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NFC North Stat Previews: Packers are the class of the division if they stay healthy

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As long as they don’t have major injuries that create cascade effects across the depth chart, Green Bay should be a safe bet to win the NFC North once again.

NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Green Bay Packers Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Quarterback isn’t everything in the NFL, but if you have a great one, as the Green Bay Packers do, you can basically pencil in a winning record. For the Packers, it’s not simply about winning, but constructing a team that can get to and win a Super Bowl. 2016 was in many ways a success, as they put together an impressive late season run driven by a return to form for the offense but were outclassed by a complete Falcons team that should have won the Super Bowl. The Falcons did not have a great defense by any stretch, but they ranked a middling 18th against the pass (while struggling against the run), and that middling pass defense was good enough to ensure that Falcon opponents playing catch-up did not catch up. Except for that one time.

The Packer pass defense finished the season at 23 and tailed off late. Perhaps the biggest single problem with a Dom Capers’ defenses over his tenure has been a lack of simply being average. They have been good enough to win Super Bowls on occasion, but when they’re bad, they’re really bad, and last year a bad defense doomed the team. Did the Packers do enough in the offseason to ascend to the top of the NFC? Will Ted Thompson’s unusual foray into free agency pay off? Let’s find out.

Defense

Some positions are more important than others. Replacing an inside linebacker is a pretty simple thing, especially for a team like the Packers, but certain positions have a large “cascade effect” on the entire unit, and if a player at the position goes down, the knock-on effects can be devastating. The Packers have suffered injuries to “keystone” players in two consecutive years now, with Jordy Nelson undoing the entire offense in 2015, and Sam Shields taking the entire secondary with him in 2016. Defense, and especially pass defense, is basically a math problem:

X = The time it takes for pass rush to get home

Y = The time a secondary is able to adequately stay with WRs.

X < Y = Good defense.

X > Y = Bad defense.

The Y

When Shields went down, chaos reigned. Promising second-year players Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins not only failed to adequately replace Shields, but took large backward steps in their development. Both battled significant injuries, but Randall was frequently out of position, displayed poor technique, and gambled far too much. Rollins had trouble keeping up with more athletic receivers and seemed to get worse every game. The best corner on the team in 2016 was Ladarius Gunter, one of the least athletic defensive backs in the NFL. Gunter at least knew where he was supposed to be, but he was over-matched by the league’s elite receivers.

Ted Thompson wasted no time in addressing this problem, bringing back former Packer Davon House to assume the spot vacated by Shields and spending two high draft picks on corner Kevin King out of Washington and safety Josh Jones out of NC State.

House is just an average corner, but his ability to effectively lock down one side will make things much easier on the younger players. King is as athletic as they come, and has good size to go with it. Where they previously lacked depth, the Packers now possess an intriguing mix of talent and youth at corner, and that depth will allow Randall to play the slot more frequently, where his talents are a better fit. Just two years ago this was a top ten secondary, and while it may not rise to that level, the pieces are now in place for a huge step forward,

The safety position will remain a strength with Pro Bowl caliber players Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Morgan Burnett anchoring the back. Jones will probably see plenty of playing time as a hybrid backer in the style of Mycah Hyde and may eventually take over for Burnett, who is a free agent at season’s end. For now Jones can develop as an role-player.

The Packers did a good job addressing the “Y” in the equation. It’s a young group, and not without its uncertainties, but it is almost certainly a large upgrade from the catastrophe of 2016. The “X” is another story.

The X

When healthy, the Packers were able to generate a reliable pass rush with Nick Perry leading the way. His 11 sacks landed him a big new contract, and he’ll be asked to at least replicate the production this season, though it is worth keeping in mind the Perry’s health history isn’t exactly great. This is especially important as the Packers’ depth at EDGE took a hit with some offseason departures. Julius Peppers contributed 7.5 sacks as a pass rush specialist last year, but he’s finishing out his career in Carolina, and while Datone Jones only recorded one sack last season, he was frequently in the backfield. Clay Matthews returned to the outside in 2016 and figures to play a prominent role there in 2017, but he only recorded 5 sacks and an undisciplined style frequently shunted him completely out of the play.

It looked quite possible that the underwhelming Kyler Fackrell was set to be the backup to Perry and Matthews, with rookie Badger alum Vince Biegel landing on the PUP list. The Packers addressed that lack of depth by signing former 49er and all around bad person Ahmad Brooks (who currently faces charges of sexual assault in addition to a laundry list of other incidents off the field throughout his career). Brooks will help on the field, but signing someone of such low character is both distasteful and shows just how little the Packers themselves trust the position.

The Packers also made a nifty move in claiming rookie Chris Odom on waivers after his surprise cut from Atlanta. Odom is a game EDGE player, and should provide adequate backup work, which is all you can ask for from a freely available player. While the Brooks signing is distasteful, on the field the newfound depth at outside linebacker will also serve to free up Matthews to bounce inside as necessary, and the value of that flexibility cannot be understated.

Up front, Mike Daniels remains the second best player on the team, Kenny Clark is extremely promising, and Dean Lowry will help to make up for some of the pass rush shortcomings behind him. Blake Martinez and Jake Ryan offer solid run support and completely adequate ILB play.

