Our 2018 Regular Season Preview takes us to the (not yet) frozen tundra of Lambeau Field, where the Green Bay Packers are rebuilding on the fly, looking to turn the tide after missing the Playoffs for the first time since 2008. By far and away one of the most consistent franchises in the league, the Packers had been a fixture in the Playoffs for a decade, though a rash of injuries ravaged their roster in a number of key areas, most notably at the game’s most important: Quarterback. Once Aaron Rodgers went down with a broken collarbone in Week Six, Green Bay’s season was effectively over, for so much rides on the Two-Time MVP’s presence on the field. However, his absence was far from the only detriment to Mike McCarthey and Co. who had to endure a rotating Offensive Line that never featured the same Starting Five in consecutive weeks, while for yet another season, the Defense failed to live up to expectations. Heading into 2018, the Packers have undergone a substantial amount of change, on the field as well as off it, ushering in a new General Manager in the form of longtime Scout Brian Gutekunst, along with a pair of new lead Coordinators, Joe Philbin (Offense) and Mike Pettine (Defense), while adding a number of higher profile figures in Free Agency including the likes of former Pro Bowlers Jimmy Graham and Muhammad Wilkerson. So with that said, let’s take a look at three key storylines that will ultimately decide whether or not the Packers will return to their lofty perch in the NFL’s hierarchy, or remain mired in mediocrity as the rest of the NFC North continues to improve.
Return of the Man
In a cold sense of irony, the 2017 Packers’ greatest strength also proved to be perhaps their greatest weakness, as Aaron Rodgers (64.7%, 239.3 Y/G, 5.80 NY/A, 16 TD, 6 INT, 60.9 QBR in 2017) missed nine straight games after breaking his collarbone in a Week Six loss at the Minnesota Vikings. Though he hasn’t won nearly as many Super Bowls as his counterpart in New England, Rodgers is widely viewed around the league by players, coaches, and the media, as the best in the business, with a lengthy list of accolades to support that notion; in ten years as Green Bay’s Starting Quarterback, he’s been selected to Six Pro Bowls, as well as a Two-Time First Team All-Pro and Two-Time MVP, along with a Super Bowl MVP in 2010 to boot. Furthermore, few at his position have been able to make the volume of plays he has in such an efficient manner, for his career Passer Rating of 103.8 is the best in NFL History. Even at the age of 34, he has shown zero signs of slowing down, for Rodgers has tossed a ridiculous Fifty-Six Touchdowns in comparison to Thirteen Interceptions over the course of the past two seasons alone. So yeah, it only makes sense that the Offense would experience a decline without his presence under Center, though we doubt that McCarthey and his Staff thought that the drop-off would be so significant. Before he was lost to injury, the Packers’ Offense averaged 27.4 Points on 336.6 Total Yards while owning a Plus-4 Turnover Differential, only to see those figures fall off a proverbial cliff without him, as Green Bay managed to score just 16.4 Points on 258.8 Total Yards with the much younger and inexperienced Brett Hundley (60.8%, 166.9 Y/G, 4.75 NY/A, 9 TD, 12 INT, 40.5 QBR in 2017) piloting the ship. Simply put, this Offense has relied on Rodgers and his mastery of the nuances of McCarthey’s scheme far too heavily for years now, with the lack of protection and (not to mention) a consistent rushing attack only further exploiting the shortcomings of anyone who has had to fill his shoes. While the Fourteenth-Year Veteran has routinely made do without much of a Ground Game throughout his career, protecting this guy at this stage of his career is only going to become more paramount as he gets older, particularly after he was sacked twenty-two times in seven starts last year, or in other words on 8.5% of his Dropbacks, which ties the second-highest figure of his career since becoming the Starter back in 2008.
In welcoming back the most important figure of the Offense, McCarthey decided to finally overturn a unit that quite frankly was in dire need of reinforcements for years now. Depth and imbalance have plagued the attack in the past, with both issues reaching a boiling point in 2018, so the Packers decided to do something that they typically don’t do, which is venture out into Free Agency in search of help. And with that said, they landed former Pro Bowl Tight End Jimmy Graham (57 REC, 520 YDS, 10 TD in 2017), whom if he can recapture his All-Pro form from 2012 to 2014 with the New Orleans Saints, can prove to be a tremendous asset, particularly in the Red Zone. This could be a match made in (Fantasy Football) Heaven, folks, for few teams throw the football in this area of the field more than Green Bay does. Even at the age of 31 and coming off a season in which he averaged a career-low 9.1 Yards per Reception, this guy could be in for a renaissance in a system that far better suits his skill-set than Seattle’s has over the past three years, with his presence likely creating more opportunities for the likes of Davante Adams (74 REC, 885 YDS, 10 TD in 2017) and Randall Cobb (66 REC, 653 YDS, 4 TD in 2017). Adams has slowly become Rodgers’ preferred target in the passing game, while Cobb, who has yet to live up to the Four-Year, $40 Million Contract that he signed three years ago, could see his profile raise again with more opportunities, which are sure to be had since the Packers said goodbye to longtime Receiver Jordy Nelson (53 REC, 482 YDS, 6 TD in 2017) in a cost-cutting move. McCarthey hopes that someone can become the team’s featured Tailback, with Aaron Jones (81 CAR, 448 YDS, 4 TD in 2017) likely being the top candidate after averaging an explosive 5.5 Yards per Carry in his rookie campaign. Of course, these things are only likely to happen in unison if the Offensive Line can remain healthy and develop some kind of continuity. As we touched upon earlier, every week featured a different starting combination, with the first half of the term featuring as many as eight different configurations to boot. The left side of the Line is solid with David Bakthiari and Lane Taylor, while Corey Linsley was invaluable in starting every game at Center, though the opposite flank is an issue with the injury-prone Bryan Bulaga at Tackle coming off his second ACL reconstruction since 2012, and Jahri Evans at Guard, who left in Free Agency. This turnover and uncertainty is probably a big reason why McCarthey was so quick to welcome back his longtime colleague Joe Philbin as Offensive Coordinator, who spent five years in that same position before becoming the Miami Dolphins Head Coach in 2012, helping in developing Rodgers into a Hall of Fame Quarterback.
