Packers XLV

Pack's Schedule: Tough Start, Bye Week Issues, Cold Weather Games and One Big Chip.

Posted May 8th, 2020 @ 02:05pm

We already knew the 'who' and 'where' when it comes to the 2020 Packers schedule. With Thursday night's official schedule release, we now know the all-important 'when.' Except we really don't.

Will the Packers open the season at the Vikings for the first time ever? Or will the first few games on the schedule eventually be postponed and pushed to the back? As you know, nobody has any idea whether the season will actually begin on September 10th and even if it does, we don't know whether the games will be played in empty stadiums.

That hasn't stopped any of us from slipping the schedule under the microscope and dissecting the 16 games. For sports-starved fans, it can carry us to Sunday night, and the next two installments of "The Last Dance."

Here are my initial thoughts on the Packers' slate, assuming they play all the games and in the order they are currently listed. Here are the things that stand out to me:

1. Obviously, opening at Minnesota is huge and potentially a break for the Pack. More on that when I break down the season game by game.

2. Unlike last year, when the Packers opened with five of seven at home, they face a much tougher start, with road games at Minnesota, at Drew Brees and at Tom Brady in the first five weeks.

3. A bye week in week 5 is earlier than anyone would like, but with what's coming over the next four weeks, the team can use the extra prep time.

4. The second quarter of the schedule is absolutely brutal: Three of four on the road, at Tampa Bay, Houston and the annual game at San Francisco, with the home game against the Vikings in between. And the Pack will only have four days to come back from a big game against the Purple before they head to play the Niners on a Thursday night. Ugly. Green Bay could easily be 4-4 at the halfway mark.

5. Of the five prime time games, three are at home this season, and two come late in the season--that's a plus.

6. A bad break for the Pack: both the Vikings and Bears will come to play the Pack at Lambeau coming off their bye weeks. Ugh.

7. That week 16 Sunday night game against the Titans at Lambeau will be huge and likely, very cold.

8. Pack closes on the road once again--seems like this happens almost every year.

OK, let's break down the season in quarters, as I like to do, and take a stab at where things will end up in 2020, again assuming everything goes without a hitch--an unlikely scenario. Most of the NFL world expects the Pack to take a step back, given they didn't have the bucks to spend in free agency and didn't do much on paper in the draft to impact the 2020 starting lineup.

But I'll take the side that a head coach in his second year, with an offense much more comfortable in the system, will take major strides, led by its Hall of Fame QB who seems to play his best with a chip on his shoulder and you can bet he'll have a big one on his shoulder this season. The biggest worry is that the Pack feels the loss of Bryan Bulaga, that Ricky Wagner doesn't hold up and the right tackle spot becomes a big problem.

First Quarter: Opening at Minnesota will be seen as an L by most; in fact the Vikes opened as 3.5 point favorites. I like the Pack's chances here. Minnesota will be breaking in a batch of new starters on defense, their offensive line will also feature a bunch of new parts and their bright shiny first round picks will be starting their first games. Look for Rodgers to test CB Jeff Gladney early and often. WR Justin Jefferson has star potential, but with a truncated off-season, will likely need some time to get acclimated. If this game is played on September 10th, I'll take the Pack. If it moves to January, I'll take the Vikes.

The two home games in the opening quarter of the season are wins for the Pack. I think both the Lions and Falcons will be improved in 2020, with both hovering around the .500 mark. But they aren't stealing wins at Lambeau. The Week 3 prime time game at New Orleans is a big fat L. The Saints have been known to slip up at home early in the season in recent years, but they take care of business. First quarter record: 3-1.

Second Quarter: The Pack will spend their week five bye devising ways to try to at least split the next four games. They begin with back to back road games at Brady and the Bucs and at Watson and the Texans. I think the Bucs' hype train is speeding out of control and I'm not sure Brady has all that much left. But he has a bushelful of great offensive weapons and I'll give them the edge against the Pack. Green Bay bounces back with a win against the Texans, a team I think finishes third in its division this year. The loss of DeAndre Hopkins will be felt all season. Their head scratching front office moves of the past couple of years catches up with them this season.

