For fans of the Green Bay Packers, last season is one they are hoping to forget. The team finished with a record of 6-9-1 and out of the playoff picture. It was the second straight year the team failed to qualify for the playoffs and the second straight year they finished in third place in the NFC North.
The 2018 season was also a year that saw their long-time head coach get fired, and their franchise quarterback play virtually the entire season injured. Mike McCarthy, who coached the team since 2007, was let go on December 2nd, 2018 after a loss to the Arizona Cardinals. There were rumors of a rift between McCarthy and Aaron Rodgers, an allegation that Rogers denied. Joe Philbin was named interim coach for the final four games of the 2018 season.
For Rodgers, he suffered an injury in the very first game of the season. He suffered what he later described as a tibial plateau fracture and a sprained MCL in his left knee during their season-opening win over the Chicago Bears. He continued to play with the injury, even though he re injured the knee a few weeks later in a game against the Detroit Lions. Rodgers admits that he played at less than 100% the entire season. Finally, in the season finale against Detroit, he suffered a concussion he described as “scary”, after temporarily losing his vision.
Rodgers expects to return for the 2019 season completely healthy which is good news for Packers fans. But he’ll be playing for a new head coach. In one of the team’s first big offseason moves, the Packers hired Matt LaFleur to become Green Bay’s 15th Head Coach in its history. It was a somewhat surprising move since LaFleur is just 39 years old and has no NFL Head Coaching experience. He does, however, have experience working for five previous NFL franchises, most recently the Tennessee Titans as their Offensive Coordinator.
The Packers may be hoping that they catch lightning in a bottle with the hire — trying to capitalize on a new innovative offensive philosophy that has achieved success with the Los Angeles Rams and their 33 year old Head Coach Sean McVay. This past season, McVay led the Rams to the NFC championship and a berth in the Super Bowl. LaFleur signed a 4-year contract in January with the Packers which includes a 5th year option. It will be interesting to see how things work out with a veteran quarterback such as Rodgers, working with a young and innovative coach who will look to make his mark on the team, especially offensively.
Defensively, it is fairly significant that the Packers and LaFleur will be bringing Mike Pettine back as the defensive coordinator. This will add some continuity on the defensive side of the ball for Green Bay. Pettine, the former head man for the Cleveland Browns, took over the defense last season and they finished 15th in total yards allowed.
After getting their Head Coach, free agency was the next step for the Packers in an attempt to improve the team. And unlike in years past, the Packers went all in to sign free agents who they believe can help the team now. Here are the key acquisitions.
Adrian Amos – Safety
The Packers were happy to ink the former Chicago Bear to a four-year $37 million contract on March 14, 2019. Amos had an outstanding year in 2018 for Chicago starting all 16 games and combining for 73 total tackles. He is expected to help solidify the Packers secondary going forward.
Za’Darius Smith – Linebacker
The former Baltimore Raven linebacker also signed a four-year deal with Green Bay on March 14th, 2019. He is expected to immediately help their pass rush as he led his former team in sacks last season with 8.5 and also recorded 45 tackles. At 6’4” and 272 pounds, Smith brings size and strength to a defense that could use some additional pressure on the opposing quarterback.
Preston Smith – Linebacker
In yet another free agent signing of a defensive player, Green Bay signed linebacker Preston Smith to a four-year deal. The former Washington Redskin 2nd round selection back in 2015, Smith is also expected to play a big role in the Packer defense. The 6’5”, 265 pound Smith has a total of 24.5 career sacks and 167 tackles. He also has 4 career interceptions and 4 forced fumbles.
Billy Turner – Offensive Guard
The signing of Turner to a four-year $28 million contract raised a few eyebrows around the league. Green Bay will need him to step in and contribute on the offensive line, but in his career Turner has normally been a backup player. However, with great size, 6’5” and 310 pounds, the team is hoping that he is ready to have a solid season.
