Green Bay Packers: Four key questions entering Matt LaFleur's OTA practices
GREEN BAY - For the first time since being named Green Bay Packers head coach, Matt LaFleur will run his team through organized team activities (OTA) Monday at Clarke Hinkle Field.
After a flurry of Packers acquisitions in free agency and the draft, Packers News beat writers Ryan Wood and Jim Owczarski discuss four key questions in advance of those sessions:
What is actually important in these few OTA periods we get to see over the next month?
Wood: Well, it's not the football. For me, true football evaluation doesn't really start until they strap on the pads in training camp. So there will be some fun plays in team drills, but it's always worth remembering these guys are just in shorts, and the physicality changes when they get into pads. Usually, this is our first chance to see players on the field since returning from their offseason workouts, which gives them the chance to build their body the way they want for the coming season. We already got that opportunity though with the extra, voluntary minicamp last month before the draft. With that said, this is obviously an important time. There's a new head coach, and with it comes the need to learn a new playbook. That learning isn't confined to the offensive side, either. It's Year 2 in Mike Pettine's defense, and I wonder what kind of schematic leaps that group can take, things they maybe weren't able to get into in the first year. Those things will be interesting. But, no, if Rashan Gary looks good off the line of scrimmage in OTAs, that doesn't really matter much.
Owczarski: Overall, I agree with you. And frankly, I expect the offense to look a bit shaky in the small parts of team drills we’ll see. The defense should be “ahead” to a degree, but we have to be careful to not dismiss any struggles in offensive rhythm as just that. We should be able to see some improvement in offensive execution from that first minicamp in April through the end of the mandatory minicamp in mid-June. But what’s actually important, to me, will be initial depth-chart decisions along the offensive line, the wide receivers and the back end of the defense. I know it’ll be waved away by coaches and players but let’s be real — there are reasons why guys are getting “first-team” reps. I like to see who has either made some great first impressions, or who may have made some poor impressions when/if changes are made come the start of training camp.
With 90 players now under contract, how much did the Packers really improve this offseason?
Owczarski: The last two years have proven that the overall talent level on the Packers roster wasn’t that great, and Brian Gutekunst has doubled — nay, tripled — down on the defense by adding draft picks and free agents. Even if Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith only just replicate their numbers in Baltimore and Washington, if Adrian Amos just does only what he did in Chicago, they’re better on that side of the ball. We’ll see on the rookies, but I’m all-in on Pettine. Defensively, this group’s baseline should be top 15 in the league. Now, on offense … Billy Turner and Elgton Jenkins are it. Maybe Cole Madison? Clearly, Gutekunst felt talent was not the issue there. And I can agree when you start with Aaron Rodgers, Davante Adams and Aaron Jones. So, the Packers GM upgraded the offensive line. I’m good with that. While I’m a little hesitant to just anoint Matt LaFleur et al. as the new offensive masterminds of the NFL, the head coach does have some good players to start with. Right now, I’ve got this club sitting on nine wins — which isn’t earth-shattering but better than the last two years. So I’d say they’ve improved enough to get back in the playoff mix.
Wood: It's a sad state when nine wins and being back in the playoff mix signifies tangible improvement for this team, but that's where the Packers are. What we saw the past two years, with an absent Rodgers in 2017 and a diminished Rodgers because of injuries in 2018, was a quarterback who covered a lot of problems on this roster. There have been a lot of holes, starting with edge rusher. So I think it's generally impressive how many areas Gutekunst addressed this offseason, and that the edge rush was clearly his primary focus is even better. Just look at how overhauled that position is from a year ago. In theory, I think doubling down on the edge with their first pick was wise. You look at this roster now, and there's far fewer holes than what we've seen the past couple years. That's a good thing. Even if this sort of tepid praise is not exactly what the Packers were going for entering the late years of Rodgers' career.
What area of the roster should give fans the most concern?
