Friday, April 29, 2011

Packers Re-load on Offense in 2nd/3rd Rounds

One of the strategies that has made Ted Thompson’s drafts so successful is he selects players a couple years before he urgently needs them.  This approach gives players time to mature, to develop.  And, frequently, they emerge in their second or third (or, in Rodgers’ case, fourth) year as pros to become impact players.

That strategy seemed to be at play today with the selection of Randall Cobb, WR from Kentucky, in the second round and Alex Green, RB from Hawaii, in the third.  I was somewhat surprised to see the Packers select two more offensive players, particularly with their needs at DL and OLB not addressed yet.  But I’m having a hard time objecting to either pick.

Cobb is a little under-sized at just 5'10" and 191 lbs.  But he was a top 5 receiver in most of the mock drafts, and projected to go higher.  So to get him with the 64th pick was certainly good value.  Several receivers came off the board in front of him – including Jon Baldwin from Pittsburgh (to the Chiefs), Greg Little from North Carolina (to the Browns), and Titus Young from Boise State (to the Lions) – who don’t seem as promising as Cobb.  So I expect the “best available” approach played into this selection.

Cobb is also a good fit for the Packers' offense.  He is quick off the snap and has great hands.  He played the slot a lot at Kentucky – suggesting the Packers may see him as an eventual successor to Driver.   Cobb also brings some interesting X-factor skills.  He’s a very good return man – something the Packers desperately need.  He even has had experience as a quarterback and running back, which could provide useful versatility to the Packers' offense.  The selection of a receiver in the 2nd round also suggests that the Packers may be expecting to part ways with James Jones.  Cobb would help sustain the Packers’ depth at receiver.  Here are some Cobb highlights to get you pumped up:

The selection of Alex Green at running back in the 3rd round with the 96th overall pick was a bigger surprise.  As with the Cobb pick, this selection could indicate some uncertainty about the future of Ryan Grant and Brandon Jackson.  I expected the Packers to hold tight at running back, particularly since Starks appears to be a steal from last year’s draft.  Even if you accept that the Packers had need at this position, there were quite a few other guys – including Kendall Hunter from Oklahoma State, Jordan Todman from Connecticut, Jamie Harper from Clemson and others – who I suspect would be higher on most team’s boards.

Green, at 6’0”, 225 lbs, is one of the bigger, more physical backs in this year’s draft.  And the Packers could see him as a Grant replacement, perhaps after a year or two on the bench.  I just think they probably could have gotten Green with a later pick – most mock drafts seem to have him going a round or two later.

That said, it’s hard to point out other picks that the Packers passed up.  Defensive line was a need, but the run on defensive linemen was dramatic – with 25 selected in the first three rounds so far.  Maybe they just didn’t see anyone else at that position that they liked.  I’m not sure I do.

The other position I was hoping they might draft early was outside linebacker.  But there again, they may just not have seen value at that position when they were selecting.  Several promising prospects were already taken in the second round – including Akeem Ayers from UCLA (pick 39 by the Titans), Bruce Carter from North Carolina (pick 40 by the Cowboys), Brooks Reed from Arizona (pick 42 by the Texans) and Jonas Mouton from Michigan (pick 61 by the Chargers).  Martez Wilson from Illinois could have been had in the second, but he was gone by the third round (pick 72 by the Saints), as was Justin Houston from Georgia (pick 70 by the Chiefs).  Sam Acho from Texas was still available at the end of the 3rd round, but maybe they think they have a chance to land him, or some of the other players still available at OLB, later.

Cornerback is the other position I could have considered in the third round, but it was pretty picked over.  Five cornerbacks were selected in the second round, including Ras-I Dowling, Marcus Gilchrist, Jaiquawn Jarrett, Brandon Harris, and Aaron Williams.  And five more were taken in the third round.  Without a pressing need at that position, I probably would have passed on this second-tier crop of players as well.

I guess I can’t complain.  I spent most of last season begging for Thompson to get a running back.  He’s finally answered the call in the way he knows how: through the draft.  Hopefully, both these guys will work out.

Sherrod a Great Pick for Packers in First Round

Latest Packer Derek Sherrod at the Combine.
I like the selection of Derek Sherrod from Mississippi State with the Packer's first round selection.  As I mentioned before the draft, I feel like offensive line is the area of greatest need for the Packers.  I'm not sure Sherrod was a "steal" at the #32 pick -- that's about where he was projected to go in most mock drafts.  But all the guys I've seen ranked higher, like Carimi, Solder and Pouncy, were already off the board.

