Written by: Kyle Engman (@engman22, twitter)
As the Packers passed the deadline for using their franchise tag on Monday, Sam Shield and B.J. Raji remained unsigned. Drew Rosenhaus, Shield’s agent, reported that his client will test the waters of free agency. The water may be warm for Shields who is one of the top free agent prospects for this year at cornerback. B.J. Raji may also be testing the free agency waters after the Packers offered him a one year contract for $4 million which he hasn’t signed yet.
So what does this all mean for titletown? Well, in short, the Packers may have more work to do on putting together a defense for the 2014 season. Shields was the most consistent cornerback for the Packers defense last year and to let him walk would be a huge blow for the Green Bay’s already deteriorating defense. Raji though is a different story. It appeared Green Bay and struck gold (and green) when drafting Raji but since his 2010 season he’s declined significantly in production. The last time Raji recorded a sack was two seasons ago in 2011. He only accumulated 17 tackles in 2013 and played in just 10 games. It’s safe to say Raji has lost a step. The annual $8 million contract that Green Bay offered Raji earlier this season is way too high for his level of production. Which doesn’t exactly matter, because Raji turned down the Packer’s absurd offer anyways in search for more money. Raji and Shields will both be eligible to negotiate with teams on the March 8th and officially sign with them on the March 11th.
Shields and Raji will leave holes in the Packers defense. Holes that were big enough with them still on the team. Looking at the defense, you can clearly see what positions need attention. Datone Jones, Casey Hayward, Clay Matthews, Nick Perry, and Jerel Worthy are all returning from injuries in 2013 and are expected to start. It’s amazing how the Packers are exceptional at putting together a team using undrafted free agents and late round draft picks but cannot draft a healthy early round player at all.
With Jerel Worthy and Datone Jones both returning from injuries, the two are poised to start opposite of each other at the defensive end positions. Head Coach, Mike McCarthy spoke very highly of Jones while addressing the media at the NFL combine, quoted “I think he’s one of those players who makes a huge jump.” A huge jump is exactly what Jones needs after a dismal rookie season. After a sprained ankle put a hamper on Jones early in the season, he participated in only eight games throughout the season and racked up three and a half sacks.
While there is much concern and inconsistency to deal with on the defensive line, the linebackers position is in much need of an upgrade as well. Clay Matthews is the clear cut leader of the Packers defense and linebackers core. Matthews had a down year last season where he struggled with injuries and being singled out by offensive lines. Nick Perry is also returning from injuries and is set to start opposite of Matthews. A.J. Hawk had to pick up the slack where Desmond Bishop left and couldn’t keep up the pace even with fellow inside linebacker Brad Jones. Hawk is an adequate middle linebacker but not anything that can compliment Clay Matthews. The Packers will need to draft a linebacker who can take over for Brad Jones and/or A.J. Hawk.
The Packers are in desperate need for an overhaul at the defensive backs position. Morgan Burnett was signed before the 2013 season to a 4 year, $24.75 million, so the Packers view him as a long term solution to one of their safety positions, M.D. Jennings however, does not. Jennings has been a subpar safety to the least and hasn’t been a viable replacement for Nick Collins/Charles Woodson. Casey Hayward had a great rookie season but only played in two games his sophomore season due to injuries. Veteran cornerback, Tramon Williams, had the most tackles of his career last season (83), but many view him as slowing down. Williams definitely isn’t in the prime of his career anymore but isn’t slowing down like everyone says he is. Green Bay should be prioritizing a replacement for Williams this offseason though since Sam Shields, the man who should have taken over, is most likely leaving in free agency.
Here’s the current depth chart for the Packers defense (minus potential free agents).
Left Defensive End - Datone Jones
*Nose Tackle - Josh Boyd
Right Defensive End - Jerel Worthy, Mike Daniels
Left Outside Linebacker - Nick Perry, Chase Thomas
*Left Inside Linebacker - A.J. Hawk, Sam Barrington, Victor Aiyewa
*Middle Linebacker - Brad Jones, Jamari Lattimore
Right Outside Linebacker - Clay Matthews, Andy Mulumba, Nate Palmer
*Left Cornerback - Tramon Williams, Micah Hyde, Davon House, Antonio Dennard
Strong Safety - Morgan Burnett, Chris Banjo
*Free Safety - M.D. Jennings, Sean Richardson
*Right Cornerback - Casey Hayward, Jarrett Bush, Jumal Rolle, James Nixon
The positions above that are italic with asterisks are the positions Green Bay needs to focus attention on the most. The reason I didn’t highlight their defensive end positions is that I don’t think Ted Thompson is set on bailing on Jerel Worthy and Datone Jones just yet. The two ends have had a stretch of bad luck in their first few seasons but both are still young (Jones, 23, and Worthy, 24) and have time to prove themselves yet.
