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Friday Musings: Packers begin their quest to ‘play even’ on special teams

The addition of Rich Bisaccia is the first step for Green Bay in righting a special teams ship that has been sinking for years.

NFL: Las Vegas Raiders at New York Giants Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

Within a matter of days, the offseason will officially commence for the entire NFL. While the Green Bay Packers have been active in the coaching circles since the end of their postseason run, the large and looming questions surrounding next year’s roster are about to be answered.

Will the Packers be able to afford several key playmakers on the offensive side of the ball or at least one of their two notable defensive pickups of the past year? What changes are in store for a declining special teams unit that hit rock bottom at the most inopportune time?

Today’s musings investigate a topic from each phase of the Packers’ roster as the offseason kicks off, beginning with the most glaring unit in need of improvement.

“We just would like to play even”

In the aftermath of the Packers’ loss to San Francisco, there were persistent questions about the offensive line’s play, Aaron Rodgers’ future, Rodgers’ own play, and the myriad of special teams blunders. However, one press conference quote stood out to this writer more than any other.

When Rodgers was asked how much pressure it put on the rest of the team when the special teams played against the 49ers like it had all season, he issued a pretty honest yet precise statement.

We just would like to play even. Make some plays, kind of have a wash on special teams. That would be good. In crucial, critical situations we had, obviously, some issues.

Matt LaFleur would preview this sentiment in his own presser, admitting the team had “a ton of special teams miscues” against the 49ers. But Rodgers’ statement is very accurate: the Packers just need to play even on special teams. In recent playoff losses, special teams has not particularly cost the Packers, outside of the onside kick against Seattle, though it also has not provided a clear advantage. It has been many, many years since Green Bay had a formidable special teams for other teams to build a gameplan against. Still, special teams has rarely been the X-factor in wins and losses for the Packers and the team has been able to win games without the extra lift. Mediocre is and has been enough. Anything better is gravy.

One could also argue that the 2021 meltdown was built from years of continued neglect to improve the unit. In Rick Gosselin’s ranking of special teams play (via Packers Wire) across the NFL, the Packers have finished near the bottom for four straight years - 32nd in 2018, 26th in 2019, 29th in 2020, and 32nd again this past year. Green Bay has not had a viable return game for quite some time and has paired this with numerous instances of poor return coverage. With some musical chairs at long snapper and holder, issues in the kicking game over the past year have also emerged.

The hiring of Rich Bisaccia finally proves the Packers are willing to make serious changes, at least in the public eye. While Bisaccia’s recent units have fared about average in comparison to the rest of the league, this would at least be “playing even” as Rodgers would suggest. However, with Rodgers’ future in limbo, are the Packers’ efforts to fix special teams too late for a championship run?

Rasul Douglas or De’Vondre Campbell?

So much has to happen before the Packers can truly dive into their salary cap decisions for the 2022 season, namely an ultimatum on Rodgers and Davante Adams. However, amid a number of free agent decisions and cap dilemmas sit two defensive players that carry difficult decisions of their own.

It is very possible that the Packers could make a run at keeping Douglas and Campbell for next season and beyond, but it likely would involve one or the other. In this case, which player makes the most sense for Green Bay to retain?

The move probably comes down to need versus desire, and how the Packers view those two descriptions. Douglas appears open to a return, but his market is hard to predict. At just 27 years old, Douglas theoretically has plenty of his prime ahead of him, though he had a career season after landing in Green Bay. With Eric Stokes turning in an excellent rookie year and Jaire Alexander returning from injury and nearing a new contract of his own, can the Packers to afford to keep Douglas as well? Douglas may not be a need on the current roster, but he sure is a desirable luxury. The Packers likely cannot pay Spotrac’s estimated market value of $9.2 million annually over four seasons, but a hometown discount could keep him in play with Kevin King and Chandon Sullivan also entering free agency. Is Douglas’ play sustainable? If so, he could turn into a bargain over the long run and give the Packers three bona fide cornerbacks to build around - an enviable position for many teams in the league and insurance in case of injuries.

Re-signing De’Vondre Campbell might be a bit cheaper and fill more of a need for Green Bay’s defense, but it also depends on how the Packers perceive that need. Over the past decade, the Packers have been satisfied with veteran one-year contracts and day-three draft picks to fill various roles at inside linebacker. Campbell was the most well-rounded player Green Bay has added in a long time at that position and also is fairly young at age 28. A three-year, $18.8 million deal as Spotrac suggests might be well worth the money to end the middle ‘backer carousel and keep the first-team All-Pro in Green Bay, while building cheaper depth behind him.

Again, how do the Packers value need over desire, especially between two positions that carry different values from team to team? Campbell and Douglas were both one-year wonders to a certain degree, but they sure played pivotal roles in the Packers’ 2021 season.

Packers face an uncertain 2022 at wide receiver

Except for cases like that of Ja’Marr Chase, it is difficult for first-year wide receivers to make a significant impact. That is why it was more than peculiar when Green Bay did not select a receiver during the 2020 NFL Draft. Two years later, curiously not planning ahead, the Packers face an uncertain offseason at the receiver position.

Adams, of course, is set to reach free agency. While the franchise tag is available to at least buy the Packers some time in contract talks, the eventual price to keep the All-Pro around will be as hefty as any receiver in NFL history. Behind Adams are two additional unrestricted free agents in Equanimeous St. Brown and Marquez Valdes-Scantling, while Allen Lazard is a restricted free agent commodity. The Packers could save precious cap room by utilizing the out in Randall Cobb’s contract, even as an instrumental part of Rodgers’ demands.

That leaves Juwann Winfree, Amari Rodgers, and exclusive rights free agent Malik Taylor as the only remaining receivers on the team’s roster. Green Bay almost certainly will bring back one of the above receivers in question for the 2022 season, but it is concerning that the Packers do not have a young, high-upside player already groomed for a larger role next season. Rodgers was supposed to be one of those potential players as a slot receiver, but really struggled as a rookie.

While the Packers could target a receiver early in this year’s draft, they enter the offseason with more question marks than they have for quite awhile.