Mason Thompson | January 27th, 2020
The Packers were destroyed in the NFC Championship by the San Francisco 49ers. They got behind early and never looked competitive in a game that would’ve sent them to the Super Bowl. The team’s top needs were evident in the loss as the receivers couldn’t get open and the linebackers were a liability in every facet.
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The season wasn’t even supposed to get this far. Many analysts didn’t even predict the Packers to make the playoffs, let alone the NFC Championship. The team had a new head coach in Matt LaFleur and a reinvigorated defense with the additions of Za’Darius Smith, Preston Smith, Adrian Amos, and Darnell Savage Jr. in the offseason. The Packers exceeded expectations, but it would come crumbling down in the end against San Francisco.
What Went Right
Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams formed a great backfield duo during the season. The two combined for almost 1,500 rushing yards, over 700 receiving yards, and 25 touchdowns. Jones was the playmaker that wasn’t named Davante Adams during the season. Both are now heading into contract years and the team might have to take a running back with an early selection if they decide that one, or both of them don’t return next year.
The defense took massive strides this year under Mike Pettine. The additions of the two Smith’s, Amos, Savage, and Rashan Gary helped build up the defense. It now seems as though the defense is one linebacker away from being one of the best in the league. Kenny Clark is one of the most underrated players in the league. Dean Lowry and Tyler Lancaster are two young, up and coming players that made the most of their opportunities this year. Jaire Alexander took major strides in his second year and will be one of the top corners in the league for a long time.
After two injury-riddled seasons, Kevin King finally showed the potential that made him the 33rd overall selection in the 2017 draft. King only missed one game this year and turned in a season with great numbers. He set career-highs in tackles, pass deflections, and interceptions.
What Went Wrong
The Packers wide receiver depth, or lack thereof, was on display all year long. The team relied on Jones as the top receiver while Adams was injured. Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Jake Kumerow, and Allen Lazard all showed flashes at points during the season but could never string together multiple solid games in a row. The Packers would be wise to use multiple selections on the position if they don’t add multiple options during the open market.
Young players taken with early selections the last few years haven’t lived up to their potential. The former second-round pick, Josh Jones, was cut in training camp, while second-year players Josh Jackson and Oren Burks didn’t take the steps needed to become starters. Jackson was behind Chandon Sullivan on the depth chart while Burks was losing snaps to B.J. Goodson who was acquired in a trade before the season started.
Outlook for the Offseason
The Packers have a wide variety of decisions to make this offseason. Most of the Packers free agents are old veterans who are in their early-mid 30’s or have a long history of injuries.
The Packers could save over $12 million in cap space by cutting Jimmy Graham and Lane Taylor. Both of them have limited roles for the team. Taylor is now a reliable backup thanks to the addition of Elgton Jenkins and his surprising play, while Graham isn’t living up to the contract that was given to him. Jace Sternberger was drafted in the third round last year and showed some promise after spending most of the year on injured reserve. If the team cuts these two, they would have about $44 million worth of cap space heading into the offseason.
The Team’s Free Agents
The Packers priority signing in free agency should be right tackle, Brian Bulaga. He played all 16 games for only the second time in his career. Bulaga had a treacherous first few weeks, facing off against Khalil Mack, Danielle Hunter, and Von Miller. Jared Veldheer was signed during the season and provided some much-needed depth. Bulaga should return while the team should be interested in retaining Veldheer.
Mason Crosby had the best year of his career this season. Ever since the horrific game in Detroit in 2018, Crosby has been fantastic. With the way the league’s kicking situations have been recently, the team should look to retain him.
The biggest decision of the offseason is the decision on Blake Martinez. He’s a tackling machine but he doesn’t offer much else besides that. The 49ers took advantage of him in both games they played against the Packers and he is seen as a liability in coverage more often than not. The Packers could be left searching at the position as Goodson’s contract is up as well.
Geronimo Allison was expected to take a huge step this year but didn’t. He caught the most passes in his career with 34 but took a backseat to Lazard, Valdes-Scantling, and Jake Kumerow.