With their first round pick, the Packers should select free safety, Calvin Pryor. The junior out of Louisville has built up quite a reputation for being a big hitter, much like former Packer, Nick Collins. In three years with the Cardinals, Pryor accrued nine forced fumbles and seven interceptions. Pryor’s greatest asset, his aggressiveness, is also his achilles heel. He plays with such intensity sometimes that he overshoots running lanes and misses easy tackles while trying to gauge a big hit on a runner. Another plus though for Pryor is that he has experience playing in both the strong safety and free safety positions. Teams should have no doubts about his versatility for playing different positions on the field.
While titletown focuses it’s first pick on a defensive back, their second pick should be for Wisconsin linebacker, Chris Borland. Borland is a great pick in the second round. While at Wisconsin, Borland played under four different linebackers coaches and switched positions three times in five years. For the amount of change, Borland showed a lot of versatility and played exceptionally well for the circumstances. Borland was able to put together 100 tackle seasons three years in a row. He also recorded 50 tackles for a loss and 14 forced fumbles. Borland has a great sense for run defense, wrapping up runners and making sure he drags them to the ground. There are some worries about his pass coverage and his arm length. There has also been doubt about his ability to stay healthy, Borland has had issues with his shoulder in the past, undergoing multiple surgeries throughout his collegiate career.
Now that the Packers have drafted a linebacker and safety, it’s time to find a future defensive tackle. With the third round selection in the draft, the Packers should select defensive tackle, Daniel McCullers. The Volunteer nose tackle does not have explosive speed for the pass rush but rather overpowers offensive lineman with his strength and mass instead. McCullers is a slower prospect but can plug holes and running lanes in a pinch. Standing at 6’ 8” and weighing a staggering 351 pounds, McCullers is the biggest nose tackle prospect in the entire draft. Many think that because of his size, he might not succeed in the NFL but for how big McCullers is he sure does handle his weight with no problem. In fact, when he first arrived at Tennessee he weighed more than when he arrived at the combine back in February. At one point, he was thought to challenge Louis Nix as the top nose tackle in the draft and possibly a first round talent but fell into the third round in draft projections.
For cornerback, I think the Packers will actually look towards free agency for one. The highest rated cornerbacks that the Packers would possibly pick up would be Vontae Davis or Cassius Vaughn (both played for Indianapolis last season). As much as I’d like to see Alteraun Verner in a green uniform next year, I find it hard to believe Ted Thompson will spend the kind of money for talent like that. Thompson does have $35 million to spend in free agency though. Tarell Brown is also in the mix for the Packers. Brown was a starter for the 49ers the past three seasons and has played with them since being drafted by them in 2007. Brown is a solid starter who doesn’t have injury issues like many of the Packers defensive backs. Brown also won’t cost the Packers nearly the amount Verner would (Ted Thompson slowly smiles a little).
After the draft and free agency, this is how I think the Packers defense will work. It will be a young group, with a lot to prove, but the amount of potential is astronomical. The main focus for this defense next year though will be to force turnovers. If they can’t do that, it may be time for Dom Capers to start rethinking his defense.
Updated Starters for 2014.
Left Defensive End - Datone Jones
Nose Tackle - Daniel McCuller (R)
Right Defensive End - Jerel Worthy
Left Outside Linebacker - Nick Perry
Left Inside Linebacker - Chris Borland (R)
Middle Linebacker - A.J. Hawk
Right Outside Linebacker - Clay Matthews
Left Cornerback - Tramon Williams, Micah Hyde
Strong Safety - Morgan Burnett
Free Safety - Calvin Pryor (R)
Right Cornerback - Casey Hayward, Tarrell Brown (SF13)