Hello Packer Nation,
We are days from the 2020 NFL Draft and the Packers have concluded their team analysis and what they need to acquire to be even better. It is always easy to analyze a team that won 13 games and played in the NFC Championship for the second time in four years and third time since 2014. But, that success can be a detriment if you solely base decisions off success and not look at what failed the team from advancing to play in the Super Bowl, which they have done in over a decade. I will go through the following categories that have been completed so far in the 2020 off season.
A-B. Player additions/subtractions.
C. Coaching additions/subtractions.
D. What Packers did well in 2019.
E. What Packers failed at in 2019.
A. The Packers have added the following players to the 2020 roster:
1. Christian Kirksey (Inside Linebacker)
2. Devin Funchess (Wide Receiver)
3. Rick Wagner (Offensive Tackle)
4. Reggie Begelton (Wide Receiver)
Also, we should mention who the Packers resigned;
1. Mason Crosby (Kicker)
2. Marcedes Lewis (Tight End)
3. Will Redmond (Defensive Back)
4. Tyler Ervin (Return Specialist, Running Back)
B. The Packers have lost the following players through free agency or released:
1. Bryan Bulaga (Los Angeles Chargers)
2. Blake Martinez (NY Giants)
3. Jimmy Graham released (Chicago)
4. Kyler Fackrell (NY Giants)
5. B.J. Goodson (Cleveland)
6. Danny Vitale (New England)
What do we know about the teams additions and subtractions?
The Packers downgraded at right tackle by allowing long time veteran Bryan Bulaga to sign with Los Angeles. His new contract wasn't too expensive for the value he provides ($10 million per season over three years) but the Packers had a different evaluation. To replace Bulaga, the Packers signed street free agent Rick Wagner, a former Badger/Raven/Lion who's play regressed enough the Lions released him before the start of free agency. To compare Bulaga and Wagner, Bulaga's pass block win rate was 10th highest in the league and Wagner was 25th. Bulaga gave up 4 sacks and accumulated 6 penalties in 16 games, who mostly was tasked to block alone with little help. Rick Wagner gave up 3 sacks and accumulated 3 penalties in 12 games he played, and he did receive his fair share of help. Wagner has started 87 of the available 102 games in his career so he has been relatively healthy. His contract is cheap for a starting tackle (two years, $11 million) so the Packers obviously valued the financial flexibility he provides as a likely one year fill-in. Unless the Packers bring in competition, it is safe to assume a Wagner for Bulaga swap is in place.
The Packers flipped middle linebackers when they signed former Cleveland Brown Christian Kirksey and allowed Blake Martinez to sign with NY Giants. Sources have said the Packers did not approach Martinez with a "starting MLB value" contract offer. Martinez has said as much as well. Kirksey's two year and $13 million dollar contract is loaded with "game day" incentives so he gets paid to play, in essence. He has been injury riddled the past two seasons as he missed 23 out of the possible 32 games. When he is healthy, he plays fast and with an edge. The one thing I saw on film was his overall quickness is much better than Martinez. When he reads the play correctly, his quickness allows him to get to the ball carrier with some pop. He will likely be a better pass defender in those heavy zone drops that Martinez used to play and should be able to cover running backs out of the backfield much better. Kirksey should be an asset when Pettine utilizes his deceiving blitz packages and should be able to get to the QB much quicker. His play recognition instincts aren't top notch and he does make his fair share of misreads. In Pettine's defense, the middle linebacker is tasked with "cleaning up" plays the front cannot make. This should hopefully allow the Packers to mask this deficiency as the plays will not focus on Kirksey covering "gaps." Kirksey's biggest impact could be in the locker room as Kirksey is recognized as a strong leader. I see Kirksey as an upgrade over Martinez if he stays healthy.
