The Green Bay Packers certainly are down in 2017, but they’re not out of the NFC hunt in 2018.
With so much negativity surrounding this season, it’s easy to forget that the Packers were 4-1 prior to Aaron Rodgers’ injury. Optimism was high. A divisional championship was in the works. A Super Bowl appearance was in the realm of possibility. Everything was “normal” and most fans, despite the plethora of early season injuries, were expecting high levels of success.
But the Packers are not always going to be guaranteed a playoff spot. Not when they lose their franchise quarterback for just about half the regular season due to injury and not when a smorgasbord of other players are already injured in the first week of the season. Yes, there are several issues with the defense that must be corrected in order for Green Bay to make a deep run in 2018. But even in their Super Bowl season with Rodgers, the defense followed a “bend but don’t break” mantra for a large part of the year.
Yes, the postseason and a title run are still possible for the Packers in 2018 and here are five reasons why there should be more optimism for the Green and Gold.
1. Rodgers is back.
With two collarbone injuries in the past five years, Rodgers’ shoulder is a bit of concern moving forward. But with a plate and 13 screws, there may not be a need to worry as much about a recurrence.
The bigger concern should be if Rodgers continues to have the same arm power and comfort in the pocket as he has had before. Yes, there were some underthrows against Carolina, but how much of that issue was velocity versus rust? Shutting down Rodgers now gives the franchise QB time to avoid further injury and not get into bad habits from any sort of overcompensation.
A fully healthy Rodgers is still his future Hall of Famer self. He’s a competitor and his play should not be expected to immediately deteriorate as a result of this injury. He’ll be back and ready as ever to lead the offense next season.
2. The running game has taken shape.
Coming into 2018, the running back position was one of the team’s largest unknowns. Ty Montgomery was in the process of fully transitioning to the position and the drafted rookies didn’t carry much weight in terms of name recognition.
Sometimes injuries give way to opportunities.
Without Rodgers at quarterback, the Packers were forced to run the ball a lot more. And without Montgomery for a big chunk of the season, the Packers’ rookies took center stage with Jamaal Williams and Aaron Jones establishing themselves as a solid complementary duo that has reached 851 yards on the ground. Jones is averaging an eye-popping 5.6 yards per carry on 78 touches this season. As seen on a few occasions, Williams is capable of tiring defenses down with his power before Jones slashes through.
As long as the Packers don’t get away from utilizing this power-explosion tandem with a healthy Rodgers, the offense will be even more dangerous in 2018. Rodgers hasn’t had a backfield quite like this in Green Bay before.
3. The Packers haven’t seen what all of their early 2017 draft picks can do yet.
The New Orleans Saints have received glamorous reviews for their 2017 draft, as their first four picks received a mix of starting and Pro Bowl nods in year one. Green Bay, meanwhile, hasn’t been able to see the full package of their first four picks this season due to injury.
Kevin King was a raw, athletic specimen coming into the league. Considering the inconsistency that should be expected for a young player at the cornerback position, especially one that is learning how to use his long, lengthy body, King was able to hold his own on several occasions against top receivers. These next two weeks without anything to gain or lose would have been a perfect time to let King loose and learn his craft. His injury a few weeks ago prevents that, but there is a lot to like about King’s potential as soon as next season.
After earning rave reviews in training camp, the expectations for Josh Jones skyrocketed. The rookie took his lumps in coverage as he learned both the safety and linebacker positions in Green Bay, but he has a lot to work with from a tools perspective. With Morgan Burnett a pending free agent, Jones should receive extensive playing time next season and will need to make a year-one-to-year-two jump as the Packers’ coaching staff figures out how to best utilize him.
The wildcards in this draft class still belong to third rounder Montravius Adams and fourth rounder Vince Biegel, who have been significantly slowed by injuries. Adams was impressing teammates early in preseason before suffering his foot injury and has been limited to just five games. His size and strength in the interior of the line could be a factor next season if he stays healthy and progresses in his technique at the pro level. Biegel’s work ethic and development has been praised by linebackers coach Winston Moss, but Green Bay will need to see more of an impact from him in the pass rush in 2018. Biegel may not have the same athleticism as his college teammate T.J. Watt, but both have the same kind of character and relentless effort. There’s some curiosity as to how much Biegel would have developed this season if he hadn’t landed on the PUP List so early on.
4. The offensive line is deeper.
The preseason exposed Green Bay for its lack of depth on the second team offensive line and, unfortunately, some of those players had to step in immediately due to injuries. Like running back, however, the line is in a much better state than earlier in the year.
The jury is still out on Jason Spriggs and his long-term growth. It’s hard for Packers fans to move past his rough preseason outing and that has tainted a lot of views of the second-year tackle. It didn’t help that Spriggs allowed a drive-killing sack to Julius Peppers last weekend that fully put the spotlight on his error.
Overall, however, Spriggs has been much more stable and reliable at right tackle in his return from Injured Reserve than what he showed in the preseason. He had superb days against Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay and though he can get beaten on the inside move from time to time, has shown the ability to recover. With Bryan Bulaga suffering his third major injury, the former first rounder’s long-term outlook is fuzzy. Spriggs’ progression in light of Bulaga’s injury is a positive heading into 2018.
Likewise, Justin McCray has proven to be a valuable swingman reserve after being forced to play almost every position on the line. He’s lined up at both tackle positions, as well as left guard this season in addition to getting work at center in training camp. McCray has become a more reliable Don Barclay for the Packers in his utility role, but it wouldn’t be far-fetched to believe the Packers could make him a starter at center or guard next season depending on the futures of upcoming free agents Corey Linsley and Jahri Evans. Green Bay has also been grooming players like Kyle Murphy, Lucas Patrick, and practice squad draft pick Kofi Amichia for similar utility roles.
5. The defensive line is a strength.
A defense is better in a lot of areas when it’s line is winning battles up front. For a number of seasons, the Packers have searched high and low in the draft to build the defensive line into a strength. It would appear Green Bay has finally begun to achieve that after misses on draft picks like Datone Jones, Jerel Worthy, and Khyri Thornton.
Kenny Clark is not necessarily a well-known name across the NFL landscape yet, but he is to people studying the game. Clark and fellow Pro Bowl snub Mike Daniels have teamed up to create a strong interior line at the point of attack. Clark’s best football is still ahead of him at just 22 years of age and he has been more than enough of a replacement for B.J. Raji the past two seasons. Daniels has not had the big pass rush season many expected after registering 1.5 sacks and a number of hurries in week one against Seattle. But he continues to earn his hefty paycheck as a durable and stout defender.
On the outside, Dean Lowry has built upon his rookie flashes and been strong on the edge for Green Bay. He will stand out for his touchdown against the Buccaneers, but Lowry has continued to win more and more one-on-one matchups as the season has gone along. And he’s not a one-trick pony either, shedding through double-teams, bull-rushing, and occasionally winning off the edge. The statistics won’t reflect Lowry’s impact, but the high-effort second year pro has become a valuable member of the defensive line unit.
Quinton Dial was a nice late role player addition for the Packers this season as well, and Green Bay will have the option of extending him prior to free agency. If Montravius Adams can develop into a consistent role player for Green Bay next season as alluded earlier, the Packers’ defensive line will be among the league’s best.