Projecting Green Bay Packers' Depth Chart After Peak of Free Agency
As free-agency activity winds down, the Green Bay Packers have only re-signed five and tendered one of their 19 free agents, meaning an unprecedented amount of turnover between the last official team depth chart and the one that will start the 2014 season.
Where do the Packers stand now, prior to the draft?
Addressing the major losses of James Jones at wide receiver and Evan Dietrich-Smith at center along with the huge addition of Julius Peppers, as well as potential intra-squad position moves, the following current depth chart examines how each unit shapes up.
A potential late-wave free-agency signing and the draft will change this depth chart, perhaps drastically, but for now, the following slides examine the depth of each positional group and the likely starters in each.
Starter: Aaron Rodgers
Second String: Matt Flynn
Third String: Scott Tolzien
The Packers will look forward to having a healthy Aaron Rodgers back for, hopefully, 16 full games in 2014. But if the starter has to miss time again next season, who will be on the field in his place?
Green Bay failed to prioritize the backup position last offseason, and it nearly cost them a shot at the playoffs. Now, it seems Mike McCarthy is planning ahead. According to Jason Wilde of ESPN Wisconsin, McCarthy said on March 25 that he'd "like to have Matt [Flynn] back," and hopes the financials work out.
Despite a shaky start in his return to Green Bay in Week 12 of the 2013 season, Flynn averaged 229.2 yards, 1.4 touchdowns and a completion percentage of 60.7 percent over five games.
If the Packers can get a cheap, short-term deal done with Flynn, expect him to be Rodgers' immediate backup in 2014, while Tolzien continues to develop behind Rodgers.
Starter: Eddie Lacy
Second String: James Starks
Third String: Johnathan Franklin
Fourth String: DuJuan Harris
Eddie Lacy and James Starks provided an excellent one-two punch in 2013, and at times it seemed like they were co-starters. However, by season's end, Lacy had amassed 284 carries to Starks' 89, and he'll be the clear starter again in 2014.
However, the Packers must use caution with the number of times they pound the rock with Lacy each game. A bruising hitter who was frequently utilized on pass plays in 2013, Lacy exceeded 20 attempts in 10 games and had an ankle injury and aggravated asthma (made worse by cold weather) to show for it by Week 17.
Expect them to call on Starks often to spell Lacy, in some games as frequently as on alternating drives.
Johnathan Franklin didn't have a breakout rookie year due in part to fumbling the ball two weeks in a row, which landed him some time on the bench, and being placed on injured reserve after suffering a concussion in late November.
Still, the fourth-rounder has high-potential and should be given a handful of snaps per game.
Also look for DuJuan Harris to return from injured reserve in 2014. Harris will be entering a contract year and should be motivated to pad his stat sheet before free agency next offseason.
As for fullback, the Packers have not yet reached an agreement with unrestricted free-agent fullback John Kuhn, but McCarthy has indicated he would like the team to find a way to bring him back, per Tyler Dunne of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Outside Starter: Jordy Nelson
Outside Starter: Jarrett Boykin
Slot Starter: Randall Cobb
WR4: Myles White or 2014 draft pick
The Packers don't employ a typical X, Z and slot receiver, with every player lining up all over the field and being able to contribute at any position. But for depth chart purposes, Jordy Nelson looks to be the starting wideout, while Jarrett Boykin should continue developing at a lightning pace and will fill James Jones' role.
Green Bay will be thrilled to have Randall Cobb back and healthy after missing 10 games last season, but don't expect him to be confined to the slot. Until the Packers find a starting-caliber pass-catching tight end and a capable No. 4 receiver (which may or may not be Myles White), they'll lean upon Nelson, Boykin and Cobb to be flexible in their schemes.
Nelson played out of the slot frequently in Cobb's absence last season and enjoyed quite a bit of success there—especially on scoring plays, as I discovered last season.
Starter: Andrew Quarless (for now)
Second String: Brandon Bostick
Third String: Ryan Taylor
After the peak of free agency and before the draft, Quarless is the only tight end to pencil into the starting slot. However, by the conclusion of the draft in May, don't be surprised if the Packers have drafted a tight end in the early rounds to replace the gaping hole Finley's absence will leave.
The Packers struggled with red-zone efficiency in 2013, exacerbated by Finley's injury in Week 7. Aaron Rodgers needs a tight end who is a solid red-zone threat, and though Quarless experienced a surge in production in Weeks 14 and 15, he consistently struggled with blocking and hasn't proven he can be a legitimate scoring threat.
