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Exit Interview: Green Bay Packers

Can the Pack come back?

Salute Magazine’s Exit Interview series examines the status of each NFL team heading into the offseason, along with their free agents, team needs and more. Click here for the rest of the exit interviews. Up next: the Green Bay Packers.

Record: 7-9

The Packers looked to be in great shape entering week 6. They were 4-1, and with Aaron Rodgers at quarterback, they’ll always be a playoff contender, right?

Well, what happens when he gets injured? Bad things. Rodgers broke his collarbone, forcing the team to go with Brett Hundley down the stretch. Hundley showed nice athleticism, but he’s clearly raw as a passer, and the offense was stagnant as a result. It didn’t help that the offensive line was dealing with injuries and poor play.

By the time Rodgers was healthy again, the Packers were a longshot to get into the postseason. It’s clear: even an elite signal caller like Rodgers can’t single-handedly get a team into the playoffs every year. Yes, you have arguably the best QB in football, but you still need a strong defense and a functional running game to supplement him.

Given that the Packers were relying on three rookies and a converted wide receiver in the backfield, their 17th ranked rushing offense is actually fairly impressive. However, their defense was below average against both the run and pass, and it’s clear that more pieces are needed on that side of the ball.

Change in the face of struggle is necessary sometimes, and despite a mediocre season, the Packers look to at least be putting the pieces together with their leadership. Longtime general manager Ted Thompson will be transitioning into an advisory role, which gives way to promoted director of player personnel Brian Gutekunst, who’s been with the team since 2002.

Both coordinators for 2018 will be new. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers was finally fired, with Mike Pettine entering the fold. Offensive coordinator Edgar Bennett left to join Jon Gruden‘s staff in Oakland, so Joe Philbin is back in the position he had before leaving to become the Miami Dolphins head coach.

Pettine and Philbin are experienced guys who should give head coach Mike McCarthy reliable schemes to lean on. But McCarthy has been mixed at times in the past few years, and he’ll most certainly be on the hot seat if the Packers can’t get back to the playoffs.

A healthy Rodgers will always give the team a chance. But eventually, the Packers have to realize that the rest of the team needs to be brought up to his level if they want any chance of hoisting another Lombardi Trophy.

Current number of draft picks: 11 (#14 in the first round)

Cap space: $21 million

Notable free agents

Morgan Burnett, S: Burnett has spent his entire eight-year career with the Packers and has played mostly solid football during that time. That’s how it was in 2017, with Burnett picking up 68 total tackles, though he did miss four games due to injury. He’s 28 years old, so he’s got at least a few more good seasons in him. Another team may outspend the Packers to sign him, however.

Jahri Evans, G: Not too long ago, Evans was considered one of the top guards in the NFL. However, at 34, it’s clear he’s nearing the end of his career. Still, it’s been a pretty good one all things considered, and the veteran could probably be a decent fill-in option for most teams if he decides to keep playing.

After 11 seasons with the New Orleans Saints, Evans took a one-year deal with the Packers as their starting right guard. While it was his worst season in terms of Pro Football Focus grading (71.7), it was still better than the majority of the other interior offensive linemen on the Packers. A younger player would probably be better, but Evans would be a nice fallback solution if needed, though he’s reportedly considering retirement.

Davon House, CB: House has had an up-and-down career in the NFL. Drafted by the Packers in the fourth round of the 2011 draft, he slowly rose up the depth chart and became the team’s primary nickel corner. The Jacksonville Jaguars signed him to a fairly sizable four-year contract in 2015. That ended poorly, to say the least.

Although he was fairly strong in his first season, breaking up 23 passes and getting 4 interceptions, he fell apart in 2016, starting just four games and putting up 0 in both categories. The Jaguars decided to cut him ahead of this season, and House returned to the Packers on a one-year deal. While he started 12 games, he only had 1 interception and 6 pass breakups. It’s clear that the team needs new blood at the cornerback position.

Ahmad Brooks, OLB: Following seven consistent seasons with the San Francisco 49ers, Brooks was released during preseason cuts back in early September as part of a roster revamp. With injuries to their pass rushers in mind, the Packers signed him to a deal for the rest of the season.

His snaps were limited for the most part, and he finished the year with just 1.5 sacks and 5 starts. Brooks will turn 34 in March, but he could find a similar role elsewhere.

Team needs

CB: The Packers were a mess at corner this season, with Damarious Randall standing out as the only bright spot. Injuries forced them to play seven guys there, and House going to free agency only makes things worse. They should go after one of the top corners in the draft this year.

S: Burnett is a free agent, and while Josh Jones had his moments as a rookie in 2017, he was mostly used in a hybrid nickel-safety role. A true safety option next to Ha Ha Clinton-Dix could improve the secondary.

G: Evans going to free agency will leave Lane Taylor as the only viable starting guard on the team. The rest were mostly poor at blocking this season. Keeping Rodgers upright and healthy should be the primary goal for the Packers offense next season, so upgrading at guard is essential.

TE: Martellus Bennett busted out of Green Bay after just seven games, forcing the team to turn to the duo of Lance Kendricks and Richard Rodgers for the rest of 2017. Neither was very productive. The Packers could very well target one of the top tight ends in the draft.

C: Corey Linsley had a surprisingly down season at center, but he’s been successful in the past, so he should be able to bounce back. The problem is that the Packers went most of the season without a true backup for him. That’s something they’ll need to address.

LS: The Packers had to go back and forth between Brett Goode and Taybor Pepper at long snapper in 2017 due to both players dealing with injuries. Goode’s a 33-year old free agent, while Pepper is an exclusive rights free agent.

Best player/building block

Mike Daniels, DE: Daniels flew under the radar for the past few seasons but finally started to get the attention he deserves in 2017. While he only had 5 sacks, he did tie a career high in total tackles with 49. PFF gave him a grade of 87, tied for 15th among all interior defenders and 5th for 3-4 defensive ends. It’s difficult for players at that position to consistently put up the kind of numbers Daniels has, but he’s done well in that regard for the Pack.

Underappreciated player

David Bakhtiari, T: How does PFF’s top-graded tackle not make the Pro Bowl or be named first-team All-Pro? It’s mind-boggling. Bakhtiari played fantastic this season in spite of dealing with injuries. His pass blocking grade of 90.6 led all tackles and third overall across all offensive linemen. He was the top tackle last season too!

In terms of raw stats, Bakhtiari allowed just 12 total pressures in 2017, including one lone sack. The rest of the offensive line struggled, but his play needs more recognition. A truly outstanding player.

 

AFC East: New York JetsMiami Dolphins

AFC North: Cleveland BrownsCincinnati Bengals

AFC South: Indianapolis ColtsHouston Texans

AFC West: Denver BroncosOakland Raiders

NFC East: New York Giants; Washington Redskins

NFC North: Chicago Bears

NFC South: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

NFC West: San Francisco 49ers

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