4 Downs: Sizing up Packers' No. 3 QB battle
In the latest edition of "4 Downs With Dougherty," we offer some final observations on the Packers' offseason program as we await the first training camp practice July 26.
First down: New quarterback Marquise Williams looks more talented than Joe Callahan. Doesn’t mean Williams will win the Packers’ No. 3 quarterback job, but he has the livelier arm and better NFL physique.
The Packers signed Williams three weeks ago to replace a quarterback who’d been with them all offseason, Ryan Williams. Now he and Callahan, both undrafted rookies, are competing for what surely will be a practice-squad position behind Aaron Rodgers and Brett Hundley.
The two rookies will get a good look in training camp, especially with an extra preseason game, though I still wonder if Matt Blanchard will wind up back with the Packers in August or early September. Blanchard had a credible camp with them last year and is available after getting cut by the Chicago Bears a week ago. I don’t know if either Williams or Callahan will play better than he did last year.
Marquise Williams started 33 games at North Carolina and holds the school’s career record for total yards in a season. But he went undrafted, in large part because he doesn’t have a distinguishing NFL trait. At 6-feet-1⅞, he’s just a hair under the 6-2 minimum that teams prefer for quarterback prospects. Though he rushed for 948 yards last season, his 40 time (4.81 seconds) isn’t quite what you see from good NFL scramblers. Aaron Rodgers, for instance, ran 4.71 seconds, Russell Wilson 4.55 and Cam Newton 4.59.
During the draft process, Williams lost close to 10 pounds from his 228-pound college playing weight and thinks added extra core strength helped his throwing. Still, he went unsigned immediately after the draft. He had a tryout at the Minnesota Vikings’ rookie minicamp, but the Vikings went with former Wisconsin quarterback Joel Stave.
Based on the few OTA and minicamp practices open to reporters, Williams looks more like an NFL quarterback. Callahan is even shorter (6-1⅛), slower (4.98 40) and most importantly is facing the bigger adjustment going from college Division III to the NFL. Callahan’s throwing arm seems fine, but Williams’ looks stronger.
Still, it all comes down to how they move the offense in practice in training camp and especially preseason games. At minicamp last week, Williams appeared to be the more accurate thrower the first two days but not the third. They each also ran two two-minute drills, and the results were basically a push.
On Williams’ first two-minute chance he moved the offense to the 5-yard line but then threw an interception in the end zone as the clock ran out. On the second drive, cornerback Damarious Randall jumped an out route on the third play and intercepted him. Callahan’s first two-minute drill ended with an interception on the second snap. On his second try, he led a touchdown drive.
For now I’d peg Williams as the favorite. But I wouldn’t be surprised if the Packers brought back Blanchard.
Second down: I’m predicting fourth-round pick Blake Martinez will be one of the two inside linebackers in Dom Capers’ nickel defense for the regular-season opener at Jacksonville.
That’s basically a starter’s job, because the Packers play nickel on about two-thirds of their defensive snaps. That would be more in line with what Capers did when he made Morgan Burnett a starting safety as a rookie in 2010, rather than working Martinez into a prominent role over the course of the season, as was the case with Randall and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix in their rookie years.
Fourth-rounders generally aren’t plug-and-play picks, but I have trouble seeing it turn out any other way with Martinez.
With the way offenses spread the field for favorable matchups in today’s NFL, Jake Ryan and Sam Barrington aren’t fast and athletic enough to play together in the nickel. One of the two, sure. But not both. And Joe Thomas didn’t do anything last season to suggest he’s an answer there, either.
General manager Ted Thompson drafted Martinez specifically with the nickel job in mind, and the rookie got a head start this offseason because Barrington and Thomas didn’t practice while still recovering from injuries. You never know how things will turn out when the pads go on, but maybe the most important thing Martinez showed in offseason practices was an ability to handle a lot of responsibility early on.
“What you would expect out of a guy from Stanford,” Capers said. “He’s smart. His attention to detail. He’s doing a good job with calls and communication. You can tell he’s done that before because he can take charge and make the calls, be assertive in doing it. A certain level of confidence with a guy that’s played inside.”
Third down: I really like Nathan Janke’s work at Pro Football Focus and think he and his cohorts do a great job with analytics statistics, but I have to disagree with an item he wrote for ESPN this week. Janke rated Clay Matthews as the sixth-most-overpaid veteran in the NFL. I say Matthews basically has been worth the money.
Matthews’ cap hit this year is $13.8 million, whereas Janke’s statistical model places his performance last season at $3.9 million, which is a $9.9 million difference. But even advanced stats (missed tackles, pressure rate, etc.) can have their limitations.
The fact is, the Packers are a much different and better defense when Matthews plays than when he doesn’t. The 2014 season tells that story. The Packers ranked No. 19 in points allowed and No. 25 in yards allowed in the first eight games, when Matthews played outside linebacker. Then Capers moved him inside in a desperate attempt to stop the hemorrhaging, and it worked: For the final eight games they were Nos. 9 and 6.
Last season didn’t provide that kind of before-and-after comparison, because Matthews played inside all year. His sacks numbers were bad (only 6½ sacks, down from 11), and his other rushing numbers and missed tackles were down too, according to Pro Football Focus. But the Packers’ defense (No. 14 in yards and 12 in points) was not the problem last year, and stats or not, he was their most important player on that side of the ball.
It’s also true that he’s 30, and his best seasons probably are behind him just as he’s moving back outside. His play could decline significantly this year, or soon thereafter. We’ll see. But he hasn’t done anything yet to suggest he has played well below his contract.
Fourth down: If I were the Packers, the thing I’d be most concerned about heading into training camp is new tight end Jared Cook’s foot surgery in early June.
Neither Cook nor the team has revealed any details, but I wonder if coach Mike McCarthy was referring to Cook when he said one player might not be ready for the start of training camp.
Getting Jordy Nelson back is huge for the Packers, but Cook also might add a missing element of playmaking at tight end that could make this offense even harder to defend.
Cook needs all the work he can get to develop timing and rapport with Aaron Rodgers. He missed most of the offseason practices because of the surgery, so that chance is gone. Missing any time in the early part of camp, when the practices are most competitive and valuable, wouldn’t help.
And long-term issues with foot injuries always are a concern with players who have to run as much as a tight end.
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