Ol' Bag of Donuts

Wrapping up the first week of free agency for the Packers: Non-Peppers edition

The point of this post is to catch up on all the free agency news involving the Green Bay Packers that doesn’t include Julius Peppers.

I kept thinking it’d be easy enough to do, but as soon as I thought that, MORE news involving the Packers popped up (dang, this team has been busy). So this may be a little lengthy, but again, I’ll be employing bullet points to break it up so it doesn’t feel overwhelming. What can I say – I love bullet points.

We’ll start with the most recent news and work our way back over the past week. And for fun, I’ll include my original prediction of what I thought would happen to each player before free agency began.

  • Starks returns to crowded backfield

I have to be honest – I really didn’t think James Starks would be back in Green Bay. Starks had a strong finish in 2013, so it seemed likely he’d have his choice of nice, if not massive, offers elsewhere. The Packers also appeared set in the backfield with Eddie Lacy, Jonathan Franklin and DuJuan Harris, so you had to wonder if they’d offer him any type of deal at all.

But after visiting Pittsburgh and receiving interest from some other teams, Starks will be returning to Titletown on a two-year deal (terms not yet known). ESPN’s Adam Schefter first broke the news Monday night, which was later confirmed by Tyler Dunne of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Considering how well the Lacy/Starks combination worked down the stretch last season, this move makes sense. Starks stayed mostly healthy and really flourished as a change-of-pace back. And running backs get beat up quite a bit, so it’s not the worst idea to keep four on the roster, even if it’s a bit unusual. Still, bringing Starks back does raise some questions. Is the team worried about Harris not returning to pre-ACL injury form? Are the Packers worried Franklin isn’t the player they though he’d be? You have to wonder.

  • Jones moves on to the silver-and-black

The impending, sure-to-be-massive contract extensions due to Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb – and the emergence of Jarrett Boykin – had me thinking James Jones’ run in Green Bay had come to an end. I was proven correct Monday. Jones signed a three-year, $11.3 million deal with the Oakland Raiders, marking a return home for the San Jose State alum.

The longer he stayed on the market, many fans (myself included), held out a sliver of hope Jones might come back on a short-term deal. But that was never realistic, really. While not a true No. 1 receiver, Jones is a good No. 2 receiver and, ideally, a really good No. 3 option. Someone was going to pay him eventually and Jones is a good pickup for the Raiders. He’s smart and tough and a consummate professional. He knows what it takes to win and that will be important for a struggling franchise like Oakland.

In his seven seasons with the Packers, Jones caught 310 passes for 4,305 yards and 37 touchdowns, including a league-high 14 in 2012. Best of luck with the Raiders, James.

Green Bay still has a great top three at the position, but not much after that other than maybe Myles White. Expect the Packers to snag a wideout fairly high in the draft, maybe in the third or fourth round.

  • Packers address defensive line further with Guion signing

After signing Peppers, Green Bay appeared to have one more opening on the defensive line. The Packers filled that spot Monday by signing Letroy Guion to a one-year deal ($730,000 base salary, $100,000 signing bonus plus incentives that could bring the total value to $1 million, according to ESPN’s Rob Demovsky).

Guion, who will turn 27 in June, had spent his entire six-year career with the Minnesota Vikings until he was released earlier in March. The Vikings cut him in order to save some cash and Guion was drawing interest from multiple teams, including the New England Patriots. He’s 6-feet, 4-inches tall and weights 303 pounds. Last season, he recorded 21 tackles, one sack and one forced fumble in 13 games. He’s never put up big stats, really, as he has just 90 tackles, five sacks and two forced fumbles for his career so far. He’s a big body that can help eat up some snaps in Green Bay’s d-line rotation and do it competently.

The Packers now have seven d-linemen set for 2014 in Peppers, Guion, B.J. Raji (more on him in a bit), Datone Jones, Mike Daniels, Jerel Worthy and Josh Boyd. It now seems doubtful they’ll take any linemen at all in the draft. If they do, it’ll be very late. And Guion’s signing lessens the likelihood Johnny Jolly will be back in 2014 (as stated previously, Ryan Pickett and C.J. Wilson definitely will not be back). This kind of looks like the group Green Bay will take to camp, honestly, as the Packers appear to have reached their goal of becoming more explosive up front.

  • Dietrich-Smith switches Bays

I was really hoping the Packers would re-sign Evan Dietrich-Smith. It didn’t seem smart for them to enter 2014 on their fourth starting center in four years.

Well, it looks like that will be the case as Dietrich-Smith signed a four-year, $14.25 million ($7.25 million guaranteed) contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Friday.

Dietrich-Smith is not an All-Pro, of course, but he really solidified the interior of the offensive line last year and could have only improved. He turns just 28 in July and had Aaron Rodgers in his corner lobbying publicly for the team to bring him back. It sounds like Green Bay did want him back, but that Tampa just made him an offer he couldn’t walk away from. That happens.

So what now at center? Odds are the team will roll with J.C. Tretter, a fourth-round pick from Cornell last year who missed most of the year with an ankle injury. He’s obviously smart and the team seems to like his potential quite a bit, so that’s good. But he didn’t face big-time competition in college and his injury last season likely set him back a bit. He could be good in time, but expect a drop-off in play, at least initially, if he’s the guy.

Also, if Tretter is the choice, the team must go out and find a competent veteran to serve as his backup. Green Bay can’t afford to have the center spot be a mess like it was last year. And the Packers would be wise to avoid moving T.J. Lang to that spot, as some have suggested. Lang really found a home at right guard last year and should only get better. No more offensive line juggling and shifting.

  • Show me what you got, what you got Raji

After a rotten 2013 season, I initially felt it was best for the Packers to move on from Raji. But after some thought, I changed my mind and hoped the team would get him back on a one-or-two year “show me” deal.

And eventually, that’s what exactly what happened, Green Bay re-signing Raji to a one-year, $4 million contract Friday. Some were upset by this move, but really, it was a good one. Yes, Raji is coming off a terrible year, one in which he was expected to dominate because it was a contract year.

But there are a couple of reasons for positivity here. One, he’s a year older, which should make him realize he’s running out of chances for a big payday and keep him properly motivated. Two, it sounds like he’s gonna move back to nose tackle, his preferred position and the one where he played his best football (think 2010). And his talent level is still very high – he just needs to show it. He’s more than capable of putting it all together for a huge walk year. If he doesn’t, hey, it’s just a one-year deal. It wouldn’t hurt if Dom Capers also gave him more chances to get upfield at the quarterback, either.

  • Quarless’ nets a two-year deal

Tight end Andrew Quarless had a nice finish to the 2013 season, with 25 catches, 190 yards and two touchdowns in the final five games of the year. Granted, most of his big production came with Matt Flynn at quarterback, but still, he did enough to warrant a return to Green Bay. I thought that would happen if the price was right for the Packers and, boy, was it ever as he signed a two-year, $3 million ($350,000 signing bonus) contract Thursday.

Quarless will never be a true No. 1 option at the position, but he’s a nice complimentary piece who could still get better. The question now becomes: Who is the player he’s complimenting? It seems likely Jermichael Finley will sign with the Seattle Seahawks once he’s medically cleared, so it’s not going to be him. Brandon Bostick is an intriguing youngster with a ton of athleticism. He’ll likely see a bigger role in 2014 which is good, but the Packers still need another player there.

Green Bay had Owen Daniels in for a visit last week but didn’t sign him. He’s still out there, though, so he could be an option. It seems more likely that the Packers will target this spot in the draft, again in that third or fourth round range. That draft pick, along with Quarless and Bostick, would give Green Bay a group it could absolutely get by with.

  • Neal back for two more

Much like with Starks, I really didn’t think Mike Neal would be back in 2014. His transition to outside linebacker had some ups-and-downs last year, but he still put up five sacks and did a good job of consistently pressuring opposing quarterbacks. Throw in his versatility – remember, Neal had 4.5 sacks playing on the d-line in 2012 – and I figured someone would pay him big money.

After seeing some interest from the Chicago Bears and Arizona Cardinals, Neal decided Green Bay was the best place for him. He signed a two-year, $8 million ($2.5 million signing bonus) contract Wednesday. This was a very good move by the Packers. Neal should only get better at OLB next season and, with Mike McCarthy wanting to be more multiple on defense, Neal could see some time on the d-line, as well. If he continues to stay healthy – something he struggled with mightily early in his career – Neal could be in line for an even bigger 2014.

Neal, Clay Matthews, Nick Perry and Andy Mulumba give the Packers a nice group at this position, as long as they – you know what’s coming here – STAY HEALTHY.

  • Lattimore tendered

When he saw the field in 2013, Jamari Lattimore showed a decent amount of promise. In limited time, he recorded 35 tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble. He’s likely not a starter, but he can provide a spark for the defense off the bench. I thought he’d be back in 2014 and while the Packers waited until the last minute to tender him last Tuesday, it looks like he will return.

He was given the low restricted tender of $1.431 million. That gives the Packers the right to match any offer he’d receive elsewhere, but they would not receive any compensation should they decline to match. Oakland and the Kansas City Chiefs both reportedly had interest in Lattimore, not surprising considering who runs those front offices.

