Sunday, March 14, 2010

Signings Aside, Can the Packer Upgrade Their 2009 Roster?

There's been much celebration over the past few days in Packerland...another successful Fan Fest was held at Lambeau Field, and the Packers were able to bring in a couple of beloved veterans back into the fold with some hefty in-house free agent signings.  There's a lot of optimism brewing for the Packers, and its nice to have some good offseason news (despite the loss of Aaron Kampman).

So much so, that Mike Vandermause echoes some of the giddiness many Packer fans have exuberantly chanted the past couple days, indicating this is a sign of great things to come.

Thompson is so high on his team that he’s willing to invest major dollars to lock down some of the core players.

“I thought we had a good team,” Thompson said. “In fact, I thought we had a team that could play a few games in the playoffs and we just got in a shootout and couldn’t get out of it.”

Translation: Thompson believes he has a Super Bowl contender on his hands and is willing to pay big bucks to keep it together.

Now, Vandermause has never seen a move by Ted Thompson he didn't gush over, and these signings are no exception.  And personally, I've already stated that these are the kind of moves that are wise ones to make in an uncertain transitional period of free agency.  I give Thompson credit for having the discipline to stay within a budget (unlike several other NFC North teams) in a time when overspending with no cap could really come back to haunt you later.

But, I want to throw in this cautionary nugget:  keeping your own players in this era of free agency is a wise move in any offseason (and this one in particular), but it is maintaining the level of talent that we had last season, not necessarily adding to it.

And, it's not like last year's talent level was anything to be ashamed of in the least.  The Packers rebounded from a depressing 2008 with an 11-5 record and league-leading offensive and defensive squads.  Pro Bowl players on both sides of the ball represented the team, and young players like Clay Matthews and Jermichael Finely added new and exciting dimensions.  The Packers made the playoffs in a season not many predicted them to.  They have solid leaders on both sides of the ball under contract, with Aaron Rodgers and Charles Woodson taking on the roles as the field generals for their squads.

But the Packers did fold twice under the pressure of facing hated division rival Minnesota last year, and late in the season saw their top-ranked defense completely sieve against the Steelers and Cardinals (the latter in a playoff game).  In order to truly be a Super Bowl contender, the Packers have to figure out how to shore up those weaknesses:  there are no patsies in the playoffs, and the Packers have to come to the game loaded for bear.

The goal for any NFL team, particularly one on the rise as the Packers have been, is how to make the product on the field better than it was last year, more complete.  And, many of us have noted that an upgrade at just a couple of, nickel back, outside linebacker, guard/tackle...may spell the difference between a playoff win and a playoff loss.

And the Packers have taken one solid step towards that goal:  keeping many of their solid vets in the fold.  Kampman is a loss, especially as a solid team leader, but the guys they kept (Collins, Tauscher, Clifton, and Pickett) are all penciled in as starters at positions they have excelled in over their entire career.  For a team that seems to be perpetually the youngest team in the league, year after year, this is a solid statement by Thompson that this team is no longer in building mode, but in "we're here" mode.

The amounts of money that has been thrown at these four players, however, has to be a strong indicator that Thompson is (wisely) going to stay out of the outside free agent market, and I couldn't agree that this year is a good one to play five-card stud instead of drawing from the deck.

So, this leads me to two important questions:  is it possible to upgrade the talent on the roster while staying fiscally responsible in this transition year?  And, if the answer is yes, what is the wisest route to go about doing it?

The Draft:  By most accounts, this draft is going to be one of the deepest in a long time, with many recruits bailing out of college early in the hopes of avoiding a possible rookie salary schedule in the future.  The chances are quite high that you can get a kid that was a first-round talent last year in the second- or -third- round this year.

I've already put my money down on such a player--Nate Allen, as free safety from FSU.  This smart, ball-hawking safety might have cost the Packers their 23rd overall pick in another year, but this year he will likely last until the second or perhaps even the third round.

But most of us know that putting your faith in a rookie to come in and be a solid upgrade right away is wishful thinking.  Clay Matthews is by far the exception than the rule, and even Thompson's relatively good road record on draft day hasn't produced many impact starters right away.  The fact that the rookies would have to supplant players on an 11-5 team make it an even tougher challenge:  it's not like you're trying to upgrade from Wil Whittaker and Samkon Gado anymore.

The chances are far greater that you may find a tackle and safety of the future in the first couple of rounds, but when it comes to getting the Packers over the one-and-done playoff hump, that may be a little long to wait.

In-house Improvement:  the Packers have several project players that they would love to see mature this season and truly bring the competition that Mike McCarthy covets in training camp. 

The offensive line has to be Thompson's Achilles Heel over his tenure, hoping that mid-round picks would be able to compete and create a solid offensive line.  However, the huge contract extensions offered to Clifton and Tauscher is a sign that, after five drafts and ten offensive linemen drafted, the Pack still haven't found anyone to replace the aging holdovers from the Sherman regime.

On the roster, the Packers have a couple of linemen they would love to see mature into solid starting-caliber players, most notably T.J. Lang, who played as a fill-in as a rookie and may project into one of the tackle spots.  Breno Guacamole also has a lot of size and many were hoping he also would be able to come in last season and contribute, but spent most game days on the inactive squad.