There were arguably fewer units in the NFL over the past five years more in need of a makeover than the Packers’ Defense. For whatever reason, McCarthey was utterly resistant to making changes on this side of the football despite some truly uninspired campaigns. And let’s be honest, since hoisting a Lombardi Trophy back in 2010, former Defensive Coordinator Dom Capers’ Defense has been nothing short of disappointing. In 2010, this group finished Second Overall in Points Allowed and Fifth in Yards Allowed, and since then hasn’t come close to reaching those lofty heights; beginning in 2011, the Packers have finished Nineteenth, Eleventh, Twenty-Fourth, Thirteenth, Twelfth, Twenty-First, and Twenty-Sixth in Scoring Defense, while ranking Thirty-Second, Eleventh, Twenty-Fifth, Fifteenth, Fifteenth, Twenty-Second, and Twenty-Second in Total Defense. In our opinion, there were a number of instances in which they were so porous that we’d venture to say that they were directly responsible for Green Bay not owning more Lombardi Trophies, particularly in 2011 (15-1, No. One in Scoring Offense), 2014 (12-4, No. One in Scoring Offense), and maybe even 2016 (10-6, No. 4 in Scoring Offense). And it’s with that said, that Capers was finally shown his Walking Papers, and replaced by Mike Pettine, who is tasked with remodeling this unit in his own image. After ending an unsuccessful tenure as the Cleveland Browns’ Head Coach (2014-2015), which we won’t hold against him, Pettine has been largely invisible, serving as a consultant for the Seattle Seahawks last year. However, this guy has a wealth of coaching experience on this side of the football, and should provide a boost to his charges, who are in dire need of one. Pettine is likely to run his preferred 3-4 Scheme, which is fortunate for the Packers have been running a variation of that for years under his predecessor. To improve matters, Green Bay acquired former Pro Bowl Defensive Lineman Muhammad Wilkerson (46 TKL, 3.5 SK, 1 INT, 4 PD in 2017) in Free Agency, who despite becoming a problem child for the New York Jets after signing a massive $86 Million Contract, should form a quality triumvirate in the trenches with the likes of Mike Daniels (49 TKL, 5.0 SK, 1 FF in 2017) and Kenny Clark (55 TKL, 4.5 SK, 1 PD, 2 FF in 2017). Linebackers Nick Perry (38 TKL, 7.0 SK, 1 PD, 1 FF, 1 FR in 2017) and Clay Matthews (43 TKL, 7.5 SK, 2 PD, 1 FF, 1 FR in 2017) should flourish on the edges in this system, particularly the latter after being forced to spend large portions of the past two campaigns inside, though their is concern again inside after Jake Ryan (79 TKL, 1.0 SK, 1 FF, 1 FR in 2017) was placed on Injured Reserve after tearing his ACL in Training Camp, leaving third-year veteran Blake Martinez (144 TKL, 1 INT, 8 PD, 1 FF, 2 FR in 2017) and this year’s Third-Round Pick Oren Burks to fill the void. The biggest concern though is the Secondary, which is in serious transition; Green Bay traded away their top Cornerback Damarious Randall (47 TKL, 4 INT1 FR in 2017, 9 PD, 1 TD, ) and let Safety Morgan Burnett (68 TKL, 3 PD, 1 FF in 2017) walk in Free Agency, while welcoming back aging former Cornerback Tramon Williams (41 TKL, 2 INT, 12 PD, 1 FR in 2017), and using each of their first two picks in the Draft on Corners as well, selecting Louisville’s Jaire Alexander and Iowa’s Josh Jackson. The former has the size and athleticism to start from day one, though the latter may ultimately prove to be more ideal at Safety, for he simply lacks the requisite footspeed to play on the boundary in the NFL.
2018 Outlook: 10-6 (Playoffs)
Sometimes we all need a cold dose of reality to inspire us to change, and last year’s 7-9 finish without the Playoffs likely served as just that for the Packers. This team was in dire need of change on both sides of the football, and it wasn’t until they had to compete for over half of the term without Aaron Rodgers that they ultimately believed that they needed to improve in multiple areas. While a healthy Rodgers should be enough to vault them back into Playoff Contention, Green Bay needs their Offensive Line to remain healthy, so that their MVP Quarterback can make the most out of the weapons around him, particularly incoming Tight End Jimmy Graham, who could really create fireworks with someone like No. 12 throwing him the football. However, the more intriguing matter is the Defense, which will be guided by someone other than longtime Coordinator Dom Capers for the first time since 2009. Newly appointed mastermind Mike Pettine has a good track record when it comes to crafting Defensive Gameplans, and given some of the additions to a woefully uninspiring unit, there is plenty of potential for this group to make a sharp improvement, particularly if the Secondary comes together in short order. With Rodgers at 34-Years of Age, McCarthey must be very cautious to not waste the remaining years of his Quarterback’s prime, rebuilding on the fly where needed so that his charges can indeed avoid becoming the first group of Packers to miss the Postseason in successive years since 1991. While we’re tempted to boost them even higher (with an easy schedule being a big reason why), the Packers still have injury concerns on Offense and a Defense that needs to build chemistry and continuity under a new leading voice, and with the NFC North getting better, we think the Playoffs are a fine target for these guys, though a Super Bowl is probably a bit out of their reach.