Five Things I'll Be Watching in Pack's Preseason Opener

Posted August 8th, 2018 @ 08:08pm

Finally, the fake games are almost here. The NFL preseason is upon us; that annual rite of passage when football fans hold their collective breaths until the games end and we find out who got injured and how long they'll be out.

Of course, there's also the fun of watching a lot of young players take advantage of their opportunity and try to earn a spot on the team's 53 man roster or practice squad. And when the Packers take the field Thursday night at Lambeau against the Titans, there will be a lot of chances for guys buried deep on the depth chart to show their stuff.

That's because the Packers will likely rest key veterans (Aaron Rodgers, Davante Adams, Clay Matthews, Tramon Williams, Davon House) and will be forced to rest a number of injured players they'd really like to see play: Jimmy Graham, Muhammad Wilkerson, Jaire Alexander, Kevin King, Aaron Jones. Other injured guys, like David Bakhtiari, Randall Cobb, Nick Perry and Bryan Bulaga would likely have been given the night off even if they were healthy.

So what does that leave us with? Here's what I'll be paying close attention to:

1. The backup QB battle begins; It sounds like Brett Hundley will get the start as he begins what will likely be a monthlong battle with DeShone Kizer for the prized backup spot. I expect the Pack to keep only two QBs on the 53, so this should be fun to watch all summer. You have to figure it's Kizer's job to lose, since the new regime just traded for him. But if his presence lights a fire under Hundley and a light bulb goes off, maybe it becomes a real tough decision come cutdown day.

2. The WR competition: If you believe that Adams, Cobb and Allison are assured roster spots, that leaves three or four spots for the group that includes Trevor Davis, DeAngelo Yancey, J'Mon Moore, Marquez Valdez-Scantling, Equanimeous St. Brown, Adonis Jennings and Aaron's boy, Jake Kumerow. If they decide to keep seven, those seven guys are fighting for four spots. Maybe one or two could end up on the practice squad, but this game will provide the opportunity for a couple of guys to separate themselves. With all of the raving about Kumerow, I'm looking forward to seeing what he can do. I'll also be watching Davis closely. He has the advantage of being the incumbent returner, but it would sure be nice to see him take a step in year three and earn the #4 receiver job.

3. Who will step up at outside linebacker? This is probably the Pack's most worrisome roster spot on paper (granted, inside linebacker is thinner, but Matthews can always be asked to play inside on early downs). We all know that the starters will miss some games. Barring a trade for Khalil Mack, um, no I don't see that happening, the Pack will be counting on a batch of unproven guys to step in and get after the quarterback. This is probably Kyler Fackrell's last rodeo. He needs to take a major step in his third year or else he may be out on the street. If Reggie Gilbert can build on his strong play in December, he could be a guy that gets the first look in the regular season. Former Badger Vince Biegel is coming off a lost rookie season and will get a chance to show how far he has come in year two. He should get plenty of opportunities against the Titans. Rookie Kendall Donnerson should get some run late in the game--he seems like a candidate for the practice squad, but you never know.

4. The Pettine Effect: I'm in the camp that believes the biggest addition the Packers made in the offseason was bringing in Mike Pettine to resuscitate the defense. This will be our first look at what Pettine likes to do, though he will obviously be a lot more devious once we get to the regular season. I'm anxious to see how the veterans react to the new scheme, in particular up front where I believe the unit is strongest--at the line. Sounds like the Pack has five guys they love, with Dean Lowry and Montravious Adams getting lots of love this summer. They should get plenty of snaps against the Titans. I'm also anxious to see how Ha Ha Clinton Dix takes to the new defense--feels like a bounce back year for him. The battle to replace Morgan Burnett, between Kentrell Brice and Josh Jones should be fun to watch in these preseason games. Both guys have a chance to be difference makers.

5. The big leg: The Pack invested a fifth rounder in punter JK Scott and the early returns have been strong. Of course, he hasn't kicked in a real game yet, so this will be our first look at the kid under the lights. He played in many of the biggest games in college football over the past few years, but this is obviously a whole new game. If Scott can change field position with one boot from his right leg, it will boost the Pack's coverage ability and the defense.

