Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Building The 53 - A Look at The 53 Heading into the 2015 NFL Draft

As usual, Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson made very few splashy moves this off-season.  Don't get me wrong, Thompson did hand out some hefty contracts to guys that were on The 53 last year (Bryan Bulaga and Randall Cobb) but as usual, he did not add any big names from other organizations.  Leaving aside the large in-house extensions that Thompson handed out, he probably made more headlines for the players he either cut (A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones) or did not re-sign (DuJuan Harris, Davon House and Tramon Williams) than for the guys he actually signed to cheaper, short-term deals (Matt Blanchard, Josh Francis, John Kuhn, Cody Mandell, Sean Richardson, and Scott Tolzien).

As the 2015 NFL Draft approaches, I thought I would take a look at the current roster.  Although Thompson usually drafts the "best player available", as you will see in my look at the current roster, he might be forced to focus on certain positions.  Here is how the roster currently looks with the players listed by position, ordered how I would order them on the depth chart, along with my analysis of the positional turnover from the end of the 2014 season till today:

Quarterback (3): Aaron Rodgers, Scott Tolzien, and Matt Blanchard
Lost: Matt Flynn (free agent)
Added: Matt Blanchard
Analysis: The hope is that Rodgers starts at quarterback for the Packers for the better part of the next decade but as the 2013 season showed, when the Packers are without Rodgers, they really struggle.  There is a chance that Tolzien continues to improve but I have a hard time seeing him morph into an NFL starter.  Sure the Packers could bring back Flynn again but I honestly think they need to get younger at the position in hopes that Tolzien, Blanchard, or some other young guy in his mid-20's can become a quality back-up quarterback that can actually help the Packers win a couple games if Rodgers gets hurt.

Running Back (3): Eddie Lacy, James Starks, and Rajion Neal
Lost: DuJuan Harris (signed w/Minnesota Vikings)
Added: None
Analysis: A couple years ago the Packers viewed Harris as a potential starter.  With Lacy and Starks in the fold, Thompson decided that he was NOT even worth an exclusive rights free agent tender, which would have cost the Packers less than $1 million.  All things being equal, I guess Neal is a fine replacement but if the Packers can find a versatile return man/running back/slot wide out later in the draft, it would be the perfect compliment to Lacy and Starks.

Fullback (1): John Kuhn
Lost: None
Added: None
Analysis: Every year I count out Kuhn and every year he continues to perform at a high level both as a blocker on offense and jack of all trades on special teams.  I know the fullback position is a dying breed in the NFL but given Kuhn's unique skill set and locker room presence, he has a spot on The 53 as long as he is healthy for the next couple seasons.  That doesn't mean I would sign Kuhn to a long-term deal.  Instead, I would continue to sign Kuhn to one-year deals for the veteran minimum, which will only cost the Packers $920,000 in 2015.

Wide Receiver (6): Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, Davante Adams, Jared Abbrederis, Myles White, and Jeff Janis
Lost: Jarrett Boykin (signed w/Carolina Panthers)
Added: None
Analysis: The Packers have $80 million invested in Cobb and Nelson over the next four seasons.  You could argue they are the most dynamic wide receiver tandem in the NFL but that is still expensive, which means Thompson needs to be frugal at the rest of the wide receiver spots.  A couple seasons ago it looked like Boykin could be a quality 3rd option but much like Harris, Thompson didn't even think Boykin was worth a restricted free agent tender.  Unfortunately for Boykin, the Packers have four young wide receivers that look to have a higher upside than Boykin.  I might add an undrafted rookie free agent wide receiver if I were Thompson but would NOT draft one unless a versatile one fell to the Packers on day 2 or 3 of the 2015 NFL Draft.

Tight End (3): Richard Rodgers, Andrew Quarless, and Justin Perillo
Lost:Brandon Bostick (waived & claimed by Minnesota Vikings)
Added: None
Analysis: The ghost of Jermichael Finley continues to hang over the tight end position for the Packers.  Last season rookie tight end Richard Rodgers showed flashes of being a potential poor man's Finley.  Their frames are similar but the real differences are their athletic talent and hands with a healthy Finley being much more athletic than Rodgers while Rodgers has much better hands than Finley.  Rodgers has such good hands that his brother from another mother Aaron said that Richard (probably) has the best hands on the team.  Lofty praise for a rookie tight end on a team that is stacked with quality pass catchers.  Quarless continues to improve and Perillo is an unknown commodity.  Even though Thompson invested a third round pick in Rodgers last year, I could still see him adding another athletic tight end in the draft to give the offense even more versatility.