The Packers made a concerted effort to sign former 49ers WR Emmanuel Sanders, but he chose the Saints over the frozen tundra. The Packers made a Jared Cook esque signing when they brought in Devin Funchess, a former Panther/Colt wide receiver. He missed all of 2019 (except for two quarters) with a broken collarbone. In Carolina, he was their #1 WR in his third and fourth seasons, and in 2017, he caught 63 balls for 840 yards and 8 TD's. His career 13.8 yards per catch average is almost three yards higher than the 2019 Packer team combined, which averaged 11.3 yards per catch. He is a big target at 6 foot-4 and accumulated 163 passes for 2,233 yards and 21 TD's during his four year career in Carolina. Historically, he has been durable and his broken collarbone in 2019 is his only notable injury in his five year NFL career. He is not fast (ran 4.70 40 yard time at the 2015 NFL combine) but is notably known to create mismatches against undersized corners. He can beat press coverage with his heavy hands and functional mobility, much like Davante Adams. I am hoping the Packers can utilize his obvious physical talents. It is likely the Packers will use a high draft pick at receiver in the draft, but as we stand today, Funchess likely steps in as #2 and anyone else will need to beat him out for that role.
Reggie Begelton was a CFL star (Canadian Football League) who signed with the Packers in January 2020. The CFL is a predominant passing league so it is difficult to see translation to the NFL game because the rules for offensive players are much more lenient. But, his production for the Calgary Stampeders cannot be overlooked. In 17 games (the CFL's regular season is 18 games) he caught 104 balls for 1468 yards and 10 TD's. He also rushed for two more TD's. His best game was a week 9 contest against Montreal where he caught 8 balls for 173 yards and 4 TD's. His touchdowns came in bunches so his touchdown production was not consistent. He is not a physical specimen which lead him to the CFL after failed attempts to make an NFL roster out of college. It should be interesting to see how he will play against more physical corners. The odds are not in his favor. The last notable CFL transplants were Warren Moon and Doug Flutie.
C. Coaching Additions/Subtractions
The most notable addition to the staff was Jerry Gray as the new secondary coach. He came from Minnesota and has had two stints as a defensive coordinator in the NFL. He coached a pair of All Pro's in Minnesota in safety Harrison Smith and cornerback Xavier Rhodes. Gray was also an excellent cornerback in his playing days. He made four consecutive Pro-Bowls from 1986-1989 as a member of the LA Rams. He intercepted a total of 19 passes in those four seasons as a Pro Bowler. He retired in 1993. He was Buffalo's defensive coordinator from 2001-2005 and Tennessee from 2011-2013. He is known as a "no nonsense" guy and he should be able to draw the talent out of Jaire Alexander, Kevin King and Darnell Savage. It is very likely these young players lead the Packers to signing Gray. Gray replaced Jason Simmons who left to be the secondary coach in Carolina.
The Packers let WR Coach Alvis Whitted go and replaced him with Jason Vrable. Vrable has eight years of assistant coaching experience in the NFL. Butch Barry was named senior analyst and the team promoted Luke Getsy to quarterback/passing game coordinator. Barry has 18 years of experience in the NFL/college as an assistant coach.
D. What did the Packers do well in 2019?
On offense, the rushing offense was renewed, led by Aaron Jones. He played all 18 games (including playoffs), accumulated 23 total TD's (including playoffs) and was their first team 1,000 rusher since 2014. The offense only turned the ball over 12 times. The offensive line was the highest ranked pass blocking line according to PFF. Aaron Rodgers only threw 4 INT's. Turnovers didn't hurt the team. Even in the games they had the most turnovers (Detroit-3, @ Minnesota-3) they found ways to win those games. Whenever turmoil hit the team, they found ways to overcome. It is also important to note the injury bug did not hit the team hard. Of the 22 players who started on opening night in Chicago, 21 of them played in the season ending loss in San Francisco.
On defense, turnovers and sacks were the defense's calling cards. When the defense controlled these two facets, the defense and team succeeded. The defense accumulated 25 turnovers and 41 sacks which were top 10 in their respective categories. Free agent additions Za'Darius Smith and Preston Smith played well throughout the season. They were the only two "bookends" to have double digit sacks in the league. Za'Darius had 13.5 and Preston had 12. When the "Smith Brothers" were involved, the team fed off their big plays. The Smith Brothers proved they were difference makers that lead to many big plays for an opportunistic defense. Example games were in Chicago and division clincher in Minnesota.
