A Look Back: Reviewing the 2014 Draft

As with most things in life, hindsight is certainly 20/20 when it comes to reviewing the crapshoot NFL draft. Still, for a franchise like Green Bay that is staunchly Draft-and-Develop, it can be a fun exercise to take a look at recent hits/misses and the impact they had on the roster today. The rule of thumb with NFL Draft classes is you need 3 years before you can truly “grade” a draft, but some of the misses in the 2014 draft have already had a direct result on the perceived team needs for Green Bay as we head into the 2016 season. The jury is still out for some of these players, but if the early returns are any indication, this draft could contain one of Thompson’s biggest regrets.

Round 1 (21st overall) – HaHa Clinton-Dix, Safety

Not much to criticize here. Safety was a glaring hole for the Packers coming into the draft, and Ted wasted no time addressing it in the 1st round. After a decent rookie season, Clinton-Dix made major strides in his sophomore season, primarily by cleaning up his poor tackling. He may not reach the All-Pro level of Nick Collins, but he seems well on his way to being a solid player for years to come. Things go downhill quite quickly for Green Bay from here, however…

Round 2 (53) – Davante Adams, WR

This is by far the most interesting pick of Green Bay’s 2014 draft. Ted Thompson must have been licking his chops coming into what was widely considered one of the deepest WR classes in years, and that has already proven true. Just look at the players drafted in the 1st round alone – Sammy Watkins, Mike Evans, OBJ, & Brandin Cooks to name a few. The 2nd round is where Ted has landed studs such as Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, and Randall Cobb in years past. When Adams was selected many were ready to anoint him a star before he even stepped on the field, purely based on Ted’s track record.

But in a 2015 season where Green Bay sorely needed a WR to step up after Jordy’s injury, Adams failed to deliver. Meanwhile, several players that Ted opted to pass on in favor of Adams have already established themselves as stars around the league: Allen Robinson (61st), Jarvis Landry (63rd), John Brown (91st), and Martavis Bryant (118). It is possible Green Bay would still be playing today if they had selected one of these players instead of Adams, particularly Allen Robinson.

To be fair, I am still pretty high on Adams. Despite lacking game-breaking speed, he flashed tons of potential in huge games vs. New England and Dallas in his rookie season. Jordy’s injury forced Green Bay to rush Adams along quicker than they may have liked in 2015, and it seemed early season injuries/struggles snowballed into Adams regressing in his 2nd season. It is easy to forget even Nelson struggled mightily with drops early in his career, but was able to play behind guys like Driver, Jennings, and even James Jones while he developed his game. Still, one has to wonder if this pick goes down as one of Ted’s biggest regrets.

Round 3 (85) – Khyri Thornton, DT

A colossal bust. Questioned immediately at the time the pick was made, Thornton has already been cut. It happens.

Round 3 (98) – Richard Rodgers, TE

Another pick that was a surprise to many the moment it was made. Two years into his career, he has proven to be exactly the player he was considered to be coming out of Cal – Strong hands but below average speed, a poor blocker, awful after the catch (despite McCarthy’s insistence at throwing him quick screens on 3rd and 1 that seemingly fail every time), and a poor route runner. Some of these flaws may improve over time, but he does not appear to have the tools to be anything close to a #1 tight end at this stage.

Round 4 (121) – Carl Bradford, LB

See: Thornton. Another bust.

Round 5 (161) – Corey Linsley, C

This pick may have saved the draft for Ted. Drafted primarily for depth purposes, he immediately established himself as an above-average starter when Tretter got injured in 2014. Should be a main-stay on this line for years to come.

Round 5 (176) – Jared Abbrederis, WR

Battled injuries early in his career and was never given much of an opportunity in 2015 despite a glaring lack of production from the position group. On the roster bubble heading into next season.

Round 6 (197) – Demetri Goodson, CB

A developmental prospect.

Round 7 (236) – Jeff Janis, WR

No comment necessary. A potential steal, as any production from a 7th round pick is pretty rare.

So to recap, Ted spent 6 picks after the 1st round on the following positions: WR (3), DT, TE, LB. With the exception of maybe WR, all four of these position groups remain fairly huge “needs” for Green Bay heading into 2016.

 

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Green Bay Packers 2016 UFA Preview

This post is a summary of the upcoming Unrestricted Free Agents for Green Bay heading into the 2016 season, and who they should re-sign. Fortunately, GB was able to lock up Mike Daniels mid-season, so they do not have any star positional players scheduled to hit the market this season as they did last year with Bulaga and Cobb.

Note: All salary cap figures per http://www.Overthecap.com

The Priority Re-Signings:

Mason Crosby, Kicker (2015 cap figure: $3.5M)

A no-brainer. Further solidified his standing as one of the best kickers in the NFL in 2015, kicking 24-28 (85.7%), including 4-5 from 50+, and a perfect 36-36 on extra points. Maintaining his 2015 figure of 3.5M on an average annual basis in an extension would place him in the top 5 in the NFL, which is fair compensation for one of the NFL’s elite.