If he can continue to grow at inside linebacker, he could be a player to watch in 2014. Again, at the very least he gives the Packers solid depth at this spot, one they desperately need to upgrade via a high pick in the draft.

  • Packers open checkbook for Shields

Okay, so this move happened over a week ago. But it seems like we should at least say something about the new contract for Sam Shields, a four-year, $39 million deal ($12.5 million signing bonus) agreed to on March 8. Some fans think it was a significant overpay. It might have been a slight overpay, but it was not a ridiculous one. The Packers – wisely – realized overpaying Shields was a better option than starting over without him. Sometimes you just have to admit a guy has the high ground and pay him what he wants.

And the way the deal is structured, the Packers can cut Shields after two seasons and be okay. When you look at it that way, this was a deal that had to be done. The Packers are now set at cornerback with Shields, Tramon Williams and Casey Hayward comprising a nice top three. Micah Hyde will be in the mix here, too. Now get a better safety to play next to Morgan Burnett and you could see the secondary as a whole be much, much better in 2014.

-Chris Lempesis

He did WHAT?!?! Thompson stuns Packer Nation, signs Peppers

True story: I started writing a post late Friday night. In it, I focused on which side was right in the debate over how Ted Thompson handles free agency.

I just needed to add a few more thoughts to it and it would be ready to go sometime Saturday afternoon.

You’ll never read it now, of course, because, well, things have changed. But just for fun, here’s how the post ended:

“Thompson needs to find those reasonably-priced vets in order to safeguard his team – particularly on defense – if/when (let’s be honest, it’s WHEN) the inevitable injury bug hits Green Bay next season.

There are some positive signs that he’s beginning to see things this way, too. The Packers have had interest in more than one second/third-tier-type player during this free agency period, only to see most sign before they could even get to Green Bay for a visit. But there are more of those guys still out there. And if Thompson can land a handful of those guys and fill some defensive holes in the draft, the Packers will stay ahead of the rest of the North and continue to close the gap on those teams out west, thus becoming more great than good.”

Or Thompson could, you know, just go sign Julius Peppers too, I suppose.

And that’s exactly what he did as Green Bay Packers fans woke up Saturday morning to the stunning news that the defensive end and the team had agreed to a three-year contract worth a maximum of $30 million. The deal includes $7.5 million guaranteed and Peppers’ first-year haul amounts to $8.5 million.

There are so many intriguing storylines to come out of this signing. The best way to get to them all, it would seem, is to do that thing where I ask questions I think some of you might have and then answer them myself. Sounds weird, but it’ll make sense.

  • Question: Man, that seems like a lot of money to give a guy who just turned 34 years old. Has Ted lost his mind?

Answer: No, he hasn’t lost his mind. Quite the opposite, in fact. Yes, that seems like a lot of money at face value. But focus on the guaranteed portion of the deal: $7.5 million. That isn’t much at all, really, especially when you consider DeMarcus Ware – another aging defensive player – received $20 million guaranteed from the Denver Broncos in his three-year, $30 million deal signed late last week.

Ware will be 32 when the season starts, so those extra two years he has on Peppers are likely a big reason why he received so much more guaranteed money. A lot of Packers fans, myself included, wanted Ware to end up in Green Bay once he was released by the Dallas Cowboys. But now that you’ve seen how the money played out, who would you rather have? Peppers, right? Thought so.

This contract is essentially a one-year deal. Peppers will make $1 million in salary this year (if my always questionable math is right), meaning most of his salary comes in the last two years of the deal. So if it doesn’t work out and Green Bay ends up releasing him after this season, the cap hit won’t be much at all. Even though the Packers would take on some dead money, it would largely be offset by the cash they’ll save in his salary.

Of course, none of us want that to happen. We’d all love Peppers to see the full value of the contract, because that will mean he’s been performing at a really high level. Speaking of which…

  • Peppers has always been a 4-3 defensive end. Where does he fit in Green Bay’s 3-4 scheme?

Answer: Expect him to line up all over the place. At 6-feet, 7-inches, 287 pounds, Peppers could be considered a little light for a 3-4 end, as those guys tend to hover closer to 300 pounds. But he’s not that far off, in terms of weight, and he’s such a great athlete, he can probably make the adjustment with no issues. J.J. Watt was considered a little light for a 3-4 end, too, at 289 pounds and he’s done okay, right?

And even though he’s never played outside linebacker, my guess is we’ll see him play there at times, too. The idea of having Peppers and Clay Matthews exploding from opposite ends on certain passing downs is likely too enticing for Dom Capers to pass up. On other passing downs, it’s likely Peppers will play on the line, but inside.

Earlier this offseason, Mike McCarthy talked about wanting to be more “multiple” in terms of defensive sets. Having Peppers’ skill set and athleticism will go a long way in helping McCarthy achieve that goal. And when it’s 3rd-and-8, if all parties involved are healthy, Green Bay can send out one heck of a group to attack the opposing quarterback. Imagine having Peppers, Matthews, Mike Neal, Nick Perry, Datone Jones and Mike Daniels all getting after it at once. Someone’s getting through.

Of course, all those other names are still fairly young. Peppers isn’t, which might lead you to ask…

  • Question: Okay, so the deal is good and Peppers can fill a variety of roles. But let’s be honest – he’s 34 and coming off a subpar season in Chicago. How much can we realistically expect from him?

Answer:  You should expect a lot. Some have suggested Peppers will be more of a situational pass-rusher for the Packers, but I’m not buying it. The Packers paid him to be that last piece in their front seven, the guy who will hopefully take that group from “promising, but inconsistent” to “dominant.” In other words, he’s going to see the field a lot.

No, he did not have a great year last season, but a variety of factors played into that. Playing on a rotten defense with very few playmakers, Peppers drew a lot of attention, which hurt his numbers. We can’t forget about his famously hot-and-cold motor, one that likely went more cold than hot once he realized how terrible that defense was. And it’s not hard to imagine Peppers was probably a bit too comfortable in Chicago, thinking the Bears would keep him around and pay him his high salary no matter what because, well, he’d never been cut before.

That’s all changed now.

Yes, he’s entering a new scheme, but it’s one he’s wanted to play in for years, so he should be pretty excited about that. Green Bay’s defense hasn’t been great in recent years, but if everyone involved stays healthy (or even mostly healthy), there’s a lot to be excited about with this unit. Remember, Thompson still has the draft to add more pieces, like a safety and inside linebacker.

And if he wasn’t too worried about his money in Chicago, that shouldn’t be the case now. He’s a year-to-year player at this point and the money will only continue to roll in if his motor stays hot and he plays well. If he doesn’t play well in 2014 and the Packers release him, he won’t even sniff the kind of deal he just received from Green Bay next March.

Lastly, he seems to genuinely want to win a championship. The Packers will give him a chance to do just that. This team might be a tad off the pace of Seattle and San Francisco for now, but again, if health mostly stays on their side and Thompson has a draft like he did last year, they’ll be on that level.

Add this all up and Peppers should be properly motivated this season.

Also, his “bad” year was one in which he still totaled seven sacks, two forced fumbles and an interception. That sack total would’ve put him only behind Matthews on the 2013 Packers. If that’s his bad, frankly, I can’t wait to see his good.

  • Last question: Well you’ve sold me on the Peppers deal. You’re pretty smart and obviously very handsome. But what about the rest of the defensive line? Is that group pretty much set for 2014 now?

Answer: Yes, for the most part it looks that way. Green Bay now has six d-linemen in the fold for next season in Peppers, Jones, Daniels, Josh Boyd, B.J. Raji and Jerel Worthy. Letroy Guion, formerly of the Minnesota Vikings, visited Green Bay on Sunday but as of the time this post goes up, we don’t know anything more than that yet.

Teams in the 3-4 usually keep six-to-seven defensive linemen on the roster so the Packers probably only have one more opening. They can fill that last spot in a few different ways. One would be to sign Guion or another reasonably-priced free agent. Another would be through the draft. But probably not with a high pick. maybe a mid-round selection. The final option would be to re-sign Johnny Jolly, who underwent neck surgery in January, once he gets full clearance. Jolly seems to be improving, but he still has medical hurdles to clear.

It seems certain that last spot won’t be filled by Ryan Pickett or C.J. Wilson. It appears their time in Green Bay is over. Jolly gets the nod over these two because he’s more explosive and being more explosive up front appears to be a major goal for the Packers this season. They are well on their way to being just that.

(And don’t worry – we’ll be back soon to discuss the other moves Green Bay has made in free agency!)

-Chris Lempesis

Think the Packers can't keep up with Seattle and San Francisco? Think again

Lately there has been a lot of hand-wringing amongst Green Bay Packers fans. Another early playoff exit can do that to a fanbase.

Fans are mad about the injuries that seem to plague the team every year, the continued employment of defensive coordinator Dom Capers and some are even beginning to wonder just how good a general manager Ted Thompson is.

But the main issue – the one that hovers over all of these various gripes – involves the Packers main competition in the NFC, namely the San Francisco 49ers and now NFC-champion Seattle Seahawks. Most fans, and some beat writers, think those teams have lapped Green Bay and a lot of fans seem to think the situation is fairly hopeless.

