Ol' Bag of Donuts

Thompson rebounds from questionable day two with strong final day of selections

Day two of the 2014 NFL Draft left a lot of Green Bay Packers fans feeling underwhelmed.

It wasn’t an awful day, by any stretch – just one that left a lot of people shaking their heads and hoping the team would close the draft on a much better note.

Well, Packers fans can rest easy now because that’s exactly what happened Saturday. General manager Ted Thompson turned in a strong day of work with his team’s five selections.

The day began with Green Bay selecting Arizona State outside linebacker Carl Bradford with the 21st pick of the fourth round (No. 121 overall). Of all the selections made by Thompson on day three, this is probably my favorite.

Bradford (6-feet, 1-inch, 245 pounds) brings an explosive, aggressive presence off the edge. He plays hard all the time. And he definitely knows how to get to the quarterback and shows a knack for coming up with those “playmaking stats” all defensive coaches crave. In his final two seasons with the Sun Devils, Bradford recorded 20 sacks, 39.5 tackles for loss, six forced fumbles and two interceptions.

His lack of size has led some to wonder if he’ll make the move inside in the pros. However, he’s not a great cover man – mostly because they never really asked him to cover in college – so he’d have to improve that part of his game before he could become a full-time inside guy. Still, he could see some time there on run downs and as a versatile threat, there’s a lot to like about Bradford. Another pass-rusher added to the arsenal.

Thompson then decided to add some depth to the offensive line by selecting Ohio State center Corey Linsley with the 21st pick of round five (No. 161 overall). Linsley (6-feet, 3-inches, 300 pounds) was a First Team All-Big Ten selection in 2013. He’s only been a full-time center for two years now, after beginning his Buckeye career as a reserve at multiple positions. This kid typifies an Ohio State o-lineman – tough, smart, hard-working and strong. Really, really strong (he can reportedly bench press 500 pounds).

But while he’s a really good run blocker, his pass-protection could use some refining. His footwork isn’t always good and he doesn’t always handle speedy rushers well. Some have suggested he could battle J.C. Tretter for the starting center job in camp, but that seems a bit far-fetched for now. He’ll definitely be a valuable reserve player right away and, with some work, could become a starting-caliber player.

Green Bay’s next selection made the entire state of Wisconsin rejoice.

Thompson tabbed Badgers wideout Jared Abbrederis with the team’s compensatory fifth round pick (No. 36 in the round, No. 176 overall). He is the first Wisconsin player Thompson has drafted in his tenure in Green Bay. Abbrederis (6-feet, 1-inch, 195 pounds) began his career as a walk-on before becoming one of the most consistent pass-catchers in the Big Ten. He capped a very strong four-year career with a 78-catch, 1,081-yard, seven-touchdown season in 2013. He lit up Ohio State corner (and 2014 Denver Broncos first-round pick) Bradley Roby for 207 yards in one game alone last year.

He’s got good hands and can make plays in traffic, as Badgers fans (and, yeah, Gophers fans like me) certainly know. He’s got a great hard-working mentality as he’s had to earn his keep every step of the way. On the downside, he’s not a burner (4.5 40 time) and his concussion history is concerning. But when you consider some had Abbrederis as a potential third-round pick, this is great value for the Packers. He’ll begin as the team’s No. 5 wideout, but in time, could become a valued weapon, particularly out of the slot. He brings value as a punt returner, as well.

Thompson then went back to the defensive side of the ball with his team’s sixth round pick (No. 21 in the round, No. 197 overall), selecting Baylor cornerback Demetri Goodson. Goodson (5-feet, 11-inches, 194 pounds) has a rather interesting story. He actually started out as a point guard at Gonzaga before transferring to Baylor in 2011 to play football. Goodson – who turns 25 in June – had a solid final season for the Bears, with three picks and 13 passes defended in 2013.

He’s obviously got good size and he’s a good athlete. But he’s still a raw product and struggled with injuries throughout his time at Baylor. He’s an intriguing developmental player, someone the Packers can groom for 2015. Of course, he’ll be 26 by then, but still!

Green Bay closed out the draft by taking Saginaw Valley State wideout Jeff Janis with the 21st selection of the seventh round (No. 236 overall). Thompson just loves those GLIAC wideouts (he took Grand Valley State receiver Charles Johnson in the seventh round last year and, yeah, that probably only interests me). Janis (6-feet, 3-inches, 219 pounds) was the GLIAC’s top receiver last season, catching 106 passes for 1,635 yards and 17 touchdowns.

