Sunday, November 2, 2014

The 53 - Packers are 5-3 & Looking (Pretty) Good

It has been an interesting three game stretch for the 2014 Green Bay Packers since my last The 53 post.  The Packers won on the road over the Miami Dolphins thanks to a 4th quarter comeback engineered by quarterback Aaron Rodgers and followed that up with a blowout win over the Carolina Panthers.  Everything was looking good for the Packers as they went on the road to play the New Orleans Saints on Sunday Night Football before their bye week given the fact that the Saints were just 2-4 heading into the game while the Packers were 5-2.  The turning point of the game was when Rodgers pulled up gimpy with a hamstring injury.  Before that, the Packers and Saints traded offensive blows but with Rodgers hobbled, the Packers ended up losing by 21 points.  Unfortunately that sent the Packers into their bye on a sour note.

The bright side is that their bye week gives Rodgers time to let his hamstring heal.  Given that the 2014 NFL Trade Deadline came and went without any consequence, I thoughts I would drop the rankings of The 53 and just highlight a few players of note on The 53.  Without further adu, here are my thoughts on certain players on The 53 with half of the 2014 regular season in the books for the Packers:

Eddie Lacy (RB): Rodgers missed almost half the season last year in Lacy's impressive rookie season so it seemed like a healthy Rodgers and Lacy would give the Packers their best quarterback/running back combo since Brett Favre and Ahman Green. Oddly so far this season Lacy has been less effective in his second year in the NFL despite the fact that Rodgers has been healthy for the entire first half of the season.  Through eight games Lacy has just 428 rushing yards (17th in NFL) on 105 carries (tied for 29th in the NFL) for a 4.1 yard average.  Lacy only found the end zone on four carries (tied for 12th in the NFL), which is somewhat surprising given how much he can move the pile in short yardage situations.  Juxtapose that with last season when through eight games Lacy had 669 rushing yards on 158 carries for 4.2 yards rushing and four rushing touchdowns.  There is no question that Lacy has earned every single one of those 428 yards this season thanks to his punishing running style and the fact that his longest run of the season is just 29 yards.  Although Lacy has not put up huge rushing stats this season, on the surface it looks like he has improved catching the ball out the backfield with 209 yards receiving on 21 catches (4th most on team) for a 10 yard average but take that total with a grain of salt because one of Lacy's receptions went for 69 yards and he has yet to catch a touchdown pass from Rodgers. Lacy's biggest improvement has been in pass blocking, which has limited the number of snaps given to backup running backs James Starks and DuJuan Harris as well as fullback John Kuhn since Lacy is no longer subbed out on third downs.  Starks has just 193 rushing yards on 44 carries for a 4.4 yard average.  I know the Packers want Lacy to be a three-down back but I would like to see Starks get some more touches.  Relax fantasy owners, I have Lacy on my fantasy team too but I like the Packers a million times more than my fantasy team, which is why I would like the Packers to keep Lacy fresh by giving Starks some more touches.  Plus, I actually think that is a good thing for Lacy and Starks given Lacy's punishing running style and how injury prone Starks has been in college and the NFL.  Starks is signed through 2015 and Lacy's rookie contracts runs through 2016.  Sharing carries might be the only way Lacy and Starks see another contract with the Packers.  If I were in charge, I would aim to get Lacy and Starks between 25 and 30 touches combined per game with Lacy getting 70% of the touches and Starks getting 30% of the touches.  For whatever reason the Packers have gotten away from using the screen for the last couples seasons.  Whether it is Lacy or Starks, I would make sure to add that back into the game plan for at least a couple plays each game.

Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (S): I support all things Cheesehead sports related, which makes me a Wisconsin Badger fan but Lacy and Ha Ha are trying to retroactively turn me into an Alabama fan.  Sure that would make me look like a front runner since they've won three of the last five national championships but I can't underscore how important it is that the Packers got Lacy and Ha Ha in the last two draft.  Lacy and Ha Ha not only are two of the younger and more physical players on The 53 but they help fill specific positional needs of The 53 at just the right time.  There is no question when everyone is healthy that the Packers view Morgan Burnett as their best safety.  The real question is whether Ha Ha or Micah Hyde will cement their place next to Burnett.  So far Ha Ha has played more snaps (422) than Hyde (354) this season.   Ha Ha currently has the third most total tackles on the team with 43 while Hyde is nipping at his heels with 41 tackles.  The difference is on big plays since Ha Ha has a sack, a tackle for a loss, an interception, and a fumble recovery while Hyde's only impact play is a tackle for a loss.  Ha Ha wears 21, which is Charles Woodson's old number but Ha Ha actually reminds me more of a blend of Atari Bigby and Nick Collins.  I know that seems like a pretty lofty comparison given that Ha Ha is just a rookie but I say that because so far Ha Ha looks like a thumper (Bigby) that can create turnovers (Collins).  As a result, I see the floor for Ha Ha as a very rich man's Bigby and his ceiling as a healthy Collins.