The Vikes come to town on 11/1 and it will be the first home game in a month for the Pack. Minnesota will be coming off its bye, and it is a noon kickoff which will make Kirk Cousins happy, but the Pack will handle the Purple at home. Then it's a quick turn-around for a Thursday night game at the Niners. Avert your kids' eyes. This is unlikely to be pretty. Let's hope the Packers keep them under 300 yards on the ground. Second quarter record: 2-2. Pack is 5-3 at the midseason mark.

Third Quarter: Things get easier in this quarter, with three home games and a road trip to Indianapolis. I think the Colts have a chance to make some noise, with Phillip Rivers getting one last chance to do something in the post-season. They can run the ball and their defense is tough and speedy. Colts win this one. I also see the Pack slipping up in one of these home games. They'll handle the Jags and Bears, but there's something about the Eagles. Something tells me they break our hearts at the end, just like that prime time game in 2018. Third quarter record: 2-2. Pack is 7-5 at the three-quarter pole.

Fourth Quarter: The end of the season features divisional road games to start and finish, with home games against the Panthers and Titans in the middle. As I mentioned earlier, that Titans game will be huge, even though it's a non-conference game. It's at night in late December. The Titans will likely put the ball in Derrick Henry's hands 30+ times. Can the Pack stop him? I'll take Green Bay in both of these games against southern teams who don't play much at all in cold weather.

So that leaves road games in Detroit and Chicago. Let's say the Pack splits these two. That gets them to 11-5. Lose them both and they're 10-6. In either scenario, I think the Pack defends its NFC North crown.

At this point though, I think we'd all be happy to know that there will be a 16 game NFL season in 2020 and let the chips fall where they may. Speaking of chips, did I mention that one on Aaron's shoulder?

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Let's Break Down The Pack's Confounding 2020 Draft.

Posted April 26th, 2020 @ 06:04pm

Gutey's third draft class. Where do we begin? Well, the obvious spot to start is with his first selection, the one that will now determine whether he is still the general manager in four or five years. I wrote about the earth-shattering, Titletown-tilting selection of QB Jordan Love on the morning after the first round and there will be plenty of time to delve deeper in the days and weeks ahead.

For me, the reality of the Pack's 2020 draft is the undeniable fact that the starting lineup didn't noticeably improve. I have to think the Packers stand alone in this regard. And that's what frustrating to Packer fans, myself included. As I said on "In the Zone" Saturday, the Pack's championship window is by no means closed, but I'm not sure my mutt terrier could squeeze through it.

A team that surprised most and reached the NFC title game, didn't identify and add draft capital that can make it better in 2020. If the trade-up in round one had netted them linebacker Patrick Queen or WR Michael Pittman, they would have addressed areas that need upgrades.

But the theme of this draft is the remaking of the Packers offense into one that more resembles the way Matt LaFleur wants to play. That means a much stronger commitment to running the ball and using those running formations in the passing game as well. We will see less and less three receiver sets (not to mention four WR spread formations), and more multiple tight end looks--think San Francisco.

That doesn't forgive passing on what was considered the deepest WR class in decades. But when they committed to moving up for Love, they became hamstrung when it came to grabbing a receiver they may have coveted. They came off the board in droves in the second and the loss of their fourth round pick in the Love deal took away their best chance to move up even if they wanted to.

In all, seven receivers came off the board in the second, with Denzel Mims, a name that was assigned to the Pack in the first round in a lot of mocks, getting plucked just three picks before Green Bay. I was pounding the table, yelling Logan Wilson's name when they were on the clock (just like I had done for Queen in the first round). If not, electric Antonio Gibson from Memphis would be fun, or maybe OT Josh Jones or DT Justin Madubuike from A&M.

Instead, Gutey went running back, a position we figured they'd target at some point in the draft, with Jones and Williams in the final years of their rookie deals. But in the second round? And AJ Dillon was a prospect that most believed had a 50-50 shot of being picked on Friday. Felt like kind of a reach, especially when this felt like a pick that needed to strongly impact this year's team. Not that Dillon can't do that, especially if one of the other guys gets hurt. Dillon seems to be built in the Derrick Henry mold, just a shorter version. By taking him here, Gutey needs to hit on this pick. I'm not saying he needs to be Henry, but he needs to be better than Eddie Lacy was.