He’s got decent speed (4.42 40 time) and is certainly big enough. But his hands aren’t always great and he needs to work on his route-running. He’ll need to improve greatly in both those areas if he’s going to make it in Green Bay. My guess is he’ll battle Myles White for the final receiving job in camp.

And with that, the draft is over, folks. What a wild, wacky three days it was, huh? I’m going to be taking a few days off, but I’ll be back early next week to put a bow on all of this.

For now, I’ll just say this: I’m really happy overall with what the Packers did this weekend. They got better. And that’s all you can hope for. Thanks for checking out all our draft coverage.

-Chris Lempesis

Packers address skill positions and defensive front on day two

Coming into day two of the 2014 draft, the Green Bay Packers still had a few clearly-defined needs, namely inside linebacker, wide receiver and tight end.

General manager Ted Thompson used two of his team’s three second-day selections to address those needs. The remaining pick was spent adding some muscle in the defensive trenches.

The highlight of the day came with Green Bay’s first pick, the 21st selection in round two (No. 53 overall), as the Packers tabbed Fresno State wide receiver Davante Adams. Adams was someone I mentioned in our draft primer as a player Green Bay could target and apparently, Thompson agreed. In short, I love everything about this selection.

Adams (6-feet, 1-inch, 212 pounds) was an extremely productive player for the pass-happy Bulldogs. In his two years there (he redshirted his freshman season), he totaled – are you ready for this? – 233 catches for 3,030 yards and 38 touchdowns in 26 games. Last season alone, he caught 131 balls for 1,718 yards and 24 touchdowns. But it’s not just the numbers. It’s the type of player Adams is that has me excited.

He’s got really good hands, possesses good awareness and makes things happen after the catch. Watch this video. Watch how he moves when the ball is in the air. Watch how he goes up for the ball in traffic and secures the pass. Watch how he runs after he makes the catch. If you find yourself thinking he looks a lot like James Jones, you aren’t alone. Many scouts and draft experts have made that same comparison.

The one real knock on Adams is that he’s not a burner (4.56 40 time), but that shouldn’t concern you too much. This kid is a Green Bay Packers receiver if I’ve ever seen one. And based on Thompson’s track record of selecting second-round wideouts (Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb…heck I think even Terrence Murphy would’ve been a player had he not gotten hurt), you should feel really good about this pick. Adams should be able to step in and contribute a decent amount fairly quickly.

The Packers’ cupboard at wideout is completely stocked yet again after Jones’ departure to Oakland. And make no mistake, that will always be a priority for Thompson as long as Aaron Rodgers is under center. Remember, Thompson’s mentor, Ron Wolf, always said his biggest mistake was that he never truly gave Brett Favre the amount of weapons Favre deserved.

That said, Thompson always seems to give us at least one “huh?” moment per draft. He definitely did that with Green Bay’s next selection as the Packers grabbed Southern Miss defensive tackle Khyri Thornton with the 21st pick of round three (No. 85 overall). Thornton was a name few, if any, really knew about heading into the draft (myself included). Defensive line didn’t appear to be a major area of need for Green Bay, so taking Thornton so high only made things that much more confusing.

That’s not to say Thornton (6-feet, 3-inches, 305 pounds) isn’t intriguing, because he is. He’s certainly big enough, physically, for starters. He gives good effort. He can really explode off the ball and, at times, plays very violently. He seems to know how to use his hands. He had 30 tackles for loss in his four-year career as a member of the Golden Eagles. Those are all things you look for in a 3-4 defensive end.

But this really feels like more of a pick for the future. Green Bay already has six defensive linemen set for next season in Datone Jones, Mike Daniels, B.J. Raji, Josh Boyd, Jerel Worthy and Letroy Guion. Julius Peppers and Mike Neal both figure to see some time here, as well. Now those guys are not all Hall-of-Famers by any stretch. But that’s not a terrible group at all, especially if Johnny Jolly gets medical clearance at  some point and comes back to battle for his job in training camp.

Could Thornton contribute here-and-there as a rookie? Sure, and he could definitely become more of a factor a year or two down the line. But he doesn’t figure to contribute nearly as much as Adams or Ha Ha Clinton-Dix will next season. And for a team that’s a Super Bowl contender – and the Packers certainly are a contender – I’m not sure how much I like taking that type of player in the third round, even if you take the “best player available” approach. In the end, I guess I feel like this pick wasn’t a terrible one – just unnecessary.