The 2019 Packers resurgence was an unexpected boom and there was plenty to be thankful for. You do not win 13 regular games by accident. The NFL is too good.
E. What did the Packers fail at in 2019?
Defensively, as much as we want to pat the defense on the back (and they did improve immensely), they were undermanned in the trenches and it showed in the NFC Championship against San Francisco. The 49ers only attempted 8 passes and the game was an old school mashing on the ground. Much disdain was placed on Pettine's response to the onslaught as he did not commit more DL to counter the run heavy attack by SF. He was retained and will need to prove he isn't a one trick pony and has counter punches in times of adversity. His love for 1 or 2 DL fronts needs to be exterminated and it needs to start by providing reinforcements. Montravius Adams, who was one of the reasons Mike Daniels was released, did not perform up to expectations and was a major disappointment. The Packers need to find a replacement and it is one of their highest priorities. Inside linebacker was also exposed and why Blake Martinez is no longer a Packer. The addition of a good linebacker will only be as good with the addition of another defensive lineman who can kick a** in the trenches. All good defenses start up front, and the Packers were not good here. Overvaluing their current DL talent (Clark, Lowry, Adams, Lancaster, Keke) will not help this team get over the hump.
Special teams was mostly a disaster. I am not referring to Mason Crosby or JK Scott. I am referring to the coverage units. There were way too many penalties. Trading Trevor Davis mid season was not a sound move. He was an underrated "gunner" and was always downfield to stop an advancing punt returner. Tyler Ervin was a great pick up on December 2nd and rejuvenated the return units.
Offensively, the passing game took a few steps back from previous years of dominance. The Packers did well in the absence of Davante Adams (who missed four games) but overall the lack of play makers downfield hindered the offense from striking quickly. We have never seen an offense labor to move the ball in Rodger's career and it was something most fans were not used to seeing. If the Packers want to improve the offense, they need another dynamic weapon at receiver. They expected more from 2nd year WR Marquez Valdes-Scantling and he was another disappointment only accumulated 6 receptions after Week 7. Because the Packers have notoriously blanked at getting production out of their tight ends recently, I do not feel investing a ton here is wise. If they could not get more production from the talents of Jimmy Graham and Martellus Bennett, what makes anyone think they can break the mold with anyone else?
The upcoming off season after the 2020 regular season will put important Packers with expiring contracts on the market. David Bakhtiari, Corey Linsley, Lane Taylor, Kevin King, Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams are notable players who do not have a contract going into 2021. Kenny Clark signed his 5th year tender and is signed for two more seasons but the Packers will work to resign him to a contract extension beyond his 5th year tender. The Packers have typically refrained from offering second and third contracts to offensive lineman so it will be interesting to see how they handle Bakhtiari and Linsley. The one thing going for the two players is the Packers do not have obvious replacements at the ready, so it would be surprising if the Packers do not resign them.
What positions should the Packers concentrate on improving in the draft? I think I have prefaced the positions that need improvement above, but will outline below in order of importance.
1. Defensive Line
2. Wide Receiver
3. Inside Linebacker
4. Cornerback (King is impending FA and they do not have notable backup CB's on roster)
5. Offensive Line (they need to plan for a replacement at right tackle)
6. Outside Linebacker (behind the Smith Brothers, they only have Rashan Gary)
Many fans would say they need another tight end, but until the team can prove they can get production out of the position, there is no need to use a high draft pick. They need to use their premium picks on premium players who can help them now. The needs at the positions above overshadow spending a high pick on a tight end who isn't going to contribute in 2020.
I conducted a mock draft on thedraftnetwork.com as I always enjoy playing the role of GM. I came away impressed with the players drafted and their outlook as contributors to the Packers in 2020.
30. Ross Blacklock - Defensive Lineman (TCU): A big dude who would fit perfectly at left end or right end, Blacklock has a "hot" motor that never runs cold. The Packers need more players from the inside who can rush the passer other than Clark. He is 6'4" and 305 lbs and is exceptionally light on his feet but strong as an ox. He loves penetrating gaps and the Packers need more lineman who can get past a block. He has potential to be a stud lineman for years to come. Teams would have difficulty keeping the Smith Brothers, Kenny Clark, Rashan Gary and Blacklock away from opposing QB's. When you bring pressure from all angles, that is every defensive coordinators dream!