The third round pick is where Gutey lost me. I joked to my son Jackson right before the pick, 'watch the Pack take a fullback here.' I was a little bitter that the first two picks didn't inject much into next year's team and knew the Pack wouldn't be picking again until another 100 or so names came off the board. There were some highly touted inside linebackers on the board, a couple of tackles and a couple prolific tight ends.

Turns out, Gutey did grab a tight end, albeit one I'd never heard of--I'm guessing most of you hadn't either. And in Josiah Deguara they appear to have drafted, wait for it, their new fullback. LaFleur envisions Deguara replacing Danny Vitale and playing the part of 49er Kyle Juszczyk. Fine, you want a guy like that? Take him in the sixth round, not the third. I almost used an exclamation point right there, but it seemed like overkill. Just know that I really wrote that sentence with an exclamation point in mind.

The Pack's first three picks netted them a possible QB of the future, possible future "thunder" part of a thunder and lightning backfield with Aaron Jones in 2021 and an H-back who figures to play 15-20 snaps a game and help on special teams.

And to top it all off, they had to wait some 70 picks before they'd be on the clock on Saturday. By then, the dream of adding a wide receiver who could impact 2020 was dead. Barring a free agency addition like Tyler Gabriel (which I would heartily endorse) or a veteran casualty added in the next few months, the team plans to roll with Adams, Lazard, Funchess, MVS, EQSB, Jake Kumerow, Malik Taylor and Reggie Begelton.

We're already hearing that next year's WR class might be as good or better than this one. That gives us 12 months to wait and see whether Gutey and his staff will pass on another stellar class.

When they finally picked again, the added a familiar name, former Gopher Kamal Martin. Love his game, love his love for the game, hate his injury history. If he can put that behind him, he can be on the field in sub packages as a guy with the cover ability and speed to cover tight ends and help in the running game a bit. I still wish the Pack had added a much stronger prospect at this position. In Martin, Kirksey and Burks, the Pack is counting on guys who have all had a tough time staying on the field.

With the three sixth round picks, Gutey surprisingly went all offensive line all the time. Jon Runyan is a guy we've all seen play for years at Michigan, and his dad in Philly before him. In drafting former Oregon Center Jake Hanson, they get a look at a guy who could be Corey Linsley insurance, if they let the veteran walk in 2021. Lucas Patrick could also be the starter-in-waiting at center. The third pick, Simon Stepaniak, a fellow Hoosier, tore his ACL in December and figures to land on the practice squad. A former captain, he's versatile enough to play all three interior spots, which will earn him a look.

With the two seventh round picks, Gutey decided to roll the dice on a pair of defensive players. Of the two, former Hurricane Jonathan Garvin has a better chance to stick, likely as an OLB, maybe to replace Kyler Fackrell. He played DE at Miami and scouting reports say he had the talent to go on day two, but dropped because he didn't show effort consistently. He has a similar build as the Smiths and if he can follow their lead, he may have a shot.

The safety that the Pack took first, Vernon Scott from TCU, was seen as a likely undrafted player, but the Pack liked his speed (he ran in the 4.4s) and  think he can cover in the slot. He's a dart throw.

The Pack added 15 undrafted guys after the draft, including a (gasp) wide receiver, Darrell Stewart, from Michigan State. A few interesting guys to keep an eye on: CBs Stanford Samuels (Florida State) and Will Sunderland (Troy) and DE Willington Previlion (Rutgers).

The Packers are getting trashed nationally for this draft class, for the main reason we're all frustrated: they didn't do much to take their 13-3 team over the top, while their NFC competitors most certainly did.

What you can't deny is this: Gutey and his staff have put their careers in Green Bay on the line with this draft strategy. It really starts and ends with the Jordan Love pick. But it is now obvious the offense is taking on the identity that its coach wants. And if the LaFleur offense takes off in year two, led by a defiant Aaron Rodgers, and this team is once again an elite NFC team, the lack of new weapons added will be a non-story.

It's very easy to sit back and say the Packers bungled this draft, and they may very well have. But like most drafts, we'll probably look at it very differently in a few years.

Let's hope that's the case.

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Anyone Love the First Round?

Posted April 24th, 2020 @ 12:04pm

Favre to Rodgers to Love.

