Off-season report card: Green Bay Packers
Thompson shrugged and replied: "We’d like to re-sign all of our free-agent players. So, sure."
Of course, Thompson did manage to hang onto Cobb—a huge coup for the Green Bay offense that at $40 million over four years came as something of a bargain, given what Cobb may have earned elsewhere. But Thompson's response to the combine query summed up the Packers' approach. They are fully confident in their system, wherever it may lead them.
So it came as no surprise that the four-time defending NFC North champions took a pass when free agency opened. Despite losing a handful of players (most notable among them being CBs Tramon Williams and Davon House and declining LB A.J. Hawk), Green Bay has not signed a single player from outside the organization this offseason (as of yet) who would be considered a threat to crack the two-deep.
The focus instead, as Thompson promised, was on securing key internal parts. Cobb was the headliner, coming off a career season (91 catches, 1,287 yards, 12 touchdowns).
"I want to win championships," Cobb told Packers.com. "I feel like being in this offense and this organization was the best place for me to have the opportunity to win those championships."
The Packers then re-signed starting right tackle Bryan Bulaga, another mid-20s talent who would have scored even bigger bucks outside of Green Bay. Defensive linemen B.J. Raji and Letroy Guion (the latter one, as a former Viking, one of Thompson's rare free-agent pickups) and fan favorite John Kuhn remained in the fold, too.
The Packers' draft success, though, has been what affords them the luxury of a passive approach to free agency. Their 2015 class is interesting in that regard because it includes several high-upside, moderate-floor players without any obvious superstars. First-rounder Damarious Randall should provide some flexibility at safety or corner; same for second-rounder Quentin Rollins, whose stock exploded in the weeks leading up to the draft. Fourth-round linebacker Jake Ryan actually may see more playing time than Randall and Rollins combined, if he can nail down a starting job—at least one could be there for the taking with Hawk and Brad Jones out of the mix.
If anytime soon Green Bay has to use its fifth-round pick, QB Brett Hundley, something has gone terribly wrong. Hundley's development over the coming years will be worth tracking, even if any comparisons to the Brett Favre-Aaron Rodgers situation are wildly unfair.
No matter what else went down, the Packers were ready to consider their off-season a win if they prevented Cobb and Bulaga from bolting. Everything else was the usual gravy. The Packers just keep doing what the Packers do.
Best acquisition: Quinten Rollins, CB
Toss-up for this honor goes between Rollins, taken at No. 62 overall, and Randall, who came off the board at No. 30. Not sure anyone would have put up much of a fight had those spots been flip-flopped. As things stand right now, the ceiling for Rollins looks like the higher of the two.
Reports out of Green Bay's early workouts had the Miami (Ohio) product making a strong first impression—granted, rookie OTAs are a long way from the regular season, but still. Let's not forget that Rollins played all of one season of college football, so any sign that he can step in and contribute has to be viewed as a positive.
"I’m not coming in thinking I’m polished in one area over others," Rollins said, per the Packers' website. "I need to work on my ball skills, everything from A to Z."
Expect to hear a lot about Rollins' basketball background as it relates to those ball skills. He's certainly athletic enough to make plays when the football is in the air, and his footwork calls to mind his time as a point guard.
The losses of Williams and House (more on that momentarily) does put a bit more pressure on the young secondary pieces. Sam Shields will start outside, with Casey Hayward either taking over for Williams opposite him or maintaining his role in the slot. Either way, there's a "Help Wanted" sign hanging over the CB depth chart.
Rollins' inexperience could lead to some rocky moments as a rookie, but there's plenty to like overall.
Biggest loss: Tramon Williams, CB
A year or two from now, the Packers may most regret letting House sign with Jacksonville—he's just 25, has never really had a shot to start and could be on the verge of a breakout season. House played well when given opportunities in Green Bay, although not well enough for Thompson to match the $6.25 million per year and $10 million guaranteed House saw from the Jaguars.
House, though, likely would have been the next man with Williams bolting for Cleveland. Instead, the Packers will turn to Rollins, Randall, Micah Hyde and others to eat up the 1,032 snaps Williams played in 2014—most on the team by a significant margin.
Granted, Williams last year turned in one of his least consistent seasons, at least from a coverage standpoint. That, plus his age (32) made him expendable in the Packers' eyes. It's a bit of a gamble regardless, considering Williams started every single game for this team since 2012 and has missed just one game since 2010. He may not be a lock-down, No. 1 cornerback, but he is a known and reliable quantity.
Underrated draft pick: Brett Hundley, QB, UCLA
Is it a blessing or a curse for Hundley that he landed in Green Bay?
On one hand he'll get to learn behind one of the NFL's all-time great quarterbacks, Aaron Rodgers, playing for a franchise that has shown a willingness to be patient with raw talents. The downside for Hundley, who once was considered a legitimate Round 1 prospect, is that he may not see the field for years.
Hundley garnered all that initial hype for a reason—he has tremendous quickness for the position and has shown flashes of being a Russell Wilson-like dual-threat star. The problem, as his slip to pick No. 147 emphasized, is his development as a true quarterback never really happened. The player he was heading into the 2014 college season is more or less the same player he was when the combine wrapped.
So, it would have been problematic for Hundley to be taken by a team that needed him to play this season. Learning and growing in Green Bay should serve him well, assuming he can do those things as an NFL backup.
"I kind of thought he was a football nerd," Packers director of player personnel Ron Wolf told the team's website of meeting Hundley at the combine. And he meant that as a compliment. "He was really engaging. I thought he knew his offense front and back. He was eager to please, and he didn’t want to talk about anything other than football."
Hundley's mental approach will be as critical as anything headed into his rookie season. A transition from team leader (a spot he held at UCLA) to third-stringer is not going to be an easy one.
It could be worth it in the long run. There were some vocal critics of his game prior to the draft, but Hundley was and still is a special athlete with ample room to grow as a quarterback.
Looming question for training camp: Where is Clay Matthews going to play?
The answer is: Wherever Green Bay needs him. After all, that's what led Matthews to slide from his usual OLB spot inside last season as Hawk and Jones face-planted. Keeping Matthews up the middle may be the game plan again in 2015, depending on what the Packers see from 2014 draft pick Carl Bradford and rookie Jake Ryan.
Sam Barrington's mini-breakthrough late last season gave the Packers more breathing room this off-season. He finished with 53 tackles, 33 of which came over the final five weeks. Whether it's Matthews or Bradford or Ryan or a surprise choice at one ILB position, Barrington is penciled in as the other.
"If you’re going to do it, why not do it big? If you’re going to be the guy in the middle, be the guy in the middle," Barrington said, via Packers.com. "Be an every-down linebacker. Be able to block somebody up man-to-man. When they put a receiver in the slot, don’t flinch. Play the receiver in the slot. When it’s time to make a big tackle on third-and-short, make that tackle. That’s just how I see it."
He also commented that "Everybody wants to seem to crown me for no reason", an appropriately measured approach for a player with seven career starts. If Bradford stumbles during training camp but, say, Ryan shines, it's not out of the question that a Matthews-Ryan combo could push Barrington to the bench.
However, the ideal scenario at this point probably keeps Barrington in the lineup with Ryan or Bradford forcing his way into a starting gig next to him, which would allow Matthews to float back outside.
All we know as of now is that Matthews will be on the field as a three-down player, joined on most downs by veteran pass-rusher Julius Peppers. Who else joins the party is TBD.