The Green Bay Packers are tied with Seattle and Carolina for the second-best odds of winning the 2016 season’s Super Bowl at 10-1, according to Bovada.lv, New England is first at 6-1.
And really, why wouldn’t the Packers be among the early favorites? Yes, they're coming off an underachieving season and, no, general manager Ted Thompson didn't do anything in free agency that showed he's going for the throat. But through yet another relatively quiet offseason, there’s not much reason to think the Packers won't be in the thick of the title race for the sixth straight season since winning the Super Bowl in February 2011.
That’s mostly because they have a premier quarterback in Aaron Rodgers. Also, getting back Jordy Nelson after he missed 2015 with a torn ACL in theory makes them a better offense than the one that was an overtime away from advancing to the NFC championship game last season.
Also, the Packers have a decent chance of yielding a net gain this offseason, above and beyond Nelson’s return, at least as long as Thompson finds in the NFL draft an adequate inside linebacker for the nickel and dime defenses.
To make the leap from contender to actual Super Bowl participant for the first time in six years, Thompson will have to have made the right call on several crucial offseason moves. Here's a quick look at developments so far:
Jared Cook signs: The Packers’ biggest news was adding a tight end from the open market at a cost of $2.75 million for one season.
Let’s not pretend that Cook will tilt the field. He hasn’t for seven previous seasons in the NFL, so it’s not going to happen in the eighth no matter how fast he was (4.49-second 40) as a third-round draft pick in 2009.
But he can make a difference for this team and this quarterback. Even if the Packers were to draft a tight end in the first round, there’s a good chance that player would have had a quiet rookie year. That’s not a position where rookies tend to make much impact.
Cook, on the other hand, has a decent shot at catching 50 passes or so, and presenting a threat in the middle of the field that will make Nelson, Randall Cobb and the rest of the Packers’ receivers better. That’s something Richard Rodgers couldn’t do last year.
Eddie Lacy loses weight: The pictures of Lacy after working with P90X trainer Tony Horton are impressive. He looks much thinner and healthier than he did last year. We’ll see him in person at OTAs in late May. If he looks as good then, and more importantly in training camp in July, that’s a great sign for the Packers’ offense.
If you’re wondering the difference it might make, look to the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Le’Veon Bell, who was selected 13 picks before Lacy in the second round of the 2013 draft. Bell also was a big back who at the NFL scouting combine weighed 230 pounds. Lacy was 231.
By the time Bell was into his rookie season he was up to 244, which is about what he weighed as a college player. He rushed for 860 yards and only a 3.5-yard average in 13 games.
Then in ’14, Bell committed to losing weight, dropped to 225 pounds and became one of the NFL’s best backs (1,361 yards, which was second in the league, and a 4.7-yard average in 16 games). Playing at about the same weight in 2015, he was averaging 4.9 yards a carry and on pace to top the 1,400-yard mark halfway through the season before a torn medial collateral ligament in his knee sidelined him for the year.
Lacy’s weight last season at its highest was about 20 pounds more than his listed 234. If he gets down in the Bell range, or at least not much more than 230, the Packers’ run game should be back in business.
B.J. Raji out, Letroy Guion in: The Packers had to re-sign at least one of their two key free-agent defensive linemen, and did with Guion (three years, $11.25 million). By the end of last season they were comparable players, and there's a plausible case that Guion was playing a little better.
Still, Raji’s hiatus/retirement was a blow because rotational depth probably is more important on the defensive line than any other position. He was a huge man who could hold his ground in the middle of the line. Maybe they can replace him in a draft rich with defensive linemen. But that’s not a given.
Nick Perry re-signs: Going into the offseason, I would have guessed Perry was in line for a contract that averaged about $2.5 million a year. That was way off. His one-year deal with the Packers is worth $5 million. That tells you what being young (he turns 26 next week) and having a good postseason (3 ½ sacks in two games) can do for your pocketbook.
The Packers overpaid for a player with a long injury history. Perry is anything but soft – he missed three games the last two seasons, so he plays through pain. But those injuries (shoulder, hand) diminished his play, as his 6 ½ sacks in 29 regular-season games the last two years suggests.
Still, I see why the Packers did the deal. It’s only a one-year commitment, and Julius Peppers isn’t getting any younger. They’re better off paying $5 million for Perry’s upside than half that for their other unsigned outside linebacker, Mike Neal, who tries plenty hard but has passed his peak (29 in June).
Mason Crosby re-signs: Thompson got his kicker at market value – a four-year deal that averages $4.025 million. That’s fair for a guy who has shown he can function fine in the Green Bay winter.
Casey Hayward leaves in free agency: He was a goner by last October, when draft picks Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins showed early on they can play. San Diego signed Hayward to a nice contract (three years, $5.1 million average), but the Packers had no reason to pay that when they have two second-year cornerbacks who need to get on the field.
Thompson’s signing of a tight end who can run could prove to be big. His failure to at least protect himself at inside linebacker could be big, too. His one must from the draft is finding one who can play in the nickel and dime, and play now.
— email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.