Did the Packers Come Up One Player Short in Spring Signings?
Yesterday I described how the 2015 Denver Broncos went all-in to form a roster that gave quarterback Peyton Manning one last shot at winning a Super Bowl. Aided by signing a lot of veterans from other teams during the 2015 free agency period, and having a starting unit stacked with veterans, Denver’s front office assembled a roster that led to the Super Bowl 50 win.
Like the Broncos, the Green Bay Packers have consistently fielded playoff-caliber teams for the last several years. Many fans believe that 2017 could be the year to bring the Lombardi Trophy back to Green Bay.
Ted Thompson and the rest of Green Bay’s front office certainly copied the Broncos in many ways this spring. They went out and acquired a number of veteran NFL players from other teams, including Martellus Bennett, Davon House, Lance Kendricks, Jahri Evans and Ricky Jean Francois.
On the other hand, however, they also lost a (greater) wealth of talent from their 2016 roster, including Eddie Lacy, Jared Cook, T.J. Lang, Julius Peppers, Micah Hyde, Datone Jones, J.C. Tretter, and Sam Shields. It’s open to debate whether the team came out with a net gain or a net loss.
Between free agent signings and a draft that many rate as one of Green Bay’s best in a decade or more, it certainly appears that the team plugged most of the holes that existed on the depth chart. But did they get them all filled?
The Hole that Went Unplugged
Yes, the team arguably still has depth problems, such as at running back, wide receiver and edge rusher, but I’d say that for the most part the Packers will field an average or better-than-average starting player at nearly every position. The exception to this appears to be at inside linebacker.
Inside linebacker looks to be the Achilles’ heel of the 2017 Packers. We pounded the point home here about a week ago. Did the Packers squander their chances to plug this final hole?
Green Bay’s second-biggest weakness last year (to cornerback) was clearly at the two inside linebacker positions. The Packers have Jake Ryan, Blake Martinez, and Joe Thomas returning, and they’ve added fourth-year man Jordan Tripp.
Most consider third-year veteran Ryan as a capable, but average, player. Martinez, despite having a decent rookie year, is viewed by many as not having a very high ceiling. He too might never advance beyond the “average” designation. Many observers think Thomas’ only talent is in pass defense and even there he’s nothing special.
Had the Packers drafted an inside linebacker this spring, Thomas would be in danger of missing the cut. As it is, Tripp could move ahead of him on the depth chart, but Thomas will likely hang on as a third-down option.
Who would have expected the Packers to have 10 draft choices and draft no inside linebacker? I’ve yet to hear any explanation for what would have seemed a no-brainer. If the Packers flame out early, much of the blame will likely be focused on their failure to draft an inside linebacker.
Moving on to the free agency period, we’re accustomed to the Packers not competing for top talent, but there are almost always opportunities for getting a serviceable player at a fair price. Last year, many thought that player would be the Broncos’ Danny Trevathan – who coincidentally was the leading tackler in Super Bowl 50. It didn’t happen, and the Bears got him – though $24.5 million for four years was way too costly.
The One Who Got Away?
This year, the key player who the Packers missed out on signing just might be Gerald Hodges. Entering his sixth season, three with the Vikings and the last two with the 49ers, Hodges has been steady and reliable – and on the rise.
A fourth-round pick out of Penn State, Hodges broke out in 2014, with 66 tackles. Traded to the 49ers four games into the 2015 season, he still managed 70 tackles on the year. His best year was 2016, when he had 83 tackles, three sacks, and two interceptions – not mind-boggling, but in each case better than the Packers’ 2016 threesome. In fact, Ryan, Martinez, and Thomas have yet to cause a fumble in their pro careers – a distinct lack of playmaking ability.
Hodges remained on the free agent market until May 25. He was finally taken by the Buffalo Bills, so you’d think that a perennial playoff team like the Packers would have held a stronger attraction. Try as I may, I’ve been unable to get the terms of this contract, but it was only a one-year deal – the type you want to make if you’re going all-in in pursuit of winning the Super Bowl.
The $3 million or so that Hodges likely got was well within the Packers’ cap space. They currently have around $19 million in cap space.
Consider two of the team’s most recent and probably final signings.
In late March, the Packers gave Ricky Jean Francois a one-year deal with a cap hit of $2 million. Then in late April, in another one-year deal, they added Jahri Evans, at a cap hit of $2.25 million. Those moves shored up the team at defensive tackle and guard with veteran players, something very unlike the Packers.
I believe this is strong evidence that the Packers – quietly but purposefully – have indeed gone all-in to produce the ultimate winner in the upcoming season.
I commend them! I only wish they would have plugged that final hole at inside linebacker. Still, and assuming good health, step-up performances by Ryan and/or Martinez could do a great deal to plug that final hole.
Then there’s newcomer Jordan Tripp, who just could prove to be the most important roster addition of them all.
Or maybe rookie safety Josh Jones will be thrust into the role and perform admirably?
The final, ultimate question is: did the Packers position themselves this spring to win the Super Bowl? I think they did.