Packers XLV

Loves, Hates and a Stab at the Initial 53

Posted August 16th, 2019 @ 03:08pm

We're mercifully halfway through the preseason and we're starting to get a pretty good idea what the 53 man roster will look like. I've got my way too early projected initial 53 man roster below, along with what I've loved and hated through the first two games.

What I've hated:

  • The fact that Rodgers' back tightened up and he was unable to lead the #1 offense. Most years, I wouldn't care, but he absolutely needs a few series to get a little more comfortable with his new offense.
  • The running game has been abysmal. Granted, Jones and Williams have yet to take the field, but the fact that they are both injury prone means the team needs a reliable third back and there isn't one currently on the roster.
  • Injuries to Kevin King, Josh Jackson and Oren Burks. These guys have missed valuable time already and the defense really can't count on any of them to give them meaningful snaps early in the season.
  • Missed tackles have been a hot topic. It will be a recurring theme until they clean things up. Hopefully we'll see improvement when the starters get some extended time against the Raiders, but with rookie David Montgomery and Dalvin Cook awaiting the first two weeks, the tackling better improve quickly.
  • The backup QB battle looks like a competition between Jerry Tagge and Jim Del Gaizo (obscure reference for old people, like me). Neither Kizer nor Boyle appear in the slight bit ready to lead the team if Rodgers goes down.
  • Rashan Gary. Didn't like him on draft day. Heard about the coaches and teammates drooling about him in practice. So far in two preseason games he looks exactly like the guy we saw at Michigan. Fills out the uniform nicely, but is invisible once the game starts.

What I've loved:

  • The depth at offensive line gives me a lot more comfort than last year's group. Jenkins may force Taylor to the bench at left guard and Turner looks like a big improvement at the RG spot. Plus, with Light backing up Bakhtiari and Turner able to kick out to right tackle if needed, the Pack at least appears to have suitable backups on the outside.
  • The competition at WR is the best thing going on this team. The emergence of Shepherd and Lazard have made things very dicey for Moore and Davis. As it stands now, with everyone healthy, I'd like to see them keep seven, but in this new offense, where fullback and two tight end looks are featured, I don't think they can afford to keep seven. These next couple of weeks will be very interesting for this group.
  • Speaking of which: Jake Kumerow.
  • Za'Darius Smith is the real deal. Small sample size, yes. But he is poised for a monster season and frankly the only guy in the group that looks like he will be a problem for opposing offenses.
  • The starting safeties haven't shown much yet, but neither Houston nor Baltimore have looked downfield very much. I feel so much better about this position than I did a year ago.
  • Curtis Bolton looks like a nice find at inside linebacker--the undrafted rookie out of Oklahoma may start week one by default. He looks the part, has shown up on tape and has made plays on special teams as well. Unless Burks is expected back before midseason, the team will likely add a proven veteran here after cutdowns.
  • It looks like Mason Crosby will hold on to his job for another year. "Love" may be a strong word, but I'm not ready for the Sam Ficken era to start. Crosby has been perfect in games and Ficken snuck one through the left goalpost Thursday night. give me the proven veteran, at least for one more year.

If I was asked to comprise the first 53 man roster for the Pack today, here's what I would do:

QB (2): Rodgers, Kizer

RB/FB (4): Jones, Williams, Williams, Vitale

WR (7): Adams, Allison, MVS, ESB, Kumerow, Shepherd, Lazard

TE (4): Graham, Tonyan, Lewis, Sternberger

OL (9): Bakhtiari, Taylor, Linsley, Turner, Bulaga, Jenkins, Light, McRay, Patrick

DL (5): Clark, Adams, Lowry, Lancaster, Keke

OLB (4): Smith, Smith, Gary, Fackrell

ILB (4): Martinez, Burks (IR)*, Bolton, Summers

CB (6): Alexander, King, Brown, Williams, Jackson, Hollman

S (4): Amos, Savage, Greene, Campbell

ST (3): Crosby, Scott, Bradley

If Burks is placed on IR (with a designation to return Week 8), expect them to either bring back Crawford or, preferably, add a veteran they like who was cut by another team. As I said earlier, I can't see them keeping seven wide receivers, and injuries may sort things out. I don't see Moore or Davis being kept over the two youngsters. Shepherd shows he can be a capable returner and provides a body type and shiftiness that's perfect for the slot in this offense. Lazard appears to have more upside than Moore (and maybe even St. Brown). His size and athleticism leap off the tape. In a perfect world, I move on from Graham. But they've committed to him at this point, so he makes the team. Fackrell earns a spot by a hair over Gilbert, but neither of these guys should figure in the team's long term plans at pass rusher.

