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A Half-Dozen Packers Who Could Be Keys to Success on Thursday

Jimmy Graham - November 2018

Jimmy Graham (80) is defended by New England Patriots free safety Devin McCourty (32) during the second quarter at Gillette Stadium. Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Jimmy Graham

Past history suggests Matt LaFleur doesn’t utilize tight ends as volume receivers – and we know Graham isn’t valued for his blocking. Why, then, did the Packers pay $10 million to keep Jimmy on the team – especially when two good-looking prospects, Robert Tonyan and Jace Sternberger, are on the roster?

Some in the front office obviously believe Graham will bounce back from a rough and injury-marred first year with the Packers. I’m a believer that players almost always decline slowly and steadily as they age, so I’m hopeful that Graham, at only 32 years old, will still be a valuable receiver for Rodgers in 2019.

Talented tight ends often excel well into their mid-thirties: Antonio Gates played for 17 years and Tony Gonzalez played for 16. Greg Olsen is entering his 13th season, and Jason Witten, after retiring in 2018, is back for a 16th year. Graham is only 32 – let’s not write him off so soon.

Danny Vitale - Northwestern 2015

Nov 28, 2015; Chicago, IL, USA; Northwestern Wildcats fullback Dan Vitale (40) catches a touchdown pass with Illinois Fighting Illini defensive back Taylor Barton (3) defending during the first half at Soldier Field. Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

Danny Vitale

Going into the preseason, there was a lot of buzz about the 239-pound blocking fullback out of Northwestern. Then he got a calf injury, and became forgotten – other than it being known he’d make the 53-man roster.

Apparently the Packers are impressed with Vitale for two reasons: he can offer great protection for the quarterback and he’ll be a punishing lead blocker for running back Aaron Jones. LaFleur and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett might surprise us with the amount of playing time Danny is allotted based on the team’s newly-installed offensive scheme.

Kevin King interception

Oct 15, 2018; Green Bay, WI, USA; Green Bay Packers cornerback Kevin King (20) intercepts the pass intended for San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Marquise Goodwin (11) during the fourth quarter at Lambeau Field. Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Kevin King

The less he plays, the more the legend grows, nationally, that Green Bay has two All-Pro cornerbacks in the making. Some players prove over time to be injury prone – King looks injury-prone just by walking out onto the field.

Listed as 6’3” and 200 pounds, that weight measurement might be generous. His torso is slender to the point of looking emaciated. Still, he stayed healthy for the last three of his four years at the University of Washington. After his sophomore season, he switched from being a safety to cornerback. He was chosen 33rd overall by Green Bay in the 2017 draft.

As a pro, he’s had injuries to his groin, shoulder, and hamstring, which have limited him to playing in only 15 of 32 games. But when he’s healthy, he clings to receivers like glue. That’s due to his 4.43 dash speed and fabulous agility: 92nd percentile in the 3-cone drill and 95th in the 20-yard shuttle. And despite that fragile-appearing frame, the guy somehow managed 20 bench press reps. He outperformed Jaire Alexander in almost every combine score.

Keeping Kevin on the field will be a key to the Packers’ prospects in 2019.

Billy Turner

Jul 25, 2019; Green Bay, WI, USA; Green Bay Packer Billy Turner (77) rides a bicycle to first day of training camp at Ray Nitschke Field. Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Billy Turner

When Green Bay announced they had signed up the fifth-year guard out of North Dakota State, the reception was lukewarm, with many fans feeling he’s being overpaid (four years, $28 million). The team’s coaching staff, however, seems genuinely excited about him. He’s filling one of the biggest holes in the team’s 2018 roster.

As with the other two expensive acquisitions, Za’Darius Smity and Preston Smith, the Packers feel each of these players are still approaching their full potential. Though I was taken aback by his wacky hairstyles, Turner is a laid-back guy who seems comfortable and happy in Green Bay. He’s already had stints with the Dolphins, Ravens, and Broncos, so this is his chance to settle into a good job for the rest of his career.

The Pack has had good fortune at right guard in the past. From 2009-2012, Josh Sitton was solid as a rock, as was T.J. Lang from 2013-2016. Turner looks to continue that tradition – though he can play elsewhere on the O-line if needed.

