Fact or Fiction for Green Bay Packers' Biggest Offseason Question Marks
The Green Bay Packers have largely spent their offseason addressing a few key issues that presented themselves during the 2013 season.
Some of those issues included the safety group failing to produce a single interception and the absence of a go-to punt returner.
The Packers' offseason moves have answered some of those nagging questions, but prompted a few others. The following five assertions about the Packers in the season to come were made either by players on the team or the analysts that cover it. We'll explore and analyze them in detail before deciding whether these question marks are warranted or not.
Some are sweeping concerns, like the state of the offense in 2014 compared to seasons past, while others are more focused and less pressing, like assessing one writer's claim that Randall Cobb could lead the league in receptions in 2014.
But all fall squarely on the side of fact or fiction.
Can Green Bay's Offense Be as Explosive in 2014 as It Was in 2011?
In a conversation with Aaron Rodgers, ESPN's Rob Demovsky postulated that the 2014 Packers offense could be as explosive as the record-setting 2011 offense which set club marks for points in a season (560), yards (6,482) and passing yards (5,161 gross and 4,924 net).
It's a very real possibility.
One important similarity between the 2011 offense and the projected 2014 offense is balance: The team has a running back for whom defenses have to plan (Ryan Grant in 2011 and Eddie Lacy in 2014) in addition to Aaron Rodgers' versatile stock of weapons. In 2011, Rodgers' progression list included Jordy Nelson, Greg Jennings, James Jones, Donald Driver, Randall Cobb and Jermichael Finley.
In 2014, Rodgers could have up to six receivers and two or three tight ends to throw to, including wideouts Nelson, Cobb, Jarrett Boykin, Davante Adams, Jared Abbrederis, Jeff Janis and Chris Harper and tight ends Andrew Quarless, Richard Rodgers, Brandon Bostick and Colt Lyerla.
Rodgers pointed out a few key factors that contributed to the 2011 offense's success: namely, that defenses often showed them one-high safety looks out of respect for the running game and that Green Bay's top receivers often found themselves in one-on-one matchups.
Both of those situations could become common in 2014 again. The Packers offense has evolved into a remarkably complete attack that is a nightmare for defenses to plan for. On one hand, opponents never want to give someone with Rodgers' arm a one-high safety look; on the other hand, Lacy proved last year that if opponents give him an opening he will punish them.
"Our defense was giving up some points as well, so we had a lot of opportunities so we put up a lot of yards and a lot of points," Rodgers told Demovsky.
Even if it means more yards and more points for the offense, a team never wants its defense to give up a lot of points, and for the defense Green Bay has put together this offseason, with the addition of Julius Peppers, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, the re-signing of Sam Shields and Mike Neal and the return of a presumably healthy Clay Matthews, the outlook is decidedly optimistic.
Even if the 2014 defense performs much better than the 2011 defense, however, the Packers have a potent air and ground attack in store for this season. There's a very good chance they could match their franchise records from 2011.
Will Jared Abbrederis Be Green Bay's Primary Returner?
Talking to Tyler Dunne of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Wednesday, Jared Abbrederis acknowledged that his best chance of making Green Bay's 53-man roster amid all the depth at wide receiver is to establish himself as the team's punt and kick returner.
But will Abbrederis earn that role?
The Packers have at least one clear goal for the return game in 2014, and that's to keep Randall Cobb out of it. In his first season with the Packers in 2011, Cobb returned 33 kicks and 25 punts and was by far the primary returner in both categories, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required). As he improved as a receiver, his special teams snaps decreased to just one kick and three punt returns in 2013 (though he also missed ten games to injury).
In 2013, the Packers used a myriad of players for punt and kick returns, relying primarily on Micah Hyde (22 kick returns and 24 punt returns) per Pro Football Focus. Now that Hyde will see an increased role in the secondary and at safety, Green Bay will want to decrease his special teams role, per Packers.com's Mike Spofford.
And that's where Abbrederis could step in.
Both Abbrederis (punts) and running back DuJuan Harris (kickoffs) have gotten looks in the return game this offseason, per Spofford. Assuming Jordy Nelson, Cobb and Jarrett Boykin occupy three of six potential receiver spots on the 53-man roster, Abbrederis will compete with Chris Harper, 2013 holdovers Alex Gillett, Myles White and Kevin Dorsey and rookies Davante Adams and Jeff Janis for one of three.
It appears Ted Thompson factored Abbrederis' return history into his decision to draft him with one of Green Bay's two compensatory picks. In his career at Wisconsin, Abbrederis returned 55 punts for 587 yards and a score, per Sports-Reference.com.
If Abbrederis can keep up the good work he's displayed at practice returning punts, there's a very good chance he could earn himself the job and, more importantly, a roster spot in 2014.
Will Randall Cobb Lead the League in Receptions in 2014?
On Wednesday, in his weekly mail column, Packers.com editor Vic Ketchman said that he thinks Randall Cobb could lead the league in receptions this season because "he plays in an offense that is going to use him in multiple ways."
Like all Green Bay's receivers, Cobb can run every route on the tree, though he primarily lines up in the slot. With James Jones signing with the Oakland Raiders in free agency and Jordy Nelson proving in 2013 that he can excel in the slot, it's very likely the Packers will use Cobb on the outside more in 2013.