Green Bay’s final selection of day two left me wanting more, as well – even if it involves taking a player named Rodgers from Cal.

With their compensatory third round pick (34th pick of the round, No. 98 overall), the Packers selected tight end Richard Rodgers (no relation to Aaron). Rodgers (6-feet, 4-inches, 257 pounds) actually began his career at Cal as a tight end before moving to wide receiver last season under a new coaching staff. He figures to be a tight end in the pros, though. In three years at Cal, Rodgers caught 59 passes for 896 yards and two touchdowns.

Rodgers has some solid attributes – he’s got good hands and good athleticism. And he’s obviously versatile, having played both receiver and tight end in college. Some think he could bring value as an H-back in the pros, as well.

But he’s not overly fast (just a 4.87 40 time) and offers almost nothing as a blocker. He only started 11 of a possible 37 games in college, which is kind of a concern. He also needs to work on his route-running, which means he might not see much playing time right away. As with Thornton, that’s something I really don’t like hearing when it comes to a third-round pick.

Tight end was definitely a need for the Packers, but a lot of experts thought Rodgers could be had as a fifth round pick, so this feels like a reach. It solidifies Andrew Quarless and Brandon Bostick atop Green Bay’s depth chart at the position, but the Packers still haven’t rounded that group out like I hoped they would heading into the draft. And, no, Jermichael Finley will not be returning to Green Bay, even if he’s ever medically cleared – Rodgers’ selection pretty much assured us of that.

So, if you’re scoring at home, that’s one home run, one unnecessary pick and one reach for the Packers on day two. Not a terrible day, but not a great one, either.

Okay, that wraps up our coverage of day two. The Packers have, as of now, five picks on the final day of the draft. One in each of the final four rounds plus a compensatory fifth round selection. We’ll be checking in throughout the day as the Packers make their picks, so make sure to head back here.

-Chris Lempesis

Ha Ha! Packers fill biggest need with selection of Clinton-Dix

There were three players I really liked for the Green Bay Packers in round one of the 2014 NFL Draft.

And through the first half of the round Thursday night, things were looking good. Great, actually. All three were still on the board. The Packers might get to choose between two, or even all three, of those players (why do I ever think these things?).

Then came the Baltimore Ravens at 17.

Bang! Alabama’s C.J. Mosley off the board. Ouch. There goes that inside linebacker.

Then came the New York Jets at pick 18. Boom! Louisville’s Calvin Pryor off the board. Groan. Say goodbye to that physical presence at safety.

Just one of my three choices, Alabama safety Ha’Sean “Ha Ha” Clinton-Dix, remained, and man, was I sweating. Guessing a lot of you were, as well.

Miami and then New Orleans (via a trade up with Arizona) went in other directions, so by the time Green Bay was on the clock, it seemed like a no-brainer, right? Then 10 minutes became seven…and then four…and then two minutes and oh dear LORD WHAT IS TED DOING JUST TAKE HIM!

So when Clinton-Dix was indeed announced at pick 21 as the newest member of the Packers, you can imagine how loudly I exhaled. Again, guessing I’m not alone there.

This is a fantastic pick for Green Bay, folks, make no mistake about it. Safety was the biggest position of need for the Packers entering this draft and now they can safely cross that off the list. Clinton-Dix (6-feet, 1-inch, 208 pounds) brings a massive amount of range to the Packers secondary. Not sure if you noticed, but this was not something the back end of the defense had in abundance, previously. He’s also very fluid in his movements and has great instincts, honed by playing in Nick Saban’s pro-style defense at ‘Bama.

He won’t bring the physicality that a Pryor or Deone Bucannon would have. It’s not that he’s soft or that he’s a bad tackler, because he’s neither of those things. He’s just more of a pure free safety, really. And that’s more than okay, because he’ll be playing opposite Morgan Burnett, a free safety with definite strong safety tendencies. Burnett can now play more to those strong safety tendencies, and do so with added confidence. Last season, it felt like Burnett played as though he needed to do everything himself. Playing opposite the likes of M.D. Jennings and Jerron McMillian, can you really blame him? Still, as a result of playing that way, he turned in an atrocious season.