Back to the equation. The Packers improved on Y, but it’s possible they’ve given back some of that on X. That said, I would rather have the X problem, given Capers ability to generate pressure with creative blitz packages. They are much better-equipped to deal with problems in the front seven than in the defensive backfield. Thompson did a nice job addressing depth issues (from a purely football perspective) and this defense should be back on its way to relevance.

Offense

Buckle up, because this is going to be special. In 2015 when Jordy Nelson tore his ACL, the offense was exposed as lacking creativity. It’s worth remembering that it was the offense (11th in 2015) and not the defense (9th overall, 6th against the pass) that ultimately doomed that team, and that even with Aaron Rodgers the offense is not infallible. The mediocrity continued into 2016 when, roughly halfway through the season, three things happened to change the Packers’ fortunes:

  1. Ty Montgomery switched to RB full time, giving the Packers an unprecedented run-pass threat;
  2. Jordy Nelson finally healed completely from his torn ACL;
  3. Jared Cook returned to full health and became an important part of the passing game.

The Montgomery move was especially important from a play-calling perspective, as Mike McCarthy suddenly found himself running plays outside of the normal Packer base set with some routine. Montgomery’s experience as a receiver allows him to exploit any defensive sub package, and that fact, outside of Montgomery’s actual production, drastically improves the offense. There is every reason to think that their hot finish from 2016 will continue, and even improve.

Wideouts and Routes

With a newfound ability to create mismatches, Jordy Nelson, Martellus Bennett, Davante Adams, and Randall Cobb should all have stellar seasons as they force opposing defenses into impossible choices. Aaron Rodgers deserves all of the credit he receives, but that credit sometimes comes at the expense of the weapons around him, and many of those current weapons range from good to excellent in quality.

Football Outsiders tracks DVOA and DYAR, their signature efficiency metrics, by route type. Every Packer starter excels in at least one, and usually more than one particular route type, and while Outsider metrics do not separate the quarterback’s contributions from the receiver’s, it’s worth noting that these guys are among the very best at what they do.

For instance, Martellus Bennett was second only to Travis Kelce running drag routes per DVOA (47.7% over average). He caught five of six fade patterns thrown his way last year to lead the league in DVOA at 92.3% over average, and he caught two-thirds of his seam routes to put himself in a small, elite group of tight ends with a DVOA above 100%. The upgrade from Jared Cook to Martellus Bennett cannot be overstated.

I was a major critic of Davante Adams in his first two seasons, but to anyone who thinks his 2016 campaign was a mirage should note that his 13 slant routes generated more efficient production than all but one player (Mike Wallace). He wasn’t elite on his fly routes, but he was still 18.3% above average. Adams struggles mightily with improvising, as he caught zero of nine “broken play” targets. That is unfortunate when Aaron Rodgers is your quarterback, but I think it’s fair to say that Adams has worked hard at perfecting his planned routes on any given play, and he’s certainly willing to make the tough catch.

His reputation for drops is also vastly overstated. Drops are a poor statistic to begin with as they involve a subjective decision by an official scorer, but a high number of drops can also be a positive sign, as it means that a receiver is getting open - and generating targets - for himself. Adams had five drops last season on 121 targets, for a drop percentage of 4.1, which ranked just 45th for players with at least 50 targets. Adams is hardly a perfect receiver, but the step he took in 2016 was a real one.

Jordy Nelson rules. While his deep speed isn’t what he used to be he excels at everything else. He was the second-most valuable runner of the curl route, third-most valuable on the comeback, and his nine catches on broken plays created the second-most DYAR in the league. Even at less than full speed he is one of the hardest covers in football.

The skill positions are in great shape for Green Bay, and covering this team will be next to impossible for all but the most talented units. If they have time to operate, they should dominate.

Offensive Line

But will they have time? Much like the outside linebacker position, the starters on the offensive line are well above average. David Bakhtiari is an elite left tackle, Bryan Bulaga is very good on the opposite side, and Lane Taylor and Corey Linsley are both well above average with All Pro potential. Ted Thompson let T.J. Lang walk (to the Lions) in the offseason, and replaced him with Jahri Evans. Evans is not far from retirement, but he’s still got something left in the tank, and given the support around him, he should be fine.

That’s where the good news ends. Former second round pick Jason Spriggs has been an embarrassment in camp, and his highlight reel is Fackrellian in its hilarity. Don Barclay is still around (or at least he will be if he comes back off injured reserve around midseason), and Kyle Murphy hasn’t impressed anyone.

Aaron Rodgers does a lot to make any offensive line look good, but he also has a maddening habit of holding the ball forever. That’s fine behind last season’s all world line, but will be a much more dangerous strategy this year, and Aaron Rodgers exposure is the single biggest risk the team faces.

Fortunately, with the weapons now in place on offense, Rodgers should be able to get the ball out more quickly, and the impact of the line should be less than it has been over the last several years. With average or above weapons at every position, the Packers should be a top-three offense this season.

Overall

Dom Capers was at a serious disadvantage last season, as a lack of good corner play makes blitzing almost impossible, and even a decent pass rush wasn’t enough to cover for that group. With the depth and versatility of the current squad average should be achievable, and if they manage to stay unusually healthy they may even be special. The offense will drive this ship, and if they can improve on last year’s second half, they are legitimate Super Bowl contenders. If anything goes wrong the Vikings have a good shot to take the division, but the Packers should be a wild card at worst, and more likely in the mix for a first round bye.