Dougherty: Offense looms as 2017 priority
If the first half of the Green Bay Packers’ season has shown anything, it’s that they need help on offense something fierce.
Receiver, tight end, running back. All three lack upper-echelon talent. Jordy Nelson’s return from anterior cruciate ligament surgery at age 31 has solved notthing.
There’s still half an NFL season to play, so plenty can happen between now and January that will affect the Packers’ plans for 2017. A player or two might emerge and make a position group look stronger than it does today. A serious injury could create a new hole.
But we’ve seen enough to begin considering the Packers’ 2017 draft plans. Their needs list is long and resources relatively limited: They have all seven of their own picks, plus a compensatory pick for the loss of free-agent cornerback Casey Hayward. Over The Cap estimates Hayward will get them an extra sixth-rounder, though he has played well enough in San Diego to possibly bump that up at least a round.
Of course the draft’s strengths and the players left on the board will play a big part in the Packers’ early picks. Still, at this early stage, I’d guess that general manager Ted Thompson’s first two and maybe even three selections will come from among the aforementioned offensive positions and cornerback. Not that those are the Packers’ only needs, but they’re the most acute. Thompson basically can pick the best player from any of those positions early in the draft and feel like he's helping his team.
Here’s a closer look, position by position:
Receiver: The Packers have depth as far as NFL-quality players, but this is a high-priority position because of what’s happened at the top of the depth chart. The Packers don’t have anything resembling a No. 1.
I’m as guilty as anyone for thinking Nelson would be a big addition with his return. In retrospect, it was a stretch to expect him at 31 to be close to the player he was before a torn ACL. He’ll probably get stronger in time, but next year he’ll be 32 and losing speed regardless of how much the knee improves. There's no getting around that.
It’s also clear that Randall Cobb needs a true No. 1 across from him to put up numbers like he did in 2014 (91 catches, 14.1-yard average). He’s quick and athletic, but not extraordinarily so, and he’s a small target on throws mid-range to downfield.
Both also have big salaries – Cobb at $9.5 million in salary and bonuses in 2017, Nelson at $9.25 million. I suspect the Packers will try for pay cuts with one or both, perhaps by offering some guaranteed pay plus performance incentives to earn back the money lost. That’s the way this league goes.
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Davante Adams has played better of late, but if general manager Ted Thompson scored hits with second-round receivers Greg Jennings (2008), Nelson (2008) and Cobb (2011), you can’t say the same for Adams (2014).
Ty Montgomery also offers something as a slot receiver/running back. And maybe the Packers will get some real help in the second half of this season from the group of Trevor Davis, Jeff Janis and Geronimo Allison. At this point, they deserve more than a cursory look, though what they can deliver is very much an open question.
Regardless, coach Mike McCarthy and quarterback Aaron Rodgers need something closer to a real No. 1, not only to make plays but to make everyone else better. That search should start in the first round.
Tight end: Thompson’s failures high in the 2014 draft are coming to roost. Adams has been fine in recent weeks, but that’s not what you’re looking for in the second round. Richard Rodgers has been pedestrian at tight end as a third-rounder.
Free-agent signee Jared Cook’s injuries have been a killer, too. The Packers still don’t know what they have there.
McCarthy has the scheme and desire to exploit quality tight end play, but he just hasn’t had much to work with the last couple years. Adding a talented one could help Rodgers at least as much as a quality receiver, perhaps more.
Running back: Just two years ago, the Packers were riding high with Eddie Lacy. But his weight issues and this season’s ankle surgery have changed everything.
Lacy will be a free agent in the offseason, and if the Packers like his recovery from surgery, they might be able to re-sign him at a bargain rate, maybe a one-year prove-it deal. Who else in the league is going to invest much in him at this point? But that wouldn't change the need here.
Backup James Starks has another year left on his contract, but in January he’ll be 31, which is ancient for this position. He also had in-season knee surgery – he might be back this week – so he’s iffy to make the team next year, let alone carry much of a load.
McCarthy wants and needs a run game. It can be a quarterback’s best friend. And the run game starts with the running back. I could see Thompson taking one in the first round if a really good prospect is there.
Cornerback: Sam Shields’ concussions have changed the outlook here. He probably has played his last game with the Packers and perhaps in the NFL.
There’s no reason to think Shields will back this season from the concussion he sustained in the opener. And based on that play, he’s a routine tackle away from a more serious injury, so it’s hard to see the Packers bringing him back, even at a big cut from the $9 million he’s due in ’17. If I were him, I’d say thanks for everything and walk away from the game.
So while Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins still need time to grow, and while the Packers have decent young prospects on hand (LaDarius Gunter and developmental undrafted rookies Josh Hawkins and Makinton Dorleant), cornerback has become a big need.
The NFL is all about spread fields and match-ups in the passing game. Defenses need a stable of cover men to have a chance to stop them. Shields was their best and really one of the better cornerbacks in the league, so his loss is big. I’d rate the aforementioned offensive needs higher, but make no mistake, the Packers should be looking early in the draft for help here, too.
Outside linebacker: The need isn’t acute, but age and scheme push it up the list even if Clay Matthews and Nick Perry again are the starters next year.
Matthews has chronic hamstring problems and turns 31 in May. He’s a highly talented player, and the Packers will need him in ’17. But chronic injuries diminish ability, and they just can't count on him to be there week in and week out. He’s also got a big contract ($11 million in ’17, $11.4 million in ‘18), and the future comes fast in the NFL.
Perry, in the meantime, has been one of the Packers’ best players this year, and I’d think they’ll pony up as long he stays healthy. But he also appears to play better when Matthews is on the field. And as good as Perry has been, he's not a game-changing rusher.
And though 36-year-old Julius Peppers still might have his moments down the stretch, this has to be his last year.
Pass rushers win games, and outside linebacker is the most important position in coordinator Don Capers’ defense. So it demands quality, and Matthews’ age and injuries mean the Packers can’t think about the future too soon. Maybe third-rounder Kyler Fackrell will be a player, but there’s no knowing right now. It's never too early to draft a pass rusher.
Inside linebacker: Jake Ryan, Blake Martinez and Joe Thomas have removed this position from the liability list. But the Packers still don’t have a dynamic talent in the middle of the field, so if they get the shot in the middle rounds, they should take it.
Offensive line: Drafting anywhere but late here looks like a luxury to me.
Guard T.J. Lang will be a free agent, and maybe concerns about his bad hip will convince the Packers to let him walk in free agency. They could bump Bryan Bulaga inside, start ’16 second-rounder Jason Spriggs at right tackle and go from there.
But that would bite into the depth. With Shields’ salary off the books, I’d think the Packers would bring Lang back for a couple more years as long as the medical staff gives the OK.
Defensive line: Thompson spent his 2016 first-round pick on defensive tackle Kenny Clark, so this position moves down the list, too.
The line has been fine this season and played a big role in the run defense ranking No. 2 in the league through the halfway point. If health holds, they’re all back in ‘17. So I wouldn’t draft here until late.
Quarterback: With Brett Hundley back as backup, this is undrafted rookie only.