James Starks, RB (2015: $1.8M)

Starks has expressed a desire to be a starting RB in the NFL, but it remains to be seen if any teams actually view him as such. He was never able to truly establish himself as a starter in Green Bay, even when they were starved for such a player prior to Lacy’s arrival. Durability, fumbling, and consistency issues throughout his career will likely prevent a team from offering him “starter” money, in which case he should continue his role as the perfect complement to Lacy’s bruising style. Lacy has no shortage of issues himself going into 2016 (re: conditioning), making it all the more important for GB to have a reliable back-up. If things truly break terribly for Lacy again next season, Starks could ultimately end up with the role he covets any way.

John Kuhn, FB (2015: $635K)

A mainstay in Green Bay for years, it is unlikely any other team will make a competitive offer, which should allow GB to bring him back at their price. The return on investment with Kuhn is always tremendous, given his continued value as a pass-blocker and lead run-blocker in key situations. Aaron Ripkowski should remain primarily a core special teamer for at least one more season.

The “Flip a Coin” bracket:

For the following pairs of players, my guess is the team will ultimately choose to re-sign one (or perhaps neither), but not both.

Letroy Guion, NT (2015: $2.5M) vs. BJ Raji, NT (2015: $2.8M)

Two very different but equally valuable players, Guion and Raji each had seasons that trended in completely opposite directions. Raji came out of the gate on fire, flashing dominance in week 2 vs. Seattle we haven’t seen since his best season in 2010. Guion, on the other hand, struggled at the DE position after returning from a suspension in week 4. As the season wore on however, Raji once again seemed to get de-railed by injury; he never looked the same after suffering a groin injury in the middle of the year. Injuries have truly been the story of his career. Down the stretch in 2015 it was Guion who was the more impactful player, making some tremendous plays at NT in short-yardage situations (huge stops at the goal-line in the Wild Card game vs Washington after Djax ran out at the 1 immediately come to mind).

Raji has the draft pedigree (something Ted clearly values almost to a fault) and arguably has more raw talent and higher ceiling potential than Guion. However, unless he is willing to accept a cheap, incentive-laden deal, I think it is time to move on. It has become a virtual guarantee that Raji will get injured every season, and his development time in OTAs and camp would be better served going to young kids waiting to emerge (i.e. Mike Pennel). Still, there is too much uncertainty at the position to let both players walk, and Guion is a steady, valuable veteran presence who should be brought back at his 2015 rate. We will discuss the overall health of this position group in a future post, but FWIW I do think the team will (and should) add another big body via the draft as well.

Mike Neal, OLB (2015: $4.2M) vs. Nick Perry, OLB (2015: $2.4M)

To me, this is the toughest and perhaps most critical question facing Green Bay this off-season. Neither Perry nor Neal is a “star”, but they both played significant snaps in 2015 and were effective in their roles. Though the plan is for Clay to return to OLB next season, one would expect Peppers’ snaps to also continue to reduce. With only Jayrone Elliot and Andy Mulumba behind these two, the team certainly can’t afford to let both players walk. In a perfect world, I would like to see both return, but if I had to choose one I would choose Perry.

While Perry has battled injuries throughout his career as much as Raji has (and that continued in 2015), I also don’t think we have seen the best of what Perry has to offer. In a small sample size in what was also perhaps “garbage time”, Perry finally flashed what he is truly capable of by beating All-Pro LT Trent Williams in the WC Round vs. Washington multiple times. If he is truly ready to turn the corner, I would hate to see that happen for him on another team. Neal has also developed into a steady, reliable player which definitely has value; but if I have to choose, I want the player who has the upside to be a true difference maker at OLB for a 3-4 defense.

If the Price is Right:

James Jones, WR (2015: $585K)

Wide Receiver is a bit of an odd position group for Green Bay. No one would argue that this team could use an infusion of talent next season, however it is also very crowded. Jordy, Cobb, Adams, and Montgomery are guaranteed roster spots (Adams being a 2nd round pick only two years ago, Montgomery a 3rd last season). Janis likely is as well due to his emergence as a core special teamer (both as a returner and a gunner on punt coverage), on top of his obvious potential as a WR. That’s already 5 spots locked up, with Abbrederis also competing for a spot. My guess/suggestion: invite Jones to camp on a veteran’s minimum deal and see how the group unfolds, health and development wise.

Scott Tolzien, QB (2015: $1.4M)

We already learned the hard way what happens if this team doesn’t have a reliable back-up behind Rodgers. Unless a team pays Tolzien with the mind-set of having him compete as a starter, GB should be able to bring him back on another cheap one-year deal while Brett Hundley continues to develop.

