INDIANAPOLIS - April comes quickly, and Green Bay Packers head coach Matt LaFleur has been taking a crash course in not just teaching his offense to a new coaching staff but also putting together a playbook to hand to veterans once voluntary workouts begin.
Much will change between now and then, beginning with the start of free agency March 13, and change again after the draft and once minicamps and organized team activities get underway. There will be growing pains and evolution. But as he and his staff set up shop at the NFL scouting combine, LaFleur knows some things about his team. Having a two-time MVP under center is a strong burst out of the gate, but how does he view the rest of his offense?
Here is what LaFleur knows, and what he needs, heading into 2019.
LaFleur hasn’t had a true No. 1 wide receiver to work with since he left Julio Jones and Atlanta in 2016, but the entire receiving room beyond Davante Adams has him excited as he constructs his offense.
“It’s one of the more complete receiving corps I’ll have had a chance to work with,” LaFleur said. “We’ve got guys that can take the top off the coverage, and we’ve got guys that can separate in those short, have that short-area quickness that can separate and we can move inside.”
That said, he expects every receiver to be a strong part of the running game.
“You’re going to block in our offense,” he said flatly. “You’re going to block. That’s just the way it is. You go back and you watch Julio Jones, he’ll block. You go watch (former Texans receiver) Andre Johnson — I’m just trying to name some of these really high-profile receivers, and they’re blocking. Washington, we had Pierre (Garcon). He was our No. 1 receiver. He blocked. They battle every play. And again, it’s creating that all-11 mentality.”
Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst spoke of Jimmy Graham as being a part of the team in 2019 and LaFleur acknowledged he hasn’t had much experience with a tight end whose strength is getting down the field. Delanie Walker was going to be that guy for LaFleur in Tennessee last season, but Walker went down for the year after just one game. The only Packers tight ends under contract are Graham and Robert Tonyan.
What is clear going forward, however, is that those two — and anyone else the Packers add to that room in 2019 — are going to have to be an effective part of the outside zone running scheme.
“That’s definitely something we look for and we’re going to demand from that position, no doubt about it,” LaFleur said. “But I think that’s the beauty of coaching. You find out what your guys can do well and you try to put them in position to have success. That’s what our job is to do.”
Along with recognizing his good fortune in walking into a team that has a quarterback and true No. 1 receiver, LaFleur knows having David Bakhtiari at left tackle and Corey Linsley at center gives him a strong a base on his offensive line. But with Byron Bell hitting free agency, right tackle Bryan Bulaga entering the final year of his contract and a handful of unproven linemen behind them, the Packers need to make sure they have players who can execute the blocking schemes that LaFleur’s offense demands.
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“A lot of the outside zone stuff requires those guys to be a little bit more athletic,” Gutekunst said. “Get off the spot a little bit more. But at the end of the day, good football players, especially the really good ones, can do it all. We have a really good quarterback we have to protect. That’s obviously priority No. 1.”
LaFleur believes in having two strong running backs to rely on when building his game plan and the Packers have that potential in Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams.
“I know first and second down we’re going to try to be as balanced as possible,” LaFleur said. “That’s philosophically what I believe is best to keep a defense off balance, and it makes the quarterback’s job a heck of a lot easier, it takes hits off the quarterbacks.”
LaFleur said he wants his running backs to be able to be effective route runners and catch the ball consistently as well. Are Jones and Williams the guys for that? Or could there be a better fit in the draft or free agency?
The Packers’ head coach also believes in the value of the fullback position and thinks highly of Dan Vitale’s skill set, but he also had experience in 2017 of playing without one when he was the offensive coordinator for the Los Angeles Rams.
“Certainly if you have one, it can definitely give you an advantage on offense,” LaFleur said of the fullback.
Based on who's already on the roster LaFleur’s offense and playbook are coming together. But he knows they can only be built to a certain degree at this point in the offseason.
“I think there’s a lot of pieces to like about our offense, so for the most part, we’ll be able to implement everything we want to do without having to tweak too much,” he said.
“But you just don’t quite know until you work with these guys. It’s just like anything else, you really don’t know until you get a chance, you have a good idea, but until you have a chance to work with these guys, I don’t think anything is 100 percent.”