Green Bay Packers: Will Clay Matthews III Come Back to Titletown?

Clay Jr and Clay III After Super Bowl XLV

Author Thomas Wolfe once wrote, “You Can’t Go Home Again.” Well, Clay Matthews III might just prove Wolfe wrong for the second year in a row.

In 2019, even though Matthews wanted to remain in Green Bay and finish his career as a Packer, the team never gave Matthews a chance to stay in Titletown. Matthews was an unrestricted free agent and was willing to take less money to stay with the Pack, but that opportunity never materialized, as general manager Brian Gutekunst and defensive coordinator Mike Pettine thought they were set at outside linebacker with the signings of Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith in free agency.

Plus the team also had Kyler Fackrell, who had led the team in sacks in 2018 with 10.5.

So, Matthews went home to his old stomping grounds in southern California, as he signed with the Los Angeles Rams as a free agent. Matthews grew up in that region and played his college football at USC.

Matthews had a very nice year for the Rams, even though he missed three games due to a broken jaw. Still, No. 52 had 37 tackles, eight sacks and two forced fumbles as a right outside linebacker.

And after the somewhat shocking release of Matthews by the Rams yesterday, there is a chance that Matthews could once again return to his first NFL home in Green Bay. But there will be other suitors as well, as Matthews was contacted by 14 NFL teams after his release by the Rams.

The situation has changed quite a bit for the Packers now at the linebacker position in terms of Matthews coming back to Titletown. The Packers have seen three linebackers leave the team in free agency, as Fackrell (New York Giants), Blake Martinez (New York Giants) and B.J. Goodson (Cleveland Browns) all moved on.

The Packers did sign free agent Christian Kirksey to handle one of the inside linebacker positions. But that still leaves a possible spot open for another ILB, although Oren Burks may be given an opportunity there, along with second-year ILB’s Tyler Summers and Curtis Bolton.

Matthews played very well at ILB in 2014 and 2015 when the Packers moved him there to shore up the run defense. Matthews was recognized for his efforts, as he went to the Pro Bowl in both of those seasons.

Matthews has the talent and versatility to move inside or outside depending on the situation. But it’s good to know that No. 52 has a great track record in either situation.

Matthews was originally drafted by the Packers in the first round of the 2009 NFL draft by then general manager Ted Thompson. Matthews was the second of two first round picks by Green Bay that year, as the team selected defensive tackle B.J. Raji with pick No. 9 and then Matthews with pick No. 26.

Clay and B.J. as rookies

The defense of the Packers became one of the best in the NFL in 2009 with the additions of Raji and Matthews, as Green Bay was ranked No. 2 in total defense that season after being ranked No. 20 in 2008. Matthews went to the Pro Bowl as a rookie, as he had 10 sacks.

In 2010, the Packers once again had a great defense, as they were ranked No. 5 in total defense. Matthews was a big reason why. Once again, No. 52 went to the Pro Bowl and was also named AP first-team All-Pro.

In his 10-year career as a Packer, Matthews had 482 total tackles, a franchise record 83.5 sacks, 40 passes defended, six interceptions (two returned for touchdowns), 15 forced fumbles and five fumble recoveries (one returned for a score).

That type of production led Matthews to be honored with six overall Pro Bowl berths, as well as being named AP first-team All-Pro once and AP second-team All-Pro once.

Matthews was also a terror in the postseason. In 15 games, No. 52 had 53 tackles, 11 sacks, four forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries.

No forced fumble was bigger than the one he helped to cause in Super Bowl XLV in the 2010 postseason. Matthews forced Pittsburgh Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall to fumble on the first snap of the fourth quarter in Super Bowl XLV, with help from defensive lineman Ryan Pickett.

Pittsburgh was driving for a potential go-ahead score at the Packers’ 33-yard line until Matthews’ helmet dislodged the football, popping it into the air.

Clay forces fumble in Super Bowl XLV

The Packers took advantage of that turnover with a touchdown drive and went on to win 31-25 and the team’s fourth Super Bowl prize, aptly named the Vince Lombardi Trophy.

Matthews has great lineage, as he is the son of Clay Matthews Jr., who I believe rightfully deserves a bust at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Much like Jerry Kramer, when he was finally recognized in 2018.

The Matthews family has cast a large net over the NFL throughout the years, starting with Clay Matthews Sr., who played with the San Francisco 49ers for four years. Clay Sr. started his career with the Niners in 1950, then served two years as a paratrooper during the Korean War for the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, and then came back and played with the 49ers from 1953 through 1955.

After that, his son’s Bruce and Clay Jr. both had terrific careers in the NFL.