Sherrod may fit better with the Packers anyway.  I'm glad they selected a tackle rather than a guard.  Think there's more talent among tackles in this draft, and, though he played left tackle at Mississippi State, Sherrod seems to have the flexibility to move into the left guard position (if Colledge is gone) or go to right tackle (if they switch Bulaga to the left side).

I never saw him play in college, but some of his strengths are reportedly his quick feet, fast and powerful first move, and long arms.  That should make him well-suited for the pulls, traps, and screens the Packers like to run.  He also showed a little bit of a playful attitude in some of his promo reels.  Seems to have a little of that love-of-the-game self-confidence that is reminiscent of B.J. Raji and Clay Matthews.  The Packers always do a good job of drafting attitude not just ability.

Overall, this seems like a solid pick by Thompson and company.  The only position that you could argue was an equal need for the Packers was defensive line, but that crop was pretty picked over by the time Green Bay was on the clock.  Twelve defensive linemen were selected in the first round, and no one was left that the Packers couldn't pass up on that side.  The value was greater at offensive line at that point, and it was too early, in my estimation, to take an OLB -- their other area of need.  I'd definitely like to see the Packers go defense with their second pick.  Looking forward to the rest of the draft.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Draft Day Is Here!

Amazingly, the 2011 NFL Draft is upon us.  With the first round starting tomorrow, months of conjecture and speculation about whom the Packers will pick will come to an end.  With no glaring needs and given this is Ted Thompson’s core competency, I look forward to the draft optimistically.  The Packers will be in a great position to take best-available players, rather than just drafting for need.

Of course, the lack of a CBA and consequent free-agency limbo makes this draft a particularly unusual one.  I suspect that this will play to the Packers’ advantage.  Teams that have known holes will be forced to “reach” for draft prospects (particularly at QB), since they will have no way of knowing if they can fill those gaps via free agency.  The Packers also have the luxury of drafting largely for depth this year, rather than needing to get rookies into the starting line-up right away.  This gives their picks time to develop and acclimate to the NFL.

With that perspective, here’s my take on the Packers’ needs by position:


QB – Obviously, with the reigning Super Bowl MVP leading the charge and the up-and-coming Matt Flynn on the bench, the Packers are pretty set at this position.  Not so for many other teams.  By my count, there are 10 teams (Carolina, Buffalo, Cincinnati, Arizona, San Francisco, Tennessee, Washington, Minnesota, Miami and Seattle) who are desperate for a viable starting quarterback.  Not surprisingly, 9 out of these 10 are in the top half of the first round, because if you have a crappy QB, you generally have a crappy team.  I expect that such huge demand will result in a number of teams reaching for QBs.  If the CBA was sorted out, I could easily see other teams offering high draft choices for Flynn.  But I also suspect the Packers could easily trade down out of the first round if they wanted to.  Of the 10 teams above, those who don’t take a QB in the first round will be jockeying to get ahead of each other in the second round.  The Packers could trade down, still get the guy they want with their first pick, and amass additional selections in the later rounds where Thompson excels at picking out diamonds in the rough.

RB – With Ryan Grant, hopefully, returning to form after last year’s season-ending ankle injury, and James Starks bursting onto the scene late in the season, the Packers should be in decent shape at running back.  Brandon Jackson, who did not sign a tender offer by the Packers and will most likely become an unrestricted free agent once a new CBA is done, is expected to be gone.  So if a comparable third-down back dropped in the draft, I could see the Packers picking up a value pick perhaps in one of the mid-rounds to add depth.  There could be some interesting candidates, like a DeMarco Murray from Oklahoma or a Jordan Todman from Connecticut, who could be available in the third round.  But I suspect it’s unlikely Green Bay will pick a RB, since Starks, who was just selected in last year’s draft, can potentially play a more impactful role.