It feels like the Pack, as usual, has already had more than its share of injuries. Outside of Ryan, they've escaped major ones so far. And Bulaga's quick recovery has been the pleasant surprise of camp. Now, let's see if we can get through Thursday night relatively unscathed as we inch closer to the opener on September 9th.

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Gutey Corners the Market.

Posted April 30th, 2018 @ 03:04pm

Thursday night: the Packers are on the clock and I am standing in front of my TV. This is not my usual draft MO. I'm usually at the prized corner position on the family room sectional, chillin' because the Pack is picking at the back of the first round and they'll likely just be taking a DB from the Pac 12.

But this was Gutey's first go-around. The guy who leap-frogged the chosen on (Eliot Wolf) and was handed the task of making sure Aaron Rodgers' golden years have a chance to be golden on the field as well.

And from the perspective of us fans, the first round had fallen precisely into place. The Packers were on the clock and safety/slot corner do-everything DB Derwin James was still on the board. Most mocks had him heading to Tampa Bay at #7. On top of that, young speedy linebacker Tremaine Edwards was also still available. Maybe he could be the prized inside linebacker in Mike Pettine's newfangled defense.

Either one would do. But wait, the Pack has traded down to #27. Instant deflation. Why? Why pass up the chance to take a playmaking defensive player when that unit desperately needs another? But then we hear the Pack acquired the Saints' #1 pick next year. Whoa, Gutey. Can't blame you there--that's huge capital. Sure, the Saints could be a Super Bowl contender. But they could also see the bottom drop out as can happen to any team at any time.

Moments later, Gutey traded back up into the middle of the round to select CB Jaire Alexander and all was right with the world again (well mostly...ok, somewhat...ok, never mind). The Pack's situation at corner was extremely shaky heading into this draft. Yes, veterans Tramon Williams and Davon House were brought in as stopgaps, but both are likely here for just one season. The future was Kevin King (provided he can stay healthy) and a bunch of unproven youngsters: Rollins, Hawkins, Pipkins and Brown.

Clearly the Packers front office targeted that position and figured that Alexander would likely still be available a bit later in the round. Or maybe they liked him and Mike Hughes and figured they could get one of those two guys (though Hughes comes with considerable off-field concerns. Sometimes those go away, but sometimes they don't). For what it's worth, Alexander was Mike Mayock's #1 CB in this draft.

Sounds like Alexander will step instantly into the nickel CB spot, with a chance to move outside next season. He's about 3/4 of an inch short of the usual Ron Wolf measurables chart, but he checks every other box you want (including a sizzling 4.38 40 time), plus plays with attitude. When Mel Kiper invoked the name Deion Sanders when describing him, I'm pretty sure my heart skipped a beat. He may get a shot as a returner, which would be a bonus. If he can be a playmaking corner covering slot receivers, the Pack's defense will have taken a huge step forward.

On to Friday night, where I was hoping a pass rushing outside linebacker might drop into the Pack's laps. It almost happened, as BC's Harold Landry continued to slide. He was a popular pick for the Pack in round one in many mocks and he was almost still there at 45, but the Titans swooped down and grabbed him at 41. But lo and behold, Iowa's Josh Jackson was still there and Gutey pounced. Another year, another pair of corners in their first two picks. Jackson became the 7th DB drafted in the first two rounds in the past five drafts.

This pick was universally loved. The only concern with Jackson was his 4.58 40 time. Packer scouts believe he'll be plenty fast enough to keep up with NFL receivers, plus his bigger frame and ability to jam receivers at the line will fit Pettine's needs perfectly. He picked off eight balls and deflected another 17 last season--he was the #1 corner in the draft according to Pro Football Focus. By most accounts, the Pack snagged two of the top four corners in this draft--immediately transforming the depth chart. House and Williams may start the season, but if things go according to plan, King, Alexander and Jackson will all be starting by the end of the season.

