After a changing of the guard at general manager, defensive coordinator, and various other positions, there is more freshness and anticipation surrounding the Green Bay Packers this season than in recent memory.
Brian Gutekunst replaced Ted Thompson as the man in charge of personnel for the Packers. So far through one offseason on the job, Gutekunst has made some gutsy moves that will make the Packers difficult to beat in some areas, but still somewhat questionable in others.
Gutekunst made it a priority to use some of his cap space to sign several veteran free agents to a team desperate for outside help. The Packers first inked star tight end Jimmy Graham to a three-year, $30 million deal that gave them their first high-end tight end since the days of Jermichael Finley.
It was a strange few hours for Packer fans. Once the news broke that Graham was going to be wearing the green and gold, fans around the world threw up their hands in elation and immediately began praising Gutekunst for finally dipping the team’s toes into the free agency waters.
But only minutes later came the news that the Packers had parted ways with Jordy Nelson. Nelson had a remarkable nine-year run in Green Bay which cemented him as one of the best receivers in team history. Nelson ranks second all-time for the Packers in touchdowns, only behind the great Don Hutson. He also ranks third in receptions, fifth in yards, and second in targets.
It is difficult to gauge whether or not the Packers actually improved themselves on the surface given the essential trading of Nelson for Graham. But, sentimentality aside, Nelson’s production last season was a painful indication of how little he appears to have left. Now 33, Nelson had the worst year of his career by far and caught the fewest amount of balls since the 2012 season.
Much of that decline can be attributed to Aaron Rodgers being hurt, but the Packers had made it a priority this offseason to not only become more skilled at receiver, but bigger. Jimmy Graham fits both of those needs like a glove. At six-foot-seven, Graham has used his large frame and immense catch radius to play his way into five Pro Bowls.
While he is not much of a blocker, the Packers will be happy to use Graham primarily in the red zone, similarly to the way they had used Nelson for years. Recognizing that blocking at the tight end position was a concern, Gutekunst brought in Marcedes Lewis to back up Graham and provide the offensive line with a valuable extension in blocking situations.
Lewis also stands tall at six-foot-six, giving the Packers plenty of size and muscle at a position that requires it. Green Bay approached the draft in a similar fashion to free agency, as they looked to bring in as much size as possible to the skill positions. In the fourth round, the Packers took J’Mon Moore out of Missouri. Moore is six-foot-three, but was used on routes that depend on speed more than anything else in college.
Next they took Marquez Valdez-Scantling, who also measures in at six-foot-three. They finished their wide receiver overhaul when they selected all six-foot-five of Equanimeous St. Brown out of Notre Dame. While speed may not be the offense’s strong suit this coming season, Gutekunst and his staff have added size to an offense that needed it after Nelson’s departure.
The signing of Byron Bell helped solve a long standing problem for the Packers: depth on the offensive line. For years under Ted Thompson, the Packers didn’t have sufficient depth behind their starting tackles which was especially concerning given the fact that both David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga have been injury prone players throughout their careers.
While Bell’s addition in a vacuum is nothing to write home about, he gives the Packers a reliable veteran presence to put in the game should one of their starters go down with an injury as they have so many times.
Two years ago in the NFC Championship Game against the Atlanta Falcons, the Packers ended up using Letroy Guion, one of their defensive tackles, as their right guard after three starting offensive linemen left the game with injuries. Gutekunst also drafted tackle Cole Madison out of Washington State in the fourth round.
Defensively, the Packers made several personnel changes that will be interesting to watch, but by far the biggest change to the defense was the removal of longtime defensive coordinator Dom Capers and the arrival of Mike Pettine. Pettine’s track record as a defensive coordinator is outstanding. After being hired as the man in charge of the defense for the Jets in 2009, Pettine led their defense to number one in the NFL in only his first season.
After that, his defenses ranked third, fifth and eighth over the next three seasons in New York. The one blemish on his defensive resume was his lone season as the defensive coordinator of the Bills, when his unit ranked 29th in the NFL. All in all, Pettine is one of the more respected defensive minds in the business, and for a team that just had to get rid of Capers one way or another, it was a great hire.
The combination of Muhammad Wilkerson and Tramon Williams will give the defense some experience and juice both in the pass rush and in the secondary, but the Packers still absolutely need more help defensively. The drafting of Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson is yet another overhaul to a position that has been loaded up on in the draft so many times over.
There are still several areas that need addressing for the Packers. The running backs are still unhealthy and inexperienced, while the receiving corps has no speed whatsoever to break from faster defensive backs. The linebackers are undersized and weak against the pass, while the cornerback position is yet again the subject of doubt and uncertainty.
After a tumultuous offseason, the Packers generally appear to be in better shape than they were a year ago. The team has brought in more durable players with veteran experience, a new defensive coordinator and Joe Philbin, who will be in charge of the offense going forward. The Packers have a tough division to find their way through, but if they finally catch a few breaks from the injury gods, they could be back in the Super Bowl.