Well, fear not, because I’m here to let you know the situation is not hopeless at all. In fact, if you examine the Niners and Seahawks a little closer, you’ll see that – while they are clearly ahead of the Packers for now – both are headed for territory that could make them a lot more vulnerable, as soon as next season.

The following is a step-by-step guide that will show you where these teams have been fortunate and where they will likely experience some drop-off in the years ahead. When you’re done reading this, you’ll see that Green Bay can absolutely catch up to these teams.

(Note: All individual contract information comes courtesy of Spotrac and all team salary cap information comes courtesy of Over the Cap.)

  • San Francisco and Seattle are both loaded with good, young players. In other words, cheap players. But not for much longer.

If you watch these teams play and find yourself marveling at how many good, young players each has, well, you’re not alone. The general managers – Trent Baalke in San Francisco and John Schneider (we all remember that name) in Seattle – have done marvelous work in the draft. Each has culled together a roster that is loaded, seemingly at every position on the field. Your fantasy football team probably had at least one Niner or ‘Hawk on it somewhere.

Every G.M. aspires to put together a squad like these teams have right now.

There’s a drawback to that, though – a significant one, because while these players are performing on the cheap now, many are going to require big paydays. And soon.

For starters, look at San Francisco. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick, guard Mike Iupati and outside linebacker Aldon Smith all have contracts expiring after next season.  Not one of those Pro Bowl-level players has a cap number over $5 million for next season and all may ask for new deals within the next couple months. You think Kaepernick will be willing to play for just over $973,000 ($1.63 million cap hit) after what he’s done the last two postseasons? Doubtful and his extension alone will likely hover around the magic $20 million per season mark.

San Fran still has to worry about some core vets, too. Center Jonathan Goodwin, wide receiver Anquan Boldin and safety Donte Whitner are all set for free agency in March. Wide receiver Michael Crabtree and running back Frank Gore follow the year after (Crabtree might want an extension before camp, however).

The Niners are $2.6 million under the cap now. That number will increase once numerous other contracts come off the books and obviously they’ll be able to keep some of these players. But if you’re tossing in the new cost of paying your quarterback $20 million per year, how many can you really keep? Oh and don’t forget to factor in the big deals for linebackers Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman and Ahmad Brooks and left tackle Joe Staley that are already on the books.

And if you think it’s looking rough for San Fran, I’d like to introduce you to the situation for Seattle.

Wide receivers Doug Baldwin and Golden Tate, cornerback Walter Thurmond and right tackle Breno Giacomini (remember him?) are all important pieces who have come cheap. All four are also set for free agency in March.

It gets even messier. The two key pieces in Seattle’s “Legion of Boom” secondary are safety Earl Thomas and cornerback Richard Sherman, arguably the best in the league at their respective positions. And both have contracts that are up a year from now. Might they want extensions this offseason? Considering Sherman’s base salary, for example, is $645,000 in 2014 (the cap number is just under $700,000) – no, those aren’t misprints – you can bet on it.  Thomas is better compensated, with a base salary of $4.625 million (the cap number is just over $6 million), but he’ll want to break the bank sooner rather than later, too.

These deals would all be easy enough for Seattle to fit under the cap – it has $2.9 million of cap space right now and, again, that number will grow – until you factor in the situation with quarterback Russell Wilson. The most recent CBA does not allow draft picks to renegotiate their contracts until after their third season in the league. Well, next season will be Wilson’s third in the league. Think he, too, will want a brand new, $20 million per year contract at that point? I bet he will. And if you’re already paying big money to the likes of wide receiver Percy Harvin and left tackle Russell Okung, can you pay Wilson, Sherman and Thomas in addition to all those other names? Nope. You probably can’t.

All these cheap contracts have also allowed these teams to add solid veteran free agents on relatively low-rent deals, San Francisco with nose tackle Glenn Dorsey and Seattle with defensive ends Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett. Once they begin to pay their own players, though, those three names listed above will be long gone and they won’t have the ability to keep doing this as much, if at all.

  • Seattle and San Francisco have front offices and coaching staffs that have remained largely intact. That won’t last.

Look at the list of key front office personnel the Packers have lost over the past four years.

Schneider, of course. John Dorsey to Kansas City. Reggie McKenzie to Oakland.

That’s a powerful trio right there, men who all played crucial roles in helping Thompson turn the Packers back into a perennial contender. Schneider and Dorsey have done good work in their new cities. McKenzie, now that he’s freed up a mountain of cap space, could very well do the same. Have their absences hurt Thompson, both in scouting and on draft day, in a major way? Of course they have.

Green Bay hasn’t dealt with as much turnover in its coaching staff, but has still had to endure some tough losses. The biggest, of course, came when Joe Philbin left his offensive coordinator job for Miami’s head coaching position. Some believe the offense has never recovered fully from that. And Ben McAdoo is looked at as a rising star and he recently left his quarterbacks coach gig to become offensive coordinator for the New York Giants.

Look at the situations in Seattle and San Francisco.

Now, the Seahawks have already dealt with some of this. The biggest instances came when John Idzik, Jr. (former vice president of football administration) left to become G.M. for the New York Jets and Gus Bradley (former defensive coordinator) left for the head coaching job with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Both of those just happened a little over a year ago, though, and really, that’s not even close to what Green Bay has had to endure.

Even less has happened with the Niners. They’ve kept the same coordinators throughout head coach Jim Harbaugh’s tenure and, unless I missed something in my research, they have yet to produce a G.M. anywhere else. They’ve remained pretty much intact.

But eventually that will change – really, really change – as teams from around the league will start to clamor for their own piece of that Seahawks/Niners magic.

The losses Harbaugh and Pete Carroll will have to deal with will be numerous and, likely, will occur multiple times a year. Will they always make the right replacement hire? And when Schneider and Baalke have to re-shuffle their departments, they’ll see what Thompson has had to go through. Will their scouting be as good? Will their drafts be as good, with new personnel and lower picks that come from all their success? Probably not, or at the very least there will be some significant growing pains.

  • These teams have been remarkably fortunate on the injury front. History tells us that will change.

This is not to say these teams have been perfectly healthy during the last two or three seasons because no team ever is. In 2013, Harvin missed most of his first season in Seattle and Crabtree missed a large chunk of time, as well. We can’t forget all the injury troubles wide receiver Sidney Rice has had since signing with Seattle, either.

But outside of Harvin and Rice, Seattle’s other two key offensive pieces – Wilson and running back Marshawn Lynch – haven’t missed a game in two years. The Seahawks have had to do some juggling on the offensive line, but nothing too major. For the most part, the story is the same with the majority of its key defensive players, outside of maybe a PED suspension here or there (sorry, I had to).

San Francisco? The song remains the same. Since Kaepernick took over as the starter midway through the 2012 season, he, Gore, Vernon Davis and Boldin have all been incredibly healthy, combining to miss just one start between the four of them (Boldin wasn’t with the team in 2012, however). San Fran’s offensive line, widely considered to be the best in the game, has missed just four starts – all from Iupati this past season – in the past two years. That is incredible.

Defensively, it’s pretty much the same thing, minus the time Aldon Smith missed due to his off-field issues during this past season.

As painful as this might be, let’s compare that to how things have been for the Packers. Over the past two seasons, Aaron Rodgers, Randall Cobb, Jordy Nelson, Jermichael Finley and Bryan Bulaga have all missed at least four games each. Defensively, Clay Matthews, Sam Shields and Nick Perry have all missed at least eight games each.

This will really illuminate the issue (or make you sick, I’m not sure). San Francisco’s linebacking trio (excluding Smith) of Brooks, Bowman and Willis have missed a combined two games in the past two seasons. Matthews has missed nine games alone in that span.

The injury pendulum is wildly unpredictable from year-to-year, of course. Packers fans have spent most of the past five years wondering if it was ever going to swing in our favor, with mostly disappointing results. And there is always a chance San Francisco and Seattle will just continue to receive good luck and have most of their key players stay healthy throughout their primes. But that seems unlikely. Eventually these teams will be forced to endure seasons like Green Bay has had over the past five years. Think a 10-13 win season will be likely then? And even if they can hit that mark, will their teams have enough in the tank then to go deep in the playoffs?

  • Conclusion: Don’t panic, Packers fans

When you add it all up, it’s easy to see how the Niners and Seahawks got to where they are now and how they are a good distance ahead of most other NFL teams. But it’s also easy to see how that distance will shrink.

There’s a price that comes with running a successful franchise. And they haven’t paid it yet.

But that day is coming. Soon.

The Packers already paid that price and largely survived it. In fact, they came out of it with a team that – as stated here previously – just needs good health and a couple more defensive playmakers. If they can get those things, they’ll rise a level or two and become a team capable of winning it all.

Will Seattle and San Francisco be able to survive paying theirs? Plenty of teams thought they could in the past, only to never be heard from again. We’ll find out soon enough.

-Chris Lempesis

A look at where the Packers stand, position-by-position, as the offseason begins: Part Three

Alright, this is it.

