Sunday, December 14, 2014

Building The 53 - Gaston & Banjo In, Robinson & Lattimore Out

The Arizona Cardinals are currently the top seed in the NFC thanks almost entirely to their defense.  Sure their offense doesn't turn the ball over but they also don't score a ton of points either given that they are currently trotting out Ryan Lindley at quarterback after they lost Carson Palmer for the season and Drew Staton until at least the start of the playoffs.  Why all the discussion of the the Cardinals you ask?  Well after the Green Bay Packers pounded the Atlanta Falcons in the first half on Monday Night Football, their defense struggled in the second half and almost gave the game away.  Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones finished the game with 11 catches for 259 yards and a touchdown.  Every time Jones caught a pass I was having uncomfortable flashbacks to wide receiver Plaxico Burress (11 catches for 215 receiving yards) torching the Packers in the 2008 (following the 2007 NFL season) NFC Championship Game.  Unfortunately for the Falcons, Jones missed the end of the game with an injury, which helped the Packers hold on.  If the Packers are going to make a Super Bowl push, they need to clean things up on the defensive side of the ball.

Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson made two moves on the defensive side of The 53 in the last week.  Unfortunately I don't think either move neither of which will help prevent another Jones-esque performance though.  First, Thompson placed defensive tackle Luther Robinson on injured reserved and replaced Robinson on The 53 with defensive tackle Bruce Gaston.  Second, Thompson placed linebacker Jamari Lattimore on injured reserved and replaced Lattimore on The 53 with safety Chris Banjo.

Robinson was an unlikely member of The 53 that made five appearances and registered just 2 tackles.  Robinson's most notable play as a member of the Packers came in his first game on The 53 against the Minnesota Vikings on Thursday Night Football when his pressure lead to a hurried throw by Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder that was intercepted and returned for a touchdown by outside linebacker Julius Peppers.  I know this will seem like I am asking a ton but the Packers clearly need another 3-4 defensive lineman that can play the run and pass.  Given Robinson's lack of playing time despite that glaring need shows he is not in the team's long-term plans.

The Packers started the season with A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones as their middle linebackers.  After Jones struggled in the season opener in Seattle, the Packers turned to Lattimore.  I honestly thought Lattimore had a chance to become a difference maker in the middle for the Packers because he showed flashes of being the violent presence in the middle that the Packers sorely need.  Unfortunately those flashes were surrounded by tons of nondescript, average play.  Given that Lattimore is set to become an unrestricted free agent, how well Barrington plays to close out 2014 will have a huge impact on whether the Packers bring back Lattimore next season. No matter what, hopefully Sam Barrington and A.J. Hawk can turn into a formidable tandem at middle linebacker for 2014.  Given this is most likely Hawk's last season in Green Bay that will give the Packers a chance to build around Barrington and someone else in 2015 and beyond.

In Gaston, the Packers added a 6'2", 310 pound run stuffing rookie out of Purdue.  Gaston was cut by the Cardinals following training camp and spent time with the New England Patriots and Miami Dolphins before he returned to the Cardinals as a member of their 53 before he was was cut and resigned to their practice squad.  Thompson rarely signs players that were member of other team's rosters but clearly Gaston was too good to pass.  Hopefully some of the Cardinals' defensive mojo will come to Green Bay with Gaston.

Last season Banjo spent the entire season on The 53 mostly because of how thin the Packers were at safety.  After the Packers drafted Ha Ha Clinton-Dix in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft and moved cornerback Micah Hyde to safety, all of the sudden that became one of the deepest positions on The 53 with Morgan Burnett, Ha Ha, Hyde, and Sean Richardson in the fold.  Given all that depth at safety, Banjo did NOT make The 53 to start the season but was singed to the practice squad where he spent the entire season until he was signed to The 53 earlier today.  Banjo was a special teams ace last year when he finished second on the team with 10 special teams tackles.  Hopefully that is the only place that Banjo plays this year unless he gets some garbage time snaps on defense with the Packers up big, otherwise that means the Packers suffered a rash of injuries at the safety position.

As I alluded to above, I can't say I am too excited about any of the moves that Thompson made because it basically shuffles the deck at a couple backup spots on defense. I know it is borderline impossible to add a game changer to The 53 in the middle of December but the Banjo move seemed so uninspired.  The Packers know what they have in Banjo and he might actually make The 53 in 2015 if Richardson leaves as a free agent so why not give another player a look.  The Packers do not yet know what they have in Gaston, which makes that move the most intriguing because if Gaston preforms well, it could spell the end of B.J. Raji's tenure in Green Bay

If Thompson makes any more moves, make sure to check back for my full breakdown in this space.

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