The guess here is that Clinton-Dix’s presence will lead to a major bounce-back season for Burnett.

As for some stats, Clinton-Dix compiled 88 total tackles, seven interceptions, eight passes defended and one forced fumble over his final two seasons with the Crimson Tide. He only picked off two passes last season, which has led some to wonder about his ability to be a true ball hawk in the pros. I’m not overly concerned there – interceptions tend to be a year-to-year stat, for one thing. And Dom Capers will figure out ways to put him in position to pick off passes.

In fact, Capers hasn’t had a safety with Clinton-Dix’s skills since Nick Collins was roaming the back end of Green Bay’s defense. It should be fun to see how Capers uses him.

A quick look ahead to day two

After addressing safety, the Packers can breathe easier entering day two of the draft. But they aren’t out of the woods yet – this team still has a few big-time needs, namely inside linebacker, wide receiver and tight end. Possibly cornerback, as well.

As stated previously, I don’t really like any of the remaining ILBs in this draft, so I’m not sure what Green Bay will do there. Luckily, there’s a lot of depth still available at the other three positions. And with three picks on day two – no. 21 in both the second and third round (53 and 85 overall, respectively) and a compensatory third round pick (no. 98 overall thanks Greg!) – it’s set up for Thompson to do some damage. I wouldn’t rule out a trade-up at some point in these two rounds, either.

We listed a few possible day two targets in our draft primer, so take a look if you have the time. Either way, make sure to check back here throughout day two – we’ll have you covered.

-Chris Lempesis

The one...the ONLY...2014 OBOD Mock Draft!

We’re almost there, everyone. Less than 24 hours sits between us and the start of the 2014 NFL Draft.

The league tested our patience by making us wait two extra weeks. But we passed the test.

And since we’re oh-so-close to the start of the draft, we’ve decided to get into the mock draft game and do one of our own. We debated whether or not to do one, but in the end, we couldn’t resist.

So, without further adieu, here is our prediction of how the first round will look Thursday night. Chris Lempesis took the odd-numbered picks, while Adam Somers got the even-numbered picks.

Enjoy.

1. Houston Texans – Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina. Yes, questions exist about his motor, but if the Texans can keep the fire lit, Clowney and J.J. Watt will be the league’s best pass-rushing tandem for quite some time. (CL)

2. St. Louis Rams (from Washington Redskins) – Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M. With a lot of quality WR’s to be had later, Rams get some protection for Bradford. (AS)

3. Jacksonville Jaguars – Khalil Mack, OLB, Buffalo. The Jags are moving in the right direction, particularly on defense, and Mack could be the final piece in creating a formidable unit. (CL)

4. Cleveland Browns – Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M. Could the Factory of Sadness really pass up on Johnny Football? Probably, but not in this mock. (AS)

5. Oakland Raiders – Greg Robinson, OT, Auburn. Reggie McKenzie follows his mentors thinking and goes “Best Player Available” here, a player who also happens to fill a gigantic need. (CL)

6. Atlanta Falcons – Taylor Lewan, OT, Michigan. Matt Ryan got pummeled last year, being sacked 44 times. (AS)

7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Blake Bortles, QB, Central Florida. The first major curveball of our mock involves the Bucs taking the in-state kid, a raw talent who can learn behind Josh McCown for a year or two. (CL)

8. Minnesota Vikings – Aaron Donald, DT, Pittsburgh. Spielman won’t risk his job with a QB here, instead gives Mike Zimmer another defensive lineman to work with. (AS)

9. Buffalo Bills – Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson. The Bills have some solid receiving options, but they still need that game-breaking threat, a void Watkins can easily fill. (CL)

10. Detroit Lions – Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State. Wait, the Lions do something smart like grab the top CB? (AS)

11. Tennessee Titans – Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State. The feisty, aggressive Spartan helps soften the blow of losing Alterraun Verner in free agency. (CL)

12. New York Giants – Zach Martin, G/T, Notre Dame. Did you think your offensive line was bad last year? The Giants had it worse. (AS)

13. St. Louis Rams – Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, S, Alabama. After shoring up its o-line with Matthews, St. Louis turns its focus to the back end by snagging the best pure free safety in the draft. (CL)

14. Chicago Bears – Calvin Pryor, S, Louisville. The Bears signed M.D. Jennings. Enough said. (AS)

15. Pittsburgh Steelers – Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M. Receiver isn’t really the biggest need for Pittsburgh, but the thought of giving Big Ben a 6-feet, 5-inch target like Evans is too good to pass up. (CL)

