Alright, this is it.
It’s time for the final installment of our position-by-position look at where the Green Bay Packers stand right now. And in this final chapter, we’re in for some rough sledding. The positions covered here are in considerable flux at best and disasters at worst. So if you’re into that sort of thing, this is the installment for you.
(Looks at the list of positions about to be discussed)
Okay, here we go.
No area on the Packers is more in flux, when talking about free agency, than here along the defensive front. B.J. Raji, Ryan Pickett, Johnny Jolly and C.J. Wilson all have expiring contracts. That’s 1,305 pounds in case you were wondering.
The first domino to fall here will be Raji. There was a report midway through the season that Raji and his reps had repeatedly turned down a long-term deal that would’ve paid him $8 million per on average. The timing of that story couldn’t have been worse for him as Raji was, in a word, terrible the second half of the season (actually, he was bad most of the year). He made zero impact plays – he hasn’t recorded a sack since the 2011 season – and wasn’t doing much to help others make plays either. Too often he was dominated by average players (see: Thanksgiving). Even at a reduced rate, why bother? It’s best to let Raji walk.
Pickett, simply put, is an old warrior. He’s almost always battling some injury or another, yet he just continues to gut it out and give his all. Injuries affected Pickett more this year than in years past, but he still turned in his share of solid showings. He’ll be 35 in October and questions exist to how much he has left in the tank. That said, the Packers should bring him back on a reasonable one-or-two year deal. His veteran presence can help this unit and he can likely squeeze out at least one more year of solid performances.
Jolly’s remarkable comeback story was completed this season. Not only did he make the roster, he played well. He adds a toughness that had been missing from the defense and he just seems to spark the team as a whole. He did wear down a bit as the year progressed, but that happens. The real question regards the neck injury that ended his season. If he can recover and get cleared, he needs to be brought back. He’ll be a little more expensive this time, but he’s only 31 in February and his value in multiple areas makes him worth it.
The presence of Jolly often made Wilson a healthy scratch (he also battled an ankle injury), which may make you forget the value Wilson can bring. He’s really strong and good against the run. And he’ll be cheap too, so bank on him re-signing.
In terms of players who will definitely be back, the main name here is Mike Daniels. What a revelation he was in 2013, racking up 6.5 sacks. He brings it every single down and plays with an intensity most others can’t match. The Packers talk a lot about players making the jump from year one to year two. Well, that’s Daniels. And he’s only going to get better. Be excited about him.
Rookie Datone Jones seemed to have trouble seeing the field consistently, but when he did, you saw flashes of the player he can become. Jones tallied 3.5 sacks in what has to be considered limited duty this year. Expect his playing time to increase dramatically next year. And with his athleticism and quickness, he could pair with Daniels to give Green Bay a scary-good duo on the line.
Josh Boyd didn’t see the field until late in the season as it seemed like the Packers wanted to redshirt him this season. Once called in to action, Boyd showed explosiveness, hustle and a knack for being in on things. Like Jones, his playing time should go way up in 2014 and he’s absolutely a player to watch.
A knee injury suffered late in 2012 robbed most of Jerel Worthy’s sophomore season from him. And once he got back onto the field, he didn’t do much of anything. That can’t happen again next season as Worthy must find a way to get his currently-disappointing career going. Daniels has broken out and Jones may very well do the same. Worthy has to keep pace.
If, say, Pickett, Jolly and Wilson return, the d-line will have set players in set roles next season. Pickett holds down the middle. Jolly, Wilson and Boyd will be the run-stoppers. Daniels, Jones and Worthy will be the pass-rushers. Are there questions with that group? Yes. But could that group be pretty good, too? Absolutely.
Obviously, the first decision the Packers have to make here involves Jermichael Finley.
Finley was well on his way to a really nice 2013 season with 25 catches for 300 yards and three touchdowns in just over five games before a frightening neck injury against Cleveland ended his season. The severity of such an injury can not be overstated, yet Finley, set for free agency in March, seems determined to keep his career going. Green Bay must now decide, should Finley be medically cleared, if it wants to pay top dollar for his services. Some have suggested Finley may take a cheaper, short-term deal given how serious his recent injury was. But odds are if he is cleared, he will find someone will to give him a pricey, long-term deal. Simply put, his size and athleticism change how opposing defenses gameplan and attack. He has value even if he never catches a pass in a game. And he won’t be 27 until March.