62. Laviska Shenault Jr. - Wide Receiver (Colorado): A natural athlete who played almost every position in college. Shenault was THE playmaker for the Buffaloes during his career and was held back because their offense didn't have a great quarterback. Shenault’s skill set can immediately take an NFL offense to another level and add difficult to defend dimensions to it. This guy would check a lot of boxes for the Pack. He is ready to step in and play.
94. Rashard Lawrence - Defensive Lineman (LSU): Some might think taking two DL in the first three rounds is crazy, but there is enough tape to prove they need help. The Packers will continue to get beat up against the top NFC teams if they do not improve in the trenches. Lawrence's potential is untapped due to playing at national champion LSU and a supremely talented roster loaded with NFL talent. Lawrence is a stout run defender and won't be pushed around. With Blacklock and Lawrence, the Packers immediately improve their defensive front and with the Smith Brothers coming from the edge, the Packers front could be down right dominant against the run and pass.
136. Justin Strnad - Inside Linebacker (Wake Forest): Yes, the Packers need to incorporate more 2 ILB looks and you start with getting a player who won't be much of a liability in the pass game. I think the Packers have not valued this position for years and it is time they get a player who forces the team to take him off the field. He is a football player with good skill set. He is a three down backer. With the defensive line vastly improved, newly signed Kirksey and Strnad would improve the second level tremendously.
175. Cameron Clark - Offensive Lineman (Charlotte): Clark fits the versatility mold the Packers covet in their lineman. He has played tackle and guard. He might not be ready to contribute right away, but the Packers can groom Clark for the difficult decisions that lie ahead. David Bakhtiari and Corey Linsley are free agent at the end of this season and it is likely they won't be able to sign both. If they let Linsley go, Elgton Jenkins would likely move to center and there would be an opening at left guard.
192. Justin Herron - Offensive Tackle (Wake Forest): Herron is a well trained pass blocker who needs a few adjustments to become an NFL caliber starter. He fits the zone run blocking scheme the Packer employ. The Packers have regressed at right tackle and Herron can be the right tackle of the future.
208. Dane Jackson - Cornerback (Pittsburgh): I watched Pittisburgh vs Central Florida last season and Jackson played well against their #1 WR and projected high draft pick Gabriel Davis. Jackson is physical and feisty. With depth at CB relatively thin and Kevin King in the last year of his rookie deal, they need to be prepared he might not be around after this season. Without resigning Tramon Williams, the Packers nickel and dime defensive backs are anyone's guess. It is important to consider they played more than half of the defensive snaps in nickel (5 defensive backs) and dime defense (6 defensive backs) in 2019. It is not evident if Pettine prefers to play lighter and quicker or he didn't have the horses to align in any other alignment.
209. Joe Reed - Wide Receiver (Virginia): Returning five kicks for touchdowns, catching 129 passes and logging 24 rushing attempts, Joe Reed was a multifaceted weapon for Virginia and that versatility is appealing when forecasting him on a Packer team in need of weapons. He was a special teams standout (both as a returner and in coverage) and would be a major asset to a special teams roster that doesn't light your hair on fire. As a receiver, he is electric with the ball in his hands.
236. Michael Warren - Running Back (Cincinnati): Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams are in the final year of their rookie contracts and it will be difficult to keep both. Whichever way they go, they will need a second RB to take over the dual role that LaFleur prefers to implement in his backfield. Warren is tough between the tackles and can catch the ball out of the backfield. He would push Dexter Williams, who was a non factor as a rookie last year.
242. Nate Stanley - Quarterback (Iowa): The Packers do need a solid backup behind Rodgers. I do not believe Rodgers is leaving the game any time soon and spending a high draft pick on someone who won't play for years is a wasted pick. Mind you, Rodgers is signed through 2023 and his game hasn't regressed too much, either. Stanley was highly successful under Kirk Ferentz.
Is anyone ready for draft day?!
Go Pack Go!