16. Dallas Cowboys – Anthony Barr, DE/LB, UCLA. Barr may not replace DeMarcus Ware, but he could help. (AS)

17. Baltimore Ravens – Kyle Fuller, CB, Virginia Tech. Fuller lined up at both corner and safety in college, which is good for the Ravens because they could use some reinforcements at both spots. (CL)

18. New York Jets – Eric Ebron, TE, North Carolina. Even with adding Decker and CJ2K, Jets still need more firepower on offense. (AS)

19. Miami Dolphins – Xavier Su’a-Filo, G, UCLA. Miami needs help all over the line and Su’a-Filo has that versatility, though he’s best suited for guard in the pros. (CL)

20. Arizona Cardinals – Derek Carr, QB, Fresno State. Both C.J. Mosley and Dee Ford make sense here, but I can’t get past Arizona passing on the QB of the future. Carr has the tools and doesn’t have to start right away. (AS)

21. Green Bay Packers – C.J. Mosley, ILB, Alabama. Since this is a Packers blog, I’ll write a little more here. If this is the pick, Packers fans should be absolutely thrilled. As I wrote in our draft primer, Mosley appears to be the only impact inside linebacker in this draft. He’ll give the defense the presence it’s sorely lacked inside ever since Desmond Bishop ran into injury trouble. He comes with some injury concerns of his own but, hey, so did Eddie Lacy, right? (CL)

22. Philadelphia Eagles – Brandin Cooks, WR, Oregon State. Sometimes drafting is hard to predict, sometimes it is easy. Cooks to replace D-Jax is an easy pick. (AS)

23. Kansas City Chiefs – Odell Beckham, WR, LSU. Andy Reid desperately needs another option in the passing game and Beckham – a versatile, big-play threat – will make him a happy man. (CL)

24. Cincinnati Bengals – Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville. Might be a little bit of a shocker, but put on some Andy Dalton tape and this pick is not that far-fetched. (AS)

25. San Diego Chargers – Bradley Roby, CB, Ohio State. San Diego is on the right path, but its pass defense was wretched last season, so getting an athletic, in-your-face corner like Roby is a must. (CL)

26. Cleveland Browns (from Indianapolis Colts) – Marquise Lee, WR, USC. Almost had Cleveland taking Watkins at four, so the run of WR’s continues with Lee. (AS)

27. New Orleans Saints – Ryan Shazier, OLB, Ohio State. The Saints improved greatly on defense last season, but Rob Ryan still needs another playmaker or two and Shazier should be a great fit. (CL)

28. Carolina Panthers – Cyrus Kouandijo, OT, Alabama. Wide Receiver may the more talked-about need, but actually offensive line is a bigger need. Carolina needs to keep Cam upward for a chance to return to the playoffs. (AS)

29. New England Patriots – Ra’Shede Hageman, DT, Minnesota. The Pats are looking a little long-in-the-tooth up front on defense. Hageman is still a bit raw, but with the right coaching, he could turn into a monster. (CL)

30. San Francisco 49ers – Dee Ford, DE/LB, Auburn. Aldon Smith is in the Bay Area…for now. One more misstep and he could be gone, so Ford provides some insurance. (AS)

31. Denver Broncos – Jason Verrett, CB, TCU. Not a huge position of need for Denver, really, but Verrett has too much potential to pass up, despite his diminutive size (5-feet, 9-inches). (CL)

32. Seattle Seahawks – Jace Amaro, TE, Texas Tech. With the newly-minted contracts of Thomas and Sherman, Zach Miller may have to be expendable. (AS)

Okay, that wraps up our mock. Make sure to stop back here frequently throughout the draft as we’ll be bringing you a whole lot of coverage. We’re almost there, everyone – get pumped.

-Chris Lempesis and Adam Somers

Your 2014 Green Bay Packers draft primer

To my fellow fans, I bring you good tidings of great joy.

We made it, everyone.

It’s here. The 2014 NFL Draft is finally here. Okay, not quite – but almost.

(If that makes you feel like singing this, well, you aren’t alone.)

For the Green Bay Packers, however, this is an incredibly important three-day stretch. In fact, it’s not hyperbole to say this is the most crucial draft in recent memory. The team remains one of the best in the league, yet recent postseasons have seen the Packers stall out much earlier than they would’ve hoped.

