Last week, I wrote a piece about what the Packers really ‘Lost’ in Free Agency and suggested they weren’t done in Free Agency. Not long after that, they signed Christine Michael and Ricky Jean-Francois, which also supported my ‘calculated, un-sexy’ claim. Overall, the moves so far have been moving the needle, albeit slowly, in the right direction.
While the offense really didn’t need much help after a borderline MVP season from Rodgers, the defense needed a clear upgrade. Thompson rarely, if ever, will pay top dollar for talent in Free Agency and will scour the proverbial bargain bin for talent, of which he is one of the best in the league. I look at how this method has changed the makeup of this defense moving forward and determine if it’s helped or hurt the Packers’ chances of getting back to the NFC Championship game.
The Defensive Line
What are the Packers going to do for depth during Guion’s suspension? Can they trust a rookie in Clark with a lion share of rushing downs snaps? Will they draft someone? These questions were all answered by signing Ricky Jean-Francois (RJF) in Free Agency.
RJF is a run stuffer extraordinaire, who brings a certain edge on defense. He amassed 32 tackles as a primary run defender with his hand in the dirt 3-4 defense playing less than 40% of snaps. Those are pretty darn good numbers in a part time role. While the pick up isn’t sexy, it was necessary.
RJF will likely be a ‘starter’ because of his early down efficiency, but don’t expect him to beat out the snap percentages of Daniels or Clark. He isn’t much of a pass rusher, and will likely be part of a revolving door on the line. This will open the door for more pass rushing attempts for Clark and more importantly, Daniels.
During the 2016 season, the Packers pass rush was inconsistent, and a lot of it had to do with Daniels sitting on the bench on 3rd downs, as seen by his down-by-down splits. He is by far the team’s best interior rusher, and was utilized primarily as a run defender on 1st and 2nd downs. While his run defense is stout, it is a gross misuse of his talents as a pass rusher. Hopefully, adding another stout run defender, in addition to Guion’s week 5 return, will open the door to more 3rd down snaps for Daniels to wreak havoc. Essentially, by adding RJF, they turned a draft need into a strength. There’s a lot to be said for that.
The Packers moves at linebacker aren’t quite as clear on the surface. They let a lot of talent walk out the door in Peppers and Jones, but only retained former UDFA Jayrone Elliott. While Peppers has had a terrific career, he clearly was starting to slow down, and posted probably his worst season as a pro since 2007. Jones, while posting the most QB pressures of any Packer, still only mustered 1 sack and is not worth the almost $4 million he will get this season. Given the contract to Nick Perry and the return of a healthy Clay Matthews (effectiveness remains to be seen), there simply was no room to pay starting dollars to backup players.
The Packers are essentially swinging for the fences on backups Jayrone Elliott and Kyler Fackrell. Elliott has shown flashes ever since the 2015 season with his strip sack against the Seahawks, and is a Special Teams dynamo. The problem has been consistency and playing time. When he was given a chance to seize a larger role, he mostly fell flat, and playing time was often given to others. For young players, consistency often comes with more playing time (see Nick Perry), which is why Julius Peppers, upon hearing of Elliott’s signing, said ‘Take advantage of the moment.’ Given his size and speed, he has the tools to develop into a nice rotational pass rusher.
In Fackrell, the Packers have a project. It’s funny that he draws many comparisons to Connor Barwin, a guy many, including myself, wanted the Packers to acquire. He’s long, fast, and has a motor that doesn’t quit. His issue has always been that he doesn’t have much functional strength. What’s also kind of funny is that a lot of the things that make Fackrell an interesting prospect are what people like about T.J. Watt. Granted, Watt comes with a certain pedigree and a stronger college background. It wouldn’t be the first nor the last time Thompson took a chance on a relative unknown from a small school background and hit a home run. If Fackrell can add strength in the offseason, I look for him to improve on a season that saw some flashes of potential.
The fact of the matter is, the Packers don’t have to replace much productivity in the pass rush, seeing as Peppers and Jones only put up a total of 8 sacks in 2016. They essentially need Matthews to bounce back from a down season, Perry to continue to disrupt, and Fackrell/Elliott to provide an effective pass rush in a rotation. It would also be far from surprising to see them draft an additional edge rusher for depth.