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Houston, We Have Real Football This Week.

Posted August 5th, 2019 @ 03:08pm

OK, summer vacation is over. For me and the Packers. It's time to get serious and get ready for the new-look 2019 Packers. After three weeks of training camp, with the new coaching regime imprinting their stamp on the team, we've learned a lot about what has changed and we'll get our first look Thursday night when the Texans come to town.

For the most part, the Pack has avoided the injury bug so far--other than the annual hamstring issues for Aaron Jones and Kevin King. Whatever happens over the next four weeks, all we can hope for is that the 10 most important Packers stay healthy. That list, for me, includes Rodgers, Bakhtiari, Adams, A. Jones, Linsley, Clark, Z. Smith, Martinez, Alexander and Amos.

With Matt LaFleur running things, much has changed at training camp, including this week's joint practices with the Houston Texans, which will culminate in Thursday night's preseason opener. So what have we learned about the 2019 Packers and what will we be watching closely on Thursday night?

For fans, the rookies are usually the biggest draw of the preseason quagmire. We've heard about these guys for the last three months and we finally get to see them on the field. #1 pick Rashan Gary has been turning heads and causing Packer reporters to carry drool buckets around; a man of his size with that combination of speed and power has his coaches and teammates jumping up and down. He should get plenty of opportunities to get comfortable during the preseason.

Darnell Savage, the Pack's other #1 pick, will likely be on the field more this season than Gary, as he steps right into a starting role at safety. It's likely he'll be on a pitch count on Thursday, since he missed the first five practices of camp after getting his wisdom teeth taken out. But over the next few weeks it will be fun to see what a difference an athletic, instinctive safety can have on this defense. He and Adrian Amos should combine to give the Pack infinitely better play at that position that we saw in 2018.

Three other rookies should get a load of opportunities on Thursday night. Cornerback Ka'Dar Hollman will likely be on the field early and often, with injuries slowing King and Josh Jackson, and with Tramon Williams needing to save his legs. The defensive coaches have been impressed with his skills and his ability to stick with receivers off the line of scrimmage. This guy has fought for everything he's ever gotten and he will likely make the most of his opportunity to shine.

Dexter Williams will get a lot of run by default, with hamstring injuries sidelining Jones and Jamal Williams. The Pack has added Corey Grant and Tra Carson to the running back stable in the last couple of weeks, so they'll also get a chance to show why they belong as well. The rookie from Notre Dame seems to be a natural for LaFleur's system and has a real opportunity with the injuries to get off to a running start.

Looking forward to seeing how the wide receiver competition plays out. Will the team keep six or seven? The Packers depth chart currently lists Adams, MVS, Geronimo Allison and Jake Kumerow as the top four--they are all locks to make the roster. The last two or three spots will be claimed by ESB, Trevor Davis, J'Mon Moore, Allen Lazard, Teo Redding, Malik Taylor and tantalizing rookie Darrius Shepherd.  Only Adams figures to be on the sidelines for most of the preseason games. The rest of the guys will be auditioning over the next four weeks.

Barring injuries ahead of him, Jace Sternberger doesn't figure to be a major contributor in 2019. While he could be the starter next season, his one season of major college football will likely cause him to have a slightly longer learning curve. Jimmy Graham, Marcedes Lewis and Robert Tonyan all figure to get more snaps this season and I am fully aboard the Tonyan bandwagon. I wouldn't be surprised if, by midseason, he's the most productive guy of the group.

There's plenty to watch on the offensive line as well. With Bakhtiari likely wearing a cap for most of the month, we'll find out if the Pack has a capable backup at left tackle. Both Alex Light and Jason Spriggs will get the chance to show whether they're up to it. Guard play will also be fun to watch with newly minted free agent Billy Turner entrenched at right guard and rookie Elgton Jenkins battling Lane Taylor for the left guard spot. Also looking forward to seeing Cole Madison get his reps, after his one-year hiatus from football.