FB –At fullback, there’s a little uncertainty.  Hybrid back and so-called “folk hero” (I think just because he has one of those names the crowd can cheer and it sounds like booing) John Kuhn will be a free agent, but signs on both sides seem to suggest he’ll re-sign with the Packers.  The Packers also did not tender a contract offer to Korey Hall prior to the lock-out, who will likely be a restricted free agent.  So Quinn Johnson is the only fullback under contract with the Packers.  There’s some speculation that the Packers might draft a fullback, but I hope they don’t.  Even if they lose Kuhn or Hall, I’d rather see them go to 2 fullbacks and free up a roster spot.

WR – Despite one of the deepest receiving corps in the NFL, I could see Green Bay drafting a receiver this year.  Driver is getting up there in age, and James Jones will be a restricted free agent and has expressed his desire to get into a starting line-up, so they may lose him.  If the CBA were done, they’d probably have a better sense of whether they can re-sign Jones, which I hope they do -- although his compensation expectations may be too high.  In light of that uncertainty, the Packers may want to pick someone up perhaps in a later round who they think is under-rated – just as a hedge.

TE – Getting Jermichael Finley back next year will be huge.  The silver lining to his season-ending injury was that Andrew Quarless and Tom Crabtree both got a lot of playing time.  I don’t expect the Packers to select a TE unless they just can’t pass on someone who has slipped down the board.

OL – Offensive line is certainly an area of need for the Packers, and I could see them selecting one with their first- or second-round pick.  Despite their steady play as a unit last year, the Packers need depth, and could be one injury (most likely the aging Chad Clifton) away from returning to their porous ways of 2009.  Further, with the likely departures of Daryn Colledge and Jason Spitz via free agency, the Packers may need to restock particularly at guard.  Tackles seem to be deeper than guards in this year’s draft, however, and there may be some good ones, like Wisconsin’s Gabe Carimi, Nate Solder from Colorado, or Derek Sherrod from Mississippi State, available at the #32 pick.  Mike Pouncy would be interesting at guard, but he may be off the board by the time the Packers pick.  Green Bay was fortunate to have Bulaga fall into their laps in the first round last year, and if a similar situation happens with one of these guys I hope they’ll pull the trigger.  For guard, I’d rather see them target someone in the second or third rounds, like a Ben Ijalana from Villanova or Clint Boling from Georgia.


DL – The Packers probably face more questions at defensive line than any other position.  Raji is an emerging stud at nose, of course.  At DE, Ryan Pickett should be fine, but Cullen Jenkins will almost certainly leave via free agency (the Packers don’t seem to have much urgency to try to keep him) and Johnny Jolly’s career is officially over for dealing codeine.   Thompson has tried hard to draft a strong DE for years, including Justin Harrell (1st round in 2007), Jarius Wynn (6th, 2009), Mike Neal (2nd, 2010) and C.J. Wilson (7th, 2010), but injuries or lack of talent have prevented any of these guys from really emerging.  It’s possible the Packers will be optimistic that one of these guys can fill the void, assuming Jenkins leaves, but I suspect Ted will want to use a first- or second-round pick to beef up the d-line.  Fortunately for the Packers, this is an incredibly deep draft class at defensive line.  USA Today had 5 defensive tackles and 8 defensive ends in their top 32 picks.  Several mock drafts have the Packers selecting Cameron Heyward from Ohio State with their #32 pick.  If a guy like Wisconsin’s J.J. Watt, Iowa’s Adrian Clayborn or Purdue’s Ryan Kerrigan are still available the Packers would likely jump on them.  But any number of other talented defensive linemen should still be on the board at the end of the first round, including Stephen Paea from Oregon State or Muhammad Wilkerson from Temple.  Given the depth of this class, though, they might be better off waiting till the second or third rounds.

Brooks Reed's hair makes him a top Packer prospect.
LB – Arizona OLB Brooks Reed keeps coming up as a likely prospect for the Packers.  He gets a lot of comparisons to Clay Matthews for his pass-rushing ability and long hair – which would certainly enable him to fit right in.  Vic Ketchman has the Packers taking Reed in the first round but I’m not sure they need to spend a first-round pick on him.  Unless other teams are as enamored of his hair as we are, the Packers could probably trade down and get him in the second round.  There are other quality prospects, like UCLA’s Akeem Ayers, Georgia’s Justin Houston, Texas’s Sam Acho and North Carolina’s Bruce Carter that could also be available, possibly even at the Packer's second-round pick.  Certainly, the Packers could use an impact OLB opposite Matthews, but Brad Jones, Frank Zombo and Erik Walden are all serviceable if un-spectacular players there.  I’d probably prioritize OL and DL ahead of another OLB.  They seem to be OK at inside LB, with Nick Barnett and Brandon Chillar returning from injury, A.J. Hawk re-signed, and Desmond Bishop and Robert Francois adding depth.  Though if they have plans to cut Chillar or Barnett, as some have speculated, they may want to look at an ILB in a later round.