Bruce was inducted into the Hall of Fame after a great career with the Houston Oilers for 14 years and then with the Tennessee Titans for five years after the team moved to Nashville.

Clay Jr. certainly deserves the same honor after 19 great years with the Browns and Falcons.

Plus there are Clay Sr.’s grandsons. There is Clay III, plus there is his brother Casey, who played with the Philadelphia Eagles and Minnesota Vikings. In addition, there are Bruce’s sons, one being Kevin, who played with the Tennessee Titans, Washington Redskins and Carolina Panthers and also Jake, who still plays with the Atlanta Falcons.

Bottom line, time will tell, but it would be ideal if Matthews returned to Green Bay to finish his career, which is what he wanted to do all along. He fills a need, still plays fast, plus is very productive.

Let’s also not forget that the Packers were ranked just 18th in total defense least year and just 23rd in run defense, plus were embarrassed in the 2019 NFC title game trying to stop the run.

And just like he did in 2014 and 2015, Matthews can help shore up that issue at inside linebacker.

If Matthews did return, that would mean that there would be just four players on the Packers who were also on the Super Bowl XLV team. The other three are Aaron Rodgers, Mason Crosby and Tramon Williams.

Williams left the Packers for three years before he returned home. It’s only been one year for Matthews, but returning to his original NFL home in Green Bay would certainly be apropos.

Green Bay Packers: OLB Coach Mike Smith Has Some Valuable Insight About the Kansas City Chiefs

Mike Smith

Mike Smith

Before he was hired to become the outside linebackers coach for the Green Bay Packers in 2019, Mike Smith had spent the previous three years with the Kansas City Chiefs. In 2016 and 2017, Smith was an assistant defensive line coach. In 2018, he became outside linebackers coach.

And like Smith is doing in Green Bay in 2019 with the dynamic duo of Preston Smith and Za’Darius Smith, he also did in Kansas City in 2018 with Dee Ford and Justin Houston. Ford had 13 sacks and seven forced fumbles, while Houston had nine sacks and five forced fumbles.

The “Smith Brothers” of the Packers are on their way to similar seasons in 2019. Preston Smith has seven sacks in seven games and also forced a fumble, while Za’Darius Smith has six sacks, but has yet to force a fumble.

You know that Mike Smith wants to see the forced fumble stat to get much bigger as the season wears on. But even so, Preston and Za’Darius are on their way to close to 30 sacks combined this season if the trend continues.

Going into Sunday night’s game against the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium, Mike Smith has some very valuable insight about how the Chiefs like to game-plan on offense, seeing he was with the team the past three years.

The defense for the Chiefs has changed up some after former defensive coordinator Bob Sutton was fired shortly after the 2018 AFC title game and replaced by Steve Spagnuolo. That coaching change made Smith available for the Packers to hire, which they gladly did.

The Packers then added two more Smiths (Preston and Za’Darius) via free agency.

The one thing that hasn’t changed is the offense of the Chiefs, even though they will be without their best player, quarterback Patrick Mahome II (dislocated kneecap), who was the NFL’s MVP in 2018.

Still, the scheme remains the same. Smith knows about all the fantastic speed that the Chiefs have on offense and has definitely relayed that to defensive coordinator Mike Pettine of the Packers.

Smith also worked under Pettine in the same capacity in New York with the Jets in 2012, which was the primary reason he was hired by new head coach Matt LaFleur. The Jets were ranked eighth in total defense in 2012 and second in passing defense.

The Packers defense is much improved compared to last season (especially in sacks), but still is looking to get better overall, which all starts with stopping the run.

LeSean McCoy and company have to be held in check in the ground game. Even with Matt Moore playing quarterback instead of Mahomes. Otherwise all the receiving weapons the Chiefs have could be a huge problem for the Green Bay secondary.

Tight end Travis Kelce is a prime example. No. 87 might be the biggest offensive threat for the Chiefs in this game. Especially if head coach Andy Reid saw the what the tight ends of the Oakland Raiders did to the Packers last Sunday.

It’s a good thing that rookie safety Darnell Savage looks ready to play, because the secondary of the Packers has looked very shaky in the time he has been out of the lineup since he sprained his ankle versus the Dallas Cowboys.

Plus there are speedsters like Tyreek Hill and Mecole Hardman at wide receiver. Hill has been timed in the 40 at 4.28, while Hardman has run a 4.33. Those are unbelievable numbers.

That’s why the secondary not only has to cover well, but also tackle well. One missed tackle could see a guy like Hill or Hardman take one to the house.