But, given the conservative nature of Green Bay’s medical staff and its long list of impending free agents, it’s highly unlikely Finley returns in green and gold. It’s just too risky and the Packers can score points without him.
Andrew Quarless, two years removed from a devastating knee injury, finally seemed to regain form late in the season. He came up big repeatedly in the final month and finished with a 32/312/two season. So could he be the guy to step in for Finley? Maybe, but oh wait – he’s also set for free agency in March. Quarless won’t be 26 until October and his strong finish makes you optimistic about his future. There could be 31 other teams who feel that way too. In the end, this one is too close to call. If the price is right, he’ll be back. But his ceiling may only be so high, too, so if someone offers him a sizeable contract, Green Bay likely won’t match.
After that, you’re left with a lot of question marks. Brandon Bostick (7/120/one) has many of Finley’s physical attributes, but he’s incredibly raw still. Ryan Taylor (6/30) brings a lot of toughness but is mostly valued as a blocker and special teams player. And Jake Stoneburner is a complete unknown at this point. If Quarless comes back, pairing him with Bostick could make Green Bay good enough at this spot. If Quarless goes, the Packers will have to draft here, probably within the first two days.
Now we begin to creep into disaster territory with a look at inside linebacker. The Packers employed A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones as their starters here most of the year and were rewarded with, well, mostly average-to-well-below-average results.
Hawk, who lost some weight during the offseason, finished with 118 tackles (team high), five sacks, seven tackles for loss, one interception and one forced fumble. Those numbers look good enough on paper, even once you remember three of his sacks came in one game. But at this position, the numbers don’t tell the story, namely that Hawk had just an average season. Far too often he was a total non-factor, seemingly for weeks at a time. But, hey, he’s durable and the Packers like how he runs the defense, so you can expect him back next year. And for a lot of years to come. They’re never getting rid of Hawk is what I’m trying to tell you. Just deal with it.
At least Hawk made SOME impact plays this season, which is more than you can say about Jones (60 tackles, three sacks, seven tackles for loss, one forced fumble in 12 games). Talk about a complete-and-total non-factor. For a guy with Jones’ size and athleticism, his lack of true impact is alarming. He’s just a guy and nothing more. The three-year, $11.75 million contract he signed last offseason seemed like a mistake at the time and it’s sure holding up as such. The positive? The deal was light on guaranteed money so perhaps the Packers just admit their mistake and cut Jones.
Behind these two is sparkplug Jamari Lattimore (24 tackles, two sacks, two tackles for loss, one forced fumble). Lattimore, playing much less than Hawk and Jones, had a knack for making things happen and plays with constant intensity. He’s not perfect at all, but the staff made a mistake by not giving him more playing time, even with Jones healthy. Lattimore is a free agent to be and it’ll be interesting to see if anyone makes a run at him. The guess here is that he’ll be resigned at a reasonable rate. Even if he’s just a backup, he’s a good backup to have.
After that, it’s all question marks. Victor Aiyewa? Sam Barrington? Not much is known of either. That makes this spot crucial for Green Bay to address within the first two rounds in May. Simply put the Packers can not have both Hawk and Jones starting. If you’re going to go with Hawk – and again, they are – then you need a big-time playmaker next to him, someone who can cover for Hawk’s deficiencies. Jones isn’t that guy. Lattimore probably isn’t that guy.
Look at what San Francisco can do on defense just by having Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman at ILB. It allowed them to play both safeties high against Green Bay in the playoffs, taking away the big plays downfield and forcing the Packers to stick to the short stuff in the air. Those things frustrate an offense. The Packers can’t frustrate anyone with Hawk and Jones in the middle. Players like Willis and Bowman are rare, of course, and you almost never see two such players on the same team. But Green Bay has to do its damnedest to find a player like that. Even one such player – heck, even a Desmond-Bishop-in-2010-type-player – and you’ll be amazed how much better this defense can instantly be.
And now we’re officially waste-deep in disaster as we close with safety, without a doubt the worst position on Green Bay’s roster as of now. In fact, it’s hard to even describe just how bad the Packers were here in 2013, so let’s have Pauly Shore and Stephen Baldwin do it, instead. Yeah, that bad.
