Analysis: Packers confident one major addition will revitalize offense
GREEN BAY – At the conclusion of the NFL draft late Saturday evening, the biggest offseason acquisition for the Green Bay Packers’ offense took the podium at Lambeau Field. And for most of that time, Matt LaFleur spoke about defensive versatility, a bolstered pass rush and the challenges a fast safety presents for an offense.
Now that the heart of free agency and the draft are over, it can be said Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst felt the talent that took the field for the Packers’ offense in 2018 is good enough to win in 2019 because LaFleur and his staff are now designing and calling the offense.
» Offensive lineman Billy Turner was the lone free agent from outside the organization acquired in March. Tight end Marcedes Lews was re-signed.
» In the draft, second-round pick Elgton Jenkins out of Mississippi State will be switching positions after two years at center and is joining a handful of players, perhaps even Turner, in competing for a starting job at guard.
» Third-round tight end Jace Sternberg admittedly needs some development as he transitions to the NFL after only one big year at Texas A&M.
» Running back Dexter Williams out of Notre Dame is explosive, but of the 36 running backs drafted in the sixth round since 2011 only six have rushed for 1,000 yards in their career to date (or 16.7%), per the www.pro-football-reference.com draft finder. Expand the search, and nine of 51 backs drafted in the sixth round since 2008 have rushed for 1,000 yards in their career (17.6%). Williams may contribute, but the odds say he’s a depth piece for now.
The satellite view of this offseason says that after diving into the roster together, Gutekunst and LaFleur decided on a few things:
» That Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Equanimeous St. Brown and J’mon Moore will take a big step in year two while Jake Kumerow and Trevor Davis remain in the fold.
» That Aaron Jones, who has missed games the last two years with sprains to his medial collateral ligament, is ready for a larger workload — especially in the passing game.
» That Aaron Rodgers and Jimmy Graham, players in their 30s and hampered by injury and scheme in 2018, will return to Pro Bowl form.
» That Bryan Bulaga, a year removed from a torn anterior cruciate ligament, can move well enough to execute LaFleur’s new running scheme at right tackle.
The interesting thing is, Gutekunst and LaFleur have been telling us to expect this all along.
“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,” LaFleur said back at the NFL scouting combine in February.
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During an extended sit-down in Indianapolis, both Gutekunst and LaFleur hinted strongly at how they felt about the talent on offense — it just took two months’ worth of roster subtractions and additions to have it play out.
Gutekunst on Graham: “Jimmy had a productive year for us last year. Was really, really proud of him. He fought through a lot of things just to be out there. Guys who have played as long as he has don’t have to do that. His professionalism was on display each and every day, and I look forward to seeing what he can do for us this year.”
LaFleur on receivers: “It’s one of the more complete receiving corps I’ll have had a chance to work with. Not to compare to last season, but we’ve got a legitimate No. 1 receiver, and there’s a lot of pieces that we kind of look for in our offense. 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.”
LaFleur on having an offensive lineman that may not be able to move as well: “I do think there’s a point where you’ll sacrifice some of those movement skills for some size because at the end of the day, more teams are going to pass the ball. You’re probably going to have more passes than runs in a year, so to me there’s that challenge of finding what’s suitable still in the run game but also gives you great pass protection.”
Of course by speaking in February, the two allowed much could change on offense in the coming months. But nothing did, at least on paper for an impact in 2019.
Instead, three free-agent starters were signed on defense to the tune of $155 million in total contracts. Three draft picks were moved to secure a safety who will likely also start. Four of the seven remaining picks were also spent on defense.
Which means the onus is on nearly the same group of players who finished No. 18 in total offense and No. 22 in scoring a year ago to be much better this season.
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And there is definitely room for improvement. As a team, the Packers were 14th in red zone percentage (61.7%) and 22nd in third down conversions (36.8%).
Individually, Davante Adams saw 26.4% of all targets a year ago and caught 28.4% of all completed passes a year ago, percentages that outpaced even Julio Jones’ numbers (24% of targets, 22% of receptions) when Atlanta went to the Super Bowl in 2016 with LaFleur as quarterbacks coach. Adams still should see over 20% of all targets in this offense, but the Packers no doubt need a running back or receiver to take off some of the workload.
And for as good as Rodgers is, he has posted one season with a rating over 100 in the last four years after doing so six straight years from 2009-14. Six quarterbacks have hit a rating of 100 or more at least twice in that time. Rodgers was also sacked 49 times last year, the most since being dropped 46 times in 2015.
LaFleur has insisted his offense will be built around a strong run game, which is already an area of strength. Even though the Packers were 22nd in total rushing in 2018 — thank to a league-low 333 attempts — they were No. 2 in yards per rush at 5.0.
The Packers may yet add a veteran who is released in the coming months, or perhaps Sternberger forces his way into the rotation during training camp. But this Packers offense, personnel-wise, is what it is and what is has been. It’s now up to LaFleur to make something out of it.