Offseason Report Card: Packers
To a rather amazing degree, the Green Bay Packers tend to sit out the hullabaloo of free agency. Case in point: At the start of the 2013 season, the Packers had just two players on their 53-man roster who had seen regular-season action for another NFL team.
The traditional homegrown approach is what made the Packers' three-year, $26 million offer to ex-Bear Julius Peppers so unexpected. In swiping Peppers from their arch-rivals, the Packers addressed their desire to find another force off the edge on defense, someone who could complement Clay Matthews Jr. "He’ll be a multiple-position player," head coach Mike McCarthy said of Peppers. "He has more to offer, in his opinion, from an assignment standpoint, and I agree with him. We’ll have more flexibility with him."
The remainder of the offseason was more or less status quo here. Green Bay watched as WR James Jones signed a lucrative deal in Oakland and lost contributors like OL Evan Dietrich-Smith and S M.D. Jennings. Also subtracted semi-permanently and permanently from the roster, respectively, were injured TE Jermichael Finley and RB Jonathan Franklin, the latter announcing his retirement due to a lingering neck injury.
Green Bay's draft, as usual, brought help. Among the reinforcements arriving at Lambeau Field: first-round safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, a likely Day 1 starter. WRs DaVante Adams and Jared Abbrederis, TE Richard Rogers and DL Khyri Thornton all could enter the mix early, as well. For the most part, though, save for Peppers and Clinton-Dix, the 2014 Packers will resemble rather closely the 2013 NFC North champs. While there is reason to wonder if the defense improved enough, that continuity is not necessarily a bad thing considering Green Bay's history of building from within ... and its new-found knack for seeking out help from the outside.
Best acquisition: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, S Peppers was the headline acquisition, the name on the marquee. Clinton-Dix, by comparison, is the character actor without whom the production would not work -- the Packers' Stellan Skarsgard or Frank Whaley, if you will.
Green Bay needed this draft pick. One of the clear gaps on a defense that ranked 24th last season was in the deep middle, at the safety spot. In taking Clinton-Dix at No. 21 overall, the Packers may have applied the necessary bandaging, having added a center fielder-type with sideline-to-sideline range.
''I think he's a real all-purpose kind of safety. He's shown the ability to cover guys in the slot, good in support, physical player,'' said Packers GM Ted Thompson after nabbing the Alabama product in Round 1. "[He] can play well in the backend. We think he’s got very, very good ball skills."
Does one addition solve everything? Doubtful. The Packers have to get better production out of their front seven -- which now includes Peppers -- as well as from Clinton-Dix's likely running mate at safety, Morgan Burnett, in order to improve their run defense. Last season, they allowed an even 2,000 yards on the ground and an even more troubling 4.6 yards per attempt. Clinton-Dix's job will be to support in that aspect of the game, then to take charge when opponents head to the air.
The results will not be perfect, particularly in a division that features Calvin Johnson, Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, Cordarrelle Patterson and other big-play weapons. Clinton-Dix plays with a bit of a gambler's mentality, on occasion taking himself out of position.
His moments of brilliance should overshadow those frustrating mistakes in the long run. And if that's the case, then the Packers secondary will be far better for it.
Biggest loss: James Jones, WR Remember all those discussions about the Broncos losing Eric Decker, and how Peyton Manning's presence can alleviate the pain caused by such roster upheavals by elevating the players around him? Same talking points here, on a smaller scale. Assuming Randall Cobb can stay healthy for the 2014 season, Jones would have been no higher than No. 3 on Aaron Rodgers' list of passing targets, behind both Cobb and legit No. 1 receiver Jordy Nelson. Add in the Eddie Lacy/James Starks duo at RB, rookie WRs Adams and Abbrederis, a couple of tight ends and, frankly, Rodgers should have no shortage of choices when he drops to throw.
Yet, there clearly was a great comfort for him in knowing Jones was running routes. In 2013, Jones finished second on the team behind only Nelson in receptions with 59. The year before, he led the league in touchdown catches at 14. Jones dropped just two of the 88 passes thrown his direction last season, the type of sure-handed reliability that led Rodgers to look his way in a pinch. Now? Green Bay's QB needs another security blanket, but ...
Underrated draft pick: Jared Abbrederis, WR
... he might have a frontrunner for that job. Abbrederis slid into Round 5 at this year's draft despite catching 78 passes for Wisconsin last season, including 10 for 207 yards during a well-publicized torch job of Broncos' first-round CB Bradley Roby. He's not a burner and he does not play an overly physical game, but Abbrederis runs solid routes with the ability to make catches in traffic.
In other words, his scouting report is pretty similar to Jones'.
"We were a little surprised that he was there [in Round 5]," Thompson said. "His first couple of years especially, he did everything but sell hot dogs."
The Packers are not going to gift wrap Abbrederis any playing time, particularly after taking Adams three rounds earlier. There should be some opportunities there for the sure-bet fan favorite nonetheless, starting with training camp and the preseason. Rodgers likes to spread the ball around and the Packers could feature even more four-wide formations in 2014. Even with Cobb, Nelson, Adams and Jarrett Boykin around, Abbrederis' polished game could get him on the field early.
Looming question for training camp: How will Peppers take to his new role?
The 34-year-old Peppers, he of 119 career sacks, has been a defensive end for his entire career. In Green Bay, that may change, at least in name.
Head coach Mike McCarthy hinted earlier this offseason that the Packers could employ an "elephant" position in their 3-4 -- essentially, a hybrid DE/OLB role similar to Seattle's "Leo" spot. (Audibles took a closer look at what the "elephant" role could mean for Peppers back in March.) It remains to be seen exactly how Green Bay utilizes Peppers and/or how much the defense flashes fronts that resemble a 4-3, but anyone expecting Peppers to just pin his ears back and chase the QB is in for a surprise. Already in summer workouts, Green Bay has moved Peppers around. Once the full defense comes together in the regular season, Peppers may jump from a position that resembles his usual 4-3 end out wide to an OLB position, with a few snaps inside as a pass-rusher mixed in on occasion.
Where exactly he winds up will depend some on how much progress 2012 first-round pick Nick Perry has made. If the Packers want to have him on the field opposite fellow linebacker Clay Matthews, Peppers will see most of his snaps along the D-line somewhere. The plan will depend, too, on the comfort level Peppers shows moving around in Green Bay's scheme. This is new territory for the 12-year veteran.