Za'Darius Smith and Preston Smith

Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith

Mike Smith knows all about these players. He knows their strengths and weaknesses. The same goes for the offensive lineman of the Chiefs, who Smith had to practice against the past three years.

The key to the game defensively for the Packers besides shutting down the run, is to disrupt the quarterback. When the Packers do that, they have success in stopping drives and creating sacks or turnovers.

The Packers certainly catch a huge break with Moore at quarterback for the Chiefs on Sunday night. It’s really difficult to replace a Mahomes, just like it’s been so hard for the Packers to replace an elite quarterback like Aaron Rodgers when he has been injured.

Plus, Rodgers will be playing for the Packers Sunday night, coming off of a five-touchdown pass game and a perfect 158.3 passer rating against the Raiders.

Green Bay also has another thing in it’s favor. That is, the informative insight Mike Smith can provide them about the Chiefs.

 

A Scout’s Take on the Two Round 1 Picks by the Green Bay Packers in the 2019 NFL Draft

Rashan Gary

One thing is sure, general manager Brian Gutekunst of the Green Bay Packers has shown that is he no Ted Thompson in terms of both drafting and using free agency. Gutekunst has a flare for gambling and he proved that again last night when he selected DE/OLB Rashan Gary of Michigan with pick No. 12 in Round 1 and then traded up from No. 30 to No. 21 later in the round to select safety Darnell Savage Jr. of Maryland on the first night of the 2019 NFL draft.

You know defensive coordinator Mike Pettine is happy. Especially after Gutekunst signed edge rusher Preston Smith (formerly of the Washington Redskins), edge rusher Za’Darius Smith (formerly of the Baltimore Ravens) and safety Adrian Amos (formerly of the Chicago Bears) all on the same day in free agency. Talk about being 180 degrees different from Thompson, who rarely dipped his toes into the free agency water.

This is what veteran NFL scout Chris Landry wrote about the the selections of Gary and Savage.

Packers selected Michigan DL Rashan Gary with the No. 12 overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. Gary (6’4/277) turned pro after making 21 starts for the Wolverines, underwhelming as 2016’s No. 1 overall high school recruit with 10.5 career sacks and 24 tackles for loss but still earning first-team All-Big Ten from the conference’s coaches as a sophomore and junior. A known athletic freak, Gary predictably destroyed the Combine with 4.58 speed and 96th-percentile SPARQ results but bombed the Wonderlic Test (9). A boom-bust prospect whose production never matched his measurables, Gary must expand his pass-rush repertoire beyond bull rushes to avoid maxing out as another Solomon Thomas.

Packers traded up to select Maryland S/CB Darnell Savage with the No. 21 overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. Seattle received two fourth-round picks and No. 30 overall in this deal. Savage (5’11/198) made 37 starts in the Terrapins’ secondary, logging nine career tackles for loss with 30 pass breakups and eight interceptions and earning second-team All-Big Ten as a senior. Savage helped himself with 86th-percentile SPARQ results at the Combine, including 4.36 speed and a 39 ½-inch vertical. A late riser as coaches became more involved in the process, Savage was commonly discussed as a cornerback or slot defender conversion before the draft. He will play free safety in Green Bay, bookending Adrian Amos.

Landry also commented about both Gary and Savage.

First, his thoughts on Gary:

“Rashan Gary at 12. Listen, Rashan was No. 11 on my board. So he is right where he ought to be. Let me say this. If they can get him turned in the right direction, you are talking about one of the top three or four players in this draft. The problem has been consistency. The motor. And that’s why he slipped a little.”

And now Savage:

“The Packers get Darnell Savage. Listen, he’s one of these fast-rising guys. I’m not as high on him as other people are. They like him. So did the Colts by the way. They moved up to get him. Could they have gotten him where they were (No. 30)? I had some safeties rated higher than him. But that’s the direction they went.”

Day 1 (Round 1) in draft was definitely slanted for the defense of the Packers.

Day 2 (Rounds 2 & 3) in the draft will almost assuredly help the Green Bay offense. That will certainly make new head coach Matt LaFleur and quarterback Aaron Rodgers happy.

Green Bay Packers: Matt LaFleur has the Attributes to be a Successful Head Coach

matt lafleur

I’m sure many in Packer Nation asked the same question when it was announced that the Green Bay Packers had hired Matt LaFleur to be their new head coach.

Who the hell is Matt LaFleur?

The 39 year-old LaFleur was definitely an under the radar selection by president Mark Murphy and general manager Brian Gutekunst of the Packers, but when one takes a closer look at the background of LaFleur and peels back the onion a bit, there is a lot to like.