It was not a surprise that Gutey traded back into the third round, after trading his own third to move back up in the first round. What was a surprise is that he again ignored a pass rusher. Clearly he and his staff did not value the ability of the guys still available at that position. In LB Oren Burks, out of Vandy, they get a versatile, speedy defender who started out at safety and then moved to outside linebacker. By all accounts, he'll move inside to play alongside Blake Martinez, allowing Matthews to remain outside, where he'd prefer to be. He also has a shot at being the dime 'backer, with his speed and coverage ability.

The move into the third cost a pair of fourth rounders, but Gutey still had eight day three picks. Either he would package some to move around and maybe end up with six more players, or he was going to get a bit creative with his eight picks. He chose the latter, surprising all of us by drafting a punter and a long snapper. Alabama's JK Scott was the second of three punters drafted in the fifth round and will compete with Justin Vogel for the job. His rare knack for hitting the corners makes him attractive and he had a stellar career in huge games for the Tide. Why not see what he can do at this level.

Long Snapper Hunter Bradley was regarded as the best in the draft and last year that position was a horror show. Again, when you're drafting 11 players, rather than the usual seven or eight, you have the luxury of avoiding the circus that is the chase for undrafted free agents. The Packers have their new snapper and he will get to work with Vogel, Scott and Mason Crosby as soon as the team gathers for mini camp.

The other noteworthy element to Saturday was the three swings Gutey took at wide receiver. After losing Nelson and Janis, the Pack needed to retool and add some bodies. If one of the three become a top four guy, it will be a success. The first off the board was Missouri's J'mon Moore, whose 4.60 at the combine sent him tumbling down draft boards despite two very productive seasons. The Pack believes his 4.49 pro day time is more indicative of who he is.

I've never seen him play, but shortly after the pick was announced, I got a text from former Fan host (and current Kansas City sports talker) Henry Lake. He wanted me to know that we got a good one here. He's watched him play a lot. "(Moore) is really good. Great value for your Packers. Nice sleeper pick." That's good enough for me. He's had some issues with drops, but he's big, physical and made a lot of big plays in college.

The next two guys will keep the Pack's uniform stitching ladies very busy. Marquez Valdez-Scantling and Equanimeous St. Brown. Dang, that's a lot of letters. Scantling is the speed guy the Pack needed to add, clocking in at 4.37. He started at NC State and finished at South Florida. Sounds like he may need a year of seasoning.

EQ will likely have the best summer, since he'll be catching a lot of balls from his college teammate DeShone Kizer: the pair hooked up 58 times for 961 yards and nine touchdowns  in 2016--most draft analysts seem to believe he has the chance to be the best of the three. But his reported disdain for playing special teams is a concern. Hopefully he'll learn how things work in the NFL.

The Pack finally addressed the offensive line in the fifth round when they added right tackle Cole Madison from Washington State. It wouldn't be a Packers draft without a Pac 12 pick along with a day three lineman--those have worked out exceedingly well in recent drafts. Madison will compete with Justin McCray for the right guard spot. For now it looks like the Pack will hope that Bulaga heals quickly, or that Spriggs or Murphy is ready to step in there.

The other selection was defensive end James Looney, out of Cal. He played in a 3-4 there, though appears to be a bit undersized and needs to play more physically--sounds like a candidate for the practice squad.

Biggest surprise for me is that the Pack didn't draft a potential candidate at right tackle or a tight end. Jimmy Graham is likely a one or two year fix and Lance Kendricks is not the long term answer. At some point they need to draft one somewhat early--they usually take a year to get acclimated to the game before they produce on the field. They did add an undrafted guy, Kevin Rader out of Youngstown State. But he caught 22 balls for 272 yards and two TDs, so he doesn't get my pulse racing.

The Pack has added around a dozen undrafted guys, including a QB out of Eastern Kentucky. Most of the guys are linemen, both sides of the bal,l along with three more inside linebackers.

