The long NFL season has a way of changing how you look at an NFL roster.
Going into training camp last year, the Green Bay Packers looked deep at receiver. By midseason, that position was shooting up near the top of their needs list.
And now, after Jeff Janis’ attention-grabbing performance in the Packers’ playoff loss at Arizona two weeks ago, it might be sliding back down.
Ultimately, general manager Ted Thompson will determine where receiver ranks among the Packers' many needs as they pursue a second Super Bowl in the Aaron Rodgers era, now five years since winning the first. With Thompson and his scouts in full draft mode this week while attending the last and most important college all-star game, the Senior Bowl, in Mobile, Ala., this is as good a time as any to start thinking seriously about the Packers’ 2016 draft,.
The Packers have anywhere from four to six primary needs as of today, though that could change on the off chance Thompson breaks form and signs a player or two in free agency, and depending on the free agents the Packers lose.
In order, I’d put the Packers’ greatest needs as: tight end, inside linebacker, outside linebacker, receiver, running back and tackle.
At the outset, I’d say that in the first round the Packers probably can just draft the best player at any of the first four or five positions. With all the more immediate and acute needs, I wouldn’t draft a tackle in the first round and maybe not even in the first three.
It also must be noted that just because Thompson selects a player at a particular position, even high in the draft, it doesn't mean that need is filled. Draft picks fail more often than they succeed, so the chances are remote that Thompson will come up with a good player for every hole on his roster via the draft.
Regardless, here’s my take on the Packers' needs list:
Tight end: This was their weakest position group last season. Richard Rodgers has excellent hands but doesn’t run well and is way more miss than hit as a blocker. He’s not a No. 1. And coach Mike McCarthy said at his postseason news conference that the Packers missed receiver Jordy Nelson this season not so much as a deep threat but as a big target who can make plays over the middle. A tight end could fit this bill.
The only question is whether there’s one in this draft worth taking late in the first round – the Packers pick at No. 27 overall. Arkansas’ Hunter Henry appears to have the best shot at making it into the first round.
Inside linebacker: McCarthy made clear he wants Clay Matthews to move back to outside linebacker in 2016. That means the Packers need an inside linebacker who brings a dynamic element to the middle of the defense and can cover in nickel and dime. Joe Thomas, an undrafted rookie from 2014, just didn’t quite have it at dime linebacker this season.
Sam Barrington and Jake Ryan aren’t explosive enough to be the nickel tandem, though it’s conceivable they could play together in the base 3-4. But to move Matthews back outside, the Packers need a linebacker who at minimum can cover and make plays in the nickel and dime. To find one in the draft probably means using a pick in the first three rounds.
Outside linebacker: Doesn’t rate far behind on the needs list even if Matthews moves outside. Right after the Packers lost to Arizona, Julius Peppers sounded unsure about returning for another season at age 36. But you have to think that was the disappointment talking.
But even assuming his return, there are a couple points worth noting. One, outside linebacker is the key position in coordinator Dom Capers’ defense. And two, rushing the passer is paramount in this league. The Packers cannot have too many talented outside linebackers. They’ll want to take even more snaps off Peppers next season, and in the dime he’s often an inside rusher anyway, so there’s room for another dynamic rusher opposite Matthews in that personnel group. Nick Perry and Mike Neal will be free agents in March, and the guess here is that only one of the two will re-sign, and there's a chance neither returns.
If there’s an outside linebacker Thompson really likes when pick No. 27 comes up, he should take him.
Receiver: This is the hardest position to get a handle on. Nelson will be back from knee-reconstruction surgery, but he turns 31 in May. At best, he’s on the back fringe of his prime. Also, second-year pro Ty Montgomery will be back from ankle surgery after missing the final 10 games. And Janis’ seven-catch, 145-yard game against Arizona makes you wonder what he might be capable of with regular playing time.
At the same time, the Packers can’t have another season like last year, when Nelson’s injury shut down the offense. Davante Adams’ 2015 performance leaves open at least the possibility that he’s not a top four receiver. So Thompson can easily justify loading up just to be sure.
At least for now, I wouldn’t bet on Thompson taking a receiver at No. 27. But a round or two later wouldn’t be a shocker.
Running back: Eddie Lacy’s weight gain moves this position back into an early-round possibility. Maybe Lacy will get his weight back under control — lord knows he and the Packers have the resources to do it — but if you’re the Packers you can’t count on it. A complete back in the running and passing games, especially one a little more dynamic than Lacy (and James Starks, assuming he re-signs), would add some juice the offense was missing last season.
Tackle: I’d still argue that taking one in the first three rounds is a luxury the Packers can’t afford, but Thompson might disagree. Regardless, there’s no arguing that the need is there. JC Tretter showed at Washington he can fill in at left tackle in a pinch, but really, the Packers need a viable backup swing tackle.
Also, the Packers’ could see a makeover of their offensive line in 2017, when left tackle David Bakhtiari and guards Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang will be free agents. The Packers won’t be able to keep them all, and things could play out any number of ways. If they re-sign Bakhtiari, they might even decide to cut Bryan Bulaga for salary-cap purposes. Who knows?
Regardless, in ’17 it’s almost a given they’ll be looking for at least one new starter on the line, and perhaps more. A rookie drafted as a swing tackle for this year could end up starting almost anywhere on the line in a year.
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