Behind Quarless, Brandon Bostick, Ryan Taylor and Jake Stoneburner will all compete for a spot on the roster. If the Packers do draft a tight end, expect the developing Bostick to be awarded one. If they decide to go with Quarless as their starter, Taylor, who played 166 snaps in 2013 by Pro Football Focus' (subscription required) count, is likely to beat out Stoneburner.
Left Tackle: David Bakhtiari
Left Guard: Josh Sitton
Center: JC Tretter
Right Guard: T.J. Lang
Right Tackle: Bryan Bulaga
Swing Tackle: Derek Sherrod
Second-String Right Tackle: Don Barclay
Second-String Guard: Lane Taylor
There's little mystery surrounding some key spots on Green Bay's offensive line, and a huge question mark at others. Mike McCarthy announced on March 25 that Bryan Bulaga would move back to right tackle in 2014 and that David Bakhtiari would remain at left tackle, per Mike Vandermause of the Green Bay Press-Gazette.
McCarthy also said Derek Sherrod would play as a swing tackle starting out on the left side.
There's no question Josh Sitton's spot at left guard is cemented; Sitton graded out as the No. 2 guard overall in the NFL in 2013, per Pro Football Focus. He was also ranked the No. 1 guard in pass-blocking.
If T.J. Lang's position at right guard is in question, it's not because of his play last season, but because the Packers may consider moving him to center after the departure of Evan Dietrich-Smith.
Lang will be considered to replace Dietrich-Smith in addition to Don Barclay (who started at right tackle in 2013 in Bulaga's absence) as well as second-year JC Tretter out of Cornell.
Per Vandermause, McCarthy is high on Tretter, who is sized similarly to Dietrich-Smith and also has his intelligence as a weight on the scale in this fast-paced, complicated offense with frequent audibles.
LDE: Datone Jones
NT: B.J. Raji
RDE: Mike Daniels
Second-String LDE: Letroy Guion
Second-String RDE: Jerel Worthy
Second-String NT: Josh Boyd
First, the easy part: As part of his one-year, $4 million deal, B.J. Raji will be moving back to nose tackle. He had his most productive season in the NFL playing the nose in 2010, with 6.5 sacks and 29 tackles, helping lead the defense to a Super Bowl win.
McCarthy admitted this offseason that Raji wasn't best-utilized in the 3-technique role he's been used in the last two seasons, saying that in 2014, he wants to play Raji closer to the football and "cut him loose," per ESPN Wisconsin's Jason Wilde.
Now, for the rest of the line.
First, it must be noted that Nick Perry, Mike Neal and Julius Peppers are all candidates for the "elephant" position, a hybrid between end and linebacker. Because the three will be grouped with the linebackers in position meetings, per Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, they have been included on the following outside linebacker slide.
Now that Raji has been moved from defensive end to nose tackle, Datone Jones, who suffered an ankle injury in last year's training camp that set him back, will be expected to step up into that role.
"At the end of the day, Datone Jones needs to be on the field and playing," McCarthy said at the scouting combine, per Packers.com editor Vic Ketchman.
Mike Daniels, per Paul Imig of Fox Sports Wisconsin, went from playing 25.6 percent of snaps in 2012 to 48.6 percent in 2013, and that number could jump to as high as 60 percent in 2014. Daniels' improvement in 2013 was vast; he was second in sacks behind Clay Matthews.
Daniels is especially well utilized as a pass-rusher in sub-packages, and in those situations, Jerel Worthy may see more time at defensive end in the base package.
Peppers and Neal will also line up as down linemen on some snaps next season, but we'll take a look at the flexibility of their roles on the next slide.
ROLB: Clay Matthews
LOLB/"Elephant": Julius Peppers, Mike Neal, Nick Perry
The outside linebackers depth chart is a bit of a mess, which is a good thing: The Packers have unprecedented versatility in the rushing packages they can put together.
The only "true" starting outside linebacker in 2014 is Clay Matthews. Nick Perry, Julius Peppers and Mike Neal are all eligible candidates for the elephant position, where they can line up at defensive end in the base defense or rush the passer at tackle or outside linebacker.
The elephant is a 7-tech, lining up on the inside shoulder of the tight end.
Per Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, McCarthy originally intended to use Neal as an elephant at the beginning of the 2013 season, but injuries to Matthews and Perry forced him to spend the majority of snaps at outside linebacker.
