Originally this was going to be a series giving you four different voices for four different positions, but due to some scheduling conflicts I was tagged in for the fourth installment….my apologies to you our fine readers.
Yesterday Tony broke from the mold that Evan and I made with our defense heavy analysis by stating offensive line is our greatest need (personally I blame the fact that his name does not rhyme with ours and I agree with Ben T that his name should be Tevin). Tony made a good argument, and it is certainly a popular one to make, but I am not sure upgrades to the line are quite as pressing as many may think. There are plenty of advanced stats out there to suggest that the Packers offensive line regularly provided three seconds or more for Aaron Rodgers to throw the ball. This is about all the time that can be expected in the pocket at the NFL level. Packers line even ranked 11th in pass blocking according to PFF.
This isn't to say that Packers are completely fine along the offensive line. This simply is not true by a long shot. The Packers have a clear need at the center position as well as depth to the interior offensive linemen. The thing is though, quality centers can be found late in the draft….or even on the street. Scott Wells was drafted in the seventh round. John Sullivan, who has often been touted as one of the best centers in the league, was drafted in the sixth round. The 49ers have invested plenty of first round picks into their top rated offensive line, but not their center. Jonathan Goodwin was a fifth round pick. In fact of the top 5 rated offensive lines by PFF only two had a center that was a first round pick; the Jets’ Nick Mangold and the Browns’ Alex Mack. So while upgrading the talent to the offensive line is important, it’s not biggest need the Packers have at this point and can be addressed later in the draft.
There is a bigger issue lurking on the horizon. It is one that could truly cause our offense troubles. It’s a problem that needs to be addressed now in order to avoid the wheels falling off the offense in the prime of Aaron Rodgers’ career. I’m talking about the disappearing depth at the wide receiver and/or tight end position.
Wide receiver is probably not a position that many people have circled on their "Packers’ To Do" list this offseason. In 2012 the passing game still hummed along at a high level. Aaron Rodgers had an MVP type season and two receivers – James Jones and Randall Cobb – had statement making seasons. Everything should be good right? Wrong. The cold reality of the situation is that the Packers are facing a potentially steep loss in talent on offense with the probable departure of Greg Jennings, the retirement of Donald Driver, and a good chance the Packers cut ties with Jermichael Finley. This would be the biggest single loss of offensive talent for the Packers since Mike Wahle and Marco Rivera left in early days of the Ted Thompson era. The Packers’ offensive line struggled for a few years to find suitable replacements for those players and unfortunately history could repeat itself if actions aren't taken now.
See the core of the Packers’ offense revolves around a simple principle: the Packers have more talented pass catchers than a defense has pass defenders. At the beginning of the Aaron Rodgers era this meant the Fab Five (Donald Driver, Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, James Jones, and Ruvell Martin). Then Martin was quickly replaced with Finley. Then it was either Finley or Randall Cobb. Either way the Packers could always send four to five viable receiving threats who could line up at any receiving position. With Jennings and Driver leaving that leaves three starting quality receivers available (Jones, Nelson, and Cobb) and one decent possession receiver (Jarrett Boykin). That’s not bad, but in today’s NFL that does not stress the defenses around the league that much. Many teams have three starting quality cornerbacks these days; very few have four starting quality corners.
The ramifications for next year aren't the reason why this issue is so pressing though; it’s the ramifications for 2014. The Packers signed James Jones on the extra cheap. The Packers were fresh off their Super Bowl win and Jones had a wildly inconsistent playoff run….so much so that teams weren't convinced that he could become a starting quality receiver. He decided to come back to Green Bay to prove himself with the best quarterback in the league. That’s looking like a great decision now because he is coming off a year where he has lead the league in TD receptions and now has only one year left on his contract. He’s going to get paid on his next deal, and depending on how he does next year the Packers may not be able to afford him. That leaves the Packers down to two starting quality receivers, which is simply not enough for this offense to perform at a high level. Now before you write this off as Future Ted’s problem, keep in mind that it takes the average wide receiver a year or two to pick up the pro game. Thus, if the Packers are going to have an adequate replacement for James Jones next year, let alone a reliable fourth option for this year, that means the Packers have to draft a guy in this upcoming draft.
Similarly the tight end situation could quickly become sticky for the Packers as well should they decide to cut ties with Jermichael Finley. For the record I am not stating the whether the Packers should in fact cut or hold on to Finley in this post, rather, I am merely working under the assumption that reports earlier this year still hold to be true and Finley will probably be gone. If that is the case, then the Packers are left with some good players at the position, but no real receiving threat among the tight end unit. Andrew Quarless is coming back from injury and how his knee is holding up is anyone’s guess. Even if he is healthy, Quarless is a more well rounded tight end prospect than Finley, but not the down the field threat that Finley can be. Tom Crabtree impressed on occasion during the 2012 campaign in the receiving game, but I would imagine even his most ardent supporters would not claim that he is an adequate substitute for Finley in the passing attack. D.J. Williams has yet to emerge as anything more than a blocker. Ryan Taylor has yet to emerge as much more than a special teams contributor. It’s not a bad group of players, but they are a bit underwhelming for the game changers that other teams have at the TE position. More importantly the TE group without Finley is not going to give the Packers a legitimate fourth option in the passing attack should the receiving group be stuck with three solid options.
The nice thing about WR or TE being the biggest need for the Packers is that it gives the Packers the luxury of trading back in the draft and also addressing some of the other needs the team has as well. The Packers don’t need to spend a first round pick at WR or TE; anywhere between rounds 2 and 4 should be good enough. An extra pick or two in the first half of the draft the Packers could also help address other areas that are lacking. This would be very similar to the 2008 draft when Ted Thompson moved back to the second around then made Jordy Nelson the first pick of the draft for the Packers. He then followed that up by getting two players that addressed long term needs for the team as well with a QB and a CB. Cynics will point out that those other two draft picks (Brian Brohm and Pat Lee) were total and complete busts, but I think this misses the point. Any pick has the possibility to be a bust, especially when you draft exclusively for need. The way to avoid busts is to stick to your board and get as many bites at the apple as you can. A move back in the draft could help address this crying while still getting value AND help add depth to the offensive line and/or front seven as well.
If the Packers are able to get a promising receiver or receiving tight end then the future of the offense continues to be very bright. Aaron Rodgers will still have a wealth of talent and the offense will not need to change drastically as the Packers face an inevitable turnover in personnel. If the Packers fail to address this need then there could be real problems in the coming years. Worst of all, there problems could quickly linger on and may mar the prime years of Aaron Rodgers’ career.