Other things to watch on the offensive side of the ball: much has been made about how the fullback will be featured in this offense. Danny Vitale has pretty much locked down the job and as a kid who caught 135 passes at Northwestern, expect him to be a much more featured part of the offense than John Kuhn was in his glory days. Also, the backup QB job is up for grabs between DeShone Kizer and Tim Boyle. Here's hoping one of them stands out and provides us some peace of mind that there's a capable understudy ready, in case the unthinkable happens.

As for the defense, it's hard not to get a little excited about year two in the Mike Pettine system. Much has been made about the money the Packers spent on free agency on this side of the ball (not to mention the continued draft equity). Za'Darius Smith has earned praise virtually every day in training camp, as he, Preston Smith and Gary join Kyler Fackrell in a remodeled outside linebacker group. I would expect all of these guys to get plenty of reps in the preseason as they get used to their new surroundings.

Pettine has labeled third year DL Montravius Adams as the most improved player on the defense and this will be our first chance to see what looks different. Clearly, the team felt confident enough in his improvement to show longtime stalwart Mike Daniels the door. Adams, Kenny Clark and Dean Lowry have a chance to be a top flight line, the key to making Pettine's defense work. The Packers will likely be careful with Blake Martinez' snap count, so look for seventh round pick Ty Summers to get plenty of snaps--he's earned plenty of praise in training camp as well. James Crawford will also get a long look, after moving inside this season.

It's the most interesting training camp in 13 years for the Packers and we're all excited to see LaFleur's system in action. It will likely be a work in progress and it remains to be seen how much, if at all, the first team offense plays together. We know that facing the Bears defense on the road to open the season would be tough for any team, let alone an offense that's learning a new system. It may cause the coaches to put some of the front line players in harms way a bit, to work out the kinks and get comfortable.

We'll learn so much about this team in the next four weeks. Let's just hope the key roster decisions are made by plays made on the field and not by attrition caused by injuries.

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Packers' Draft Strategy Is Daring, With No Margin for Error.

Posted April 28th, 2019 @ 05:04pm

You can say one thing about the drafting mind of Brian Gutekunst: he's willing to take chances and he did just that on opening night of his second go-around running the Pack's draft--just as he did a year ago.

For those of you who follow me on Twitter, you know that when the Packers were on the clock at 12, their highest drafting position in a decade, I had some firm opinions: my top options were Brian Burns, Christian Wilkins, Jeffery Simmons, Montez Sweat or Marquise Brown. Guys I didn't want: Noah Fant and Rashan Gary.

Ouch.

It's not that I don't think Gary has the potential to be a star; I mocked him to the Lions at eight. It's just that he has 'boom or bust' written all over him and I thought there were some surer bets still on the board. I'm never a fan of 'freak' athletes whose numbers blow you away, but whose play doesn't match the measurables. I'm also not crazy about drafting those kinds of players who also happen to be injured. Gary disputes the torn labrum report, pointing to the 26 bench reps he did at the combine. But it sounds like his labrum will need some medical attention at some point.

By all accounts, he lives and breathes football, always practices hard and wants to get better. Anybody that runs a 4.6 at 277 pounds gets your attention. His physical attributes are similar to Za'Darius Smith and it sounds like they expect Gary to be in the outside linebacker rotation. Others believe he's better suited up front. Regardless, Mike Pettine likes to move everybody around in the front seven and Gary should be able to do that eventually. With the Smiths, Clark, Daniels, Lowry and Martinez, there are a lot of high character, productive players in the Pack's front seven who should be able to help unlock his potential.

There is a level of bust-ability with this pick and if Gary doesn't become a difference-maker, and I have my doubts that he will, the Pack will have whiffed on a big opportunity to help this team reload at a critical time.

Gutey's day one daring continued later in the first round when he parted with both early fourth round picks to move up nine spots to grab Maryland's Darnell Savage. He insisted he was certain he wouldn't have lasted to 30 and we'll never know for sure, but I'll give him the benefit of the doubt that he thought Savage was worth the move, despite fellow free safeties like Adderley and Thornhill likely available at 30.

