Offseason focus on Packers' youngsters
GREEN BAY - It’s logical to wonder how all the comings and goings of the Green Bay Packers’ offseason will affect the performance of the team in 2017, but to really get to the nuts and bolts of what coach Mike McCarthy will have to work with this fall, it’s better to focus on the familiar.
As the Packers begin the first day of their nine-week offseason workout program Tuesday, their chances to go beyond the NFC championship game rest mostly on how well the remaining pieces of general manager Ted Thompson’s 2015 and ’16 draft classes progress.
And whether they can stay healthy.
Under Thompson’s draft-and-develop system, free-agent signings such as tight ends Martellus Bennett and Lance Kendricks, cornerback Davon House and defensive lineman Ricky Jean Francois are replacement parts for departed players.
PDF: Ted Thompson's draft picks by position
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Bennett and Kendricks are Jared Cook (Raiders); House is Micah Hyde (Bills); Jean Francois is Julius Peppers (Carolina) and Datone Jones (Vikings). If those players outperform their predecessors, the Packers will be better for it, but alone they’re not going to be what gets the Packers over the top.
The Packers will have a full complement of rookies added to the mix as well, but not since running back Eddie Lacy in 2013 have they had one who has been a difference maker in his first NFL season.
No, if the Packers are going to be better, Thompson’s 14 draft picks remaining from his last two drafts are going to be the reason.
“We lost some really good players, and really good people,” McCarthy said at the NFL owners meetings in March. “I look at it from both angles. It’s more opportunity for our younger players, our new players that are coming in, because at the end of the day, we’re going to tailor what we ask these players to do to their strength.”
The coaches already know the strengths and weaknesses of those previous draft choices.
McCarthy said he expects to make changes to his offseason plan, but the strength and conditioning staff is the same and there’s no indication he’s doing anything drastic to fight off all the injuries the team has suffered over the past couple of seasons.
Part of the reason the Packers have remained annual playoff contenders is that they’ve managed to pull multiple quality starters out of almost every one of their drafts. But as important as how many come through for them is when they come through for them.
By now, the Packers had hoped cornerbacks Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins would have been impact players. Both have been starters, as have running back Ty Montgomery, linebacker Jake Ryan and fullback Aaron Ripkowski from the same 2015 draft class.
At the very least, those two should be in the position Randall Cobb (’11), Mike Daniels (’12), Hyde, Lacy and David Bakhtiari (’13) and safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, receiver Davante Adams and center Corey Linsley (’14) were going into their third seasons.
From those four draft classes, Cobb, Daniels, linebacker Nick Perry and Bakhtiari have reached second contracts and Clinton-Dix, Adams and Linsley are in line for them. Those kind of deals are given only to players the Packers deem as difference makers.
The 2015 and '16 classes don't have anyone like that right now.
Randall has been inconsistent, wasn’t healthy last year, hasn’t grown intellectually on the football field the way Clinton-Dix or Adams did and wouldn’t be considered near the best-conditioned player on the roster. As a first-round pick, he should be hitting all those targets in his third season.
And it will start with how well he prepares during the offseason.
Rollins is in the same boat. He’s a second-round pick. Though he was picked there based on one season of football at Miami (Ohio), he’s had two years to learn the NFL game. His lack of speed (4.57 seconds in the 40) always will be an issue just as it was with Hyde (4.56).
Except for a slightly higher vertical jump (36½ to 33 inches), Rollins tested about the same as Hyde coming out of college and it’s safe to say Hyde was a far more instinctive player when he was at this point in Rollins’ career. In other words, Rollins may not offer anything more than what Hyde did when it’s all said and done.
“They were put in some tough, tough situations,” McCarthy said, defending the pair. “Particularly the type of games we got into the second half of the season, we were pretty much playing playoff games there from November on. So you learn from that.
“At the end of the day, you look at each and every injury. You look at each and every player. How do you think they’re going to progress? And with that, I have to create those opportunities and make sure the training is there for them to develop. I feel very confident they’re going to get that done.”
Corner is a critical position for the Packers, but not the only one where they need help from within.
Thompson used four of his top five picks in 2016 on his front seven and got minimal output from them. Ends Kenny Clark and Dean Lowry and linebackers Kyler Fackrell and Blake Martinez contributed five sacks, nine pass breakups, one forced fumble and two fumble recoveries in a 19-game season.
Clark and Lowry both were better later in the season than early, which is a good sign for both. But both need to put in the kind of offseasons Daniels did after his rookie year to become part of the solution. Both are tremendously strong in the upper body and are ahead of Daniels in size and strength.
There aren’t two players the Packers are counting on more this season from the ’16 draft class to have the stamina to start and finish strong. They could take a lot of heat off of the secondary.
“I’m confident that Kenny and Dean will both take a big step this offseason program and will be playing a lot more,” McCarthy said.
No one has to have a better offseason in the weight room than Fackrell, who at 6-5, 245 pounds benched only 225 pounds 15 times at the combine. Fackrell resisted intense lifting in college in order to keep his speed and flexibility, but it became clear he can’t play outside in the NFL if he doesn’t put serious muscle on his already-mature 25-year-old body.
Martinez and Ryan, a fourth-round pick in ‘15, may not have it in them to become regulars, even with outstanding offseasons. It’s quite possible McCarthy will come out of this offseason convinced he has to have Clay Matthews in the middle to provide some athleticism sideline to sideline.
On offense, 2015 third-round pick Ty Montgomery has to take the next step in his transition to running back. Physically, he’ll always be the most-chiseled guy in the locker room; he needs to take handoff after handoff until running the ball is second nature to him.
And at guard, this could be the start of ’16 rookie Kyle Murphy’s transition to a new position. Team drills don’t come until after the draft, so the Packers could come away with T.J. Lang’s replacement in this year’s draft, but Murphy and fellow tackle Jason Spriggs will be focused on getting a lot stronger in case one of them winds up at guard.
As a whole, this is just another offseason that every team goes through. But for a few, it could be make or break for the Packers' 2017 season.
PACKERS OFFSEASON ROSTER
Quarterbacks (3) – Aaron Rodgers, Brett Hundley, Joe Callahan
Running backs (5) – Ty Mongtomery, Christine Michael, Don Jackson, Aaron Ripkowski, Joe Kerridge
Wide receivers (8) – Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, Davante Adams, Geronimo Allison, Jeff Janis, Trevor Davis, Max McCaffrey, Antwan Goodley
Offensive linemen (10) – David Bakhtiari, Bryan Bulaga, Corey Linsley, Lane Taylor, Jason Spriggs, Don Barclay, Kyle Murphy, Justin McCray, Jacob Flores, Lucas Patrick
Tight ends (4) – Richard Rodgers, Martellus Bennett, Lance Kendricks, Beau Sandland
Defensive linemen (7) – Mike Daniels, Letroy Guion, Kenny Clark, Dean Lowry, Ricky Jean Louis, Christian Ringo, Brian Price
Linebackers (10) – Clay Matthews, Nick Perry, Kyler Fackrell, Jayrone Elliott, Reggie Gilbert, Joe Thomas, Jake Ryan, Blake Martinez, Derrick Matthews, Jordan Tripp
Defensive backs (12) – Davon House, Damarious Randall, Quinten Rollins. LaDarius Gunter, Demetri Goodson, Josh Hawkins, Herb Waters, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Morgan Burnett, Kentrell Brice, Marwin Evans, Jermaine Whitehead
Specialists (4) – Mason Crosby, Jake Schum, Taybor Pepper, Derek Hart