It’s time for the final installment of our position-by-position look at where the Green Bay Packers stand right now. And in this final chapter, we’re in for some rough sledding. The positions covered here are in considerable flux at best and disasters at worst. So if you’re into that sort of thing, this is the installment for you.

(Looks at the list of positions about to be discussed)

(Groans)

Okay, here we go.

Defensive line

No area on the Packers is more in flux, when talking about free agency, than here along the defensive front. B.J. Raji, Ryan Pickett, Johnny Jolly and C.J. Wilson all have expiring contracts. That’s 1,305 pounds in case you were wondering.

The first domino to fall here will be Raji. There was a report midway through the season that Raji and his reps had repeatedly turned down a long-term deal that would’ve paid him $8 million per on average. The timing of that story couldn’t have been worse for him as Raji was, in a word, terrible the second half of the season (actually, he was bad most of the year). He made zero impact plays – he hasn’t recorded a sack since the 2011 season – and wasn’t doing much to help others make plays either. Too often he was dominated by average players (see: Thanksgiving). Even at a reduced rate, why bother? It’s best to let Raji walk.

Pickett, simply put, is an old warrior. He’s almost always battling some injury or another, yet he just continues to gut it out and give his all. Injuries affected Pickett more this year than in years past, but he still turned in his share of solid showings. He’ll be 35 in October and questions exist to how much he has left in the tank. That said, the Packers should bring him back on a reasonable one-or-two year deal. His veteran presence can help this unit and he can likely squeeze out at least one more year of solid performances.

Jolly’s remarkable comeback story was completed this season. Not only did he make the roster, he played well. He adds a toughness that had been missing from the defense and he just seems to spark the team as a whole. He did wear down a bit as the year progressed, but that happens. The real question regards the neck injury that ended his season. If he can recover and get cleared, he needs to be brought back. He’ll be a little more expensive this time, but he’s only 31 in February and his value in multiple areas makes him worth it.

The presence of Jolly often made Wilson a healthy scratch (he also battled an ankle injury), which may make you forget the value Wilson can bring. He’s really strong and good against the run. And he’ll be cheap too, so bank on him re-signing.

In terms of players who will definitely be back, the main name here is Mike Daniels. What a revelation he was in 2013, racking up 6.5 sacks. He brings it every single down and plays with an intensity most others can’t match. The Packers talk a lot about players making the jump from year one to year two. Well, that’s Daniels. And he’s only going to get better. Be excited about him.

Rookie Datone Jones seemed to have trouble seeing the field consistently, but when he did, you saw flashes of the player he can become. Jones tallied 3.5 sacks in what has to be considered limited duty this year. Expect his playing time to increase dramatically next year. And with his athleticism and quickness, he could pair with Daniels to give Green Bay a scary-good duo on the line.

Josh Boyd didn’t see the field until late in the season as it seemed like the Packers wanted to redshirt him this season. Once called in to action, Boyd showed explosiveness, hustle and a knack for being in on things. Like Jones, his playing time should go way up in 2014 and he’s absolutely a player to watch.

A knee injury suffered late in 2012 robbed most of Jerel Worthy’s sophomore season from him. And once he got back onto the field, he didn’t do much of anything. That can’t happen again next season as Worthy must find a way to get his currently-disappointing career going. Daniels has broken out and Jones may very well do the same. Worthy has to keep pace.

If, say, Pickett, Jolly and Wilson return, the d-line will have set players in set roles next season. Pickett holds down the middle. Jolly, Wilson and Boyd will be the run-stoppers. Daniels, Jones and Worthy will be the pass-rushers. Are there questions with that group? Yes. But could that group be pretty good, too? Absolutely.

Tight end

Obviously, the first decision the Packers have to make here involves Jermichael Finley.

Finley was well on his way to a really nice 2013 season with 25 catches for 300 yards and three touchdowns in just over five games before a frightening neck injury against Cleveland ended his season. The severity of such an injury can not be overstated, yet Finley, set for free agency in March, seems determined to keep his career going. Green Bay must now decide, should Finley be medically cleared, if it wants to pay top dollar for his services. Some have suggested Finley may take a cheaper, short-term deal given how serious his recent injury was. But odds are if he is cleared, he will find someone will to give him a pricey, long-term deal. Simply put, his size and athleticism change how opposing defenses gameplan and attack. He has value even if he never catches a pass in a game. And he won’t be 27 until March.

But, given the conservative nature of Green Bay’s medical staff and its long list of impending free agents, it’s highly unlikely Finley returns in green and gold. It’s just too risky and the Packers can score points without him.

Andrew Quarless, two years removed from a devastating knee injury, finally seemed to regain form late in the season. He came up big repeatedly in the final month and finished with a 32/312/two season. So could he be the guy to step in for Finley? Maybe, but oh wait – he’s also set for free agency in March. Quarless won’t be 26 until October and his strong finish makes you optimistic about his future. There could be 31 other teams who feel that way too. In the end, this one is too close to call. If the price is right, he’ll be back. But his ceiling may only be so high, too, so if someone offers him a sizeable contract, Green Bay likely won’t match.

After that, you’re left with a lot of question marks. Brandon Bostick (7/120/one) has many of Finley’s physical attributes, but he’s incredibly raw still. Ryan Taylor (6/30) brings a lot of toughness but is mostly valued as a blocker and special teams player. And Jake Stoneburner is a complete unknown at this point. If Quarless comes back, pairing him with Bostick could make Green Bay good enough at this spot. If Quarless goes, the Packers will have to draft here, probably within the first two days.

Inside linebacker

Now we begin to creep into disaster territory with a look at inside linebacker. The Packers employed A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones as their starters here most of the year and were rewarded with, well, mostly average-to-well-below-average results.

Hawk, who lost some weight during the offseason, finished with 118 tackles (team high), five sacks, seven tackles for loss, one interception and one forced fumble. Those numbers look good enough on paper, even once you remember three of his sacks came in one game. But at this position, the numbers don’t tell the story, namely that Hawk had just an average season.  Far too often he was a total non-factor, seemingly for weeks at a time. But, hey, he’s durable and the Packers like how he runs the defense, so you can expect him back next year. And for a lot of years to come. They’re never getting rid of Hawk is what I’m trying to tell you. Just deal with it.

At least Hawk made SOME impact plays this season, which is more than you can say about Jones (60 tackles, three sacks, seven tackles for loss, one forced fumble in 12 games). Talk about a complete-and-total non-factor. For a guy with Jones’ size and athleticism, his lack of true impact is alarming. He’s just a guy and nothing more. The three-year, $11.75 million contract he signed last offseason seemed like a mistake at the time and it’s sure holding up as such. The positive? The deal was light on guaranteed money so perhaps the Packers just admit their mistake and cut Jones.

Behind these two is sparkplug Jamari Lattimore (24 tackles, two sacks, two tackles for loss, one forced fumble). Lattimore, playing much less than Hawk and Jones, had a knack for making things happen and plays with constant intensity. He’s not perfect at all, but the staff made a mistake by not giving him more playing time, even with Jones healthy. Lattimore is a free agent to be and it’ll be interesting to see if anyone makes a run at him. The guess here is that he’ll be resigned at a reasonable rate. Even if he’s just a backup, he’s a good backup to have.

After that, it’s all question marks. Victor Aiyewa? Sam Barrington? Not much is known of either. That makes this spot crucial for Green Bay to address within the first two rounds in May. Simply put the Packers can not have both Hawk and Jones starting. If you’re going to go with Hawk – and again, they are – then you need a big-time playmaker next to him, someone who can cover for Hawk’s deficiencies. Jones isn’t that guy. Lattimore probably isn’t that guy.

Look at what San Francisco can do on defense just by having Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman at ILB. It allowed them to play both safeties high against Green Bay in the playoffs, taking away the big plays downfield and forcing the Packers to stick to the short stuff in the air.  Those things frustrate an offense. The Packers can’t frustrate anyone with Hawk and Jones in the middle. Players like Willis and Bowman are rare, of course, and you almost never see two such players on the same team. But Green Bay has to do its damnedest to find a player like that. Even one such player – heck, even a Desmond-Bishop-in-2010-type-player – and you’ll be amazed how much better this defense can instantly be.

Safety

And now we’re officially waste-deep in disaster as we close with safety, without a doubt the worst position on Green Bay’s roster as of now. In fact, it’s hard to even describe just how bad the Packers were here in 2013, so let’s have Pauly Shore and Stephen Baldwin do it, instead. Yeah, that bad.

The discussion here must begin with Morgan Burnett. After signing a four-year, $26.75 million contract extension in July, Burnett did nothing to show he was worthy of such a deal. He made far too many mistakes, displaying an almost superhuman ability to be out of position against both the run and the pass. Despite finishing second on the team with 96 tackles, Burnett had no interceptions, sacks or forced fumbles – and only five passes defended – in 2013. That seems like an impossible feat to pull off, yet Burnett did it. Boy, did he do it.

It’s easy to see why the Packers gave him the deal when they did, though. Burnett was entering the final year of his rookie contract and had showed real promise through his first three seasons. He only figured to get better and, as a result, more expensive. Plus, there aren’t a whole lot of great safeties in the league right now. And despite almost universal scorn amongst fans regarding his contract NOW, everyone loved the deal at the time. Yes, they did.