How many teams can say they had Hall of Fame quarterback play for 30 straight years? Wait, that's my lede for a post in 2028.

OK, let's get serious now. This was an earth-shattering move by Brian Gutekunst. Instead of making the safe move and picking the best guy on his board at 30, he gave up a mid-round pick to move up four spots to make a pick that will define his tenure as GM. Guy's got balls, you gotta give him that.

Will he have a job in five years? It will likely come down to how this pick turns out. When the news broke that the Pack had traded up, I thought my prediction was going to be spot on: that they moved ahead of the Ravens to grab linebacker Patrick Queen, a guy who could inject the middle of Mike Pettine's defense with the speed and intensity that it lacks. For my money, that was the one pick that could have made the team markedly better instantly.

How foolish of me. The AJ Hawk experience has forever tarnished that position--it's just not one that this front office values. Instead, to hear Gutey tell it, the way the board fell there was only one player that made sense to them: Love.

What has many of us scratching our heads is, okay, you love Love. Couldn't you just wait and figure he'll be there at 30? Who else was going to come up and get him? The Colts? The Jags maybe? The trade shows you just how badly they wanted him, which has us all wondering whether Aaron Rodgers got any sleep Thursday night. And how he will handle and process what happened.

Leading up to the draft, he said all the right things when asked how he'd feel if the Packers drafted a quarterback early. But he knows what this team accomplished in 2019, and where it needs to improve to stay in the playoff mix. And the front office chose to wait to address the team's needs to select his potential successor. Can't imagine he and Danica played much cribbage together on Thursday night. I imagine he put a pretty good amount of hurt on one of his bottles of scotch.

With a soon-to-be 37 year old quarterback, Packer fans know the window is starting to close--and so we all expected them to find a guy who can step on the field and make the team better. Gutekunst addressed that shortly after making the pick:

"I know a lot of people will look at this as not a move for the immediate, and I understand that, but the balance of the immediate and the long term is something that I have to consider, and that's why we did it."

And of course, that's how organizations are supposed to look at the draft: it's not about 2020; it's about 2020-2028. It's about giving the team the best chance to win year in and year out.

Ron Wolf always espoused that you can never have enough quarterbacks. And this organization has gotten away from this principle in recent years. This didn't feel like the time to return to that philosophy, but maybe we'll look back at this pick the way we look back at the Rodgers pick. As a turning point that kept this team from ever bottoming out.

There will be plenty of time to consider what Matt LaFleur can do with Love. He was considered a top 20 prospect by most evaluators and some ranked him third among QBs in this class, behind Burrow and Tua--comparisons to Patrick Mahomes have been made.

We all wonder about how Rodgers will handle the situation. Maybe this will replace the 2005 chip on his shoulder and bring out MVP caliber play in 2020 (if there's a season).  Maybe he'll sulk, pout and never shave his beard. Maybe Vikings fans will spend all their time dreaming about buying a #12 Vikings jersey in 2023.

I found it interesting that Mel Kiper listed the Pack among his seven "winners" in round one (the Vikings didn't make the list--though they added two solid starters on Thursday night).

Taking a quarterback in round one places a big, bold target on your back, if you're the general manager. Gutey didn't need to do it, but he did. Right now, there are countless Packer fans who want to don their orange and take a shot at him. They may be the same folks who wanted to do the same to Ted Thompson 15 years ago.

Like you, I'm disappointed the team didn't add a potential starter and I'm concerned they've alienated the best player they've had since Reggie White. Let's see how the rest of the draft plays out before we make any grand judgments.

Love is the first skill position player the Pack has drafted in the first round since Rodgers--that's an unbelievable stat. They've had success finding great receivers in the second round (Nelson, Jennings, Cobb). There are still a nice group of them left on the board, but how many will still be there at 62? And can the Pack afford to move up to get one, after trading away their fourth round pick?

If they can land any of these guys on Friday, it will remove a bit of the sting from Thursday night: Denzel Mims, Michael Pittman, Laviska Shenault, Tee Higgins, KJ Hamler, Bryan Edwards, Van Jefferson, Chase Claypool, Lynn Bowden, Antonio Gibson or tight end Cole Kmet.

This is the part where I remind everybody to r-e-l-a-x. But give me a few minutes: let me convince myself, first.

 

 

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