When Green Bay Packers fans are asked what was the biggest difference between the 2010 and ’11 seasons, the most common answer is the free agent departure of Cullen Jenkins. The loss of the former starting defensive end is a hole that still needs to be filled and the 2012 draft would be the perfect time for Ted Thompson to address it.
The strength of the 2011 defensive line was starting tackles Ryan Pickett and B.J Raji, but after those two, the Packers didn’t get consistent play from any of the other defensive linemen on the roster.
It’s been quite some time since Ted Thompson hit it big on cornerback in the draft. In fact, you’d have to go all the way back to his days in Seattle where the current Packers GM endorsed the selection of Washington State cornerback Marcus Trufant. That’s not to say Thompson hasn’t built the position well – Sam Shields was quite the find in undrafted free agency – it’s just that his wins haven’t come in Radio City Music Hall.
For the most part, Ted has avoided early-round selection of cornerbacks, his only early-day pick being second-round bust Pat Lee in 2008. Thompson added Al Harris look-a-like, Davon House, in the fourth round of last year’s draft but so far has seen zero return on investment. With a fair amount of cornerback talent in the first two rounds of this year’s draft, don’t be surprised to see Thompson make a move with either the 28th or 59th pick.
Having just lost Matt Flynn to Seattle in free agency, the Packers will be faced with their first offseason since 2008 where quarterback is a relevant position to scout for heading into the draft. The Packers barely missed a handsome return on their seventh round investment in Flynn but discovered the value in developing a middle-of-the-road passer behind a great one. Expect Green Bay to draft another arm this year that can serve as insurance for Aaron Rodgers and potential trade bait in a couple of seasons.
The Green Bay Packers changed to a 3-4 defense in 2009, and since then general manager Ted Thompson has not made drafting the outside linebacker position a top priority. Three-time pro bowler Clay Matthews is the lone early-round selection by Thompson at the crucial position in the defense, but after the anemic production in 2011, there is urgency for an OLB to taken high in this year’s draft.
Matthews was the 26th pick in 2009 after the Packers traded two third-round picks to move up from the second round to nab him and this year would be the perfect time for Thompson to use that aggressiveness once again.
Intuitively, the selection of back-to-back first round tackles over the past two drafts makes one think that Ted Thompson will lay off the position in 2012. However, Ted has never been one to shy away from elite talent that’s available in bargain territory. At the same time, the late first round selections of Bryan Bulaga and Derek Sherrod were unique in that they satisfied both BPA and need criteria.
Now that need is not as much of a concern, it would seem less likely that the Packers GM would pounce on a tackle in the first round unless it was an clear cut steal. To add to that, this year’s tackle class isn’t as front-loaded as the previous two drafts. With USC’s Matt Kahlil and Iowa’s Riley Reiff looking like top-15 locks, the only other hands-down first round tackle would be Stanford’s Jonathan Martin.
The protection in front of Aaron Rodgers has been a rollercoaster ride since the 2011 MVP took over as starter four years ago. Rodgers found the turf often in 2008 and was lucky to play a full season in 2009. With two respectable seasons now under their belt, it’s time for the offensive line to take it to the next level. The barrier to becoming a consistently elite front five? The uncertain picture at tackle.
Let’s put the Scott Wells and Chad Clifton talk to the side here. For a quarterback to have sustainable production in this league, he must receive consistent protection from his tackles – namely the blindside blocker. Rodgers needs exactly that from Clifton’s heir at left tackle. Green Bay has four potential paths to take, starting with the most obvious: Derek Sherrod.
In a year where Aaron Rodgers’ arm fueled most of the offensive production, the Green Bay backfield was left in the shadows. James Starks picked up where he left off in the prior postseason, leaving many to believe he would become the feature back by December. Instead, a late-season resurgence by Ryan Grant kept the backfield split through the final match in January.
Kudos to Mike McCarthy for calling plays around each of his backs’ strengths rather than inserting any back into running plays. Grant, a known liability inside the tackles, used his speed to turn standard sweeps into sizable gains. Starks resumed his role as the “slasher”, picking up the dirty yards inside. John Kuhn saw increased goal line work and remained a fan favorite, picking up a pro bowl nomination in the process.
Out of all the positional groups on the Green Bay roster, I find the receiving corps the most difficult to grade. On paper, you have one of the most talented groups of receivers of the past decade. The question is: did they live up to all the hype? With Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, Jermichael Finley and Donald Driver all in the same offense, the expectations were high.
In 2011, it was no longer Greg Jennings and Donald Driver that defensive coordinators lost sleep over. Rather, it was Jennings and new versatile threat Jordy Nelson that gave defensive backs problems. Nelson became a master of the wide receiver screen and routinely made cheating safeties pay downfield. Nelson’s breakout season was the all-around best of any Packers receiver in 2011. Continue reading
It’s pretty difficult for a quarterback to finish the season north of 30 touchdown passes without adequate protection up front. Similarly, a 45-touchdown, 6-interception season requires sheer excellence out of the offensive line. Aaron Rodgers’ MVP numbers hint at the type of season the offensive line experienced in 2011.
In his contract year, Scott Wells turned in one of his finest seasons as a Packer, giving Ted Thompson lots to think about as the veteran center becomes a free agent. Ball security between Wells and Rodgers was almost never an issue, nor was pre-snap communication. Without a capable backup behind him on the depth chart, Wells was able to remain healthy and productive for the entire year.
Fans looked for four-year guard Josh Sitton to capture the pro bowl spot he earned in 2010, but were disappointed. Sitton was held to a high standard and failed to create gaping holes inside for James Starks on a consistent basis. Though he was not remarkably better than Sitton, T.J. Lang filled in nicely for the overrated Daryn Colledge and should retain the left guard spot for years to come.
Interior Offensive Line Grade: A-
The Packers experienced a health crisis at offensive tackle in 2011 and handled it brilliantly (compared to the absolute disaster in 2009 that didn’t even result from injury). Youngsters Marshall Newhouse and Derek Sherrod played admirably when called upon – especially Newhouse, who manned the left tackle position for the majority of the season.
Bryan Bulaga excelled at right tackle in 2011 and proved that he has the potential to protect Rodgers’ blindside, if that situation arises next season. While Chad Clifton made the most of his limited playing time in 2011, it’s hard to imagine the Packers bringing back the 35 year-old veteran with a wealth of talent behind him on the depth chart.
Exterior Offensive Line Grade: B+
For a Packers’ front three that played such an important role in the 2010 playoffs (Raji’s pick six, Green’s pressure turned-pick six), the 2011 defensive line was quite ordinary. The missing piece to the puzzle was obviously pass rushing phenom Cullen Jenkins, who was too expensive to resign in the offseason. Clearly, Ted Thompson had no idea how anemic the pass rush up front would be without Jenkins.
With defensive end Mike Neal still nursing a 2010 knee injury, the Packers opened 2011 in classic Thompson-like form: whoever sat behind Neal on the depth chart was now the starter. Three-year vet Jarius Wynn teased fans with a surprisingly impressive opener against the Saints – and then proceeded to play like the sixth round end that had him watching from the sidelines for most of his time in Green Bay. Continue reading