A lot has been made about the recent Free Agent departures. Fans and media alike are feeding the Packer populism-machine with hot takes that would make Skip Bayless blush. It seems to be coming from every corner, and disappointingly from some of my favorite writers. The apocalyptic approach is exhausting and is far from the truth. The Packers are better at filling the holes with relative unknowns than most and will most likely do it again.
Cap implications aside, these moves all make sense on the surface, but still leave questions with the roster. While there are still questions with the current depth chart, let’s not forget this draft perfectly aligns with every Packer need. With that in mind, let’s step back from the ledge and evaluate just exactly what the Packers have ‘lost’ in Free Agency.
The departures everyone is pointing to is of Guard T.J. Lang and J.C. Tretter and the void they leave in offensive line depth. Lang is coming off a Pro-Bowl caliber year on the league’s best pass protecting offensive line. He would have been a shoe-in for the Pro-Bowl had reoccurring foot and hip injuries kept him from the honor. He ended up signing a lucrative deal with the Lions that saw an egregious amount of guaranteed money going to a 30 year old coming off surgery.
Yes, with Lang, the Packers would mostly retain a top 5 offensive line. No, there is not a clear replacement on roster. As good a player as Lang is, he is not the sole reason the Packers were in the NFC Championship game, or what is preventing them from getting back.
Tretter, while often injured, turned in a superb 8 game performance to start the 2016 season. He signed a pretty hefty contract with the lowly Cleveland Browns. Frankly, the Packers weren’t going to get into a bidding war with a team that has enough Salary Cap to eat Brock Osweiler’s ludicrous contract, over a guy who has started all of 10 games in Tretter. Signings like that would hamper their ability to sign pending 2017 Free Agents Adams, Linsley, Burnett, and Taylor. What also gets lost in the fold is the Packers still have a damn good offensive line despite the loss of Lang, with only 1 hole to plug and some need for depth. Great bookends, a solid center and a starting caliber guard still make this a top 10 unit.
In the backfield, with Eddie Lacy running off to Seattle, there is a lot of concern about the depth. To that I say…where were you in 2016? The Packers saw more success without Lacy last season than they did with him. As I’ve stated before, the Packers should be much more focused on the aerial assault than running attack. Paying a running back goal weight incentives is not an economical way to secure the backfield, especially when it comes at a cost of taking the ball out of Rodgers’ hands. The Packers were 1 game away from the Super Bowl with Ty Montgomery and little else. There’s nothing to suggest a running attack is imperative to this offense. The fact is the Packers hit their stride when Rodgers has a back that is capable receiving out of the backfield, and the passing attack is the focal point. Look no further than the 2010 Super Bowl run, 2011 offense and last year’s offense after week 10. I’d imagine they draft or acquire some depth, but they are just fine at RB.
At tight end, people seem to be infatuated with Cook after his catch in Dallas (do not get me wrong, that catch will be in Packer lore forever). What they don’t see is a player whose catch rate has been less than stellar, and can’t block worth a damn. The Packers not only replaced Cook’s size and speed presence with Martellus Bennett, but they got a stellar blocker and a sure-handed target for Rodgers. They were willing to let a known commodity in Cook walk for a chance at a do-everything TE in Bennett. This is the exact move Packer fans have been clamoring for, but seem to overlook due to Cook’s success in the playoffs. Mind boggling, if you ask me.
The Packers then hedged their bets by signing the former Badger Lance Kendricks. Much like Cook, Kendricks was stuck with whatever J.A.G masquerading a starting QB the Rams trotted out there. While his numbers don’t really jump off the page, Kendricks can pass block with the best of them, rating in the top 3 pass blocking TE’s in football according to PFF. The Packers prioritized do-everything TE’s and turned a draft need into a position of strength, and wonderful asset to Rodgers. Want to be more like the Patriots? Start by utilizing 2 TE sets.
Others are looking at the departure of Micah Hyde as if he was the only thing holding the secondary together. Yes and no. Hyde helped solidify the slot and offered enough versatility to free Burnett to play closer to the line. The problem most Packer fans don’t see is that he was ill equipped to handle the size and speed of true #1 WR’s. While his versatility will be missed, the Packers have enough safety depth, and with the signing of Davon House, they have someone much better suited to guard the boundary. It frees Gunter to take on 2nd WRs and Randall to play the slot, which I firmly believe suits both far better. Adding depth in the draft and continued progression from Clinton-Dix, Brice and others will only improve this secondary.
The losses of Peppers and Jones were big from a depth perspective, but neither offered an improvement over what’s available in the draft or the starters already on roster. Peppers age was finally starting to catch up with him in plays where he looked a step slow, despite turning in a 7 sack season. He lost a lot of sacks because he just doesn’t have that extra gear anymore. Jones, while consistently putting pressure on the QB in the form of 15 QB pressures, only managed one sack all year. Only Peppers is worth the money (at $2.5 Million) but offered only a stop gap to the Packers true needs. The Packers starting OLB positions are filled with Perry and Matthews returning, and the depth is solidified with Elliott and Fackrell. Elliott has shown flashes, and the hope is that with time, he can turn into a solid rotational guy with Peppers and Jones gone. Fackrell needs to add bulk, but showed some speed off the edge and in the run game. Injury would likely hamper this corps’ effectiveness, so look for this to be another draft need.
What have the Packers lost from their NFC Championship formula from 2016? 1 starter at the easiest position to replace on offense at RG, and merely depth at a few positions. Outside of maybe OL, the draft is loaded with talent at the other 3 positions the Packers need. Given Thompson’s success at finding interior lineman, I consider these losses surmountable, and the Packers should get a nice haul of compensatory picks.
What people forget is that the draft is used for not only finding starting caliber players, but filling depth at positions of need, something that saved the Packers in the injury-riddled midseason stumble. There isn’t a single team in the NFL that goes into the draft without some needs, and the Packers, frankly, only have a few positions of concern. The Packers have thrown so much at the defense, and with the gradual progression of guys like Perry, Clinton-Dix and Daniels, cornerstones of the defense, it takes time to see these picks come to fruition. Meanwhile, GM’s are scrambling to spend Ferrari prices on Toyota Camry caliber players, while Thompson is darn close to market value on all of his contracts.
The Packers still have close to $27 million in Cap room to spend. They are estimated to spend just shy of $6 million on draft picks. Thompson usually likes to have around $7-10 million in cap space for flexibility and carryover, so it is very likely the Packers are not done with Free Agency yet. What they will do, I can assure you, will be calculated, un-sexy and overall much more helpful and cost efficient to this team than signing Free Agents that would weigh on their cap flexibility and hamper their ability to sign another round of Free Agents in 2017. So relax! Free Agency is far from over, and some of the best Packer FA signings have happened weeks after the initial frenzy.