Owczarski: While I clearly think the defense is better, and the offensive trio to start with is pretty good, the biggest issue on this roster is still tight end. Gutekunst was adamant Jimmy Graham has something left. I’m unconvinced, and it’s LaFleur’s job to find out. Marcedes Lewis might be more involved in the pass game, but he’s 35 and last caught more than 25 passes back in 2012. Robert Tonyan remains a work in progress. And everyone’s all but admitted third-round pick Jace Sternberger needs time to develop into an NFL tight end. If there was one thing LaFleur was adamant about this offseason, it was how important the tight end was to his offense’s success. He needs that guy (or guys) to block consistently, run good routes and present a target for the quarterback. Graham used to check a couple of those boxes with great, big, bold markers. Now? Not so much. So if none of those guys are “the guy” LaFleur is looking for — that’s a pretty big adjustment he’s going to have to make in year one of this thing.
Wood: I certainly agree the tight end position could be better. I'm not holding out much expectation for Graham's production this season, either. That said, I think the Packers can win the Super Bowl with this group of tight ends. Maybe a better way to state that: I don't think this group of tight ends is an automatic deal breaker. To me, the more glaring issue is a matter of depth at key positions, such as quarterback and left tackle. I mean, the Packers are just gonna roll with DeShone Kizer and Tim Boyle again? Rodgers has been healthy for exactly five full games in the past two seasons. He's also about to turn 36. Quarterbacks play longer now than ever before, but they don't suddenly become more durable at this stage in their careers when there's a significant injury history. If Rodgers goes down, this team is no better equipped to handle it than they've been in their past two seasons. The same can be said at left tackle: What if David Bakhtiari gets injured? Are the Packers really going to rely on Jason Spriggs to block Khalil Mack, Everson Griffen and Trey Flowers? That's a scary proposition. One more I'll throw in there: The Packers have invested a ton of resources into building their cornerback depth chart, but even still that position only goes four deep. And that's without considering Kevin King's injury history, Tramon Williams' age or Josh Jackson's need to further develop. So I think Gutekunst did a good job touching a lot of needs on the roster, but there's still some pretty significant depth issues to work out.
How badly do the Packers need to rebound this season in the context of the success of the Bucks and Brewers regarding fan and media attention?
Wood: The truth is, we live in a very bandwagon-driven society. We're instantly attracted to the next hot item. So just as this is a fair question because of what the Packers haven't done the past two years, and what the Bucks and Brewers are doing now, the answer really rests on what they'll do in the future. I'm not sure I'd go as far as to say the Packers are third in this state's pro sports landscape at the moment, but they might be. And that possibility is kind of incredible, given Aaron Rodgers still quarterbacks this team. If the Packers continue to peddle mediocrity while the Bucks and Brewers remain title contenders, they'll remain an afterthought for periods of the calendar year, as they are right now. But what if Giannis Antetokounmpo chases a big market in a few years? What if the Brewers get lost in the shuffle of a loaded National League? Just because those bandwagons are strong now, doesn't mean they'll always be that way. And reality for the Packers is they'll always be just one hot month from captivating this state's attention. They could just use that month sooner than later.
Owczarski: That last point is a good one, but I do think this is an important season for the Packers in terms of the casual fan (and yes, those matter). Even if the Bucks don’t win another game, there will be so much buzz for that team opening training camp and the start of the season in September and October. The Brewers are a state team, and if they’re in it again in, you guessed it, September and October…it means the Packers can’t start 1-3 or 0-4. Because now, there is something else — something better — going on in the early fall and into November, December and January outside of University of Wisconsin hoops if the Packers backslide. And that’s the key part of this. If the Packers are 11-5, the natural order of things returns. But is it a stretch to say they may go 7-9 again? To your answer to the last question, Ryan, what if the quarterback gets hurt again? Six wins? Oh boy. Antetokounmpo is under contract through 2021. Christian Yelich, 2022. Rodgers, 2023. It’s perhaps the best time ever to be a Wisconsin pro sports fan, but winning matters. The Packers of the '80s can tell you that. I mean, Bob Harlan’s efforts to save the franchise in 2000 wasn’t that long ago. I’ve seen “loyal” fan bases in Baltimore, Chicago and Cleveland leave those stadiums empty — regardless of what the word “sellout” means. Again, if the Packers win in 2019, no skin off anyone’s back. But if they continue to stumble toward the finish line of Rodgers’ career … and the Bucks and Brewers remain legitimate title contenders … the upper reaches of Lambeau Field may be empty and there may be fewer media types circling lockers during the week.