The Packers should have back their starting front three on defense, but question marks still cloud the future of Johnny Jolly (though, I will be the first to admit, if I ever get in trouble with the law, I sure would like to know the name of Jolly's lawyer).  It is pretty much consensus that Justin Harrell, Thompson's ill-fated first round pick from 2007, is already a foregone conclusion to be a non-factor again this season (and likely gone in preseason if he struggles).  However, if for some reason Harrell were to even show the consistency and ability to be a rotational player, it would be a tremendous addition to the line.

At linebacker, the Packers have lost Aaron Kampman, and now have an open spot opposite Clay Matthews at OLB.  Several players could not only take that spot over, but possibly upgrade AJ Hawk in the middle.  Brad Jones did a yeoman's job in relief of an injured Kampman last year, but disappeared at critical times.  A year of growth and maturity may mean that Jones can win that spot outright.  Another player we could see taking a step forward is Jeremy Thompson, a guy who shone during minicamps last year but wilted when the pads came on.  He's built for a 3-4 OLB position, and if he were to take that step forward, the Packers would be all the better for it.  Brandon Chillar and Des Bishop are also chomping at the bit to see if they can take over full-time inside, leaving Hawk on the bench (and perhaps available for trade).

Defensive back is the thinnest area right now, which might seem surprising when you consider that three out of the four starters were named to the Pro Bowl over the last two seasons.  Yet, Al Harris will again be a question mark coming off on injury, and while super-sub Tramon Williams is solid in relief, he's a step down from Harris and the nickel position is subsequently an even further drop.  Two players that could really bolster the cornerback position with a sudden maturing process would be both Will Blackmon, a return specialist who struggled in regular coverage, and Pat Lee, the former second-round pick who has struggled to stay healthy.  Brandon Underwood also got some playing time last season with a mixed bag of results.

At safety, the prospects are even worse.  Atari Bigby is the defacto starter, but has yet to regain his 2007 form as he recovers from injuries.  He's another strong safety type, like Collins, who struggles more in coverage.  Behind Bigby are just two players:  Derrrick Martin and Jarrett Bush, both of whom appear to be special team players and servicable backups, not the kind of players who will upgrade your starting lineup.

So, there are possibilities to improve from within, with offensive tackle and safety being the positions with the thinnest talent potential behind the starters.

Trade:  This is pretty much unheard of in the Thompson era, but isn't completely out of the question.  Thompson shocked us all last season with a massive trade-up in the draft, so there's the possibility he may be interested in trading away a draft pick or peripheral player for a good player with a contract in place.

Brian Carriveau over at Railbird Central proposed such a trade today, with the Packers offering a tendered Daryn Colledge to Oakland for inside linebacker Kirk Morrison (also tendered).  While that may not be the trade I'd pull off, it would send a disgruntled Colledge elsewhere, and likely bring in a good player just thrilled to no longer be working for Al Davis.

Obviously, I'd rather see an offensive tackle or a free safety coming to the Packers for Colledge, but those positions are a little harder to find and a lot more expensive.  Unlike Morrison, however, the player we might be looking for in trade doesn't have to be another RFA waiting to sign a tender:  every team tends to have an overload at some position that makes a player expendable.

Heck, I'd be willing to trade Colledge to the Raiders for Michael Huff, the safety we bypassed in 2007 to take AJ Hawk.  Yeah, he's struggled, but I like to believe he was played out of position for several years.  He's a natural free safety that was pigeonholed as a strong safety to start, and struggled as a result.  If a new situation and good surroundings could help him find the talent that made a 7th-overall pick, why not take that risk?


PackersRS said...

Great article, C.D. Good to see you active.

In fact, I have the same take as you. As some panic with the arrival of Peppers, I try to explain that usually the big winners in March don't win in February, and that with a young team and with a rich draft, we could solve our problems...

But your article explains it better...

Brady Augustine said...

I like your point that signing the veterans and keeping the team together does not improve it. TT cannot sign these guys and forget that 1. for a good part of the season, our second year and pro-bowler-to-be quarterback was being treated like a pig at a Jimmy Dean factory. Yes, he got Tausch and Cliffy signed but we also lost Harris and basically couldn't stop anybody who was able to force us into the nickel package on a regular basis. The pass rush was sporadic and once again we had to wait half a season for Ryan Grant to get most of his 1200 yards. The Colledge situation is not good. He has wasted away the development/grooming of anyone else at that position but I think there is something to be said for the fact that he has been moved around a lot and is not in his natural position. Trading him may be better for both organizations.

Brady Augustine said...

Oh, and let me comment on Nate Allen and your free safety idea. A lot has been said about the Packers lack of another elite pass rusher to compliment CM3. While I would love to have two of that guy, I think adding a fast, smart safety who is trying to make his way in the league (like Bigby was a few years ago) would help our pass rush. A lot of our guys can get there but we need coverage for the stunts to develop. We need someone with speed, brains and timing who can separate receivers from the ball on a regular basis. I think that position is very important in the 3-4. I know I am oversimplifying but the most important guy to make the scheme work is the nose - because he has to take up two to make the front 3 effective. But the FS is perhaps the mop-up bookend to the nose because if he has range and smarts, he can allow the LB's and (even corners at times)to move, stunt, and confuse the opposing quarterback. I really think our LB corps will be fine (again, not that I wouldn't love another pass rushing LB) I think our concern should be whether Jolly will be able to play and if we can get Bigby a challenger worthy of him.