Corey Linsley (C): Offensive lineman JC Tretter was nominally named the starter at center after general manager Ted Thompson let former starting center Evan Dietrich-Smith leave via free agency.  Tretter was injured before he could even play a single regular season down so the starting center job fell to Linsley, a guy Thompson drafted in the 5th round of the 2014 NFL Draft.  Linsley has been a rock in the middle of the offensive line given that that he is the only offensive player to play every snap this season.  Its one thing to show up healthy every week, it is quite another to preform well every week too.  So far Linsley has graded out as one of the best centers in the NFL according to Pro Football Focus so even if Tretter can return healthy after the bye week, the Packers better stick with Linsley.  The center position has been a revolving door for Rodgers since he took over as the starting quarterback from Scott Wells to Jeff Saturday to EDS almost to Tretter and finally Linsley.  As crazy as it sounds, even though Linsley is just a rookie, he looks like the best of the bunch so absent injury it looks like the Packers have their starting center settled for the rest of Rodgers's tenure.

Davante Adams (WR): In two of the last three games Rodgers made a conscious effort to get Adams the ball, including targeting Adams in very important spots.  Remember Adams was the target when Rodgers pulled a Dan Marino-esque fake spike and throw in their last minute go-ahead drive on the road against the Dolphins.  Usually defense lineman and wide receivers struggle in their rookie seasons but Adams looks very comfortable lining up outside.  The Packers continue to use the same hurry up package with three wide receivers, a tight end, and a running back.  At the start of the season Jarrett Boykin was the third wide receiver behind Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb in that formation but Adams started to show more and more in practice to supplant Adams as the third option.  Adams has played 333 offensive snaps so far this season (66.7%) while Boyikn has only played 139 (27.9%).  Through eight games Adams has 263 receiving yards on 24 catches and two touchdowns.  Clearly Adams is becoming another one of Thompson's second round wide receiver gems to go along with Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, and Randall Cobb.  In fact, besides outside linebacker Clay Matthews, no one is poised for more of a breakout in the second half of the season than Adams.

Davon House (CB): When every cornerback on The 53 is healthy the depth chart is Tramon Williams, Sam Shields, House, Casey Hayward, Jarrett Bush, & Demitri Goodson.  That doesn't even account for the fact that sometimes Micah Hyde lines up as a slot cornerback instead of as a safety.  That gives the Packers six, or seven if you count Hyde, viable NFL cornerbacks.  That makes it seem like the Packers are all set at cornerback but Williams, House, and Bush are set to become unrestricted free agents at the end of the season.  Just a few weeks ago it looked like House was going to break the bank at the end of the season given that he is the youngest of the three but Williams found the fountain of youth this season and Bush continues to be the captain of special teams so if House continues to play well I could see him pricing himself out of Green Bay because he is NOT worth what Shields got (four-years, $39 million) but will most likely command something close to that in a contract worth at least $6 million a year on the open market.  Quick side note on Bush, he played the most special teams snaps (169 or 77.5%) of anyone on The 53 this season. The only other non-kicker/punter that played more than 50% of the special teams snaps is safety Sean Richardson (153 plays or 70.2%).  If Richardson can stay healthy, it will be interesting to see if he leads to the end of Bush's tenure in Green Bay given that Richardson is five and a half years younger than Bush.  Back to House, if wants to be paid like a number one or number two cornerback then the Packers should place the franchise tag on him and see if they can get a second or third round pick for his services in a trade.  If House is willing to be paid like a number three cornerback (e.g. three or four million per year) then the Packers should lock House up long-term despite having the young trio of Hayward, Hyde, and Goodson behind him.

Sam Barrington (MLB): For all the talk of the two middle linebacker spots not being very important in the 3-4, the Packers are proof that you still need at least slightly above average play.  When healthy, which is essentially all the time since Hawk has only missed two games in his nine year NFL career, his spot on the field in the base 3-4 defense is secure mostly because he lines up the defense. I've been one of Hawk's harshest critics for his on-field performance but every time a Packer defender is asked about Hawk they say how important he is to the defense.  I've come to accept that Hawk will never produce highlight reel plays that you expect out a player drafted 5th overall but his steady hand is a plus for the defense even though he routinely gets beat by running backs out of the backfield on wheel routes and fails to get home whenever he blitzes.  With Hawk lining up the defense and thus occupying one of the two MLB spots in the 3-4, now the Packers need is a disruptive force that can make big plays at the other MLB spot.  So far this seems like a review of Hawk but that is all meant as a set-up to Barrington because he is the third guy that the Packers have tried next to Hawk this season.  So far Brad Jones played 111 snaps, Jamari Lattimore played 281 snaps, and Barrington played 94 snaps.  It looks like Jones is 4th on the depth chart at middle linebacker but it is hard to tell whether Barrington or Lattimore is #2 on the depth chart given that Barrington started the last two games next to Hawk but Lattimore served as the dime linebacker last week.  If Barrington struggles, unless the Packers make a radical position change, the only other option they have on The 53 is rookie Carl Bradford.  Before you get too excited about Bradford, keep in mind that he is moving from OLB to MLB so I would be shocked if he actually plays MLB this season.  Unless Barrington or Bradford show that they can be that disruptive force, the Packers need to rebuild the MLB position this off-season because if Jones plays another defensive snap for the Packers that will be too soon and Lattimore's star has faded lately.

The Packers have a couple important games coming up following their bye: home against the Chicago Bears and the Philadelphia Eagles followed by a road game outside (you read that correctly) against the Minnesota Vikings that I will miss because of the birth of my first child.  Those are all a prelude to a potential Super Bowl XLIX preview when the Packers host the New England Patriots.

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