First off, LaFleur has worked under some great offensive minds in the NFL. LaFleur has been an assistant under head coach Gary Kubiak of the Houston Texans, head coach Mike Shanahan of the Washington Redskins, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan of the Atlanta Falcons, head coach Sean McVay of the Los Angeles Rams before running the offense of the Tennessee Titans in 2018 as offensive coordinator under head coach Mike Vrabel.

At Houston, LaFleur was offensive quality control coach and then was the quarterbacks coach at Washington and Atlanta. In Los Angeles, his title was offensive coordinator, but McVay called the plays. When he became the OC in Tennessee, LaFleur was able to call the plays himself.

Let’s look at the success that players who have been tutored by LaFleur have done.

In 2012, while he was the QBs coach of the Redskins, quarterback Robert Griffin III was the rage of the NFL and became the Offensive Rookie of the Year, as he threw 20 touchdown passes, compared to just five picks for 3,200 yards. That adds up to a passer rating of 102.4.

RGIII also ran for 815 yards and seven more scores.

In Atlanta, again as QB coach, quarterback Matt Ryan became the NFL MVP in 2016, as he threw 38 touchdown passes versus just seven picks for 4,944 yards. That adds up to a passer rating of 117.1.

Ryan just carved the defense of the Packers apart during the 2016 regular season as he threw three TD passes without an interception for 288 yards and a passer rating of 129. 5, as the Falcons squeezed by the Pack 33-32. But that was nothing compared to what Ryan did to the defense of the Packers in the 2016 NFL title game.

Ryan threw four TD passes, without a pick once again, for 392 yards and a passer rating of 139.4, as the Dirty Birds blew out the Packers 44-21.

matt lafleur and matt ryan

As offensive coordinator of the Rams in 2017, his number one priority was to get second-year quarterback Jared Goff to the next level after a very tough rookie year.

In seven starts as a rookie in 2016, Goff was 0-7 as a starter and had just five TD passes versus seven interceptions for 1,089 yards. That adds up to a paltry passer rating of 63.6.

But in 2017, under the guidance of LaFleur, Goff really took off, as he was 11-4 as a starter, plus threw 28 touchdown passes versus seven picks for 3,804 yards. Goff’s passer rating improved to a very nice 100.4 level.

Not only did LaFleur get Goff on the right track, but the Rams started using the skills of talented running back Todd Gurley much better in 2017.

In 2015, Gurley was the Offensive Rookie of the Year, but in 2016, things went south for the former Georgia Bulldog. In his second season, Gurley only rushed for 885 yards and his yards-per-carry average went down by over a yard and a half, as he only averaged 3.2 yards per rush.

But in 2017 under LaFleur, Gurley had a monster year, as he was named Offensive Player of the Year. Gurley rushed for 1,305 yards (4.7 average) and 13 TDs, plus caught 64 passes for 788 yards and six more scores.

In 2018, as offensive coordinator of the Titans, the offense struggled early, as quarterback Marcus Mariota suffered an elbow injury which would linger all season long.

Tennessee didn’t flash statistically under LaFleur (25th in total offense and 27th in scoring), but he figured out the best way to run his offense down the stretch. It led to five straight wins before the Titans were beaten by the Indianapolis Colts in the final game of the season, in a game which would see the winner get into the playoffs.

Knowing that he had an ailing Mariota dealing with elbow issues, LaFleur leaned on the running game for the last quarter of the 2018 season. Running back Derrick Henry became a force (and you who had him in fantasy football know this), as he rushed for 585 yards and seven touchdowns in four games to end the season.

So, based on the excellent work that LaFleur has done in both the passing and running game, not to mention the coaches he has developed under, it’s no wonder why the Packers made him their new head coach.

The Mike McCarthy tenure had run it’s course and although he and then general manager Ted Thompson had a lot of success over several years, it was time to turn the page. Which is what Murphy did after the brutal loss to the Arizona Cardinals at Lambeau Field on December 2nd.

In addition to all that, reports say that LaFleur is inclined to keep defensive coordinator Mike Pettine and perhaps even keep other coaches as well, including Joe Philbin, who was interim head coach after the firing of McCarthy.

To me, that is good news. As was the report that quarterback Aaron Rodgers gave his blessing to the hiring of LaFleur. That is key.

When McCarthy was hired in 2006, his first priority was to get quarterback Brett Favre back to playing a MVP level again. That’s because is 2005, Favre had his worse season ever, as he threw 20 touchdown passes versus a whopping 29 interception for 3,881 yards. That added up to a very mediocre passer rating of 70.9.

Favre improved in 2006 and then really took off in his last season in Green Bay in 2007, as he threw 28 TD passes versus 15 picks for 4,155 yards. No. 4’s passer rating improved to 95.7 and the Packers made it to the NFC title game.

