Analysis: Packers still waiting for signs Jason Spriggs pick will pay off

Eric Baranczyk and Pete Dougherty
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Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Hundley (7) rolls right as tackle Jason Spriggs (78) blocks against the Washington Redskins Saturday, August 19, 2017 at Fedex Field in Landover, MD.

The Green Bay Packers paid a premium to select tackle Jason Spriggs in the 2016 NFL draft.

A little more than a year in, that investment is looking shaky.

General manager Ted Thompson had his reasons for spending not one but two picks on Spriggs when he traded second- and fourth-round picks to gain nine spots and select the offensive lineman at No. 48 overall.

The Packers at the time were coming off a season in which a sprained ankle that cost left tackle David Bakhtiari three games (two regular season, one playoff) had exposed a key missing piece to the roster: a competent No. 3 tackle. The offense suffered without Bakhtiari, and Thompson wanted protection from that happening again.

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Also, Bakhtiari was entering the last season of his rookie contract in 2016, and there was no guarantee the Packers would re-sign him after that. Thompson wanted a fallback in case Bakhtiari’s price was too high, and maybe some leverage in their negotiations.

But the cost to draft Spriggs was steep, too, for a team with an acute need for playmakers on defense. Thompson could have hoped Spriggs fell to pick No. 57 – the GM obviously bet against that happening – or he could have drafted a defensive player at 57 and tried for a backup tackle a round or two or later. Bakhtiari, after all, was a fourth-round pick.

The risk with trading up is that if the player doesn’t pan out, you’ve missed on two picks, not just one. And that risk is still very much in play with Spriggs through the first two preseason games of his second season in the NFL.

Spriggs certainly looks the part of an athletic NFL tackle. He has good height (6-5 5/8) and length (34-inch arms), and a cut physique that’s more like a big tight end than offensive lineman.

But he hasn’t made the strides you’d expect for a second-round pick in his second year. And after a rough night last week in the preseason opener against Philadelphia, he again had his share of struggles in the Packers’ preseason win at Washington on Saturday night.

Spriggs still is having problems targeting his hands. They’re all over the place. He doesn’t quite have the strength to shock pass rushers with his initial punch, and he isn’t consistently showing the athleticism to recover from the initial pop or when the rusher counters with an inside move.

If you want to see how it’s supposed to look, watch a play from Saturday night late in the first quarter (second-and-6 from Washington’s 9) with the Packers’ starters still on the field. Bakhtiari has great hand placement (on top of the numbers) on linebacker Chris Carter, locks him out with one arm and basically stops him in his tracks. He had Carter so tied up that the defender got a hands-to-the-face penalty trying to get loose.

Compare that to the sack Spriggs allowed late in the third quarter Saturday night. Outside linebacker Pete Robertson beat Spriggs to the inside with a juke move, and Spriggs barely got a hand on him. The week before, Eagles first-round pick Derek Barnett had beaten him with a speed rush outside.

If the Packers had to use Spriggs in a regular-season game against a defense’s starting end, they’d have to change their game plan to accommodate him. More two tight ends or two backs to help him pass protect. That’s not what you’re looking for when you draft a guy that high.

The Packers might even have to look at Kyle Murphy at left tackle.

Murphy, selected 152 picks after Spriggs in the ’16 draft, is built more like a right tackle, and that’s where he has been playing in camp, opposite Spriggs with the No. 2 offensive line. But Murphy played left tackle as a senior at Stanford and has improved noticeably from Year 1 to Year 2. Maybe he can’t play left tackle in the NFL, but it’s worth a look to see if he should be the backup there, too.

Save it for the game

You’ve got to say this for Jeff Janis: On game days when he gets his share of snaps at wide receiver, he more often than not makes a play or two.

For the first couple weeks of camp the special-teams standout had looked like an afterthought on offense. But then last week against Philadelphia he caught a 20-yard touchdown pass from Brett Hundley, and then Saturday night against Washington he hooked up with Hundley again for a 38-yard bomb in the second quarter that set up a touchdown.

This has been something of a pattern for Janis, and it makes you wonder if he’s one of those players who’s bored with or doesn’t like practice. He did catch a bomb from Aaron Rodgers in practice last week, and he has been targeted more the past week or so. But there probably have been at least six receivers who have done more on the practice field in this camp.

Janis definitely is strong and fast. We saw that again Saturday night on the Packers’ first punt, when as an outside gunner he beat the jam of Fred Smithson, then outran him downfield and tackled Will Blackmon an instant after the return man caught the ball. That’s just physical ability.

Maybe Janis hasn’t been detailed enough in his approach to practice, and that has kept him from blossoming at receiver. He also tends to body catch, which makes you wonder if he doesn’t trust his hands.

Regardless, Janis keeps showing up on game day. That and his strong special-teams play make him a good bet for the 53-man roster for a fourth straight season.

Extra points

» Don’t be surprised if the Packers give Max McCaffrey a shot at an early punt return – maybe the first one? – next week at Denver. Trevor Davis has great speed (4.42-second 40), but a critical part of punt returning is catching the ball with 10 angry guys bearing down intending to drill you. The Packers’ confidence in Davis has to be shaken after he muffed a punt Saturday night, similar to the one he lost last year at Tennessee that got him benched for the rest of the season. McCaffrey has been maybe the most targeted receiver in camp practices and is making a real run at a roster spot. He fielded two punts cleanly in the second half Saturday night, including one he returned 17 yards.

» Punter Justin Vogel’s stats looked fine – 44.4-yard average on seven punts – but he didn’t hit the ball as well as the numbers suggest. He took a full swing for distance and height on six punts, but four of those had hang times of less than 4.0 seconds. The goal is about 4.5 seconds. His average distance was fine because one of his low punts went 58 yards with about a 15-yard roll. He’ll have to do better, because the Packers’ defense needs a punter who can flip the field position. Vogel had a good Aussie punt with the hang time (4.42 seconds) to help pin Washington at its 11.

— Former football coach and player Eric Baranczyk offers his analysis of Green Bay Packers games each week during the season. Follow him on Twitter @EricBaranczyk1 and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty


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