CB – Cornerback is the equivalent on the defensive side as wide receivers are on the offensive side – a position that, at first, seems to have quality starters and a lot of depth, but could soon become an area of need.  Woodson and Williams are arguably the best starting CB tandem in the league, but Woodson is aging up and some speculate he might be better off moving to safety.  Sam Shields was a fantastic find, but besides him there is uncertainty about their nickel and dime guys Jarrett Bush, Josh Bell, Pat Lee, and Brandon Underwood.  It's unlikely all these guys will make the roster.  There are some talented CBs, like Colorado’s Jimmy Smith, Miami’s Brandon Harris, or Texas A&M’s Aaron Williams, that could be available as first- or second-round picks.  But I’d prefer to see the Packers scout someone in a later round.  If they could get Shields as an undrafted rookie free agent, then maybe they can find another gem in a 6th or 7th round to add some depth at this position.

S – Atari Bigby may end up leaving via free agency, but the Packers still seem pretty set at safety.  Nick Collins is a perennial ProBowler, though he blew some coverages last year.  Morgan Burnett will be back and will, hopefully, pick up on the solid season he was having prior to his injury.  And Charlie Peprah was one of the most pleasant surprises last year, and is a great back-up if he doesn’t keep the starting role.  If the Packers do anything here it won’t be till very late in the draft, particularly since it’s not a very impressive incoming class of safeties – there could be none selected in the first two rounds.

Out of all this, my philosophy if I were Thompson would be to focus on offensive line, defensive line and outside linebacker in the first three rounds.  I rate those three positions about equal in terms of need, so I think he can just focus on taking the best available.   Then, I’d look for an opportunistic selection in the mid to late rounds for a wide receiver and cornerback, and try to add depth at OL/DL along the way as value picks come available.  I'd also seriously consider trading down out of the first round and getting multiple picks in the second, third and fourth rounds -- should be some excellent options in that range and Thompson is great at finding them.  Can’t wait to see what happens.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Packers Schedule Looks Pretty Good

In spite of not knowing if there will be an NFL season in 2012, the NFL released the 2012 schedule today -- just to make sure we'll know which games we'll miss if the labor dispute continues into the fall.  Assuming the season does happen, I am overall pretty pleased with the Packers' schedule in terms of toughness, particularly since they are coming off a Super Bowl championship.

Here's my quick break-down of what I like about it:

  • Playing in the NFL opener on Thursday night, September 8 against the Saints will be fantastic.  I'm always so psyched for that first featured game of the season, and to have it at Lambeau will be awesome.  Already pondering how I could get back for that game.
  • Our first 7 games are Saints, Broncos and Rams at home, and Panthers, Bears, Falcons and Vikings away.  Broncos, Rams, Panthers and Vikings should all be wins, and feel like we could easily go 2-1 against the Saints, Bears and Falcons.  That would get us off to a 6-1 or 5-2 start. 
  • We get our bye at week 8, nice and close to mid-season.
  • We're playing the AFC West, and I just don't think they're that good (only division I'd prefer would be NFC West).  Raiders, Broncos, Chiefs and Chargers all feel like likely wins.
  • We get to play the Lions on Thanksgiving day.  Love getting the Thanksgiving day game.
  • We finish the second half of the season with 5 out of 8 games at home -- including all three divisional opponents, and our final two games of the season at Lambeau against the Bears and Lions.  Should set us up for a strong finish. 
One concern, given Aaron Rodgers stated preference for playing indoors come December, is we are outside in cold-weather cities for the last five games of the season.  But this still feels like a potential 12-4 season -- maybe 10-6 worst case with a 13-3 upside.  My best guess is we edge out the Saints in the opener, beat the Panthers, Broncos, Rams, Chargers, Buccaneers and Raiders, split with both the Bears and Lions, sweep the Vikings, and then drop games to the Falcons, and, possibly, Giants and/or Chiefs.  Hopefully, the season will actually happen and we'll find out for real.