LaFleur has a similar situation with Rodgers, although not near as much work as McCarthy had to do with Favre.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Green Bay Packers

Most quarterbacks in the NFL would have loved to have the stats Rodgers had in 2018. No. 12 threw 25 touchdown passes versus just two picks for 4,442 yards. That added up to a passer rating of 97.6, which isn’t too far from his career passer rating mark of 103.1, which is tops in NFL history.

Still, something wasn’t right. First, there was an obvious disconnect between Rodgers and McCarthy. Plus, the completion percentage for Rodgers was just 62.3 percent, which is two points lower than his career average. Adding to that, Rodgers threw away more passes than he has ever done in his career and his accuracy was off at times. Sometimes missing low and other times high.

Some of that can be blamed on the sprained knee Rodgers suffered in the first game of the season against the Chicago Bears, but the two-time NFL MVP gutted it out and played in all 16 games.

Speaking of Green Bay quarterbacks, back in 2014, LaFleur was the QBs coach at Notre Dame. Which means he has a good read on the skills of backup quarterback DeShone Kizer, who was with the Fighting Irish then.

It’s important that LaFleur can aid in the development of Kizer and to find out whether or not he is a viable backup QB to Rodgers.

The bottom line is that I believe the hiring of LaFleur as head coach by Murphy and Gutekunst was excellent. LaFleur has proven that he can help make quarterbacks and running backs play much better.

The key now for LaFleur is to put together the best possible coaching staff he can. Keeping Pettine and possibly Philbin are two good moves in my opinion.

Adding an excellent special teams coach will also be paramount to the success of the teams LaFleur will put together in Green Bay.

But just like Vince Lombardi in 1959, Mike Holmgren in 1992 and McCarthy in 2006, I have a feeling that the hiring of LaFleur will yield similar success.

Packer Nation will get to meet LaFleur tomorrow, as he will be introduced as the new head coach of the Green Bay Packers.

 

The Packers Can Exorcise Some Demons in Seattle on Thursday Night

Brandon Bostick Flub vs. Seahawks

Since Aaron Rodgers became the starting quarterback of the Green Bay Packers in 2008, he is 6-2 lifetime versus the Seattle Seahawks in the regular season and 0-1 against the Hawks in the postseason.

All three of those defeats happened at CenturyLink Field in Seattle, where it seems like every game between the two teams in the Emerald City has been written by Rod Serling of Twilight Zone fame.

In 2012, the Packers lost 14-12 on the final play of the game on the infamous “Fail Mary” pass that was “caught” by Golden Tate.

In the season opener in 2014, the Packers were whipped 36-16, as Rodgers was sacked eight times in the first half alone.

But the topper was the 2014 NFC title game.

The Packers dominated that NFC championship game for about 55 minutes, but a late meltdown in all phases of the game led to the most agonizing postseason loss in the history of the Packers, as they lost 28-22 in overtime.

The Packers had a number of opportunities where they could have basically ended the game with just one play.

Plays like safety Morgan Burnett going to the ground after an interception, when it looked like he had a good chance to run the pick back for a touchdown, which would have clinched the game.

Or just getting one more first down. Instead of allowing Rodgers, the MVP of the league in 2014 to throw the ball, head coach Mike McCarthy had the Packers run it three straight times when getting just one first down basically would have ended the game.

Or just not screwing up on an onside kick, which is exactly what backup tight end Brandon Bostick did. Instead of blocking like he was supposed to do, so Jordy Nelson could catch the ball, Bostick tried to be a hero and catch the ball himself. He didn’t and the Seahawks recovered.

But all that is in the past now.

The good news is that Rodgers normally plays very well against the Seahawks. In the eight regular season games he has played against Seattle, Rodgers has completed almost 69 percent of his passes and has thrown 10 touchdown passes versus just two picks for 1,663 yards.

That adds up to a passer rating of 101.5.

That comes close to Rodgers’ career rating of 103.5, which is tops all time in the NFL, based on 1,500 passing attempts.

Aaron Rodgers vs. Seahawks

On Thursday night, Rodgers will be going up against the quarterback who is second on the all-time career passer rating. That would be the former Wisconsin Badger, Russell Wilson, who has a career passer rating of 99.7.

Wilson is 2-3 against the Packers in the regular season, and 1-0 versus the Pack in the postseason. All three of his wins happened at CenturyLink Field.

In the five regular season games, Wilson has thrown seven touchdown passes versus six interceptions for 925 yards. The completion percentage for Wilson is just under 58 percent. All told, his passer rating is just 75.8.