Offensive Tackle (4): Bryan Bulaga, David Bakhtiari, Don Barclay, and Jeremy Vujnovich
Lost: None
Added: None
Analysis: Thompson struck gold when he added Bakhtiari in the 4th round of the 2013 NFL Draft.  At the time I questioned whether Bakhtiari could actually be a quality left tackle.  So far it looks like Bakhtiari can be that guy but given how much the Packers have invested in their offensive line over the last couple off-season, I question whether they can also pay afford Bakhtiari's second NFL contract after his rookie contract runs out following the 2017 NFL season.  Luckily the salary cap is set to make a big jump right around then.  If Bakhtiari does leave via free agency, Bulaga could slide over to left tackle, which would open up a spot for Barclay at right tackle. I see Barclay as the first one off the bench at any of the five offensive line positions if the Packers suffer an injury to one of their starters.  Given that Barclay is coming off a serious knee injury that cost him the entire 2014 NFL season, I hope that doesn't mean Barclay has to play meaningful snaps in Week 1 of the 2015 NFL season.  Hopefully if Barclay stays healthy for all of 2015, the Packers can sign him to a couple year extension that averages between $2 and $3 million a season with less than a third of the entire deal guaranteed. Absent injury, these moves are a couple years down the road but they are still something worth thinking about now because continuity along the offensive line is very important so Thompson needs to be working on his one, three, and five-year plan at tackle.

Offensive Guard (4): Josh Sitton, T.J. Lang, Lane Taylor, and Josh Walker
Lost: None
Added: None
Analysis: It always seems like the Packers have an interesting backup at guard (think Greg Van Roten from a couple years ago) that will hopefully NOT get on the field since the Packers have arguably the best tandem at guard in the NFL.  There is no doubt that Taylor is ahead of Walker on the depth chart but Walker's size is much more intriguing to me than Taylor's.  Either way, I do NOT see this as a need position for the Packers in the draft.

Center (4): Corey Linsley, JC Tretter, Garth Gerhart, and Joe Madsen
Lost: None
Added: None
Analysis: Thompson finally has the center of the future, in Linsley that he drafted him in the 5th round of the 2014 NFL Draft.  the real question is whether Tretter can show that he is healthy enough to merit a spot on The 53.  If there is any question whether Tretter will be healthy in 2015, it makes sense for the Packers to draft another versatile interior offensive lineman.

Defensive End (5): Mike Daniels, Josh Boyd, Datone Jones, Bruce Gaston, and Luther Robinson
Lost: None 
Added: None 
Analysis: Although Mike Daniels does NOT have ideal size for any position along the defensive line in a 3-4, there is no question that he has become the best defensive lineman on The 53 and is a strong, positive locker room presence too.  I had high expectations for Datone Jones when Thompson took him in the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft but so far his production has NOT been anywhere close to fellow draft classmate Josh Boyd despite the fact that Boyd was a 5th round pick.  The key is first for Jones to stay healthy, which has been a pretty tall order so far in his NFL career.  Hopefully if Jones can stay healthy, he will actually fulfill some of the lofty expectations I've had for him.  Finally Gaston and Robinson look like replacement level players so I could see Thompson drafting a defensive end in the 2015 NFL Draft.