Though the depth chart looks a little muddy as a result of the blurred line between position groups, the Packers have many options when it comes to rushing the passer. They can utilize any combination of Peppers, Neal, Perry, Matthews, Raji, Jones, Daniels, Worthy and Guion in both base formation and sub-packages.
Starter: A.J. Hawk
Starter: Brad Jones
Second String: Jamari Lattimore
A.J. Hawk had statistically one of the best years of his career in 2013, setting a career high in sacks with five and recording 74 tackles. He was called upon to be more involved in rushing the passer when outside linebackers Clay Matthews and Nick Perry missed 10 games between them, and he stepped up.
Brad Jones was hampered by a hamstring injury for a period of four games midseason, and though he notched three sacks and 60 tackles, both he and Hawk seemed to struggle with speed through much of the season, allowing runners to break through the middle more often than was necessary.
Pro Football Focus graded Jones and Hawk in the bottom third of inside linebackers in run-blocking in 2013.
The Packers may have interest in inside linebacker C.J. Mosley in this year's draft, possibly looking to pair him with Hawk to fortify the middle.
Starter: Tramon Williams
Starter: Sam Shields
Second String/Slot in Sub-packages: Casey Hayward
Second String: Jarrett Bush
Third String: Davon House
The vast majority of Packers fans breathed a sigh of relief when the Packers re-signed Sam Shields to a four-year deal early in the free-agency period.
Shields was the Packers' best cover corner in 2013, often tasked with shadowing receivers like Calvin Johnson, Brandon Marshall and A.J. Green. He also allowed the 12th-lowest opposing quarterback rating among cornerbacks who played more than half of the starting snaps, at just 72.7, per Pro Football Focus.
Tramon Williams fared slightly worse in opposing quarterback ratings, allowing 88.1 on average into his coverage, but was still better than 22 other corners in the league who also played more than half of the starting snaps.
Shields and Williams had nine missed tackles each in 2013, per Pro Football Focus, a stat both need to work on next season. Shields also led the Packers in interceptions with four; Williams contributed another three, and Davon House and Jarrett Bush each had one.
After playing fewer than 100 snaps in 2013, Casey Hayward will return for the Packers next season and is likely to resume his role playing slot corner in sub-packages.
So where's Micah Hyde? Take a look at the following safety slide to find out.
Strong Safety Starter: Morgan Burnett
Free Safety Starter: Micah Hyde
Second-String Strong Safety: Chris Banjo
Second-String Free Safety: Sean Richardson
It feels like a virtual certainty that the Packers will draft a safety in May. But if they had to draw up a depth chart today, not having acquired a safety in free agency and before the draft, this has a good chance of being what it would look like.
Why move Micah Hyde to safety? To start, the Packers have a ton of depth at corner; Casey Hayward, Jarrett Bush and Davon House are all capable of starting if need be and are fantastic options in nickel and dime packages.
The Packers are clearly thin at safety after letting M.D. Jennings walk in free agency; without Hyde, they would currently have just three. And per ESPN's Rob Demovsky, Mike McCarthy wants to see Hyde utilized "as an every-down player" in Green Bay's defense.
Unless the Packers plan to run an insane amount of three-corner sub-packages, it's logical to assume that with Shields and Williams set at the two starting corner spots, Hyde's best chance of playing on every down would be at safety.
"We're going to give Micah the opportunity to play on all three downs—whether that's corner, nickel, dime, safety," McCarthy said at the NFL owners meetings last week, per Demovsky. "That's the versatility I think he brings to our football team."
If the Packers take a safety in the early rounds of the draft, that player would likely slot in as the second starter alongside Morgan Burnett, with Hyde being utilized heavily in sub-packages—perhaps playing some snaps at slot corner.
Though he's currently designated as a free safety in the Packers' out-of-date depth chart, Richardson proved to be most effective when brought down closer to the line in 2013, and it's likely the Packers would utilize him there again in 2014.
Kicker: Mason Crosby
Punter: Tim Masthay
Long Snapper: Brett Goode
After a worrisome struggle in 2012, Mason Crosby more than proved himself in 2013. He had an overall rate of success in field goals of 89.2 percent, which was 14th among all kickers in 2013, per Pro Football Focus.
He was also No. 8 among all kickers for accuracy in field goals over 50 yards, at 71.4 percent.
Tim Masthay was as reliable as ever in 2013, with an average of 44.5 yards per punt and ranked 29th in punts returned, with just 20, per Pro Football Focus.