At inside linebacker, there really isn’t much to be said. They resigned Joe Thomas Jr. and Jordan Tripp, and likely will not address this position in the draft. Given the progression of Jake Ryan last year, decent starting reps for rookie Blake Martinez and dime package reps for Thomas, the Packers are fine with the guys they have. It’s becoming an increasingly devalued position, and the Packers have a good-not-great corps of guys who will be more than effective when their number is called. With the number of snaps Brunett got at ILB (more on this later), there is nothing to see here.
The Defensive Backs
The departure of Micah Hyde will likely raise some eyebrows among Packer faithful. He provided some stability to a shaky pass defense that was one of the league’s worst, and versatility at Safety. The problem is, as I laid out in my last article, Hyde is neither fast nor strong enough to play the boundary on #1 WR’s. It’s also a similar problem to Jones and Peppers. You can’t pay someone who is essentially a backup starting money. They can still run 4 deep at Safety without him and have enough bodies to get by at CB with the addition of Davon House.
House offers a much better solution on the boundary against what the Packers currently have, or what Hyde could offer. While he had a poor 2016 showing, he played admirably in the 2015 season, putting up a 74.6 rating according to PFF. He offers better size than any of Hyde, Randall or Rollins, and better speed than Gunter on the outside, and has seen a majority of his success in the Packers’ system. At 27, the Packers’ get what could be the prime years of a guy who possess the traits of an ideal outside Corner. Given how deep the draft is at CB this year, why wouldn’t the Packers take a chance?
The thought process must be 1 of 2 things with Thompson regarding his CB’s. The first, that 2016 was an outlier for the group that was decimated by injury and confidence issues, and is only adding depth in FA and the draft to mitigate those issues. The second is that he does have significant concerns about the CB’s, and will aggressively attack the need in a deep CB draft rather then overspend for talent on the free market. Regardless, one would think in both scenarios the Packers probably still select a CB in the draft, but I lean toward the 1st conclusion. Randall showed flashes of shutdown play in 2015 and had 2 games in 2016 (JAX & SEA) where he shined. The Packers only need one of Randall, Rollins or Gunter to emerge as an average to above average corner for this unit to improve. Seeing as each is entering their 3rd year, where DB’s often see their biggest jump, I find it hard to believe none of them will find their stride.
At Safety, the Packers possess a top 5 duo in Burnett and Clinton-Dix. The problem was that due to injury and lack of depth, Burnett was playing a hybrid LB/Safety ‘rover’ position for the Packers, leaving UDFA Kentrell Brice to get a significant number of snaps. Burnett moved all around the field to fill injury gaps and play closer to the line as both a dime corner and ILB, in addition to his natural home at Strong Safety. Brice played admirably in his snaps, and has the skillset to one day become a starting safety, but in 2016, it was asking a lot of a UDFA. This is still a solid corps, and will look to improve in 2017.
Is the defense better?
Ask me again in November. Fans and media love to speculate on how players will acclimate to their new teams, and the real answer is no one knows until we are midway through the season. I think the Packers have made moves that make sense for them, and I think they are well on their way to a repeat of last season’s success, but it is impossible to predict anything in March.
The Packers have certainly made moves to improve the defense, but there’s still a lot of offseason yet to happen, both in Free Agency and the draft. I do believe the moves they have made are a step in the right direction. RJF should not only help the run game, but give the Packers interior pass rushers a blow to do what they do best. The LB moves are a swing for the fences given the talent that walked out, but they don’t really have much productivity to cover, and will likely mitigate these losses in the draft. At DB, it’s hard to imagine Randall and Rollin won’t rebound, and getting added help from House and a player TBD in the draft will only make this unit better.
Again, most of this is speculation, but the Packers aren’t sitting on their hands. They are making moves that make sense for their team and their budget. Anything can happen, and there’s reason to believe that there’s a lot more that will happen. Stay tuned, Packer fans.