Although the Green Bay Packers got their preseason underway on Friday night, the team has three more tune-up games to go in order to help answer the various questions that surround the team. Hopefully in that time we will see wide receiver Jordy Nelson return, as his absence was a huge contributor to the offensive struggles a year ago.
Today, however, we hope to get some answers to several of these questions from a more statistical point of view. In what has become an annual tradition at Acme Packing Company and SB Nation, we spoke to one of Football Outsiders’ top analysts in an effort to help break down some of our burning questions. Our thanks go out to Vincent Verhei for his great analysis!
If you need more statistical analysis of the Packers and the NFL as a whole, be sure to check out the Football Outsiders Almanac for 2016, which is available at FootballOutsiders.com.
APC: So much of the talk this offseason has been about the return of Jordy Nelson leading to the return of the dominant Packers offense, but is it really that simple? Or are there signs that Aaron Rodgers’ struggles were as much his own doing as that of a battered receiving corps?
VV: On the contrary, most of our detailed stats and film study show that Rodgers was still very good last year, but his best efforts were wasted by the clown show going on around him. Randall Cobb and Davante Adams were both in the top ten wide receivers in drops, and Cobb, Adams, and Richard Rodgers were all among the league leaders in failed completions that should have been successful plays based on where the ball was caught (in plain English, they repeatedly struggled to make plays with the ball in their hands). Adams, in particular, has been a complete disaster, a very bad rookie who was then much worse as a sophomore, one of the worst starting players at any position on any team in the league. Meanwhile, Rodgers' offensive line failed him too, as he was pressured on 30 percent of his dropbacks, seventh-highest in the league. He had never finished higher than 20th in pressure rate since 2010. Between sacks, runs, and completed passes, the Packers ran 105 plays that lost yardage last year. Only four teams went backwards more often: the Browns, Vikings, Titans, and 49ers. And it's not as if Eddie Lacy or James Starks were the second coming of Jim Brown, either. As complete as Green Bay's collapse was by the end of the year, Rodgers has to bear some responsibility. But quarterback was still the strongest position on Green Bay's offense, and it wasn't particularly close.
APC: Do you expect the addition of Blake Martinez to adequately fill the Packers’ need at inside linebacker, or should the team have invested more in that position with Clay Matthews moving back outside full-time? Likewise, did the Packers do enough to deal with the departures on the defensive line by drafting Kenny Clark and Dean Lowry?
VV: First question: No, but it brings up an interesting topic of discussion. Most of the strongest Super Bowl contenders this season are very strong up and down the roster, with one very notable exception. Seattle is going to try to get back to the Super Bowl without an offensive line. The Panthers had their best cornerback under wraps and then basically chased him away to Washington. The Patriots have no running backs, the Cowboys have no pass-rushers, the Steelers' secondary is suspect. Strangest of all, the Jets and Broncos have playoff-caliber talent everywhere except quarterback. And for the Packers, it's inside linebacker. At this point, it's by design -- for better or worse, Green Bay has chosen to devote its resources elsewhere, and get by at inside linebacker with spare parts, rejects, and leftovers.
Second question: Clark's position is really hard to nail down at this point. He'll surely be a starter in the 3-4, but who leaves the field when Green Bay goes to the nickel, Clark or Mike Daniels? (And don't forget, Green Bay had five or more defensive backs on the field 80 percent of the time last year.) As for Lowry, he's a fourth-rounder like Martinez. And frankly, though you never know for sure what's going to happen on Sundays, it's silly to expect fourth-round players to make an impact as rookies.
APC: With four notable offensive linemen set to be free agents next spring (Bakhtiari, Sitton, Lang, Tretter), which one would be the best option or best value to give a contract extension to during the season?
The Packers almost never add veteran free agents, choosing to build from within. For that reason, it's critical that they maintain their youth, which takes Sitton (30 this season) and Lang (29) out of the discussion. Tretter and Bakhtiari are both 25. Bakhtiari has more experience, but Tretter seems more versatile. This question may come down to Jason Spriggs and how he fares in his rookie season. The second-rounder won't be starting, at least not right away, but if he can impress coaches in practice, the Packers might feel comfortable letting Bakhtiari walk away.
APC: Datone Jones’ move from defensive end to outside linebacker is one of the big moves for the Packers this offseason; he played a little bit of both last season, so is there evidence to think that he will be more successful standing up than on the line?
That's a really hard question to answer statistically. There just aren't that many prominent players who move from end to linebacker, and when they do, it's usually from a 4-3 end to 3-4 outside linebacker, so there's not that much difference between the two roles. The strangest part is, the Packers are pretty deep at outside linebacker, from Clay Matthews to Julius Peppers to Nick Perry, all of them former first-rounders like Jones. This seems more like an act of desperation, a last-ditch effort to recoup some of the value they've invested in Jones, than a sudden stroke of roster manipulation genius.
APC: Although the Vikings claimed the NFC North crown a year ago, the Packers offense sputtered along and the team still hit 10 wins. Should the Packers be viewed as the favorite in the North this season despite not winning the division a season ago?
Almost everything that could have gone wrong for Green Bay did last season, and they still made the playoffs. That's reason to be optimistic about the future, especially with Jordy Nelson back. Our projections have the Packers winning 10.0 games on average and making the playoffs 65 percent of the time, while the Vikings average 8.6 wins and make the playoffs 41 percent of the time. We also favored Green Bay going into 2015, and we all know how that turned out, but on paper the Packers look like the stronger team headed into this year.