Having paid out a whopping $55 million in signing bonuses to quarterback Aaron Rodgers and outside linebacker Clay Matthews, the Green Bay Packers successfully locked up their two biggest stars. But they have also caused a segment of their passionate fan base to worry that with so much money tied to only two players, the salary-cap ramifications will be disastrous.
But while Rodgers (five years, $110 million) and Matthews (five years, $66 million) certainly didn’t come cheap, general manager Ted Thompson’s annual draft-and-develop youth movement, a salary cap that won’t be flat forever and the structure of each deal mean that the Packers will remain Super Bowl contenders as long as their $176 million men remain healthy. “I like where we’re at,” Rodgers says. “Obviously, there were some (fans concerned) about not doing a lot in free agency. (But) the Packer way (is) where you draft a guy in your system.”
For yet another offseason, Thompson avoided signing any outside unrestricted free agents, marshaling his resources to pay his stars and again relying on the draft to fill holes. And there were still holes that needed to be filled.
Athlon Sports NFC Power Ranking: 3rd
Coach Mike McCarthy loves to call his offense “quarterback driven,” but for the first time since Ryan Grant put together back-to-back 1,200-yard rushing seasons in 2008 and 2009, Rodgers might not have to be behind the wheel all the time. There’s no doubt that at age 29 he is on top of his game, even though he wasn’t as statistically dominant in 2012 as he was when he won the NFL MVP in 2011. He’s as good as it gets against the blitz, but the problem for the Packers’ offense last year was the steady diet of Cover-2 defenses it saw, as opponents had no reason to fear the running game.
That could finally change after the team drafted Alabama’s Eddie Lacy in the second round and UCLA’s Johnathan Franklin in the fourth. In his previous eight drafts, Thompson had selected a total of four running backs, so this would indicate a shift in offensive philosophy. Perhaps McCarthy can do for Rodgers what Mike Sherman did for Brett Favre in the early 2000s, when Pro Bowl running back Ahman Green improved the QB’s quality of life. McCarthy says he made some “scheme adjustments” even before the draft, clearly hoping that a respectable running game will mean that Rodgers won’t see two deep safeties every time he drops back. The backfield depth took a hit during training camp when third-year pro DuJuan Harris injured his knee and was placed on injured reserve.
While the free agent defection of Greg Jennings and the retirement of Donald Driver erased two beloved names from the depth chart at receiver, Rodgers still has plenty of pass-catching talent around him. Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb and James Jones still make for a pretty impressive 1-2-3 combination if all three can stay healthy. Cobb, in his second NFL season, led the Packers in receiving in 2012 with 80 catches for 954 yards and eight touchdowns in regular-season play; Jones set career highs in 2012 in receptions (64), yards (784) and touchdowns (an NFL-best 14); and when Nelson was healthy for a full 2011, he caught 68 passes for 1,263 yards and 15 touchdowns. Nelson missed a significant amount of training camp after undergoing knee surgery in early August and it's possible he could miss the first week or two of the regular season. Unheralded Jarrett Boykin also caught the quarterback’s eye as the No. 6 receiver last year and could blossom. The team also paid starting tight end Jermichael Finley his $3 million roster bonus on March 26, meaning he’s back for his sixth season in Green Bay with an $8.25 million cap number — and even higher expectations.
The offensive line must improve. Not only did the unit allow Rodgers to be sacked 51 times last season, but the running game also ranked No. 20 in yards per game and No. 22 in yards per rush. At center, Evan Dietrich-Smith is under the microscope after assuming the starting job from now-retired Jeff Saturday late in the regular season. The line also took a big hit during training camp when starting left tackle Bryan Bulaga tore his ACL, ending his 2013 season before it even got started. Bulaga's loss puts even more pressure on fourth-round pick David Bakhtiari, who is penciled in as Bulaga's replacement as Rodgers' blindside protector.
Although Rodgers' durability is one of his greatest assets, the Packers did shuffle the deck somewhat behind him during training camp. In early August, Green Bay signed 2006 No. 3 overall pick Vince Young as a free agent. Young, who went to two Pro Bowls (2006, '09) as Tennessee's starter before getting released and signing with Philadelphia in 2011, then proceeded to beat out incumbent backup Graham Harrell, who was released on Aug. 25. Unfortunately, Young didn't do enough to secure one of the final roster spots, so for now, the Packers will go with last season's seventh-round pick B.J. Coleman as the only other quarterback on the roster.
On defense, the unit is trying to get past its epic season-ending embarrassment, as the San Francisco 49ers rolled up 579 yards — and Colin Kaepernick ran for more yards than any quarterback in a game in NFL history (181) — in a 45–31 NFC Divisional Playoff thrashing. The healing must start in the front seven. Even as good as Matthews is, there are still issues on the line. Defensive end Mike Neal’s emergence was encouraging — playing just 322 snaps as situational pass-rusher, he finished with 4.5 sacks — but he, like big-bodied inside guys Ryan Pickett and B.J. Raji, is going into the final year of his contract. The addition of first-round pick Datone Jones should help tremendously, adding some much-needed speed.
Matthews’ new deal was not the only move at linebacker. A.J. Hawk agreed to a pay cut; Brad Jones re-upped for three years, $11.75 million; Robert Francois re-signed as a restricted free agent; and unrestricted free agent Erik Walden (Indianapolis) and untendered restricted free agent Frank Zombo (Kansas City) both departed. Fill-in starter D.J. Smith was jettisoned, too. Inside, there are plenty of players, but it’s debatable how many of them are good. Desmond Bishop, the team's leading tackler in 2011, was released during the summer as the Packers weren't pleased with his ongoing recovery from the serious hamstring injury that kept him out all of 2012. Jones is slated to replace Bishop as the other starting inside linebacker opposite Hawk. Outside, Matthews, 2012 first-round pick Nick Perry and under-the-radar second-year man Dezman Moses all generate pressure, but in a scheme predicated on outstanding play from that position, it seems thin.
In the secondary, gone is future Hall of Famer Charles Woodson, released in a cost-cutting move. Cornerback Tramon Williams, considered in 2010 to be one of the top-five cover men in the league, still isn’t the player he was before suffering nerve damage in his shoulder in 2011. Cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt expects a four-way competition for the two starting jobs involving Williams, Sam Shields, Casey Hayward and Davon House.
Longtime kicker Mason Crosby got a case of the yips that may or may not be resolved. A year after going 24-of-28, he was a league-worst 21-of-33 (63.6 percent) on field goal attempts. In a close game, can he deliver? Meanwhile, Tim Masthay has quietly become one of the top punters in the NFL, but the return game is an issue, too. Given that Cobb emerged as the Packers’ top pass-catcher, has he become too valuable on offense to continue as the full-time return man? It’s a question McCarthy continues to wrestle with.
Final Analysis: 1st in NFC North
The Packers certainly “lost” the offseason, as NFC contenders San Francisco and Seattle did more to improve their teams on paper. But this is how the Thompson and McCarthy regime works. They’ll count on their own guys to either emerge out of nowhere or improve by leaps and bounds and count on their star veterans to keep delivering at the highest level. It’s not the sexiest approach, but the Packers are 53–27 in the regular season since Rodgers took over at quarterback, with a Super Bowl XLV title to show for it. As disappointing as back-to-back NFC Divisional Playoff losses have been, the Packers remain solid contenders in a stacked conference.
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