Monday, May 19, 2014

Building The 53 - 2014 Green Bay Packers 1.0

Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson added nine new players to the roster in the 2014 NFL Draft.  Following the draft, Thompson signed a number of undrafted free agents*.  There is always a good chance an undrafted free agent makes the opening day 53-man roster (think Sam Shields or Frank Zombo) but it is too early how many of those guys could make The 53.  There is a chance that Thompson makes a few more moves based on injury or need but as of right now Thompson 90 players to choose from for The 53.

I made the same predictions last year.  I correctly "predicted" 42 of 53 players that made The 53 to start the 2013 season.  I say "predicted" because the point of the post is for me to explain who I would keep on the 53-man roster and why.  There are some guys that were not even on the roster at the time of the post that made The 53 (Chris Banjo). When some of those guys don't make the roster I am not technically wrong, I just have a difference of opinion with Thompson.  The biggest group that I cannot predict are the undrafted free agents because as I said earlier, we know a couple of those guys end up showing enough in training camp to merit a spot on The 53. 

Keeping that in mind, here are my thoughts on the 53 guys that I would keep today if I were in charge of making The 53 for the start of the 2014 season:

Cut: Chase Rettig
Keep: Aaron Rodgers, Matt Flynn, and Scott Tolzien
Analysis: It will be a very interesting battle for the backup quaterback spot.  Even though it was just last training camp, it feels like a million years ago that B.J. Coleman and Vince Young "battled" for the backup quarterback spot behind Rodgers.  Ultimately Coleman beat out Young for the backup quarterback spot on The 53 but Coleman never saw regular season action.  When Rodgers was out with a broken collarbone for seven games, Flynn played better than Tolzien and Seneca Wallace (remember his nightmare performance in relief of Rodgers on MNF against the Bears or his start at home against the Philadelphia Eagles).  As of right now, Flynn is most likely the answer this season but Tolzien looks like the long-term answer at backup quarterback.  The conventional thinking is that given all the talent on the roster it might be hard to justify keeping three quarterbacks but for how much the Packers struggled without Rodgers under center, I think it makes sense to keep both Flynn and Tolzien if for no other reason than they've been with the team for the entire off-season and practice reps are scarce once the regular season starts.  So if Rodgers goes down again, Flynn or Tolzien could step in with more experience under their belt this year than last year.

Running Back:
Cut: Michael Hill, Rajon Neal, and LaDarius Perkins
Keep: Eddie Lacy, James Starks, Jonathan Franklin, and DuJuan Harris
Analysis: Despite the fact that the NFL has turned into a pass happy league, the Packers still have what amounts to three starting running backs.  I say three because both Franklin and Harris are coming off serious injuries from last season.  If both were healthy, it would actually give the Packers four legitimate starting NFL running backs.  All four have an injury history so it makes sense for Thompson to hedge his bets at the position.  When healthy, Lacy is clearly the best of the bunch.  Given Lacy's punishing running style, it will be interesting to see if the Packers use more of a two back system to keep him fresh or just ride Lacy as their first three down back since Ryan Grant left town the first time.

Cut: Ina Liaina
Keep: John Kuhn
Analysis: Fans love to cheer KUUUUUHHNN when he gets a rare hand off in short yardage situations but blocking and special teams is the reason Kuhn is entering his ninth season with the Packers.  Kuhn's blocks last season against the Cowboys to set-up Lacy's 60-yard run and the Bears to give Rodgers enough time to find Cobb to catapult the Packers into the playoffs will go down as two of his best plays ever for the Packers.  Add in that Kuhn is a special teams standout and I am fine with the Packers keeping Kuhn for slightly above the veteran minimum for the rest of his career.

Tight End:
Cut: Colt Lyerla, Jake Stoneburner, and Justin Perillo
Keep: Brandon Bostick, Andrew Quarless, Richard Rodgers, and Ryan Taylor
Analysis: Tight end Jermichael Finley's career most likely came to an end when he suffered a brutal neck injury against the Cleveland Browns at Lambeau Field last season.  For all Finley's off-the-field drama and his unwillingness to block, there is no question that he is the most physically gifted tight end in franchise history.  The Packers know what they have in Quarless (good blocker and decent pass catcher) and Taylor (special teams ace with limitations on offense), the three interesting guys to watch are Bostick, Lyerla, and Rodgers.  All three look to be very physically gifted but also very raw.  Given that Thompson drafted Rodgers in the 3rd round, if healthy, his spot on The 53 is guaranteed.  Off-the-field, Lyerla looks like the closest thing to Finley so it would seem fitting if he made The 53.  On the field, Bostick looks like the closest thing to Finley so I gave Bostick a spot on The 53 over Lyerla.

