are by no means a solid lock. Scott Wells will remain at Center, whileJosh Sitton will keep his job at Right Guard. Jason Spitz and Daryn Colledge will fight it out for the Left Guard position. The only other position that does not have a definite starter as of now is the Right Tackle. Mark Tauscher did do a commendable job after his return mid way through the season. At the moment it is still uncertain though if he will be re-signed for another year (at least). Also the talented young rookie, TJ Lang, will fit in nicely at RT and is possibly the eventual RT of the future. Also Allen Barbre is not a bad backup for the RT position, although his performance last year as the starting RT showed us he is not starting material, just as yet.

The need for speed

On offense, the Packers seem nicely set. They have their franchise QB in Aaron Rodgers, who has grown into his own over the last year or so. In fact, he is touted to be a future star in the NFL (if he is not already). He does also have some weapons to throw to. Donald Driver seemed to have slowed down towards the end of the season, but he does not have to be the No.1 receiver in this offense. Greg Jennings is the clear No.1 receiver on the team right now. Also James Jones and Jordy Nelson have no where to go but up in terms of production. Not to forget the new starting TE for the Packers Jermicheal Finley; he was a monster receiver towards the end of last season. The entire group as a whole showed us a glimpse of what they are capable of in the wild card playoff game against the Cardinals.

The running game of the Packers may not rank near the top of the league, and it does not have to be that good. It needs to be good enough so that it compliments the passing attack, keeping opposing defenses guessing. Still, there are a couple of things that can be improved when it comes to the rushing attack. Towards the end of last season, to counter the protection problems for Rodgers, there were more quick passes and slants called to get the ball out of the QBs hands quickly. Also effective was the use of screen passes, with Brandon Jackson doing a good job of that last year. But it would be a valuable addition to get a little more explosive and/or shifty back for this purpose, who could also double down as the 3rd down back behind Ryan Grant. Someone like Chester Taylor comes to mind. Or you could draft a RB/TB in the draft for this purpose. Another aspect lacking in the running game for the Packers is outside speed. Grant has been good at running between tackles up the middle and his big runs usually come after breaking tackles on the inside. A change of pace back who could stretch opposing defensive lines laterally would go a long way. It would not only add to the versatility of the offense as a whole, but would also open up inside runs for Grant.

Run for cover.....

Another place where the Packers got burnt last year was in the secondary especially against veteran QBs like Favre (twice), Warner and Big Ben. While, some blame for those coverage failures might go to the system and game plan on defense for those particular games, one big liability was obviously the quality of defensive backs. Of course, we did not have Al Haris (who was out with a torn ACL), but we need more than three (Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams are the other 2) solid coverage defensive backs when playing nickel and dime packages against 4 and 5 receiver sets. Pat Lee was a 2nd round pick couple years ago, but still is a big unknown because of injuries all along. But the Packers seem to have high hopes on him. Will Blackmon (coming back from ACL reconstruction) and Brandon Underwood might be serviceable backups, but they have not shown much to instill confidence that they could one day replace aging Al Harris (35). Jarett Bush, unless he improves drastically, does not belong on the field as a coverage back. Also in the safety department, although Nick Collins is a stud, and hopefully gets his contract done for the long haul soon, Atari Bigby has been spotty of late to say the least. Whether it is nagging injuries that are hampering him, or if it is a confidence thing is unclear at the moment. It is safe to say we do need a reliable player at safety too, to make the secondary better, and a little more depth doesn't hurt nobody.

Nothing so special about special teams

Apart from the need sure up the O line, the next biggest concern should be the special teams. The coaches after the season claim that kick/punt coverage will get better next year with better coaching. Assuming that is true, there still is need for improvements in punting and kicking. The Packers have a boat load of faith in the abilities of Mason Crosby. They believe he has tremendous abilities and it is a matter of the kid getting it right when it matters. There is no question he has a strong leg, hope he comes back with a better head next season. Jeremy Kapinos has had a rough time with punting. His directional punting was decent enough, but he struggled to put the ball in the end zone for touchbacks. And the shaky punt coverage at times did not help his cause in the net field position change category. The Packers might like to get someone else into training camp to compete for the punting job to push Kapinos or possibly even replace him on the roster.

The most important special teams position that requires an upgrade is the punt / kick return duties. This is the most under-rated facet of a successful team. A couple of long returns could change the momentum of a game. Will Blackmon is coming back from injury and so it is uncertain how much of a help he would be due to health reasons. Ideally, the Packers should be looking to add a player who could not only be a full time returner, but also one that could help in other parts of the team. Like a CB who could return, or a RB/WR who could return a la Deshawn Jackson or Percy Harvin type.

Depth! Depth! Depth!

At any position on the football field, there is never enough bodies you want to have. Especially, with the high risks of injuries in this sport, it is imperative to plan your depth on the team anticipating the worst. Also depending on the scheme used on offense/defense, certain positions may need more bodies than others. Like defensive backs; you can never have enough good DBs especially with teams using 4-5 WR sets these days. For the Packers, who are now using Dom Capers' 3-4 defense, another area of need for depth is the Linebacker position. At the moment they do seem to have enough bodies there. But with Aaron Kampman most likely gone in free agency, the outside LB position may need someone to fill in for him. Brad Jones did hold his own in Kampman's place last year, but that will not do. You need more rushing pressure on the QB from that position. Another position of concern is the Defensive Line. Johnny Jolly has a drug possession trial in court coming up in a couple weeks or so. If things go south and he ends up missing playing time, Packers will need help on D Line too. That was probably the deciding factor in putting the franchise tag on Ryan Pickett. It will do a world of good if Justin Herrell can provide some amount of contribution in the future. However, I think any production from him should be considered only a bonus. Another area that badly needs more bodies is the Offensive line. If one or two of those guys go down, it will be doomsday for the entire offense. Other areas the Packers may have to worry about depth are Safety and RB/TB.

This was a basic overview of the needs and concerns for the Packers this offseason. I will put out another post soon about how do they go about filling these holes; with more emphasis on how, in my opinion, they should work the NFL draft.
Follow me on twitter: @sportsdawg

No comments:

Post a Comment