Overall, we won't be able to grade this draft for a few years, but I'm excited about the two corners and the potential that Burks could add to the middle of the defense. And having an extra first rounder makes this a great first draft for the new regime. The Pack is getting top grades by most of the "experts." If they hit on their first three picks and all three are productive this season, Mike Pettine's unit will not be a liability and the Pack will be right where we expect them to be in December and beyond.

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Here's My 2018 Packers Mock Draft. Let the Mocking Ensue.

Posted April 24th, 2018 @ 03:04pm

The Brian Gutekunst era officially kicks off this week, with the Pack’s new GM—armed with a league high 12 picks—set to deliver his initial draft class. Gutey needs to be up to the challenge as the Packers look to remain near the top of a stacked NFC.

It would be beyond surprising if he actually keeps all 12 picks—the smart money says he’ll move up and down a bit and end up drafting nine or ten players. For the purposes of my mock, I’ll make the picks as scheduled, while considering what could happen if Gutey swings a deal.

First, here is how I have the first 13 picks falling:

1. Cleveland: Sam Darnold, QB, USC: I can’t see Dorsey and Wolf swinging for the fences with Josh Allen here.

2. N.Y. Giants: Saquon Barkley, RB Penn St.: Eli’s team is suddenly the least relevant in the division. That won’t work in New York. They bring in an instant star and try to wring a bounce back season out of Manning.

3. N.Y. Jets: Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma: See above. Jets go with the QB with the most star power and rolls the dice that he grows up quickly.

4. Cleveland: Bradley Chubb, DE, NC State: He would look SO good in green and gold. Pairs with last year’s #1 to build the foundation of a budding defense.

5. Denver: Josh Allen, QB, Wyoming: Elway’s talking about trading out, but Allen getting mentored by Keenum sounds like a winning combination for now and the future.

6. Buffalo (trade with Colts): Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA: Colts have needs everywhere, so they add a second #1 and give Buffalo their QB of the (near) future.

7. Tampa Bay: Derwin James, S, Florida St: Fits a need for Bucs and has lots of college fans in the area.

8. Chicago: Quentin Nelson, G, Notre Dame: Virtually every mock has this one. Which means it can’t possibly happen.

9. San Francisco: Roquan Smith, LB, Georgia: Last year’s #1 pick might soon be behind bars. Smith slots in to replace him.

10. Oakland: Tremaine Edmonds, LB, Virginia Tech: He’s young and raw, but Gruden loves him and he fits a need.

11. Miami: Minkah Fitzpatrick, DB, Alabama: This might be a spot the Pack looks to move up to to grab Denzel Ward. With top four QBs gone, Fish could look to add picks. If not, they take the best player left on the board.

12. Indianapolis (from Bills): Vita Vea, DT, Washington: Colts D desperately needs some beef and by moving down they get the best nose tackle in the draft.

13. Washington: Denzel Ward, CB Ohio St.: They would look long at hard at the tackle, McGlinchey, and the Pack dearly hopes they do. But Ward’s value is too hard to pass up at a position where they need a playmaker.

If it falls this way, with the top six defensive studs off the board, the Pack brain trust will likely be disappointed. I think they will try hard to move up to 10-12 if one of them is still available. If Ward, James, Fitzpatrick or either of the two LBs are on the board, the Pack takes one of them. But if they’re all gone, I’ve got the Pack drafting:

14.  Marcus Davenport, OLB, Texas-San Antonio: The concern, of course, is the small school background. But Davenport appears to have as much or more upside of any pass rusher in the draft. Gutey swings for the fences here that Davenport can navigate the extreme rise in competition and become an instant rotational player in the front seven. With Matthews and Perry always banged up, there is a desperate need for a pass rusher to make things a bit easier for the guys on the back end.

(Bonus pick: I think the Vikes wait on the offensive line until Friday and draft South Dakota State tight end Dallas Goedert with pick #30, as they envision double tight end looks with Rudolph and the rookie. They deem another weapon for their shiny new QB the top priority).