Wide Receiver:
Cut: Myles White, Chris Harper, Kevin Dorsey, and Alex Gillett
Keep: Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, Jarrett Boykin, Davante Adams, Jared Abbrederis, and Jeff Janis
Analysis: I see Thompson keeping 14 or 15 skilled position (fullback, running back, tight end, and wide receiver) guys.  So far I've kept one fullback, four running backs, and four tight ends so that leaves five or six spots at wide receiver.  Despite letting James Jones leave via free agency, the Packers have the deepest group of wide receivers fighting for spots on The 53 in the last decade.  Besides Nelson and Cobb, none of the other wide receivers look like a number one option this season but there is very little difference between the third (Boykin) and tenth (Gillett) wide receiver on the depth chart.  Based on skill and draft position, the first four wide receiver spots are set (Nelson, Cobb, Boykin, and Adams).  Given their physical skills alone, I don't see Abbrederis or Janis making it through waivers so I gave them spots on The 53 ahead of the rest.

Offensive Tackle:
Cut: Aaron Adams, Jeremy Vujnovich, and John Fullington
Keep: Bryan Bulaga, David Bakhtiari, Don Barclay, and Derek Sherrod
Analysis: The Packers look set at left (Bakhtiari), right (Bulaga), and backup (Barclay) tackle, assuming that Bulaga is fully recovered from the knee injury he suffered in training camp.  That leaves potentially one other spot up for grabs.  After Thompson drafted Sherrod in the first round of the 2011 NFL Draft, there is no way that Thompson could have envisioned Sherrod would be fighting just to make The 53 three years later.  Unfortunately injuries have really hampered Sherrod's progress.  If healthy, Sherrod should make The 53 but if he is hampered by injuries throughout training camp, Thompson should go in another direction.

Offensive Guard:
Cut: Andrew Tiller and Jordan McCray
Keep: Josh Sitton, T.J. Lang, and Lane Taylor
Analysis: The Packers are set with their starers at guard with Sitton on the left and Lang on the right but competition for the backup spot is wide open.  If the Packers suffered an injury to any of their five starters, the first guy to fill any of the five spots would most likely be Barclay but I still think the Packers need to develop a guy that focuses solely on playing guard.  I gave the edge to Taylor ahead of Tiller just based on reputation from past seasons but if someone else shows well at guard in training camp, the Packers don't have a ton invested in Taylor so I could see them going in another direction.

Offensive Center:
Cut: Garth Gerhart
Keep: J.C. Tretter and Corey Linsley
Analysis: The Packers regularly run a no-huddle offense, which puts even more value on the center position than an offense that traditionally huddles up.  Despite the fact that the Packers play an uptempo style, apparently I value former starting center Evan Dietrich-Smith much more than Thompson does because Thompson let EDS sign a four-year, $14.25 million deal ($7.25 million guaranteed) with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers instead of resigning him.  That means Rodgers will have his fourth different starting center (Scott Wells, Jeff Saturday, EDS, and presumably Tretter) over the last five seasons.  Thompson is putting too much faith in a couple of unproven guys given that Tretter (out most of his rookie season last year with injury), Linsley (drafted in the fifth round of the 2014 NFL Draft), and I all have the same number of NFL snaps under our belt.  The Packers could use some continuity at the center position for the next few seasons, so hopefully Tretter or Linsley seize the opportunity.

Defensive End:
Cut: Jerel Worthy, Carlos Gray, and Luther Robinson
Keep: Josh Boyd, Datone Jones, and Khyri Thornton
Analysis: This defense end position on The 53 is at little bit of a crossroads.  The Packers used high picks on Jones (1st round in 2013 NFL Draft), Thornton ((LINK)3rd round in 2014 NFL Draft(LINK)), and Worthy (2nd round in 2012 NFL Draft) but so far have very little to show for it. Boyd, the lowest draft pick of the group (5th round in 2013 NFL Draft), is ready to contribute the most this season while Thompson still holds out hope that Jones can morph into Cullen Jenkins 2.0.  The third spot came down to Thornton v. Worthy, given Worthy's history, I gave the spot to Thornton.

Defensive Tackle:
Cut: Mike Pennel
Keep: Mike Daniels, B.J. Raji, and Letroy Guion
Analysis: Daniels projects more as a defensive end than a defensive tackle but the Packers have him listed at defensive tackle so that's why he is listed at that position.  No matter what spot Daniels plays, despite being the shortest (6'0") defensive lineman currently on the roster, he is current the best.  Raji moves back inside this season for a make it or break it season.  In the middle of last season Raji turned down a long-term extension that averaged $8 million a season.  Raji ultimately signed a one-year, $4 million "prove it" deal.  If Raji can return to his pre-2012 form, he could play his way into a huge extension from a 3-4 team but if Raji has a lackluster season he could be inching closer to a veteran minimum extension.  Finally Guion, the former Minnesota Viking that signed a one-year borderline veteran minimum deal with the Packers, gives the Packers a big body (6'4" and 315 lbs) at defensive tackle.  I favor Johnny Jolly or Ryan Pickett over Guion but apparently Thompson feels differently since he usually favors in-house options over free agents.