So the question now becomes: Was it wasted money? And the answer, even though some fans will hate it, is that it’s too soon to say. One bad – okay, one horrendous – season does not wipe out all the promise Burnett had shown in years one through three. The talent is there for Burnett to bounce back in 2014, but he must do so and do so in a major way to prove he was worthy of that contract. Otherwise that deal could end up as Ted Thompson’s biggest mistake.

And the Packers can help Burnett in a major way by adding a safety with, you know, some actual talent to play alongside Burnett next season. Because we’ve all seen M.D. Jennings and we know he’s not that guy. Jennings’ line for the season: 74 tackles, one sack, no picks, no forced fumbles and no passes defended. No passes defended? How is that even possible for a safety? Well, if you saw Jennings play in 2013, you know he’d be the guy to make that happen. Pointing out all of his specific deficiencies seems like a waste of time so let’s just say that he’s a free agent in March and should not return. Under any circumstances.

If it’s not Jennings, is it someone else on the roster? Probably not. Chris Banjo can hit like a ton of bricks, but he’s nothing more than a backup. Ditto for Sean Richardson, who has good size but not much in the way of upside. And it won’t be Jerron McMillian, because the Packers already cut him later in the season. This isn’t a popular opinion, but cutting McMillian was a foolish move. Yes, he was rotten, had shown nothing and probably wasn’t a starting-caliber player. But he was still a fourth-round pick less than two years into his career. The odds were better for McMillian developing than, say, Jennings, that’s for sure. If Mike McCarthy made that move in the hopes of lighting a fire under his defense, it failed.

Since we all know Thompson won’t make any big-time forays into free agency – and with the large number of Packers set for free agency, he might not be able to afford any, anyways – that leaves the draft as Green Bay’s only route to upgrade here. Good news on that front, as it appears the safety class is a good one. Alabama’s Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix likely won’t be there at 21 in the first round, but would be worth a move up if Ted is feeling saucy. If not, one recent mock draft has the Packers tabbing Louisville’s Calvin Pryor. He’d fit too. If the Packers are able to land a talented safety who can produce right away, that will make Burnett much better and the defense as a whole much, much better. It’s the top need on this team right now, by a fairly large margin.

So, let’s wrap up this series by asking one final question: How do the Packers look heading into the offseason?

Well, they appear to be set on offense. Actually more than set. Green Bay is in a position to have maybe the best offense in football in 2014 and that’s not hyperbole. The pass-catchers are there, the running back is definitely there and the triggerman is the best in the game. And the starting five up front sure look like an ascending group. Their playcaller needs to be a little more consistent, but McCarthy is right to be excited about this side of the ball.

But on defense there is still much work to be done. The Packers must improve up the middle on the back two levels. Simply adding solid players at inside linebacker and safety won’t be enough. To truly get better, honest-to-God-playmakers must be found for these spots. And some so-far-disappointing youngsters must stay healthy and show why they were drafted when they were. If these things can happen, combined with the top-end talent Green Bay already has, it’s not unthinkable for this defense to make major strides in 2014. And remember, with the offense the Packers will have, it doesn’t need to be a top five unit. Simply finishing in the top 15 would be more than good enough.

If we see that improvement on defense, this will be a team to reckon with next year. A 11-13 win season is easily attainable, in fact. But if we do not see that jump – if we get the same showings we’ve gotten the past three years – well, okay, the team could still win 11-13 games. But the Packers won’t then be good enough to do anything special when it matters most. And that’ll put us right back where we are now – watching other teams play for the title.

-Chris Lempesis

A look at where the Packers stand, position-by-position, as the offseason begins: Part Two

Okay, gang, we promised you part two and here it is. Things were certainly rosy with regards to part one – the Green Bay Packers are looking good at quarterback, running back and offensive line. It gets a little choppier as we progress in part two, but overall, the outlook for the positions covered here is still good.

(And oh yeah, this is now officially a three-part series. Hope that’s okay.)

And here…we…go.

Wide receiver

In terms of 1-2 punches at this position, there aren’t many duos better than Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb. After an injury-plagued 2012 season, Nelson bounced back with a fantastic 2013 campaign, catching 85 passes for 1,314 yards and eight touchdowns. He has fantastic body control, racks up yards after the catch and has a knack for making plays when they are most needed. He turns 29 in May and has a whole lot of great football in front of him. His contract expires after next season and the Packers should lock him up long-term before camp, as expensive as it might be.

A broken leg stole 10 games from Cobb, but when on the field, he continued his ascent among the ranks of the league’s top gamebreakers, an “X-factor” player if there ever was one. With 31/433/four touchdowns, Cobb showed just what a tough matchup he is for whoever lines up across him. He’s got dynamic speed and can make any defender miss with his moves. Like Nelson, he just has that ability to raise his game at crucial times (week 17, anyone?). And, also like Nelson, he’s entering the final year of his contract and needs to be locked up for the long haul and soon. Again, it will not be cheap.

Here’s where things get interesting.

James Jones is set for free agency in March and opinions vary whether or not he should be re-signed. For a team in the market for a wideout, Jones has a lot to offer. He’s tough, smart and an absolute professional. He had a good year in 2013, recording a 59/817/three touchdown season. Toss in 2012 in which he led the league in touchdown receptions and the fact that he’ll be just 30 in March and you can see a lot of teams who might want him. The Packers got lucky the last time Jones’ contract was up, getting him back at a cut rate ($9.7 million for three years). They will not be so lucky this time and while it would be great to have Jones around, the looming Nelson/Cobb extensions make that difficult to imagine. Jones has probably played his last down in Green Bay.

Of course, the emergence of Jarrett Boykin makes that decision a lot easier, too, doesn’t it? Boykin made a name for himself this season, with a 49/681/three touchdown year. He’s got really good hands, deceptive speed and comes up with some outstanding catches. He’s still a pup at 24 years old and comes much, much cheaper than Jones. His future is bright and he should have a lock on the No. 3 receiver spot for 2014.

After these four, there isn’t much else in the cupboard for the Packers. Myles White (9/66) is really fast and could enter camp as the No. 4 receiver, but he’s still raw. Odds are good that Green Bay will take a receiver somewhere in the middle portion of the draft, maybe even as high as the third round. The draft is loaded with receivers.

Cornerback

The absence of Casey Hayward, who missed almost the entire season with hamstring issues, was obvious throughout 2013. As a result, the group struggled mightily at times. Hopefully his injury troubles are behind him because with him in the lineup, this group is a whole lot better.

The first domino that needs to fall here is a new contract for Sam Shields. The fourth-year pro had a really strong 2013, picking off four passes and defending another 17 (both team-highs). He’s lightening fast and unafraid of lining up against the opponent’s top receiver. He peeks into the backfield a bit too much sometimes, but he’s a true No. 1 corner and you have to have that. It won’t be cheap – he’ll cost at least $6-7 million per on average – but he must be re-upped.

After Shields, there’s another contract issue, this time with Tramon Williams (three interceptions, 11 passes defended and 2.5 sacks). Williams is in the final year of his contract and carries a hefty $9.5 million cap number for 2014. That’s too high, but as stated previously, Williams’ strong close to the 2013 season makes it unlikely he’d take a pay cut. And if he’s released, he’ll be snapped up quick. It’s true that “2010 Tramon Williams” is never coming back. But Williams showed a true veterans savvy late in the year and came up with some big plays (his game-clinching pick in Dallas and his early pick in the playoff game that sparked the team, for examples). The best course of action would seem to be a short-term extension for Williams, just 31 in March. It’d lower his cap number for 2014 and keep his veteran presence around a little longer.

Micah Hyde turned in a solid rookie season, despite his whiff on an interception late in the playoff game. He was light on the playmaking stats (one sack, no picks and two passes defended), but he’s a smart, physical player who’s good in the slot and can play the run. He doesn’t have great speed, however, leaving some to wonder if a move to safety is in his future. That’s an interesting idea and could happen especially if Hayward stays healthy and Shields and Williams both return. His future is bright, regardless of where he lines up next year.

Questions still exist regarding third-year corner Davon House. He finished third in passes defended with 10. He’s got good size and played rather well in spurts, but is also prone to some really shoddy play. Far too inconsistent to see the field regularly, 2014 is a make-or-break year for him with the team. He needs to put it all together.

Jarrett Bush is what he is – a really good special teams player who battles his heart out every week. He’s not a great corner but can sometimes come up with big plays (see: the Atlanta game). His value is not found in this area of his game, however. Depending on how the team handles some of these contracts, it’s an area the Packers could target in the draft, but likely not until the middle-to-later rounds.

Outside linebacker

Clay Matthews is obviously one of the best pass-rushers in the game when he’s on…key word there being “when.” He had a good enough year when healthy, recording a team-high 7.5 sacks and three forced fumbles. But he also struggled far too often in 1-on-1 matchups. For the monster contract he now carries, he needs to win those when they come his way and he really didn’t. Matthews missed five games (plus a crucial part of the Bengals game) with a twice-broken thumb and hamstring issues and if there’s any concern, here’s where it lies. Yes, the thumb injuries were freak things, but Matthews missed four games in 2012 and now five this season. Hopefully this isn’t the start of a trend.

