Packers XLV

If Draft Falls Their Way, Packers Could Give LaFleur Some New Toys.

Posted April 22nd, 2019 @ 09:04pm

Draft week is finally here and with ten picks, including two in the first round and three in the top 44, Brian Gutekunst and his staff have a chance to add some key pieces to the roster and give their new coach some guys that fit the way they want to play on offense.

At #12 and #30, I think there is a good chance that Gutey will field offers to move down and add picks. For this year's exercise, I'm factoring in a pair of trades that, in the end, net Gutey one first round pick and three seconds.

A reminder that in the eight years I've done this, I've gotten exactly one player right: Randall Cobb. So take that with a grain of salt. Here's how I see the top of the draft falling, followed by my picks for the Pack.

1--Arizona: Kyler Murray, QB Oklahoma

2--SF: Nick Bosa, DE, Ohio State

3--N.Y. Jets: Quinnen Williams, DT, Alabama

4--Oakland: Ed Oliver, DE, Houston

5--Tampa Bay: Devin White, LB, LSU

6--N.Y. Giants: Josh Allen, LB, Kentucky

7--Jacksonville: Jawann Taylor, OT, Florida

8--Detroit: Rashan Gary, DE, Michigan

9--Buffalo: Jonah Williams, OT, Alabama

10--Denver: Devin Bush, LB, Michigan

11--Cincinnati: Dwayne Haskins, QB, Ohio State

12--Packers: TJ Hockenson, TE, Iowa--If a top defender like Oliver, White or maybe even Bush is still on the board, I think the Pack would go in that direction. But if the draft falls this way, I think the Pack will pounce on the multi-faceted Hockenson, who can step in quickly and be a capable blocker in the run game and provide a reliable third down and red zone target, as well as a downfield threat. I've seen him mocked to the Jags, Lions, Bills and Bengals, so there's no guarantee he'll be there at 12, but ultimately, those teams have bigger needs and I don't see them picking him. A number of prominent mocks have the Pack taking TJ's Hawkeye teammate Noah Fant here, but it seems too early to me. Fant could be in play at 30 if the Pack go in another direction here, but if TJ is gone, I see the Pack taking Clemson defensive tackle Christian Wilkins at 12. He's everything you want in a D lineman, versatile, smart, a leader, extremely athletic and would look great alongside Kenny Clark and Mike Daniels. With the latter a pending free agent, he provides some insurance as well. A sneaky wildcard here is Notre Dame's DT Jerry Tillery, whom the Pack loves and who got a positive medical report on his shoulder this week.

(2) 36--Parris Campbell, WR, Ohio St.--The Packers trade down six slots and grab a Randall Cobb replacement that could become a taller version of Percy Harvin. The Packers trade pick 30 to San Francisco, for picks 36 and 105. Campbell is exactly the kind of player that the Packers lack and that LaFleur covets. A former track star, he has blazing speed and can be used in jet sweeps, bubble screens and serve as a threat in the middle of the field. He also steps into the long vacant kick returner role.

(2) 44--Juan Thornhill, FS, Virginia--Safeties are likely to fall off the board at the top of the second round (along with wide receivers) but the guy the Packers covet is still on the board here. A three time state champion high school basketball player, he would complement Adrian Amos perfectly, handling centerfield duties while Amos patrols near the line of scrimmage. This is a huge position of need for the Pack and they should have their choice of several good ones here.

2 (62)--Max Scharping, OT, N. Illinois-- Gutey jumps back into the bottom of the second round by swinging a trade with the Chiefs, who have yet to make a selection, but are willing to wait a little longer for an extra pick. Green Bay sends #75 and #114 to the Chiefs for this pick, where the Pack plucks the Green Bay native to learn under Bryan Bulaga for a year (or until he gets injured) and then step into the right tackle spot. Scharping dominated from day one at NIU and has proven in the post-season and at the combine that he can compete with the big boys. Pass protection needs some work, but he's expected to excel as a run blocker right out of the gate. We Packer fans just hope that this move works out better than the last time the Pack traded back into the second round to grab a tackle.

(4) 105--Germaine Pratt, ILB, NC State--As usual, the Packers will find a former safety-turned linebacker in the Oren Burks mold (and maybe Josh Jones, too). Pratt didn't become a starter until his senior season, but had a breakout year for the Wolfpack, earning first team all ACC honors. With Jake Ryan's departure, the Packers hope Pratt competes with Burks to earn snaps in Pettine's defense.

(4) 118--Austin Bryant, DL, Clemson--If the Packers don't land a defensive lineman before Saturday, Bryant would fit the bill as their first pick of the day. A two year starter who's obviously played on college football's biggest stage, Bryant needs to get stronger, but won't be counted on a lot in 2019.

(5) 150--Tony Pollard, RB, Memphis--The Packers need to add a quality third back and Pollard gives the Pack a different kind of runner, who also provides much needed return skills--he returned seven kicks for touchdowns with the Tigers. Watch a YouTube collection of his highlights and you will see what he could add to the offense. He's a terrific pass catcher and gadget play guy who would be an ideal third down addition to the running attack.