Free Agent Departures
There were a few important players who signed elsewhere during the offseason and are no longer with the team. The biggest name is their long-time star linebacker Clay Matthews. Although still a productive player, Matthews was not playing at the level that he once was. He signed a free agent deal with the Los Angeles Rams. Randal Cobb has also signed elsewhere, inking a deal with the Dallas Cowboys. In addition, linebacker Jake Ryan signed a contract to play for the Jacksonville Jaguars.
In the offseason, the Packers resigned Tight End Marcedes Lewis to a one-year contract and Wide Receiver Geronimo Allison to another one-year deal which will keep them both with the team for the 2019 season.
Most experts feel that the Packers had some of the best acquisitions via the free agent route, and gave them high grades for what they accomplished. With free agency behind them, the Packers offseason would continue with the NFL Draft. In all, Green Bay ended up selecting 8 players during the three-day draft. Here is a look at some of their key picks:
Round 1 – Rashan Gary – Linebacker (Michigan)
The talented Gary was projected by many as a top ten pick, but doesn’t come without some risk. He was the number one recruit coming out of high school and never quite lived up to the hype from a production standpoint. However, he has unbelievable athleticism and the hope is that he is fully recovered from a shoulder injury. With his size and speed, the Packers are hoping they can move him around and have him play multiple positions in the front seven.
Round 1 – Darnell Savage Jr. – Safety (Maryland)
The Packers moved up from Pick 30 to Pick 21 in a trade with the Seattle Seahawks to grab Savage. In the deal they gave up Pick 30 and both 4th round selections. With Savage, they are getting a safety with a lot of speed and a player who is highly productive. However, at just over 5’10”, some question his height and his ability to cover tall receivers. If nothing else, their getting a solid productive player who can team up with Amos in the backfield for years to come.
Round 2 – Elgton Jenkins – Guard (Mississippi State)
A possible starter from day one for Green Bay, Jenkins has experience at multiple positions along the offensive line. He has good size at 6’4” and 310 pounds and has the strength to handle run blocking duties in the NFL. Scouts note that although he is not a flashy player, he should be an effective and efficient player at the NFL level.
Round 3 – Jace Sternberger – Tight End (Texas A&M)
The Packers may have been hoping that T.J. Hockenson would fall to them in the 1st round, but Sternberger is a good consolation prize. Although he was basically evaluated on one season at A&M, he averaged a huge 17 yards per catch. And catching the ball is where he will be judged since he has not yet shown optimal blocking skills. He was rated as one of the top tight end prospects in this years draft and the Packers are hoping he can translate to the next level.
Other Selections in Draft
Round 5 – Kingsley Keke – Defensive Tackle (Texas A&M)
Round 6 – Ka’dar Hollman – Cornerback (Toledo)
Round 6 – Dexter Williams – Running Back (Notre Dame)
Round 7 – Ty Summers – Linebacker (Texas Christian)
It’s been a busy offseason for Packer General Manager Brian Gutekunst, and many people think he has made a lot of savvy moves in an effort to get Green Bay back on track and into the playoffs. Although he lost a few key players, Gutekunst has plugged many of those holes through both free agency and the draft. There are those that think he has added up to five new defensive starters in Amos, Smith and Smith through free agency and Gary and Savage through the draft. That remains to be seen.
There are others who feel he has not done enough on the offensive side of the ball. The wide receiver group is still extremely young and losing Cobb doesn’t help. As of now, the running back group remains the same, and they only added two offensive linemen, one each through free agency and the draft.
But Rodgers will return, and if he is able to stay healthy, it can make all the difference in the world. He has shown the ability to make other players better and can use his legs to extend and make plays. And if Aaron and LaFleur can get on the same page, it will be very interesting to see the direction the offense goes.
All in all, the Packers were determined to make some serious changes in the offseason, and it appears they did just that. Fans are hoping that those changes will result in more wins, but nothing is certain.