Hey, speaking of injuries, Nick Perry had another year where he battled them! Of course, they weren’t as bad as they were in his rookie year, as he only missed five games in 2013 compared to 10 in 2012. But the foot injury he suffered in mid-October hampered him throughout the season and diminished his impact quite a bit. It’s frustrating to see, because when he’s healthy, Perry shows signs of being a true playmaker (four sacks, three forced fumbles, tied with Matthews for the team lead). He has great burst and sets a good edge in the run game. He just needs good health and if he gets it, the guess here is that he’ll put it all together. But next season is a crucial one for him, no doubt.

Oddly enough, the one OLB who managed to stay healthy all 16 games was Mike Neal. Playing the position for the first time in his career, Neal had some rough moments, to be sure, particularly in coverage. But he also gave you glimpses of the player he could become at this spot, finishing with five sacks. He brings versatility, too, because if needed, he can still slide down to his old d-line spot. The problem is that Neal’s set for free agency in March. And with pass-rushers always at a premium, a versatile, growing threat like Neal could cash in. Will the Packers be able to afford him, given the contracts they’ll have to dish out and already have on the books? Sadly the guess here is that they will not and Neal will move on.

That leaves rookies Andy Mulumba and Nate Palmer, really, to fill that void. Palmer didn’t do much of anything in year one, but Mulumba made himself known at times and had a solid showing in the playoff game. It’s conceivable he makes a jump in year two, but is it something you want to bank on? No. So in the event Neal does leave, it would not at all be shocking to see Green Bay draft at this spot, even as high as round two. The Packers have other needs, but you always need pass rushers.

Okay, that wraps up part two. Hope you’re enjoying reading these as much as I am enjoying writing them. Check back soon for part three.

-Chris Lempesis

A look at where the Packers stand, position-by-position, as the offseason begins

Now that we’ve all had a minute to digest the loss to San Francisco, it’s time to delve in to some offseason talk.

Oh, you thought we already did with our post after the Niners game? No, no, that was just us testing the waters – wading in up to our ankles, if you will. We’re heading to the deep end now.

The following is a look at where the Packers stand, positionally, as they begin the offseason. The positions will be rattled off in terms of how strong (or weak) they appear to be right now. And of course, we’ll be giving some suggestions for how Green Bay could handle each position, because what’s the fun in having a blog if you can’t tell the G.M. who won’t ever read your blog how he should do his job?

Also, this was initially meant to be one post, but it’s far too long for that, so it’s been broken up into multiple parts (either two or three depending on how much I ramble). We’ll be rolling them out over the next few days, so enjoy.

Quarterback

Any time you have a player like Aaron Rodgers at this position, obviously you don’t need to do much. When he wasn’t missing time due to his broken collarbone (McClellin!!), Rodgers was turning in another outstanding season (2,536 yards passing, 66.6 completion percentage, 17 touchdowns, six interceptions in essentially eight games). He doesn’t turn 31 until December and should have at least another two years of his prime in front of him. In short, he’s the best in the business.

Things become a little more interesting with regards to the backup position. Matt Flynn (1,146 yards, 61.4, seven touchdowns, four picks in five games) was signed in early November and, once he hit the field later that month, steadied the ship and essentially kept Green Bay’s season alive. He led the Packers to a 2-2-1 mark (I’m crediting him for the tie against Minnesota), including a comeback for the ages in Dallas and we all owe him a thanks for that. But Flynn will now be a free agent and while it’s highly doubtful anyone would give him the type of deal he got two years ago from Seattle, it’ll be interesting to see what kind of backup offers he gets. Would he rather be the backup in a place where he may have at least a shot to start? We shall see. The guess here is that he’ll remain a Packer on a one-or-two year deal. It’s the best place for Flynn to be and he’ll likely realize that.

To look at Scott Tolzien’s numbers (717 yards, 61.1, one touchdown, five interceptions in three games) is, well, to not be impressed. But Tolzien has a really strong arm and good mobility (much better than Flynn in both areas) in addition to his poise and toughness. He’s just really raw. Still, he deserves an offseason/training camp in Mike McCarthy’s system and should absolutely return next year as the No. 3 guy. He can grow into a player and if we’ve learned anything this year it’s that you can never have enough stability at quarterback.

Seneca Wallace (139 yards, 66.7, no touchdowns, one pick) will not be back and that is not sad.

Running back

Last April, it seemed like the Packers were doing everything they could, including trading back, to avoid having to take Eddie Lacy in the second round. Ted Thompson finally admitted defeat and selected the kid from Alabama and man, what a selection it was. Lacy turned out 1,178 yards on 284 attempts (4.1 average), eighth-best in the league this year, despite playing the final month-plus of the season on a bum ankle. He hit paydirt 11 times and only fumbled once. But it’s more than the numbers with Lacy. Far more. His rare blend of power, patience and athleticism gives the Packers an offensive dimension they have not had since the days of Ahman Green. He makes the offense – and the team as a whole – tougher. And he’s only going to turn 24 in June. With a backfield of Rodgers and Lacy, the Packers could be nearly impossible to shut down next season.

James Starks (493 yards, 5.5 average, three touchdowns) got the benefit of good health (mostly) for the first time in his pro career this year and really provided a nice change of pace from Lacy. Starks is shifty, surprisingly quick in the open field and really a pain to deal with for a defense tired from being pounded on by Lacy. The problem? Starks is also set for free agency. He’ll be 28 in February and this is likely his one shot to cash in. While he likely won’t break the bank, he showed this year he could stay healthy and hold his own in a timeshare backfield and the guess here is that someone will pay him accordingly. It’d be nice to have him back, but it’s doubtful that happens.

Rookie Johnathan Franklin was supposed to be the lightening to Lacy’s thunder, but that never really materialized as Franklin spent most of his rookie season on the bench. He finished with just 107 yards, 103 of those coming in one game, at Cincinnati in week three. He showed his potential, but a costly fumble in that game sent him to McCarthy’s doghouse and he never recovered, eventually going on injured reserve in late November (concussion). Still, it’s far too soon to give up on him. In that Bengals game, he showed why Green Bay took him in the first place. He’s got good speed and quickness, changes direction well and can be a threat catching the ball. A player to watch next season is the prediction here.

DuJuan Harris spent the entire season on injured reserve with a knee injury suffered in camp. He’ll be back next year, though, and if he’s fully recovered, expect him to battle Franklin for the “change of pace” role behind Lacy. Also expect the Packers to add a back or two, either late in the draft or with an undrafted free agent.

At fullback – or “fullback” – John Kuhn entered training camp with questions of whether or not he’d even make the team. He did and showed throughout 2013 why he’s so valuable. His pass protection, for starters, is outstanding. Week 17. Chicago, Julius Peppers. You remember. He also provides a valuable safety valve in the passing game and can still get you a yard or two on the ground if you need it. He’s set for free agency in March, but he’ll likely be back on a short-term deal. McCarthy clearly loves him and he still has a little left in the tank.

Offensive line

A position that was a major issue for years in Green Bay was the offensive line. Particularly early in Rodgers’ time as a starter, but really, the group was never more than adequate since the Wahle-Flanagan-Rivera days of the early 2000s.

Until now.

The Packers offensive line turned in a solid 2013 campaign, but the real reason for excitement stems from what lies ahead. Thrown into the fire after Bryan Bulaga tore his ACL on Family Night, rookie David Bakhtiari proved to be more than solid at left tackle. He had some rocky moments, as you would expect from a fourth-round pick, but held his own more than he didn’t. Much more. And with an offseason to get stronger and learn the game more, he’ll only get better. He should remain the left tackle going forward.

The interior of the o-line was strong, as well, despite guards Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang swapping positions during the offseason. Even though he admitted he wasn’t comfortable at his new left guard spot for much of the year, all Sitton did was turn in the best season of his career. He’s an absolute rock, one of the best guards in the league and will be just 28 in June. Lang battled some injuries but was still able to turn in a rather good season on the right side and will be just 26 at the start of next season. He’s the perfect right guard, as nasty as they come.

After spending years as a backup at various spots, Evan Dietrich-Smith finally got his chance to start at center this season and quieted the doubters with a good showing. It’s not all due to his performance, but it’s also not an accident that the Packers became a top 10 rushing team once he was inserted in the middle. Consider him the final link of the chain, so to speak, that solidified everything. He’s set for free agency in March and re-signing him should be a top priority for Green Bay. He’ll be just 27 in July, too, so someone will pay him good money if the Packers don’t.

The one spot up for grabs on the line, as of now, appears to be right tackle. Don Barclay can be decent at times, but he’s also wildly inconsistent. He’s done well for an undrafted free agent, but appears to be nothing more than a career backup/spot starter. The good news for Green Bay is that Bulaga will return from his injury and former first-rounder Derek Sherrod finally got past his leg injury this season, so there are two qualified candidates for the gig. Best to let them battle it out and whoever loses can be the backup on both the left and right sides. Either way, expect the Packers to be much better at right tackle next season.