Defensive Tackle (4): Letroy Guion, B.J. Raji, Mike Pennel, and Khyri Thornton
Lost: None 
Added: None 
Analysis: The way thie position is currently constituted, it simultaneously has the highest ceiling and lowest floor of any position on The 53. A year and a half ago it looked like Raji was going to sign a long-term deal worth $8 million a season.  Instead of taking that deal, Raji wanted to test the free agent market for his services, which turned out to be non-existent.  Ultimately Raji returned to the Packers in 2014 on a one-year, $4 million "prove it" deal.  Unfortunately Raji was lost for the season before it ever started in 2014 with a torn bicep.  Raji took an even bigger discount for this season when he signed a one-year, $1.75 million deal with only $500,000 guaranteed for 2015.  When it comes to leaving money on the table, Raji has company in Guion.  Thompson signed Guion to a one-year, $1 million deal after he was cut by the Minnesota Vikings last off-season.  Guion was great along the defensive line in 2014 for the Packers and even drew praise from Rodgers as one of his all-time favorite locker room guys despite only being on the team for one season.  It looks like that was going to lead to a multi-year deal with at least $5 million in guaranteed money until Guion was pulled over with 360 grams of weed, $190K in cash, and an unloaded gun in his car.  Although Guion reached a plea agreement, the arrest hurt his market value so Thompson signed him to a one-year, $2.75 million contract.  Hopefully Guion and Raji not only stay healthy but play so well that they potentially prices themselves out of Green Bay for 2016.  After all the unrest with both guys that would be a nice problem to have.  That leaves the unknown Pennel and Thornton.  Clearly Thornton has a bigger upside given that he was a 3rd round pick in the 2014 NFL Draft while Pennel went undrafted in 2014.  Basically the Packers have Daniels and question marks along the defensive line so again I am totally fine with Thompson using an early pick on a defensive lineman.

Middle Linebacker (4): Sam Barrington, Carl Bradford, Joe Thomas, and Josh Francis
Lost: A.J. Hawk (cut & signed w/Cincinnati Bengals), Brad Jones (cut & signed w/Philadelphia Eagles), and Jamari Lattimore (NOT tendered as RFA & signed w/New York Jets)
Added: Josh Francis
Analysis: The middle linebacker position is the position most in flux from 2014 to 2015 given that the three guys that started at the top of the depth chart at middle linebacker in 2014 are no longer with the organization.  Although Barrington was only a 7th round pick in the 2013 draft, I have high hopes for him as a long-term solution up the middle.  That is fine if the Packers want to move Clay Matthews inside occasionally but that is NOT a long-term solution given that Matthews is most effective when he rushes the quarterback.  Secretly I think the Packers are playing Matthews at middle linebacker just to mix-up where he rushes from because even if Matthews plays a bunch of middle linebacker in 2015, I have a hard time seeing him drop into coverage often.  I am higher on Bradford than most even though some thought he was lucky to even make The 53 to open 2014 despite being a 4th round pick in the 2014 NFL Draft.  The Packers might have thrown too much at Bradford last year trying to get him to move from outside linebacker to inside linebacker during the season.  Thompson clearly needs to add at least one more middle linebacker in the draft.  I am fine if that comes as early as the first round if Thompson drafts Eric Kendricks (UCLA), Denzel Perryman (Miami) or Benardrick McKinney (Mississippi St.) for different reasons.  Kendricks is arguably the best cover linebacker in the draft, which is something the Packers have NOT been able to do in a long-time with Hawk and Jones.  Although Perryman is undersized, he looks like the best all around middle linebacker in the draft.  Finally, McKinney reminds be of a thumper in the mold of Desmond Bishop.  I know middle linebackers are about as valued as running backs at this point in the NFL but if the Packers could actually add a young, athletic guy at that position it would dramatically improve their defense.  If Thompson misses out on the top-end guys, he should still add an athletic guy somewhere in the 2015 NFL Draft to compete for one of the middle linebacker spots.

Outside Linebacker (8): Clay Matthews, Julius Peppers, Mike Neal, Nick Perry, Andy Mulumba, Nate Palmer, Jayrone Elliott, and Adrian Hubbard
Lost: None
Added: None
Analysis: Holy cows do the Packers have depth at outside linebacker on paper.  Sure Matthews and Peppers headline the group but Neal and Perry are pretty impressive as long as they can stay healthy (Perry) and off PED's (Neal). After those four, the Packers essentially have four lottery tickets.  There is a better chance that all four never have a relevant moment in the NFL again than one becomes an NFL starter but given the fact that they all are making the NFL minimum, the Packers might as well bring them all back to see if one or two can stay healthy and show enough ability to get to the quarterback to make them worthy of a spot on The 53.  Despite having all this depth for 2015, Matthews is really the only guy that is guaranteed to be on The 53 in two years, which is why I said their depth at outside linebacker is only "on paper", so I actually think it makes sense to draft a pass rusher early in the 2015 NFL Draft.