Elgton Jenkins

Aug 8, 2019; Green Bay, WI, USA; Green Bay Packers center Elgton Jenkins (74) looks to block in the second quarter during the game against the Houston Texans at Lambeau Field. Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Elgton Jenkins

The Packers’ second round pick (44th overall) won’t be a starter on opening day, but he’ll probably be the first reserve in the event of an injury to any O-line starter. That’s how impressed the team has been with the 6’5” 310-pounder out of Mississippi State.

Jenkins burst onto the scene, with 45 snaps against the Texans, and 30 more against the Ravens, in preseason Games 1 and 2. That was enough for the coaches – they put him in bubble wrap and kept him out of Games 3 and 4. If memory serves, at some point I believe Pro Football Focus had Jenkins as the only offensive lineman (with the qualifying number of snaps) to have not allowed so much as one “pressure” on the quarterback.

It’s likely that a starting lineman or two will miss multiple games in the course of the season – in which case Jenkins will likely be the first player summoned off the bench.

Raven Greene

Aug 22, 2019; Winnipeg, Manitoba, CAN; Oakland Raiders urning back James Butler (36) is tackled by Green Bay Packers defensive back Raven Greene (36) during the first quarter at Investors Group Field. Terrence Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Raven Greene

The Packer have tried and tried to find a diamond in the rough (i.e., undrafted) defensive back over the past several years. They’ve gone through Josh Hawkins, Makinton Dorleant, Ladarius Gunter, Marwin Evans, Lenzy Pipkins, Donatello Brown, Jermaine Whitehead, Kentrell Brice, and others. The talk is that Raven Greene might be the one to break the jinx.

Green went undrafted after coming out of James Madison in 2018. He’s not especially big (5’11”, 197 pounds) or fast (4.51 second dash). He did excel in his conference (Colonial Athletic Association) and in Division 1 FCS. He was 3rd team All-American in 2016 and 2nd team All-American in that division, and his college was the FCS national champion in 2016.

He made the team’s roster in 2018 and got some playing time as injuries piled up, but otherwise did not stand out. His preseason work this year, however, has drawn notice, and it eventually became apparent that Greene would make the 53-man roster.

Greene might not just pick off a roster spot, however. The Packers have at least a temporary need for an inside linebacker alongside Blake Martinez. First Oren Burks went out with an extensive injury, and then rookie Curtis Bolton followed suit. That leaves James Crawford as the only other true-linebacker in the picture.

There’s much talk, though, about inserting Greene in the position, at least on likely passing downs. When the Packers square off against the Bears in a few days, it could even be that Greene will be a defensive starter for Green Bay.

If so, this would be a remarkable rise from a longshot to make anything beyond the practice squad to playing a starting role in the critical season opener – not bad for a guy whose NFL stats consist of five tackles, and one forced fumble, pass deflection, and sack.

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Rob Born

I’m with Matt: “You gotta make those chunk plays!”

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8 Comments

  1. PF4L September 3, 2019

    Graham…The difference between Graham and the other tight ends you mentioned, the likes of Gates, Gonzalez, Olsen and Witten, is that most or all of these guys are HOF’s. I’m not bringing Grahams name up with these guys. If he can catch more than 2 TD’s this season, i guess we could call that a win.
    ***
    Kevin King….played less than half his games….Glue?…All-Pro in the making?
    To borrow from your first line under Kevin King…..The less he plays, the more the word “bust” is mentioned.
    ***
    Billy Turner…. Classic Green Bay free agent signing. 11 million his first year, making him the Packers second highest paid lineman this season only under Bakhtiari. Not only that, if the Packers keep him for 2020, they owe him 3.3 million March 20th of next year. Meaning they will have paid him, 14.3 million inside of 12 months time. More than half of his 4 year contract. Not bad for a guy who made 2.1 million last year from Denver. On hell of a raise i’m thinking. Good call Russ. No wonder Turner is laid back, comfortable and happy, he just got set for life financially.

    I’d continue, but after writing Turner’s post, i feel nauseated.