And the depth will be much-improved next year too, with highly-regarded rookie J.C. Tretter backing up Dietrich-Smith (should he be re-signed) at center and the Bulaga/Sherrod loser and Barclay at the backup guard/tackle spots. Players like Greg Van Roten and Lane Taylor could also figure in the mix and the Packers are a lock to draft at least one or two more o-linemen in May, likely later in the draft.

And maybe the best news of all? Marshall Newhouse is a free agent. So that’s over with.

Okay, that wraps up part one. Check back soon for part two.

-Chris Lempesis

San Fran ends Green Bay's season - again. So where do we go from here?

(Before we begin: Apologies for not writing more. Hopefully you’ve been following us on Twitter or listening to our podcasts over at the Packers Talk Radio Network.)

So, here we are – again.

Another season of Green Bay Packers football was brought to a disappointing end at the hands of the San Francisco 49ers, this time a 23-20 wild card round defeat at Lambeau Field. The Packers close the 2013 season with an 8-8-1 record.

Whereas last season’s playoff defeat in San Fran was a story of domination and humiliation, this loss was a tale of what might have been. If one or two plays from a fairly large group of opportunities goes Green Bay’s way, the Packers are gearing up for Carolina next weekend. To whit:

  • James Jones with a pair of big drops that, while they would’ve been tough catches to make, were not uncatchable and are absolutely plays you have to make if you want to pull off an upset.
  • Morgan Burnett being just a split-second away from a pass breakup (or more) on the touchdown pass to Vernon Davis. Story of Burnett’s season, really.
  • Micah Hyde just barely missing an interception early in San Fran’s final drive.

Those are just a few examples. There are more. And then, of course, there are these gems:

  • Essentially punting away the first quarter, offensively.
  • Questionable playcalling/horrendous clock management from Mike McCarthy.
  • Key injuries to Sam Shields/Mike Neal/David Bakhtiari (surprise some Packers got hurt!).
  • San Francisco converting on 6-of-12 third down attempts. In two games with Green Bay this year, the Niners were 15-of-30 on third downs (a cool 50 percent). Throw in last season’s playoff game and that number jumps to 23-of-43 (53.4 percent).

Look at all those bullet points. Look at the story they tell. Yes, they are specific to Sunday, but really they aren’t. Many of these same issues dogged Green Bay throughout the 2013 season. And who you are in the season tends to be who you are come January. Then, when you factor in an opponent that has owned you on a mid-1990s Dallas Cowboys-type level, it’s really not that shocking the Packers came out on the short end. That’s not to say the loss doesn’t hurt, because playoff losses always hurt. Badly. But this team, particularly its severely-depleted defense, fought hard and gave all it had Sunday.

The Packers, however, just didn’t have enough. And that’s the biggest issue facing this team as it heads into the long, cold, seemingly endless offseason: How do the Packers take those final few steps to where they will have enough? Because, let’s be honest – even if Green Bay had won Sunday, this team was living on borrowed time and had little to no chance of reaching New Jersey next month.

The 2013 Packers were good enough to provide us with some all-time classic moments and win a rotten NFC North, sure, and those accomplishments should never be glossed over. But Green Bay is called Titletown, not Reach Round One or Two of the playoffs Town, right?

So where do we go from here?

Well, first comes the staff decisions. Namely, will defensive coordinator Dom Capers return? Capers seems to have the support of McCarthy and his players definitely have his back, at least publicly, both of which bode well for his return.

But the defense, despite an inspired effort Sunday, was just not very good again this season. Some fans may have even worse adjectives for the group’s collective performance. Capers’ gameplans seem far too predictable and far too often he was outcoached. For example, Chip Kelly and Marc Trestman are incredibly bright offensive minds, but there is no excuse for the way those relative newbies outsmarted Capers repeatedly, either. Overall, it just seems like a fresh approach is needed. It’s not all Capers’ fault, to be sure, but you can’t get rid of all the players, so a new coordinator seems necessary. Will McCarthy agree, though?

Then there are the contract decisions. And boy, Ted Thompson has a lot of decisions to make. The following is a list of key players set for unrestricted free agency in March. Get ready, it’s long:

  • Johnny Jolly, Matt Flynn, Evan Dietrich-Smith, Jamari Lattimore, C.J. Wilson, Shields, James Starks, Andrew Quarless, Neal, John Kuhn, James Jones, Jermichael Finley, Ryan Pickett and B.J. Raji. That’s 14 names in all.
  • Note that I’m leaving Marshall Newhouse and M.D. Jennings off this list. Both are free agents, yes, but there is less than zero chance either is back in Green Bay next season. Unless the Packers are interested in causing a fan riot, that is.

The Packers, as of now, are roughly $10 million under the cap. That number will jump significantly once all of these contracts come off the books, but Green Bay obviously won’t be bringing all these players back. Who will come back?

Finley seems like a longshot to be cleared by the conservative medical staff, so his return seems unlikely. Jones and Starks are both valuable, but both could be gone based on the depth at their respective spots. It would be nice to see Neal and Quarless return, as both showed real flashes of promise this season, but you have to wonder if someone won’t overpay for them based on those flashes, too. Raji has reportedly turned down an $8 million per year deal multiple times and based on his showing down the stretch, should not come back. He makes zero plays and doesn’t do enough for anyone else to make plays, either.

The rest of those names, barring a gross overpay from another team, should be back next year. Yes, even Flynn, who hopefully has figured out Green Bay is where he needs to be.

Also consider the players with contracts set to expire after 2014, namely Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb and Tramon Williams. Nelson ($3.875 mil cap hit next year) and Cobb ($1.021 mil hit) are both due tremendous raises and it’s likely both will get them before next season. Easy decisions, yes, but expensive ones, too.

Williams, with a gaudy cap hit of $9.5 mil for 2014 as of now, is an interesting case. After a terrible first half of the season, Williams came on strong to close the year and will turn just 31 in March. He played well enough down the stretch to keep his job, but not at that cap number. Might the Packers, say, extend his contract a couple years in order to bring that 2014 hit down? Seems like the best idea. He likely won’t take a pay cut and if they cut him, he’d be snapped up quick. He’s not what he was, but he’s still solid enough and solid corners are hard to come by.

There are also, you know, FREE AGENTS FROM OTHER TEAMS that could be signed by the Packers. But this is the part where you all laugh because we know Ted will never do that, even though it wouldn’t kill him to add a couple of cheap veterans for depth. That stuff can help you avoid having to rely on, say, a player like Jennings to get it done at a safety spot because you have nothing else behind him.

Lastly, we come to Ted’s bread-and-butter, the NFL Draft. As of now it’s pretty clear they need to find a safety first and foremost. Will a player like Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix be available when Green Bay picks at 21 in May, though? Even if he’s not, that position needs to be a priority within the first two rounds. Inside linebacker is also a huge need. If you’re going to stick with A.J. Hawk at one ILB spot – and clearly the team is never cutting him so just get used to it – then you need a stud at the other spot and a stud Brad Jones is not. After that, it all depends on who stays and goes in free agency. Right now, though, tight end and defensive line look like they could use some bolstering. Can Ted fill all those needs in one draft?

When you add it all up, you find the Packers at a critical juncture this offseason. Their window is not at all closed, due to the emergence of Eddie Lacy and the fact that Aaron Rodgers will be just 30 at the start of next season. Throw in players like Cobb and Nelson and an offensive line that should only get better and the Packers will score points next season in bunches. And with players like Clay Matthews, Shields, Mike Daniels and a presumably healthy Casey Hayward, the defense isn’t a million miles away (more on all this in the coming days).

But unless the Packers add at least a couple defensive playmakers – and maybe a new defensive shotcaller – and can somehow, someway get the injury pendulum to swing their way for once, it’s hard to see the team getting that much better. And that would put Green Bay right back where it is now.

Good, but not great. And seasons that will continue to end like 2013 did.

-Chris Lempesis

Raising hands so the world may hear: Gridiron stars and poker pros push the chips for Africa

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Poker has been an effective fundraising vehicle for numerous charity foundations and advocacies throughout the years.

In these charity poker events, it’s not uncommon to see tables packed with athletes from basketball, baseball, hockey, boxing, mixed martial arts and football (among other sports) playing for a good cause and having a good time. One of the landmark charity poker tournaments in recent years is the Raise Your Hand for Africa Texas Hold’em Tournament.

On February 19, 2011 at the Golden Nugget Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, more than 350 participants helped raise awareness for two outstanding organizations: the Starkey Hearing Foundation, dedicated to providing hearing devices to those in Africa, in addition to promoting a deeper understanding of hearing health awareness and how to prevent hearing loss; and PROS FOR AFRICA, a volunteer-led, nonprofit organization that encourages professionals of all fields to share what they know, do and create with the citizens of Africa.