Andrew Quarless, TE (2015: $1.8M)

I’d consider bringing him back on a veteran’s minimum deal only. His off-field issues and on-field performance barely even warrant that, but Green Bay has a glaring lack of depth at this position.

Let Them Walk:

Casey Hayward, CB (2015: $1M)

Corner is a premium position, and Hayward will get paid big bucks by someone (he should arguably get more than Davon House did last season). Will be an easy decision not to match, given the obvious potential of Randall and Rollins.

Don Barclay, T (2015: $1.5M)

Once considered a valuable backup swing tackle on this team, he clearly does not have it any more. Easy decision.

BONUS: Proposed Cuts/Salary Cap Casualties:

Tim Masthay, Punter (2015: $1.3M)

When Mason Crosby went into a deep slump several years ago, Green Bay showed incredible patience and it was rewarded when Crosby immediately bounced back the following season. Masthay deserved the same level of patience, however after two seasons he simply cannot be given another chance. He continually crippled the defense in 2015 with shanks that gave the opposition great field position, and in a season where we truly could not afford poor punting given the struggles of the offense. Should be an easy position to upgrade.

 

The Case for Signing an ILB in Free Agency

How ironic. The inaugural post for this Packers fan blog is to clamor for the team to sign a free agent. Before you snicker while making a Ted Thompson joke and close your browser, hear me out. While ILB isn’t the only position group on GB’s roster that could use an upgrade, it is clearly the one that had the most damaging domino effect in 2015 with its ineffectiveness. Of course, you probably know I’m referring to Clay Matthews being forced to move to ILB.

While Clay did an admirable job filling in at ILB for the past one and a half seasons, Ted is doing this team a huge disservice by forcing Dom Capers to deploy our best defensive player (and pass-rusher) out of position on primary downs. While Dom has still managed to find ways for Clay to rush QBs via A-gap pressures and stunts with Julius Peppers, he has still played an inordinate amount of snaps banging bodies inside and in coverage. Mike McCarthy made his stance on this quite clear in his season ending presser when he identified Clay returning to OLB as a primary goal for next season. Clearly, this team plans on adding a player or two to the roster to compete with Jake Ryan and Sam Barrington (and no, Nate Palmer is not going to cut it). The only real question now is, by what means?

In a perfect world, Green Bay would answer their ILB issue cheaply via the draft. The risk with waiting until the draft however is that GB has no way to know how the early rounds will unfold. Even if they target an ILB early (say, Reggie Ragland from Alabama or Myles Jack from UCLA), there is no way to be sure that player will be available at #27 when GB is on the clock. All current mock drafts actually have those two players long gone by then. And even if an ideal ILB is on the board for GB, this wouldn’t preclude Ted from addressing a different position if a player ranked higher on his board is also available. This strategy led Ted to draft two defensive backs and a WR last season before ultimately selecting ILB Jake Ryan in the 4th round. Ryan emerged as a steady option alongside Clay but clearly has his limitations, particularly in coverage. He cannot be expected to fill Clay’s shoes as the primary ILB. Alternatively, this team could also add an ILB via Undrafted Free Agency, however I doubt a player of that calibur competing with Barrington and Ryan would instill much confidence in Mike allowing Clay to return to OLB full-time. We also have absolutely no idea what to expect from Barrington next season, as he will only be penciled in as a starter.

Free Agency is the best and perhaps only option for GB to improve the ILB position with enough confidence to allow Clay and his 13.8M cap hit to return, and most importantly remain, at OLB in 2016. At this early stage, it is unclear which scheduled UFA’s will actually reach the market, and for those that do, how expensive their market will be. Perhaps the biggest name is Derrick Johnson, who surprisingly rebounded from an Achilles injury to deliver an outstanding season for KC. KC has several other defensive free agents they will likely prioritize, such as Eric Berry and Tamba Hali, which may allow Johnson to slip through the cracks. His age (33) may preclude Ted from having any interest, however his age could also result in his price dipping to a range GB deems affordable. And to my earlier point, any dollar spent in free agency on an ILB has the added inherit benefit of allowing our best (and most expensive) defensive player to return to his true OLB position. Other viable options include Indy’s Jerrell Freeman (graded as one of PFF’s Top run-stopping 3-4 ILB’s in 2015) and Denver’s Danny Trevathan. All three ILB’s mentioned here have previously excelled in 3-4 schemes.

As we all know, expecting Ted Thompson to address a team need via free agency is foolhardy. However, now that Clay returning to OLB permanently is (and should be) a priority, it is imperative that this team finds a reliable and instant contributor at ILB to allow Barrington and Ryan to compete for one remaining spot.

*Salary Cap figures per Overthecap.com