Outside Linebacker:
Cut: Andy Mulumba, Nate Palmer, Jayrone Elliott, Adrian Hubbard, and Shawn Lewis
Keep: Clay Matthews, Julius Peppers, Mike Neal, and Nick Perry
Analysis: Thompson finally assembled the best group of outside linebackers during his tenure that was propped up heavily when Thompson signed Peppers, the former Chicago Bear defensive end/outside linebacker, to a three-year, $26 million contract with just $7.5 million guaranteed.  Thompson is usually reticent to dip into the free agent market but when spends money (think Ryan Pickett and Charles Woodson) it is usually money well spent.  Thompson was almost forced to make a splash in free agency at outside linebacker because Nick Perry has been injured and miscast at that spot since Thompson drafted him in the first round of the 2012 NFL Draft.  As I've said many times, the Packers need to experiment with playing some 4-3 to give Perry a chance to shine.  That makes even more sense now because Peppers play defensive end in a 4-3 last season with the Bears.  Finally, Thompson brought back a quality back-up in Mike Neal.  If Matthews and Peppers stay healthy, I could see Neal and Perry getting some snaps at defensive end in passing situations.  That could leave spots for Mulumba and/or Palmer down the road but not right now.

Middle Linebacker:
Cut: Sam Barrington, Joe Thomas, and Jake Doughty
Keep: A.J. Hawk, Brad Jones, Carl Bradford, and Jamari Lattimore
Analysis: I see very little difference between any of the top six middle linebackers on the roster, which is why the extensions given to Hawk and Jones make no sense.  Thompson will have to cut much more cost-effective options (Barrington and Palmer) in order to keep overpaid options (Hawk and Jones).  Although the Packers want to see what Bradford can do at outside linebacker, given his size (6'1" and 252 lbs), he projects much more as an inside linebacker.  Ultimately I gave Lattomore the roster spot over Barrington because of Lattimore's versatility, which would allow him to slide outside in a pinch.

Cut: Demetri Goodson, Jumal Rolle, Antonio Dennard, and Ryan White
Keep: Sam Shields, Tramon Williams, Casey Hayward, Devon House, and Jarrett Bush
Analysis: The Packers are so deep at cornerback that they can afford to shift Micah Hyde to safety.  The Packers invested heavily in Shields and Williams with Shields locked up through 2017 while Williams is in a contract year.  House and Bush are set to become free agents too so I could see the cornerback position looking quite different next season.  Thus if Goodson shows that he is actually progressing from the basketball court to the football field then the Packers should make a spot for him on The 53 because they are going to need to replenish at cornerback next season.

Cut: Chris Banjo, Charles Clay, and Tanner Miller
Keep: Morgan Burnett, Micah Hyde, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, and Sean Richardson
Analysis: Let me be the 10 millionth person to point out that the safeties did not have a single interception last season for the first time since before my parents were born.  Although Burnett looked to have a down year, I still think he brings a ton of versatility to the defense so his spot is secure.  The more interesting battle will be between Hyde and Ha Ha.  If Ha Ha beats out Hyde, the Packers need to find a way to get Hyde on the field but if Hyde beats out Ha Ha then it makes senses to let Ha Ha learn behind Burnett and Hyde.  I gave the final spot to Richardson ahead of Banjo purely based on size because the Packers need bigger, more physical safeties to defend the huge influx of tall tight ends (think Martellus Bennett and Kyle Rudolph) and wide receivers (think Alshon Jeffrey, Calvin Johnson, and Brandon Marshall) in their division.

Cut: N/A
Keep: Mason Crosby (K), Tim Masthay (P), and Brett Goode (LS)
Analysis: Absent serious injury, there will be no changes at kicker, punter, or long snapper this off-season.

It is hard to trim the roster to 53 players and that is even without factoring in undrafted rookie free agents, which will possibly mean a few more roster spots will have to be created, since almost every year at least one undrafted rookie free agent makes the final 53-man roster.  The last five players I cut were Jerel Worthy, Andy Mulumba, Sam Barrington, Demetri Goodson, and Chris Banjo but I am sure the roster churn will continue so stay tuned.

* = Clay Charles (S, Hawaii), Jake Doughty (LB, Utah State), Jayrone Elliott (DE/OLB, Toledo), John Fullington (T, Washington State), Carlos Gray (DE, NC State), Adrian Hubbard (OLB, Alabama), Colt Lyerla (TE, Oregon), Jordan McCray (G, Central Florida), Tanner Miller (S, Iowa), Raijon Neal (RB, Tennessee), Mike Pennel (DT, Colorado State-Pueblo), Justin Perillo (TE, Maine), LaDarius Perkins (RB, Mississippi State), Chase Rettig (QB, Boston College), Luther Robinson (DE, Miami), Joe Thomas (ILB, South Carolina State), Jeremy Vujnovich (T, Louisiana College), and Ryan White (CB, Auburn).

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