Presented by World Poker Entertainment, the event was hosted by 13-time World Series of Poker (WSOP) Champion Phil Hellmuth, Jr., along with eager co-hosts Larry Fitzgerald, Jr. and Adrian Peterson. Some of the most famous names in the gridiron and poker worlds, as well as stalwarts from Hollywood and the music industry walked the red carpet before the event. Fittingly, 2011 Super Bowl MVP and Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers led the NFL contingent of around 30 players, which also included fellow quarterback Jay Cutler of the Chicago Bears and Cincinnati Bengals safety Roy Williams. Other NFL players who attended the event were Visanthe Shiancoe, Vernon Davis, Vontae Davis, Gerald McCoy, Curtis Lofton, and Mark Clayton.

In fact, a number of poker pros spiced up the competition, including Michelle Lau, Suzie Lederer, “The Flying Dutchman” Marcel Luske, and of course Betfair Poker Asian Tour veteran Liz Lieu. A few notable actors were also on hand to enjoy the festivities and riffle a few chips, including Lou Ferrigno, Steve Martin, Don Cheadle, Verne Troyer and Kevin Sorbo.

In the end, amateur poker player Debbie Gostowski – a dedicated supporter of the Starkey Heating Foundation herself – of Effingham, Illinois took the event’s top prize, a 2011 CSM #2 Shelby Mustang. A few lucky contestants also won all-expense paid trips to Africa, South America and Mexico as part of the charitable foundation’s missions.

It’s not too surprising to know that the Raise Your Hand for Africa poker tournament has turned into a yearly affair. The national prominence of Aaron Rodgers and his NFL brethren, along with a diverse array of poker-loving celebrities from different realms of entertainment, certainly provide the star power and publicity that the good cause deserves.

Packers close ‘13 draft going heavy at receiver, linebacker

With their final five picks of the 2013 NFL Draft, the Green Bay Packers opted for a fairly simple approach.

Reinforce the front seven and add depth at wide receiver. No, literally, that was it.

A defensive tackle, two linebackers and two wideouts comprised the rest of Green Bay’s draft Saturday.

We’ll discuss these picks in the order they occurred.

With their second fifth round pick (167th overall, 34th of the round), the Packers tabbed Mississippi State defensive tackle Josh Boyd. At 6-feet, 3-inches, 312 pounds, Boyd likely projects as a 3-4 end in Green Bay. He had a big 2011 season (eight tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks) before falling off quite a bit in 2012 (just 2.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks). Still, he’s a hard-nosed defender with good burst off the line who should be an asset against the run. That’s important as ends Ryan Pickett and C.J. Wilson are free agents after this season.

The Packers targeted outside linebacker with their next pick, the 25th pick of round six (193rd overall), by selecting Illinois State’s Nate Palmer. Palmer, 6-feet, 3-inches and 240 pounds, recorded 17 sacks over his final two seasons in college. He was drafted as a linebacker but played defensive end in college. Hard to find a ton of information of Palmer, but it sounds like he’ll be in the mix for a backup spot at OLB. That’s a good thing because, as of now, Dezman Moses is really the only backup OLB on Green Bay’s roster.

After fans spent most of day two and day three clamoring for a wide receiver of some sort, Ted Thompson finally obliged.

He used Green Bay’s first two seventh-round picks (it had three total) on the position. The first of those two picks was Grand Valley State’s Charles Johnson (10th pick of the round, 216th overall). Johnson is 6-feet, 2-inches and 215 pounds. He turned in a monster pro day in early March, highlighted by his 4.38 and 4.39 40 times and 39 1/2 inch vertical. In two years at GVSU (GLIAC represent!), he totaled 128 catches for 2,229 yards and 31 touchdowns.

One drawback: GVSU was the third college Johnson had attended. He left his first school, Eastern Kentucky, after being suspended (reasons unknown). He then spent a year, 2008, at Antelope Valley Community College in California (no, you read that right – that’s a real place). After taking 2009 off completely, he spent his final three college years at Grand Valley (redshirting in 2010). So yeah, that’s a tad troubling. But his skill set and collegiate production could make him a real find for the Packers.

The second of Green Bay’s two wideout selections – 18th pick of round seven, 224 overall – was Maryland’s Kevin Dorsey. Dorsey, 6-feet, 2-inches and 207 pounds, had only 18 catches for 311 yards and four scores in 2012. But it sounds like Maryland’s quarterback play was atrocious last year, so maybe you can’t blame him too much for the lack of production. He’s got good size, good hands and decent quickness. He’s not a great route-runner, though, and has trouble gaining separation from corners. A project, for sure.

The Packers capped off the draft by selecting another outside linebacker, South Florida’s Sam Barrington, with the 26th pick of the seventh round (232nd overall). Barrington had 80 tackles (6.5 for loss), three sacks and two forced fumbles in 2012. Barrington was drafted at outside linebacker, but at 6-feet, 1-inch and 246 pounds, you wonder if he wouldn’t be a better fit inside (Desmond Bishop, for example, is 6-feet, 2-inches and 238 pounds).

Okay, that wraps up our coverage of Green Bay’s selections. We’ll be back in a couple days to put a nice bow on the draft. And there’ll absolutely be a draft recap podcast over at the Packers Talk Radio Network, as well. Thanks for hanging out with us this weekend, gang.

-Chris Lempesis

Trade up for Franklin highlight for Green Bay early Saturday

As I type this, the draft is still going on. We’re well into round six, in fact.

But with the Green Bay Packers having so many picks – 10 in all at the start – on the final day of the draft, it seemed like a good time to check in with an early report on the first part of their day.

With their first four selections on day three, the Packers have continued their image overhaul, aiming for improvements on the ground, in the trenches and in terms of measurables.

The highlight of these first four picks, obviously, came when Green Bay packaged fifth-and-sixth round selections to gain a fourth rounder (pick 28 of the round, 125th overall), which it used to select UCLA running back Johnathan Franklin. I had a feeling last night – and wrote as much – that Green Bay would use some of its considerable late-round ammo to gain a third fourth round pick. I had no idea that pick would be used on a running back.

Franklin, 5-feet, 10-inches and 205 pounds, racked up 1,734 yards on 282 carries (6.1 YPC) and scored 13 touchdowns in 2012. He also caught 33 balls for 323 yards and two scores. He loves to get outside and, with his top-end speed, can leave defenders in his wake when he turns on the jets. He’s a durable back who is also quite good in pass protection, something you need if you just gave your quarterback an $110 million extension. If you’re thinking he’ll play lightening to second-round pick Eddie Lacy’s thunder, you aren’t alone.

Franklin, a player some had listed as the second-best back in the draft, provides great value at that spot. He also leaves the backfield situation, seemingly cleared up last night, murkier as of now. If you figure, as I do, that Franklin, Lacy, DuJuan Harris and Alex Green comprise the backs who could be on the roster, well, that’s probably one back too many right? And at this point, Harris is a better bet than Green is if you only keep three. But would they really give up on Green so soon? Remember, he was a third round pick just two years ago. Cutting him so soon goes against the entire organizational philosophy.

The smarter approach would be to cut fan-favorite John Kuhn. Kuhn is a short-yardage back who does well in pass-protection. Don’t Lacy and Franklin, combining their skill sets, make him obsolete? Could you turn, say Ryan Taylor, into an H-back type (OBOD’s Adam Somers made the Jim Kleinsasser comparison here, which really works)? That way you’d keep all four backs and have some real firepower there. Just something to consider.

Green Bay’s other two fourth round picks were spent on the offensive line. With the first of those, the Packers snagged Colorado tackle David Bakhtiari (109th pick overall, 12th pick of the round). Standing 6-feet, 4-inches and 295 pounds, he began his career on the right side before moving over to the left tackle spot for his final two years, where he played well. He’s got a nasty disposition and strong hands but can struggle with edge rushers, causing some to think he’ll move inside to guard. Either way, he’ll be a versatile player who should be expected to man a top backup spot somewhere right away.

The other offensive lineman taken in round four comes from the Ivy League as Green Bay tabbed Cornell tackle J.C. Tretter with the 25th pick of the round (122nd overall). At 6-feet, 4-inches, 302 pounds, Tretter has good feet, a good jump off the snap and a high-level of intelligence (obviously). His size and lack of arm length likely mean a move inside in the pros, possibly to guard but more likely to center. With Evan Dietrich-Smith on just a one-year deal, the best guess here is that Tretter will be groomed to be the center of the future for the Packers. If that’s the case, there’s a lot to like about this pick. You want a guy like this as your center

The last of the picks, for this wrap-up anyways, came in the fifth round when Green Bay selected Iowa cornerback Micah Hyde (159th overall, 26th pick of the round). Hyde provides great size for the corner position, standing 6-feet and 196 pounds. Hyde had 44 tackles (four for loss), 15 passes defended and one interception in his senior year last season. For his career, he picked off seven passes and defended 36.

Hyde possesses many of the traits Green Bay looks for in its defensive backs, namely he has very good ball skills. He also has great football smarts and awareness and is a really good tackler (something the Packers current DBs don’t always do well). He doesn’t have top-end speed, though, leading some to think he’ll be moved back to safety. That could happen eventually, but with his size, it’d be good to at least give him an early look at corner.

Okay, that wraps up those four picks. Unless Ted makes some more moves, there are five more picks to break down and we’ll do so shortly after the draft wraps up.

-Chris Lempesis