The discussion here must begin with Morgan Burnett. After signing a four-year, $26.75 million contract extension in July, Burnett did nothing to show he was worthy of such a deal. He made far too many mistakes, displaying an almost superhuman ability to be out of position against both the run and the pass. Despite finishing second on the team with 96 tackles, Burnett had no interceptions, sacks or forced fumbles – and only five passes defended – in 2013. That seems like an impossible feat to pull off, yet Burnett did it. Boy, did he do it.
It’s easy to see why the Packers gave him the deal when they did, though. Burnett was entering the final year of his rookie contract and had showed real promise through his first three seasons. He only figured to get better and, as a result, more expensive. Plus, there aren’t a whole lot of great safeties in the league right now. And despite almost universal scorn amongst fans regarding his contract NOW, everyone loved the deal at the time. Yes, they did.
So the question now becomes: Was it wasted money? And the answer, even though some fans will hate it, is that it’s too soon to say. One bad – okay, one horrendous – season does not wipe out all the promise Burnett had shown in years one through three. The talent is there for Burnett to bounce back in 2014, but he must do so and do so in a major way to prove he was worthy of that contract. Otherwise that deal could end up as Ted Thompson’s biggest mistake.
And the Packers can help Burnett in a major way by adding a safety with, you know, some actual talent to play alongside Burnett next season. Because we’ve all seen M.D. Jennings and we know he’s not that guy. Jennings’ line for the season: 74 tackles, one sack, no picks, no forced fumbles and no passes defended. No passes defended? How is that even possible for a safety? Well, if you saw Jennings play in 2013, you know he’d be the guy to make that happen. Pointing out all of his specific deficiencies seems like a waste of time so let’s just say that he’s a free agent in March and should not return. Under any circumstances.
If it’s not Jennings, is it someone else on the roster? Probably not. Chris Banjo can hit like a ton of bricks, but he’s nothing more than a backup. Ditto for Sean Richardson, who has good size but not much in the way of upside. And it won’t be Jerron McMillian, because the Packers already cut him later in the season. This isn’t a popular opinion, but cutting McMillian was a foolish move. Yes, he was rotten, had shown nothing and probably wasn’t a starting-caliber player. But he was still a fourth-round pick less than two years into his career. The odds were better for McMillian developing than, say, Jennings, that’s for sure. If Mike McCarthy made that move in the hopes of lighting a fire under his defense, it failed.
Since we all know Thompson won’t make any big-time forays into free agency – and with the large number of Packers set for free agency, he might not be able to afford any, anyways – that leaves the draft as Green Bay’s only route to upgrade here. Good news on that front, as it appears the safety class is a good one. Alabama’s Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix likely won’t be there at 21 in the first round, but would be worth a move up if Ted is feeling saucy. If not, one recent mock draft has the Packers tabbing Louisville’s Calvin Pryor. He’d fit too. If the Packers are able to land a talented safety who can produce right away, that will make Burnett much better and the defense as a whole much, much better. It’s the top need on this team right now, by a fairly large margin.
So, let’s wrap up this series by asking one final question: How do the Packers look heading into the offseason?
Well, they appear to be set on offense. Actually more than set. Green Bay is in a position to have maybe the best offense in football in 2014 and that’s not hyperbole. The pass-catchers are there, the running back is definitely there and the triggerman is the best in the game. And the starting five up front sure look like an ascending group. Their playcaller needs to be a little more consistent, but McCarthy is right to be excited about this side of the ball.
But on defense there is still much work to be done. The Packers must improve up the middle on the back two levels. Simply adding solid players at inside linebacker and safety won’t be enough. To truly get better, honest-to-God-playmakers must be found for these spots. And some so-far-disappointing youngsters must stay healthy and show why they were drafted when they were. If these things can happen, combined with the top-end talent Green Bay already has, it’s not unthinkable for this defense to make major strides in 2014. And remember, with the offense the Packers will have, it doesn’t need to be a top five unit. Simply finishing in the top 15 would be more than good enough.
If we see that improvement on defense, this will be a team to reckon with next year. A 11-13 win season is easily attainable, in fact. But if we do not see that jump – if we get the same showings we’ve gotten the past three years – well, okay, the team could still win 11-13 games. But the Packers won’t then be good enough to do anything special when it matters most. And that’ll put us right back where we are now – watching other teams play for the title.