94.7 percent of Cobb's 209 snaps in 2013 were in the slot last season, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), compared to 84.4 percent in 2012 and 62.1 percent in 2011. But he missed ten games last season, and it's reasonable to assume that with a healthy receiving corps, Green Bay will have greater flexibility in terms of where its receivers line up.
After only playing in six games, Cobb ended the 2013 season with 31 receptions, tied for 146th-most in the league. If we extrapolate his average of five receptions per game to a full season, he would have had 83, which would have been the 18th-most among pass-catchers in 2013.
Sure, without Jones, Cobb becomes Rodgers' first or second read, so it's reasonable to assume he will get more targets in 2014. But to end the season with the most receptions in the league, on a team that could very well carry six receivers into the regular season and features one of the NFL's best young running backs? It seems unlikely.
Expect Cobb to be used heavily and in multiple formations in 2014, but it's doubtful he finishes the season with the most receptions.
Will the Safeties' Interception Production Spike in 2014?
In early June, safety Morgan Burnett said that if the the Packers safeties line up and play the defense "our interceptions will come in bunches," according to Pete Dougherty of the Green Bay Press-Gazette.
The worrisome thing about that is, according to Burnett, when the players and coaches watched the tape from 2013, a season in which the safety group did not produce a single interception, the players were doing everything right.
"We turned on the film, everyone did what they were supposed to do,” Burnett said, per Dougherty. He stressed the importance of players sticking to their positions rather than chasing plays and freelancing, which Dom Capers rarely allows in his scheme and which can sometimes lead to disastrous results (see the January 2013 Divisional Round game against the San Francisco 49ers).
But if the safeties did everything right in 2013 and still ended the season with a goose egg in interceptions, what went wrong? Why did the unit—which led the league in interceptions in 2011—fall so far?
Burnett isn't sure, but if the interceptions are going to increase in 2014, the newbies might be more to thank than him.
The Packers trimmed the fat by cutting Jerron McMillian in December and letting M.D. Jennings walk in free agency. They then moved Micah Hyde from cornerback to safety and drafted Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. Though, as Dougherty noted, Hyde has been taking the first snaps at safety ahead of Clinton-Dix, it may very well be to give him the experience at the position he needs while Clinton-Dix remains the favorite for the job.
Hyde has proven a natural at the safety position, and Clinton-Dix was a ball hawk at Alabama with seven interceptions in his two-year career. His five picks in 2013 tied for the most in the SEC.
It might be too optimistic to expect this largely unproven safety group to jump back to leading the league in picks in 2014, but it certainly isn't hard to expect a spike in interceptions when the production last season was zilch.
Is the Team Bigger and Stronger Than It's Been in Years?
Aaron Rodgers feels that both Green Bay's offense and defense are "bigger [and] more physically intimidating" heading into 2014 than they have been in recent seasons, according to ESPN's Rob Demovsky.
Specifically, Rodgers cited gains in strength and size among the wide receivers, tight ends and defensive front as positive strides the team has made this offseason compared to past squads.
"We just haven't had guys in some of these positions with those body types, and that's exciting," Rodgers said, per Demovsky. Rodgers believes that Green Bay is deliberately building a team around bigger players due to recent trends in the league (and in Super Bowl-winning teams like the Seattle Seahawks).
Is that true?
Let's take a look at the receivers first. Currently, Green Bay has ten receivers on the roster. Of those, two are 6'3" and a hair above 215 pounds—Jordy Nelson and Jeff Janis. The recent addition of Janis this offseason speaks to Rodgers' feeling that the Packers are intentionally trying to get bigger at receiver to match the bigger corners they will face.
Randall Cobb, at 5'10" is now in fact, the only receiver on the team shorter than 6'0", and the average height is 6'1". None of Green Bay's tight ends is shorter than 6'3".
It's a fair assessment to say that the potential pass-catchers in the 2014 class are bigger than those from the record-breaking 2011 season. That group included the 5'11" Greg Jennings and the 6'0" Donald Driver in addition to Cobb and Nelson.
Moving on to the front seven, the Packers have recently added players like 6'7" Julius Peppers, 6'6" linebacker Adrian Hubbard and 6'4" Datone Jones. The average height for the current linebackers group is 6'2". The average weight is 245 pounds.
Using 2011 as a point of comparison again, the average height and weight of a Packers linebacker was 6'1" and 243 pounds. We can see a slight increase in size in the last three years at that position.
At defensive end/defensive tackle, we see an even more dramatic move toward more size. The average height and weight of the current class is 6'2" and 307 pounds. In 2011, defensive linemen were 6'2" and 290 pounds on average.
Now, there are some caveats to this data, one being that comparing the heights and weights of players on the 53-man roster to the many prospects on the current 90-man roster (where, for instance, there are multiple players who are sized like nose tackles) can skew the results. But generally, the facts support Rodgers' observation that the Packers are becoming bigger and stronger on both offense and defense.
That also backs up Mike McCarthy's assertion at the combine earlier this year that the Packers would not be getting smaller on the defensive line, as rumored.
“I’ve never been part of a conversation that you want your D-linemen to be smaller,” McCarthy said then, per Demovsky. His current roster proves it.