A good draft could provide the final push Green Bay needs. So what needs to happen for the Packers to have a good draft? Let’s get into that now, shall we?

Consider this your primer for the draft. Get pumped.

  • Hope for one of three…

Ted Thompson hasn’t had the best of luck with his first round selections in recent years. The picks haven’t been terrible, but he hasn’t drafted a true impact player in round one since 2010 (Bryan Bulaga, and even he’s seen his career slow due to injuries as of late). That has to change this year. Luckily for Thompson, there are three players who appear to be both impact guys and guys who fit positions of glaring need for Green Bay. Those players, ranked according to how much I like them right now, are:

  1. C.J. Mosley, inside linebacker, Alabama
  2. Calvin Pryor, safety, Louisville
  3. Ha’Sean “Ha Ha” Clinton-Dix, safety, Alabama

Any one of these three would be great additions to a defense that still needs reinforcing. Safety is the spot Green Bay most needs to address, yet Mosley (6-feet, 2-inches, 234 pounds) tops my list because he’s really the only true impact 3-4 inside ‘backer in this draft. He’s an every-down linebacker with true sideline-to-sideline ability. He would give the Packers the presence they’ve lacked inside ever since Desmond Bishop’s career was derailed by injury. There are some injury concerns with Mosley, too, but, um, anyone else remember the last “injury-prone” Alabama player Green Bay selected?

Some have clamored for Ohio State’s Ryan Shazier or Wisconsin’s Chris Borland at ILB, but I have major concerns about both. Shazier (6-feet, 2-inches, 229 pounds) has great physical tools and made a ton of plays in college, but he’s never played inside in a 3-4 before. The Packers have spent too much time drafting players only to move them to new spots in recent years. Enough of that. Could Shazier do it? Maybe, but it would take time. If Green Bay ran a 4-3, Borland would be a great fit. But his lack of size (just 5-feet, 11-inches, 247 pounds) would make it hard for him to take on, and get past, blocks playing inside in a 3-4.

At the safety spot, I’ve finally gone ahead and moved Pryor ahead of Clinton-Dix, a minor upset considering I’ve loved Clinton-Dix since the beginning of the 2013 college season. Pryor (5-feet, 11-inches, 207 pounds) just seems to fit what the Packers need a little more. He’s a physical, nasty, hard-hitting strong safety type. But he also has solid free safety tendencies, meaning he’s good in coverage. That would balance out Morgan Burnett – a free safety with strong safety tendencies – nicely.

Clinton-Dix (6-feet, 1-inch, 208 pounds) is more of a pure free safety, so if he’s the pick, Green Bay really doesn’t have that physical presence on the back end. That said, if “Ha Ha” is the guy, his coverage skills and leadership abilities will still make him a fine addition.

  • …or hope for a falling QB

Of course, there’s a chance all three are gone by the time the 21st selection rolls around. In that unfortunate event, the best case scenario for the Packers involves a quarterback falling further than expected Thursday night. It won’t be Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel and it probably won’t be Central Florida’s Blake Bortles, but could it be, say, Fresno State’s Derek Carr or Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater? Absolutely. And if one or both of those players are still out there, hope that a team picking near the top of round two decides it’s time to make a move up.

That could net Green Bay quite a haul. To drop to the early part of round two, you’d have to think the Packers would require that team’s second round pick, plus a third and maybe even more (a fifth or sixth rounder, perhaps). Imagine that – Thompson with five picks on day two in what is considered to be the deepest draft in a decade.

  • And if neither of those things happen, PANIC

Okay, just kidding. Don’t panic. If the three top targets are gone and no one wants to make a deal for the pick, Green Bay won’t be in an enviable position. But that doesn’t mean the Packers won’t walk away with a good player. If Green Bay finds itself in this spot, there’s two players I really like: Oregon State wide receiver Brandin Cooks and Minnesota defensive lineman Ra’Shede Hageman.

Cooks doesn’t have great size (5-feet, 10-inches, 189 pounds), but he has devastating speed (4.3 40-yard dash time) and can make things happen after the catch. Even if wide receiver isn’t a top need for Green Bay, Cooks would provide the Packers with another X-factor on offense. It’s really exciting to think about what he could do for Green Bay.