Both Rodgers and Wilson are playing better than the 2018 versions of their respective teams.

The Packers are 4-4-1, but Rodgers is having another Pro Bowl season, as he has thrown 17 touchdown passes versus just one interception for 2,741 yards. That adds up to a passer rating of exactly 100.

The Seahawks are just 4-5, but Wilson has thrown 21 touchdown passes compared to five picks for 1,967 yards. That adds up to an outstanding passer rating of 110.2.

In terms of how this game will play out, the Packers are ranked seventh in total offense and 11th in total defense. The Seahawks have struggled a bit on offense at times, as they are ranked 22nd in total offense and 12th in total defense.

As good as both quarterbacks have been for each team, the Packers and Seahawks both are more successful on offense in different ways.

The Packers are sixth in the NFL in passing, while the Seahawks are just 27th. But when it comes to running the rock, the Seahawks lead the NFL in rushing, as they average over 152 yards per game. The Green Bay running game (14th in the NFL) is getting better as well, as Aaron Jones has been a catalyst in that improvement.

While the Packers primarily use Jones (494 yards and a 6.8 yard rushing average) and Jamaal Williams (270 yards) to tote the rock, the Seahawks have been effective with three different running backs.

The Hawks have used Chris Carson (497 yards), Mike Davis (346 yards) and Rashaad Penny (254 yards).

The Packers are tied for the NFL lead in rushing average with the Denver Broncos, as they average 5.2 yards per carry. The Seahawks are tied for seventh with a 4.8 rushing average.

When it comes to the passing game, the Packers look to Davante Adams more times than not and No. 17 is having another outstanding season. Adams has 62 receptions for 787 yards and nine touchdowns.

The wide receiver who is really coming on for the Packers is rookie Marquez Valdes-Scantling. The rookie out of USF has 23 catches for 402 yards (17.5 average) and two scores. Lately the rookie has been getting as many snaps at wide receiver as Adams has. That tells you how much the Packers think of him.

The Packers also have former Seahawk Jimmy Graham at tight end. No. 80 has not produced like many thought he would in Green Bay, but is still a dangerous weapon, especially in the red zone. For the year, Graham has 33 catches for 439 yards and two touchdowns.

One of the reasons that the passing game has not jelled as much as it could for the Seahawks has been because of the injury issues (knee) with Doug Baldwin (23 catches for 275 yards). No. 89 is as healthy as he has been all year right now.

Russell Wilson vs. Packers

The primary target for Wilson has been Tyler Lockett, who has 33 receptions for 483 yards and seven touchdowns.

Nick Vannett has been the primary target at tight end, as he has 20 catches for 186 yards and two touchdowns.

The strength of the Green Bay defense has been the play of their young secondary, especially rookies Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson. Overall, the Packers are 5th in the NFL in passing defense.

On defense, the Packers might have an advantage, as defensive coordinator Mike Pettine was a consultant with the Seahawks in 2017 under head coach Pete Carroll. Pettine knows the personnel of the Hawks pretty well and he understands what it will take to stop Seattle defensively.

Stopping the run is No. 1 and that is where the Packers have to improve, as they are ranked 22nd in the NFL in run defense, as Green Bay gives up an average of almost 121 yards per game and 4.5 yards per carry.

Going up against the best running team in the NFL will be a real test.

But if the Packers can stop the run or at least shut it down somewhat, Green Bay should be able to put pressure on Wilson when he goes back to pass.

Some may find this hard to believe, but the Packers are tied for the NFL lead in sacks with 31, along with the Kansas City Chiefs, Minnesota Vikings and Pittsburgh Steelers. Meanwhile, the Seahawks have given up 29 sacks, which ranks them seventh in the NFL in sacks allowed.

Like the Packers do with Pettine, the Seahawks also have someone who knows the Green Bay personnel pretty well. That would be backup quarterback Brett Hundley, who the Hawks acquired via trade.

Bottom line, this should be one hell of a game, but I like the Packers to exorcise some demons in this game and get a big victory. A win would be a key turning point for the team in 2018.

That’s how important this game is for the Packers, especially with the Vikings being their next opponent on the road.

The Packers have beaten the Seahawks three straight times. All of those wins occurred at Lambeau Field in 2015, 2016 and 2017.

I see that streak going to four in a row, but this time the win will finally come in Seattle.

Green Bay Packers: GM Brian Gutekunst is Having a Nice Rookie Year

Brian Gutekunst at OTA

Brian Gutekunst via packers.com.

In his first term as general manager of the Green Bay Packers, Brian Gutekunst is having a pretty good rookie season. Or offseason, depending how you look at it.