Round 2 (45) Isaiah Oliver, CB, Colorado: It would be a huge surprise if the Pack doesn’t pick a corner with one of its first two picks. Oliver has the height and the ability to press at the line that the Pack’s scheme covets. Very athletic kid who has a chance to be a long-time starter, which Packers would need him to be, since Williams and House are likely one-year stopgaps. He can also fill a need as a punt returner.

Round 3 (76) Dante Pettis, WR, Washington: I wouldn’t be shocked to see Gutey move back into the second round to try to lock up the tall, speedy DJ Chark from LSU if he’s still there at around pick 60. If he’s still available, he’s the pick here. If not, Pettis would give the Pack a complement to Adams as a speedy outside threat. His record nine career TDs as a punt returner would give Green Bay a nice new weapon on special teams.

Round 4 (101) Dalton Schultz, TE, Stanford: The more things change, the more they stay the same as Gutey continues his run on the Pac 12. Schultz is a complete tight end and will provide the blocking ability the Pack lost with the departure of Richard Rodgers (Jimmy Graham will not be asked to do much blocking). He has good hands, but not great speed. Could be a nice addition for the run game and become a reliable third down target for #12 down the road.

Round 4 (133) Chuks Okorafor, OT, W. Michigan: The Pack may end up addressing their unsettled situation at right tackle sooner, but if they wait, the massive Okarofor would be a solid pick. He’s played both tackle spots and at 6’6” 330, he’s got the measurables to compete at this level. PJ Fleck would call him ‘elite.’

Round 5 (138) Jack Cichy, OLB, Wisconsin: The Somerset native would likely be drafted a couple of rounds higher had he not missed his last 20 games. Despite 18 months of inactivity,the Pack likes the value here to pair him with former teammate Vince Biegel. With 12 picks, the team can afford to roll the dice that Cichy’s health problems are a thing of the past.

Round 5 (172) Quin Blanding, S, Virginia: A four-year starter who played virtually every snap for all four seasons, he’d be an instant addition to the special teams units. Pack needs depth here with the loss of Burnett, but with Jones, Brice and Evans ahead of him on the depth chart, he won’t be counted on for defensive snaps early.

Round 5 (174) Tony Brown, CB, Alabama: Another pick that will be asked to compete right away on special teams. Pack likes his toughness and ability to tackle, but he still needs to work on coverage abilities. Probably projects as a backup throughout his career, but could turn into a solid nickel corner in a couple of years.

Round 6 (186) Matt Gono, G, Wesley: Gutey’s predecessor was very good at finding linemen on day three and let’s hope this kid is the latest. He’s probably a couple of years away, after playing at the Division III level, but the Packers figure to have a couple of in-house candidates to replace Jahri Evans if he isn’t resigned. Gono is big and raw, but has potential to be a starter down the road. Pencil him in for the practice squad in 2018.

Round 6 (207) Braxton Berrios, WR, Miami: At just 5’9” he draws comparisons to Danny Amendola and figures to be featured in the slot in the NFL. Tough, productive player at the U who is also a solid punt returner. He has a shot at stealing Trevor Davis’ roster spot, after Davis ran his mouth at the airport. This would make three rookie candidates to audition as the team’s  2018 punt returner.

Round 7 (232) Phillip Lindsay, RB, Colorado: After drafting three backs last year, this is not a need pick. But Lindsay is more of a third down, receiving option—something the Pack doesn’t have on the roster. Nicknamed the Tasmanian Devil, Lindsay is a bundle of energy on the field. He’s just 5’9” 190, so he won’t be asked to run between the tackles, but could make the team as a change of pace back.

Round 7 (239) Matt Dickerson, DE, UCLA: Gutey just can’t let a draft go by without one Bruin being drafted. An injury ended his senior year midway through the season, so his draft status is cloudy. Think of him as a poor man’s Dean Lowry—he lands on the practice squad this year and will work to earn a roster spot in 2019.

This is my ninth Packer mock draft and I believe I have gotten precisely one pick right in the nine years: Randall Cobb. I’ll consider the draft an instant success if they are able to grab one of the six elite defenders with the #14 pick. The defense needs a difference maker and all of those guys have a chance to be special.




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