Yes, I’m a Minnesota alum and I won’t lie that I’m being a homer here for Hageman. The Packers don’t really need another d-linemen, per se, but Hageman is an absolute freak of nature. At 6-feet, 6-inches, 310 pounds, they don’t make many like this guy. There are questions about his effort. Having watched him his entire career at Minnesota, I can say those questions are valid. Hageman doesn’t always appear to play as hard as he should. But when he does, he’s ridiculously explosive and almost impossible to block. He’d look good in Green Bay’s d-line rotation and in time, with the right coaching, could become a dominant player.

  • A deep safety class will provide options. Inside linebackers? Not so much

If the Packers can’t get the safety they want in round one, they’re in luck as this year’s safety class is rather deep. OBOD’s Adam Somers and I talked at length about the other safeties available in this draft in our recent podcast, so I’ll save you the indignity of me repeating myself.

One player I will mention again is Washington State’s Deone Bucannon. This is the player I’d most like to see Green Bay go after in round two, even if that requires a trade up. He’s got tremendous size (6-feet, 1-inch, 211 pounds), plays with an edge and brings the hammer in run support. He’s strictly a strong safety, but that’s just fine with me.

And, again, there just isn’t much at the inside linebacker spot, outside of Mosley, in this draft. Stanford’s Shayne Skov has good size (6-feet, 2-inches, 245 pounds) and anchored one of the nation’s top defenses last season, so he would be an okay option if he’s still available in the fourth round. Other than that, I’m not high on anyone at this position.

  • Pass-catchers still needed

On the surface, that seems crazy. But there are some questions with regards to Green Bay’s tight ends and wide receivers.

This is particularly true at tight end. Jermichael Finley still awaits medical clearance and even if/when he gets cleared, odds are he’ll be signing elsewhere. Andrew Quarless is solid, but he’s not a game-changer. Brandon Bostick has a world of potential, but he’s still learning. The Packers don’t need to find a Jimmy Graham-type; they just need someone who can come in and round this group out nicely.

There are two players who would fit nicely with the Pack that could be had after round one. Notre Dame’s Troy Niklas is a massive target (6-feet, 6-inches, 270 pounds) with really good hands and athleticism. Iowa’s C.J. Fiedorowicz doesn’t have Niklas’ athleticism, but he is nearly as big (6-feet, 5-inches, 265 pounds) and would serve as a nice red zone option. He’s a great blocker, as well. Niklas is likely a second-round pick, while Fiedorowicz figures to be a third or fourth round selection.

With regards to receivers, Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb should both ink large – okay, really large – contract extensions any day now. Throw in Jarrett Boykin and that’s a trio any team would beg to have. But what do you have after that? Not much, other than maybe Myles White (and that’s a big maybe). James Jones’ departure in free agency and the always-looming specter of injury makes wideout a position the Packers must target relatively early on in the draft.

As stated previously, there’s a scenario where Green Bay takes a wideout in round one. But if that doesn’t happen, the Packers are in luck. Some think this could be a historically deep receiver class, so Green Bay can wait until the third or fourth round. A few players I like who could be available here are Fresno State’s Davante Adams, Indiana’s Cody Latimer and Rutgers’ Brandon Coleman.

Adams (6-feet, 1-inch, 212 pounds) has good awareness, hands and is good after the catch. Latimer (6-feet, 3-inches, 215 pounds) has great physical tools and improved by leaps-and-bounds every year he was at IU. Coleman (6-feet, 6-inches, 225 pounds) is more of a gamble, as he was fairly inconsistent in college and doesn’t have great speed (4.56 40 time). But with his massive size, it might be a gamble worth taking.

  • Other spots where Green Bay might look to upgrade

The hope here is that the Packers can have safety, inside linebacker, wide receiver and tight end all bolstered by the early part of day three at the latest. After that, cornerback probably becomes the top spot of need, mostly because Tramon Williams’ contract expires after next season. It’s another deep position in this draft and Green Bay will be able to find good talent later on. Again, click on that link to our latest podcast as we discussed a whole bunch of potential later-round corners the Packers could target.

Rounding out the draft, it would be nice to see another quarterback and outside linebacker added to the mix. Maybe another offensive lineman, too.

Okay, that wraps up our draft primer. Don’t worry, though – we’re going to have a whole lot more draft coverage coming your way all week here. We hope you’re as excited as we are.

-Chris Lempesis

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