(6) 185--Porter Gustin, OLB, USC --Gustin reminded many of Clay Matthews when he arrived at USC, but those comparisons ended quickly because he couldn't stay on the field, missing a majority of his last two seasons. He works his butt off though and is as intense as they come, so the Pack take a flyer that he can stay healthy and try to untap that potential at the NFL level.

(6) 194--Gardner Minshew, QB, Washington St. --There's been a lot of speculation about whether the Packers might draft a QB early this year, since Brett Favre was the same age as Rodgers when Green Bay pounced on #12 in 2005. I think they'll wait till late in the draft to take a flyer and Minshew is intriguing. He doesn't have the strongest arm but he understands how to play and stepped into a difficult role with the Cougars (after the suicide of Tyler Hilinski) and led them to 11 wins. Packers bring him to camp and see if he can beat out Boyle for the QB3 role.

(7) 226--Blace Brown, CB, Troy--Surely the Pack can't go through a draft without adding a cornerback, so they take a shot on Brown, a nephew of Herschel Walker and a converted wide receiver. He tore his ACL near the end of the '17 season and wasn't fully himself last season, but teams like his instincts and football IQ. Could become a special teams ace and a rotational corner, for a group that has some question marks after Alexander.

Alright, faithful readers: take your shots and give me your thoughts on what you hope or think the Packers will do in the draft. As always, I'll analyze the first three rounds and look ahead to the later rounds on "In the Zone," Saturday at 8am on KFAN and iHeart Radio.


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The Times They Are A Changin'.

Posted March 13th, 2019 @ 05:03pm

The dust has settled on the Pack's most jarring day in free agency since they caused jaws to drop from coast to coast when they landed Reggie White, with a little help from the Big Guy upstairs.

In a dizzying day on Twitter Tuesday morning, we saw Gutey lock up four free agents who figure to step instantly into starting roles. Now, let's back up a moment. It wasn't too many years ago that the Packers rarely had more than two possible starting spots available from year to year. But a few bad drafts have caused parts of the roster to erode and the Pack had the capital and the proper mindset in the GM's office to do something about it in March, with an eye toward addressing it in a much more important way in the draft next month.

With Nick Perry and Clay Matthews no longer in the picture, the team needed to find younger versions to help make Mike Pettine's defense work. Preston Smith is a perfect replacement for Perry, built about the same and big, at 270 pounds. Smith will set the edge and add to the Pack's improved run defense, anchored by Kenny Clark and Mike Daniels. At 26 he's already considered a locker room leader and has not missed a game in four seasons. What a breath of fresh air.

You have to believe Gutey and his staff were urged to look at Smith by new inside linebackers coach Kirk Olivadotti, who comes to the Pack from Washington, where he spent 16 seasons, helping coach a defense that finished in the top teight times. He may be back in Gutey's ear, telling him to bring in inside linebacker Zach Brown, whom the Skins released on Wednesday. At 29, Brown was third rated inside linebacker by PFF last season and might be had on a one-year prove it deal, especially if he loved his coach.

Za'darius Smith was the heaviest signing, from a dollar perspective. When the numbers came out on how the two linebackers' deals were structured, they'll both count for less than ten million against the cap and won't cost much after two years, if either guy goes belly up. But, watching Smith on tape, you have to be excited about what Pettine can do with him. He's also heavier, at 270, and has done his most damage when moved inside on sub packages, which teams are in the majority of the time. And Gutey's new right hand man, Wisconsin native Milt Hendrickson, comes from the Ravens, where he watched every game Smith played.

He played about two-thirds of the snaps with the Ravens and led them with 8.5 sacks in 2018--now that came in a contract year, so you always have to consider that. But I think in a perfect scenario he plays about the same percentage with the Pack, maybe 75%, presuming they land another pass rusher in the draft.

About that: despite signing the two Smiths, I think a guy like Florida State's Brian Burns is absolutely in the mix at 12. He would be a perfect Matthews replacement: He's lighter, quicker and would give the linebacker group a complete makeover. Yes, offense could very well be in play at #12 as well, at either offensive line or tight end, but the front seven depth in the first round this year is rare--he could even trade down, now that the team's biggest needs have been addressed.

Among those needs was a complete do-over at safety. The Packers aren't done here, but got off to strong start with the signing of ex-Bears safety Adrian Amos, who comes in at a very palatable $6 million against the cap. It's always nice to weaken a rival when you add a free agent and the Amos signing does just that. Is he Earl Thomas or Landon Collins? No, but he's cheaper, just 25 and has been healthy. He's an instant upgrade in the Pack's secondary.

The fourth signing was more of a head scratcher when it was first announced. Billy Turner is a local kid, Mounds View High School and NDSU alum, who trained this offseason right next door to the Vikings shiny new home, TCO Performance Center. While the Vikings decided he wasn't in their plans, the Pack swooped in and pounced with a four year, $28 million offer that will account about $4 million against the cap this year. He has played everywhere along the line, except center, with most coming on the right side.