Kyler Fackrell took a backseat to the Smith’s after his best season last year. He finished with 19 tackles and a sack this year. There is no reason to sign him with the emergence of Lowery and the selection of Gary last year.
Marcedes Lewis is a great blocking tight end but is 36 years old. The team has two of their tight ends as free agents including Lewis and the Packers could eventually cut Graham.
Exclusive-Rights free agents for the Packers include Robert Tonyan, Chandon Sullivan, Tyler Lancaster, Kumerow, and Lazard. Lancaster and Lazard both deserve long-term contracts as they are both starters on the team currently. Kumerow and Sullivan offer great depth.
Open Market Free Agents
With the wide receiver class in the draft this year, I don’t expect the Packers to fork out a ton of cash to sign A.J. Green, Amari Cooper, or Robby Anderson. Other viable options include Breshad Perriman, who showed that he still can be a deep threat for the Buccaneers late in the year, Rashard Higgins who is in the middle of another Browns organization overhaul, and Titans restricted free-agent, Tajae Sharpe.
The linebacker position needs to be addressed even if Martinez is retained. Reggie Ragland was tied to the Packers the whole way through the draft process and has shown that he still has potential. The Packers’ number one target at the linebacker position should be Bears linebacker, Nick Kwiatkoski, who has already been mentioned as a player that multiple teams are interested in.
Projecting the NFL Draft
1st Round, Pick 30: Patrick Queen, LB, LSU
There is a high chance that the Packers trade up for one of the top receivers in the class. I expect the Packers to try trading up to snag Henry Ruggs III or Justin Jefferson. They might have to trade up into the top 15, which would most likely require sending a future first-round pick to the team they trade up with.
If the Packers were to stay in this spot, there is also the potential of a trade-down if the receivers available aren’t what they expected. Queen has completely changed the linebacker landscape and could be the second linebacker off the board, not Kenneth Murray. He is a three-down linebacker who excels in pass coverage and football IQ.
2nd Round, Pick 62: Wide Receiver
The Packers desperately need to add a receiver, or two in this class. I thought about listing Brandon Aiyuk by himself in this slot but Jim Nagy said that all of the teams that he talked to during the Senior Bowl had him listed as a first-round prospect. It varies on who the Packers think match their system but any of K.J. Hamler could be a potential candidate in this spot along with Donovan Peoples-Jones, Denzel Mims, and Van Jefferson.
3rd Round, Pick 94: Wide Receiver
As I said earlier, the draft class is loaded with receivers and the Packers desperately need help there. In this range, players like Collin Johnson, Tyler Johnson, and Quartney Davis all could potentially be selected.
The Packers would be wise to try and snag one of the top receivers in the class and if the board isn’t shaping out that way, potentially trade up to ensure you get Queen or Murray at the linebacker position. The receiver class has a lot more depth than the linebacker class.
The Packers need two or three more pieces to be a serious threat to make a trip to the Super Bowl next year. With Aaron Rodgers at the helm, the team is always going to be a threat to win games and it seems like the Packers are finally putting the pieces around him under General Manager, Brian Gutekunst, who has shown he isn’t afraid to trade up in the draft and fork out some cash in free agency.
The Packers will play the NFC and AFC South divisions next year. Atlanta has shown that they are committed to Dan Quinn for the next year at least and should be much better next year. Carolina is in a difficult transition right now and could be looking for a new quarterback. Tampa Bay is a threat with Bruce Arians as their coach and they could be a quarterback away from finally making the playoffs. New Orleans will still likely have Sean Payton and Drew Brees, meaning they will be a difficult opponent. The AFC South is a bundle of four teams that can have their good weeks and bad weeks. Indianapolis and Jacksonville have somewhat troubling quarterback positions, while Tennessee could be without Derick Henry if they aren’t careful. Houston’s offense could find ways to torture Mike Pettine. The team also plays San Francisco and Philadelphia.
Next year won’t be as easy as this year. If the Packers play like they did this year, seemingly taking one half off in each game, they won’t come near the post-season. The offseason will be very telling to see if the Packers are fully all-in this year.
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Main Credit Image: Embed from Getty Images