The additions that Gutekunst has made to the roster up until now has been quite unlike what we have seen from Ted Thompson over the past 13 years, when he held the same job title.

Let’s take a look at the roster moves that Gutekunst has made since he became GM.

The first acquisition that Gutekunst made was when he traded defensive back Damarious Randall to the Cleveland Browns for quarterback DeShone Kizer. Plus the Packers and Browns swapped picks in the fourth and fifth rounds in the 2018 NFL draft.

The move was made for two reasons. Randall had basically worn out his welcome in Green Bay, both with his inconsistent performances and his attitude. The addition of Kizer says a lot about how the team feels about the overall performance of Brett Hundley in 2017, as he took over for Aaron Rodgers after No. 12 fractured his collarbone in Week 6.

Hundley was 3-6 as a starter and he threw nine touchdown passes compared to 12 interceptions for 1,853 yards. No. 7’s passer rating was just 70.9.

Hundley was also sacked 29 times, as he had difficulty moving around the pocket and going through his reads.

Hundley did run for 270 yards and two scores, but he just couldn’t lead the Packers down the field consistently enough due to his passing deficiencies.

The 6’4″, 235-pound Kizer will push Hundley in 2018 for the backup job behind Rodgers. My money is on Kizer winning that battle.

Just a few days after the trade to pick up Kizer, Gutekunst really got busy. He first released wide receiver Jody Nelson, who was definitely a fan favorite in Green Bay. NFL scout Chris Landry told me that Nelson looked visibly slower in 2017, which was two years removed from a torn ACL in the 2015 preseason.

The release of Nelson cleared $10.2 million in cap space.

After the release of Nelson, the Packers signed tight end Jimmy Graham of the Seattle Seahawks to a three-year contract worth $30 million, with $22 million paid out during the first two years of the deal.

Graham will be a big red zone weapon for Rodgers to utilize, as well as someone who can stretch the seam down the middle of the field. Rodgers has taken advantage of that situation before in the past in Green Bay with other tight ends like Jermichael Finley and Jared Cook.

In his eight-year career in the NFL, Graham has 556 receptions for 6,800 yards and 69 touchdowns.

The 6’7″, 265-pound Graham has also been named to five Pro Bowl squads and was also named first-team All-Pro in 2013 by AP.

Jimmy Graham as a Packer

Jimmy Graham

Shortly after inking Graham to a deal, Gutekunst signed defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson, formerly of the New York Jets.

Wilkerson had played the first two years of his career with the Jets under the new defensive coordinator of the Packers, Mike Pettine.

The 6’4″, 315-pound Wilkerson signed a one-year deal worth $5 million, plus $3 million in incentives, according to Tom Pellissero of NFL Network.

In his entire seven-year career with the Jets, Wilkerson had 405 tackles, 44.5 sacks, 28 passes defensed, two interceptions, 11 forced fumbles and one fumble recovery (for a touchdown).

Wilkerson will make the defensive line of the Packers a very formidable force, along with Mike Daniels and Kenny Clark.

Not long after signing Graham and Wilkerson, Gutekunst brought back a former Packer, as he signed cornerback Tramon Williams, formerly of the Arizona Cardinals. Williams also played under Pettine in 2015 with the Cleveland Browns when Pettine was the head coach there.

Williams, along with the re-signing of Davon House, will definitely help in tutoring the young cornerbacks on the Green Bay roster. The youth and depth at the CB position grew even larger because of the 2018 NFL draft of the Packers.

Before the Packers made their first selection in Round 1, the team traded back from pick No. 15 to pick No. 27 with the New Orleans Saints. The trade netted the Packers a first-round pick in 2019 from the Saints.

When the draft was over, the Packers had used their first two selections on cornerbacks (Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson), drafted a cover linebacker (Oren Burks), added three big and fast wide receivers (J’Mon Moore, Marquez Vlaldes-Scantling and Equanimeous St. Brown), selected an offensive tackle who will most likely play guard (Cole Madison), added some talent to special teams (punter JK Scott and long snapper Hunter Bradley) and added some late help to the pass rush (defensive end James Looney and outside linebacker Kendall Donnerson).

Gutekunst also added a number of undrafted rookie free agents to the roster, some of whom have a real opportunity to make the team. Center Austin Davis of Duke is one such player.

While the Packers certainly addressed a number of needs in the 2018 NFL draft, I thought there were three areas of concern which weren’t focused on.

Those areas were adding depth at the offensive tackle position, adding a run-blocking tight end and adding more help to the pass rush much sooner in the draft.