He figures to have the inside track on the right guard spot, with guys like Justin McCray, Nico Siragusa and Lucas Patrick hoping to bump him off. He'll also be a much more palatable backup right tackle, if and when Bryan Bulaga gets hurt again. Yes, I expect the Pack to bring him back, and with Turner in the fold we should only need Jason Spriggs in case of grave emergency.

It sounds like the Packers are still about ten million bucks under the cap, and will have enough to add a few more players on value deals. Sounds like they're close with Mo Wilkerson and could look at a RB, WR and another safety.

We all know that teams that spend in March aren't always smiling in January. But teams have shown how using free agency wisely can make an instant impact (Rams). These four deals on day two of free agency make the Pack's roster stronger in the short term and won't hurt the team financially on the back end. They've addressed their most glaring needs by bringing in young, ascending players and betting that their best football is ahead of them. In year two of Mike Pettine's system, he has a much better feel for what he's got and what he needs. The front office has listened and delivered a youth and talent infusion. And with three picks in the top 44, they're not done.

Not a bad start to the offseason.



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Packers Pounce on LaFleur.

Posted January 8th, 2019 @ 02:01pm

Like most Packer fans, I know very little about Matt LaFleur. I've never heard the guy speak. First time I ever heard his name was this time last year, when he interviewed for head coaching jobs and landed in Tennessee as the OC.

Despite this lack of knowledge about the guy, I'm intrigued by his background, who he's learned from and what he might bring to the Packers offense and more specifically, to Aaron Rodgers. And I can't wait to hear him lay out his vision for this organization.

The Packers' braintrust interviewed ten men for the head coaching job, most were former head coaches, the others were current offensive coordinators. They wrapped up their interviews on Sunday and offered LaFleur on Monday. That's not how these things typically go. Usually, a team will pare its list down to three or four and then bring them back for a second round of interviews.

Instead, the Packers pounced. Clearly, they'd heard enough and were bowled over by their meeting and interview with LaFleur. That's exactly what I'd hoped would happen. The betting money said Josh McDaniels was the favorite, pointing to his success working with Tom Brady and his long term ability to keep the Patriots offense fresh. He was the one guy I'd crossed off my list. How he handled the Colts situation last year should stain his prospects of getting another shot, in my opinion. Plus his abrasive, arrogant personality and desire to call all the shots made him the wrong fit in Titletown.

At 39, LaFleur appears ready for this opportunity. He's worked under brilliant offensive minds: Mike and Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay. He was the quarterback coach in Washington when RGIII had his best season and in Atlanta when Matty Ice won the MVP. He ran the Rams offense in 2017 when they emerged as a contender in the NFC.

And then there is this past season, when he called plays for the first time and handled everything on the offensive side of the ball for the Titans' new defensive-minded head coach Mike Vrabel. Viking fans and other Packer haters will mock his results, as his team finished near the bottom statistically in most offensive statistics.

Let's dig a little deeper: in the season opener, Marcus Mariota suffered a nerve injury to his throwing hand that would affect him all season and they lost their best pass catcher for the year in tight end Delanie Walker. Now, name a Titans wide receiver. Right, not much talent there. As the season wore on, he changed the team's look to one that featured Derrick Henry, and the former Bama back who had been mediocre for his first two and a half seasons, suddenly looked like a top five back in the last month of the season. The Titans almost made the playoffs, despite being led by Blaine Gabbert at quarterback.

Many football fans scoffed when Ted Thompson plucked the 49ers offensive coordinator, some obscure guy named Mike McCarthy, after his offense had finished 30th in the league.  That worked out okay.

There are reports surfacing that LaFleur plans to keep Mike Pettine around to run the defense--that's precisely what I had hoped would happen. The last thing this team needs right now is to completely clean house and start over. Pettine got off to a strong start in his first year on the job, getting buy-in from the players and showing improvement on the field, despite a rash of injuries that cost him his best players for a good chunk of the season. With re-enforcements coming in the offseason, primarily at outside linebacker and safety, the defense is trending in the right direction.

Then there is Rodgers, who we are told is on board with LaFleur's selection. And ultimately, the new coach will be measured by how he works with the future Hall of Famer.  There is work to be done on that side of the roster as well, on the offensive line, at tight end and maybe at wide receiver.

And LaFleur will get extra time, as all new head coaches do, to work with the players and implementing his new system, one that should get Rodgers excited and invigorated, something he desperately needs--we all witnessed his body language on the field this past season. He needs a reboot and LaFleur is charged with sparking it.

So the Pack has its man and now we'll hear him talk about the culture he's looking to build in Green Bay. The Michigan native has the backing of a lot of players who have endorsed him on Twitter--guys like Joe Thomas and yes, Kirk Cousins. Mark Murphy has put his job on the line with this hire--entrusting LaFleur with getting the most out of Rodgers' golden years.

Let's hope the results are golden.

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