The Savage pick is getting the most love nationally among the Pack's new rookie class. When comps to Bob Sanders are being made, that gets my attention. Savage plays with an edge, like last year's first round pick and that's just what this defensive unit needs. He should step right into a starting spot next to Adrian Amos, with the ability to move up and play the slot corner at times, if needed. A versatile, hard-hitting, fast safety who is known to lead by example? A guy who one scout competed to the Honey Badger, without all the noise? I'm in.

Friday night, I went to the Avengers movie with my family, so I wasn't watching pick by pick. I had wide receiver on the brain, seeing all the big names sitting out there and knowing what a slot guy or a speed guy could do in Matt LaFleur's offense. The fact that Gutey ignored this position entirely, tells you that he believes in the three guys he drafted last year, along with Allison's return and Kumerow's possible rise. I still think they'll keep their eyes open for a veteran.

Instead, the Packers addressed the offensive line with the addition of Elgton Jenkins, the center/guard out of Mississippi State. After reading about his length, versatility and quickness, it's clear why the team pounced. He will immediately give Lane Taylor a run for his money at left guard, with free agent signee Billy Turner likely moving in at right guard. Assuming Bryan Bulaga has one year left in him, the Pack will hope that either Turner or Jenkins can be the long-term solution as his successor--or they'll reload in next year's draft.

The guard spot was a huge question mark a month ago, but with Jenkins, Turner and the return of last year's draftee Cole Madison, there is suddenly depth and competition there. There's a chance that Taylor, McCray and Patrick--last year's guards, could all end up out on the street.

I loved the third round pick, Jace Sternberger. The Pack had to find a young, athletic tight end who could cause matchup problems and the Texas A&M product could be just that. In most scouting reports, he was listed as the third or fourth best tight end in this class and may just be scratching the surface. After leaving Kansas and playing JC for a year, he broke out with the Aggies--so he's a one year wonder. I heard him compared to Travis Kelce on draft night and he says he plans to work as hard on blocking as he does on route running. He was not asked to do a lot of that at A&M. He'll learn from Graham and Lewis this year and likely get a chance to contribute quickly. If all goes well, he'll be the starter in 2020.

On to Saturday, where the Pack had to sit out the fourth round; payment for moving up for Savage. After an interminable wait, the Pack was finally on the clock at 150. My favorite RB, Memphis' Tony Pollard was gone (fourth round to the Cowboys), but there were a number of nice backs on the board. Gutey had other ideas, adding a defensive lineman, and teammate of Sternberger, Kingsley Keke. Reading his draft profiles, he projects as an ascending player with the physical tools to be a starter at some point. With Mike Daniels heading to free agency after this season, the Pack add another player to compete for that spot, along with Lowry, Lancaster, Adams and maybe Gary. It's tough to pass on another DL from the SEC, Gutey's clearcut favorite conference.

There was no way Gutey was going through the draft without adding a cornerback. Toledo's Ka'dar Hollman is a 4.37 speedster who has a chance to develop into a rotational corner, once he learns not to play with his hands (hopefully he won't study Josh Jackson's technique). He came up the hard way after going to work after high school and fighting his way to Toledo and now a day three draft pick. There are question marks at this position despite all the draft capital in recent years, so he'll have a shot.

The Pack finally added a running back with its next pick and Dexter Williams will have a chance to contribute immediately. He's had more than one issue off the field at Notre Dame but the Pack feels comfortable that those things are behind him. The emotional story of his mom facing terminal illness, yet planning to move to Green Bay with him, makes it hard not to root for him. LaFleur believes he's a perfect fit with his running style. Let's just hope that his nickname, Juice, doesn't portend bad things to come.

With the final pick, the Packers finally added an inside linebacker and they're getting good reviews on the addition of Ty Summers, from TCU. He was projected as a fourth or fifth rounder and appears to be a speedier version of Jake Ryan. He'll have a chance to contribute immediately on special teams and if he turns heads might get a chance on defense at some point as well.

Draft grades are like mock drafts: meaningless. But they're fun to read and reaction to the Pack's class ranges from A (Pro Football Focus) to C+ (Mel Kiper), with a bunch of Bs in between.

I think this class will ultimately be judged by what the two first rounders become. Gutey and his staff need to hit on these two picks. If they do, Pettine's defense could become the strength of this team in short order. If they don't, we could be in for another year of mediocrity.

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