    1. Kato September 4, 2019

      Other major difference between Graham and those tight ends: he had a major injury that many do not come back from successfully

  2. Kato September 4, 2019

    I am still super confused by the Turner signing. He isn’t penciled in as a starter is he? Why is a backup player making that much? Isn’t Elgton Jenkins the odds on favorite to replace Lane Taylor if his play slips? Why even keep Bulaga if they are paying huge money for an insurance option for a guy that is likely to get hurt?

  3. Howard September 4, 2019

    Turner is going to be starting right guard. I understand why everyone thinks the Packers over paid for Turner. The Packers paid and will pay a lot of guaranteed/bonus money in the first two years. Turner is going to average 7 million a year for 4 years.

    I watched most of Turner’s games last year with Denver and Turner performed much better than any of the Packer guards last year. I know that may not be saying a lot, but Turner did play against some good competition and did not get his QB killed and blocked well in the run game. Turner also played right tackle in some of those games and went up against the Chiefs twice. Dee Ford was lined up against Turner in one of those games and Ford did not get any sacks against Turner. Chris Jones did get one sack against Turner. One of the things you do notice about Turner as a guard is he does well against delayed blitzes and passing off defenders on line stunts. That is one thing the Packers guards have had trouble the last 2 or 3 years.

    It remains to be seen how Turner will play as a starter over a full season, but how many will complain about Turner’s average 7 million a year salary if Turner can substantially reduce the quantity of hits and sacks Rogers receives from the right guard position, and can open holes in the running game?

    1. PF4L September 5, 2019

      Howard is right, Turner will be a starting guard, as he damn well better be for that money.
      ***
      When we sign free agents, you cannot…..look at their contract average over term to determine compensation merit. You could look at a 3 or 4 year average, but here’s why it’s foolish…..when is the last time the Packers kept a free agent even 3 years? I don’t know either…Woodson? Peppers?, Pickett? ….it’s been awhile. So not only is it fair to just look at their initial earnings, it’s realistic.
      ***
      Although encouraging, Howard’s assessment of Turners past play is in the past, he’s on a new team, past performance doesn’t always dictate future performance, (see Jimmy Graham). He’s most likely an upgrade, i never had a problem with his signing, just the structure and amount. I always get curious when a team, especially a bad team, would just let a lineman (who can also play tackle apparently) walk. That doesn’t make any sense. Especially when you consider the fact 2 other teams let him walk also. So Green Bay is his 4th team and he’s only 27. That doesn’t make sense if he was worth keeping. Then you add on a 500% raise in pay, and i’m scratching my head.
      ***
      So sometimes when you do the math you come up with…2+2 =5. That’s how i see Turners history, and this Russ Ball contract.

      1. Howard September 5, 2019

        I understand your frustration over the contract amount and length. I’m with you on that, thus the reason I looked at Turner’s games last year. I guess we shall see? Let the season begin and we can see which players are improvements, major improvements, liabilities, or jag.
        You got me thinking on the veteran free agent contract lengths. How many veteran free agents have the Packers signed recently with contracts over 3 years except this year? Graham 3 years. Who else recently over two years?

        1. PF4L September 5, 2019

          It’s not the length of the contract, it’s how long the free agent stayed with the team. which in turn gives the average per year of a contract a false statistic if the player isn’t kept over the first year or two.of a four year deal.

          Turner may be somewhere around average =/-, which is where i think he is. It isn’t about Turner being a bust, or a jag, it’s about earnings vs production (to me), sprinkled in with some common sense. But when 3 other teams pass on a guy who is alleged versatile that can fill in at tackle who is only 27, what does that say? We haven’t seen a gem like that since ummm….Don Barclay. Remember him? and the Packers trying to sell us on how versatile he was?

          I’m not a hater, and we aren’t having this discussion if Ball signed him between 3-4 million a year (where he belongs). It’s classic Russ Ball.

  4. Mitch Anthony September 4, 2019

    Listed as 6’3” and 200 pounds, that weight measurement might be generous. His torso is slender to the point of looking emaciated.

    Rob, that’s kind. He looks more like a draft pick of the Somali Pirates than the Green Bay Packers!

    All the best of good health, avoiding injury and maximum playing time for Kevin King.