Exploring ways of filling roster holes
GREEN BAY - Look at the numbers, and you can feel a little queasy. The Green Bay Packers are bleeding football players this offseason. Seven unrestricted free agents. More than 3,500 snaps. All gone.
But those are just the numbers, and the numbers only show one side of this spring. The other side: how general manager Ted Thompson plans to fill his new vacancies.
It isn't like Thompson is letting Jared Cook, T.J. Lang, Eddie Lacy and Micah Hyde walk out the door without a plan. The Packers already have capable replacements to cover most of their defections.
The positions where there are no immediate, clear replacements – running back and right guard – are not worth stressing over before the draft.
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And it’s not like the Packers have stood still. Adding tight ends Martellus Bennett and Lance Kendricks should be more helpful to Aaron Rodgers and the offense than losing Lang and Lacy is harmful. The tight end position is much more valuable than running back or interior offensive line.
Like each offseason in Green Bay, success ultimately will depend on how Thompson fares in the draft. But it is easy to see areas where the Packers have become a better team.
For a broader view of how the Packers’ departures will affect them, here’s a detailed look at their offseason gains and losses and how they can be addressed:
Key losses: Julius Peppers, Datone Jones.
The impact: Even at age 37, Peppers still has value. He was a diminished player in 2016 but managed to sneak in 7.5 sacks, second most on the Packers. His decision to re-sign with the Carolina Panthers, ending his career in the place it began, leaves a void. But Peppers, limited to the role of situational rusher, only figured to play about 40 percent of the Packers' snaps in 2017. As for Jones, his nine sacks in four seasons are the reason he'll be remembered as the third-biggest first-round bust of Thompson’s tenure, behind Justin Harrell and Derek Sherrod. A natural 4-3 defensive end, Jones was miscast in Dom Capers’ 3-4 base defense. His departure to Minnesota should be easy to replace with a mid-round pick.
The outlook: Thompson re-signed the one player his front office believed it couldn’t afford to lose, giving outside linebacker and sacks leader Nick Perry a five-year, $60 million contract that was smartly structured to protect against his injury history. Edge rusher still is an area of need in the draft – the Packers could use two – but Perry’s return means they will at least enter April with a pair of capable starters in him and Clay Matthews. Second-year improvement from 2016 third-round pick Kyler Fackrell (two sacks) also would be useful.
Key losses: Sam Shields (released), Micah Hyde.
The impact: The Packers missed two things when Shields’ season – and possibly his career – ended in their opener at Jacksonville. He had the speed necessary to be a No. 1 cornerback, and the veteran experience also required for an unforgiving position. Hyde, who signed with Buffalo, gave the Packers value in many ways. He was a safety by trade, and his three interceptions in each of the past two seasons showed he could go get the ball on the defense’s back end. His versatility as a defensive back who could play in the slot – and even the perimeter in a pinch – was an added bonus.
The outlook: The Packers don’t have anyone like Hyde on their roster. But consider the roles he filled in the Packers’ secondary, and each box is checked. Kentrell Brice showed enough potential as an undrafted rookie to think he can be a solid third safety, a position that will become more important if the Packers play Morgan Burnett more as a box linebacker in sub-package defenses. As for the veteran experience, Thompson’s signing of Davon House is important. The Packers’ former fourth-round pick, who left for Jacksonville in free agency only to be released two years later, is a seventh-year vet who will become a leader in the cornerbacks’ room. The Packers still need speed on the perimeter, and it wouldn’t be surprising if they drafted two corners next month to create competition with their young trio of Damarious Randall, Quinten Rollins and LaDarius Gunter. But, with Shields and Hyde gone, you could argue adding experience was just as important as speed. With House, there’s one less thing to worry about.
Key losses: T.J. Lang, JC Tretter.
The impact: Lang, on the wings of his first Pro Bowl selection, is one of the best guards in football. He was perhaps the Packers’ most talented offensive lineman in 2016, skilled as a run blocker and a wall in pass protection. Lang earned the three-year, $28.5 million contract he signed with Detroit. Tretter couldn’t stay healthy, but always played well when he was on the field. A natural center, Tretter was the rare lineman capable of playing all five spots.
The outlook: Lang’s departure is the only example of the Packers creating a need that didn’t previously exist. This is different than the Packers releasing left guard Josh Sitton at the end of training camp last summer. Then, everyone knew Lane Taylor would replace Sitton. Lang has no clear successor. Jason Spriggs and Kyle Murphy are built like tackles and unlikely to move inside. Bryan Bulaga moving away from right tackle should be a nonstarter. The Packers most likely will turn to the draft to replace Lang, and though it isn’t a deep offensive line class, that shouldn’t be too alarming. Thompson has a history of finding talented mid-round guards, including Lang and Sitton. As for the depth they’re lacking without Tretter, Don Barclay will have to earn his spot on the Packers' 53-man roster, but he provides adequate value as a backup guard on a one-year, $1.025 million deal.
Key losses: Eddie Lacy, James Starks (released).
The impact: Given his history, it’s understandable the Packers didn’t sign Lacy to the one-year, $4.25 million contract Seattle offered. When healthy and committed, Lacy has been one of the best running backs in the NFL. But Lacy let down the Packers in 2015, and his season-ending ankle injury five games into last season couldn’t be ignored. Starks missed the last three regular-season games with a concussion resulting from a car crash and was released before free agency. At age 30 last season, Starks looked like a running back whose best days were behind him.
The outlook: With or without Lacy, the Packers were going to need to draft a long-term solution at running back. Ty Montgomery, the converted wide receiver, gives the Packers an advantageous matchup in the backfield, but he isn’t the type of runner who can hammer it between the tackles 20 times each week. That's also not the Packers' vision for Christine Michael, who was re-signed Wednesday. While a free-agent addition can’t be ruled out with the Packers $24 million under the salary cap, it would be a break from Thompson’s tendencies to sign a top available tailback on the market such as Adrian Peterson, Jamaal Charles or LeGarrette Blount. Youth is important at this position. The Packers picked the right time to need a running back in the draft. This year’s rookie class has both talent and depth, providing the option to take a running back early or in the middle rounds.
Key loss: Jared Cook.
The impact: There’s a reason Cook was a first-day priority in free agency. The Packers’ offense came to life when he returned from his six-game absence because of an ankle injury. Cook’s 30 catches and 377 yards in 10 regular-season games doesn’t adequately show his potential in the Packers’ offense. For a better gauge, look at the 42 catches for 553 yards and three touchdowns he caught in 10 games – counting playoffs – after returning from injury. That’s a pace for 67 catches and 884 yards over a 16-game season.
The outlook: From numbers alone, the Packers tight end position will be better this fall with Martelllus Bennett and Lance Kendricks than it was with just Cook and Richard Rodgers last season. Bennett and Kendricks combined for 105 catches, 1,200 yards and nine touchdowns. With Aaron Rodgers behind center, both Bennett and Kendricks will have opportunities to produce in the Packers’ offense. More than numbers, the Packers' new tight end duo will give coach Mike McCarthy chances to be creative with his personnel, something that could open up the offense.