Cornerback (6): Sam Shields, Casey Hayward, Micah Hyde, Demetri Goodson, Tay Glover-Wright, and Kyle Sebetic
Lost: Jarrett Bush (unsigned), Davon House (signed w/Jacksonville Jaguars), and Tramon Williams (signed w/Cleveland Browns)
Added: Kyle Sebetic
Analysis: The cornerback position is going to look drastically different next year with the loss of House, Williams, and possibly Bush.  The fact that House (four-year, $24.5 million with $10 million guaranteed) and Williams (three-year, $21 million with $10 million guaranteed) are playing elsewhere is NOT an indictment on their play but just another example of Thompson being comfortable paying players a certain amount of money and if they ask for more, Thompson let's them sign elsewhere. Williams still had a couple more seasons left as a starter and will no doubt be a great locker room presence for a team that needs just that but the contract that the Browns gave him still feels a little rich.  House looks like a starter if he can actually stay healthy but that is a huge if, which makes his contract a little rich for my taste too.  Shields is paid to and so far has performed like a #1 cornerback, the question is whether Hayward, Hyde, or a draft pick can step into that #2 spot.  I immediately felt that Hyde would perform better at safety after Thompson drafted Hyde in the 5th round of the 2013 NFL Draft.  Long-term I see Hyde as a poor man's Charles Woodson roving all over the field but with the depth the Packers have at safety right now, I actually think they need to give Hyde another shot at cornerback.  If Hayward can move outside, it sets up perfectly for Hyde to serve as the nickel cornerback.  Goodson, Glover-Wright, and Sebetic are unknown commodities so I could see Thompson using at least one if not two day 1 or day 2 draft picks on a cornerback if the right guy is available when the Packers are on the clock.

Safety (5): Morgan Burnett, Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix, Sean Richardson, Chris Banjo, and Jean Fanor
Lost: None
Added: None
Analysis: Even with Hyde as a cornerback the Packers are deeper at safety than they've been in almost a decade given that they have a borderline starter that they are paying like a starter in Richardson (matched the one-year, $2.55 million with $1.35 million guaranteed offer-sheet that Richardson signed with the Oakland Raiders) behind Burnett and Ha Ha.  Another season with a clean bill of health and positive contributions on special teams could earn Richardson a lucrative extension in the three year, $10 million range with $4 million guaranteed.  That leaves Banjo and Fanor.  Both just seem like replacement level guys.  Sure Banjo has some special teams upside but his small frame makes it unlikely that he will hold-up long term in the NFL.  Depending on how the Packers use Hyde, they could still draft a bigger safety late to help add to their safety depth since Burnett and Ha Ha are the only guys locked up long-term.

Specialist (4): Tim Masthay (P), Brett Goode (LS), Mason Crosby (K), and Cody Mandell (P)
Lost: None
Added: Cody Mandell
Analysis: Sometimes competition leads to positive results.  A couple years ago the Packers brought in some competition for Crosby at place kicker and there is a school of thought that it really pushed Crosby to perform better because he was finally under pressure to actually perform well enough to merit a spot on The 53.  After a subpar 2014, Thompson did the same thing with Masthay when he signed Mandell in hopes that Mandell will push the Ginger Wolverine to perform better in 2015.  Crosby is scheduled to earn $3.5 million in the last year of his five-year, $15 million contract that got renegotiated halfway through.  I could see the Packers turning to another strong-legged place kicker in 2016 to save some money.  I am not even sure there is a kicker worth drafting in the 2015 NFL Draft so the Packers should dangle a $5,000 bonus in front of the best place kicker NOT drafted to see if they can come up with a more cost-effective option at place kicker for 2016 and beyond.

All told the Packers currently have 64 players under contract heading into the 2015 NFL Draft.  Armed with nine picks, which I am sure will increase because Thompson loves to trade down, by the end of April the Packers have a ton of quality players on their 90-man off-season roster.  It will be interesting to see how Thompson's draft board stacks up because right now the positions of need in no particular order are: backup quarterback, athletic tight end, versatile defensive lineman, middle linebacker, and cornerback.

Make sure to check back tomorrow for my ideal draft strategy for Thompson and Thursday for my annual first round mock draft.

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