As it turns out, Gutekunst addressed two of those areas in free agency after the draft, as he added offensive lineman Byron Bell and tight end Marcedes Lewis.

The 6’5″, 320-pound Bell has made 74 starts in his NFL career, as he has played with the Carolina Panthers, Tennessee Titans and Dallas Cowboys. Bell, who is 29, has started at both offensive tackle positions, as well as at left guard.

The addition helps specifically at right tackle, as Bryan Bulaga is coming back from his second ACL tear and has been injury prone most of his NFL career. No. 75 has missed 43 games due to injury in his eight years with the Packers.

In addition to that, his backups (Jason Spriggs and Kyle Murphy) have also had injury issues.

The 6’6″, 267-pound Lewis is one of the best blocking tight ends in the NFL. The Packers had two seam-stretching tight ends in Graham and Lance Kendricks, but neither is known for their blocking abilities. Lewis can block with the best of them and is also a threat in the passing game as well.

Lewis, was the first round selection of the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2006 and has caught 375 passes for 4,502 yards and 33 touchdowns. Lewis was also a Pro Bowl selection in 2010.

Marcedes Lewis

Marcedes Lewis

In terms of how the pass rush for the Packers will improve in 2018, I still have concerns, but a recent article by Pete Dougherty of USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin eased that matter somewhat.

I was concerned about Green Bay’s lack of a pass rush going into the draft. In 2017, the Packers were ranked 22nd in total defense, plus were only tied for 17th in sacks with 37. That lack of pass-pressure led to Green Bay being ranked 23rd in pass defense in the NFL and 31st in the opposing QB’s passer rating.

The Packers allowed opposing quarterbacks to throw 30 touchdown passes versus just 11 picks for 3,789 yards. That adds up to allowing a ridiculous passer rating of 102.0 for the opposing quarterbacks. Ouch.

Now Green Bay did add some nice talent to the cornerback position in the draft, plus also added a cover linebacker, but if an opposing quarterback has too much time to find an open receiver, he will eventually find one.

That happened far too often to the Packers in 2017.

Which was the primary reason Dom Capers was fired as defensive coordinator and replaced by Mike Pettine.

The track record of Pettine as a defensive coordinator is very good. In five years as a defensive coordinator in the NFL, four with the New York Jets under head coach Rex Ryan and one with the Buffalo Bills, Pettine always coordinated a top 10 defense.

From 2009 though 2012 with the Jets, his defenses were ranked first, third, fifth and eighth in the NFL in total defense, while in 2013 with the Bills, his defense was ranked 10th in that category.

And when the Packers added Wilkerson in free agency to reunite with Pettine, that may have shed some light on where the Packers expect to field an effective pass rush.

Dougherty noted in his story about where the pass rush for the Packers might be coming from, via a quote from Pettine himself.

“People talk about the exterior pass rush,” Pettine said after a recent Packers OTA practice, “but I think the interior pass rush is as important or maybe potentially more important.”

That is what Wilkerson can add with his 44.5 career sacks on the defensive line. Combine that with Mike Daniels (27 career sacks) and Kenny Clark (4.5 sacks in 2017), you might just have a very good inside avenue to disrupt the passing prowess of an opposing quarterback.

The Packers also have enough depth in the defensive line to keep everyone fresh with players like Montravius Adams and Dean Lowry. Plus, the Packers added Looney in the draft and signed two intriguing undrafted rookie defensive line prospects in Tyler Lancaster of Northwestern and Conor Sheehy of Wisconsin.

As Dougherty writes in his story, the defensive scheme that has been put together by Pettine has always relied on inside pass pressure. And that is a big strength of the Packers with Wilkerson, Daniels and Clark.

“If I’m an offense, it’s a lot easier to handle guys off the edges via formation or chipping or doubles,” Pettine said. “Inside, usually somebody’s getting— one guy, maybe two — are getting one-on-ones. Those guys have to win. If you can be dominant inside, I think that just has a ripple effect throughout your defense when you’re speeding up that quarterback’s clock because you have guys winning inside or at least pushing the pocket.”

In Pettine’s four seasons with the Jets (2009-12), he never had an outside rusher with more than eight sacks, but he did got of lot of pressure and sacks from his inside linebackers and defensive linemen.

Based on what Pettine’s defenses has done in the past, it appears that the key is to get as many one-on-ones up the middle as he can.

“It’s paramount that you have guys that can win inside,” Pettine said.

Mike Pettine as a Packer DC

Mike Pettine via packers.com.

But the guys on the outside have to help out as well. Clay Matthews (80 career sacks and 7.5 sacks in 2017) and Nick Perry (30.5 career sacks and 18 sacks the past two seasons) have shown in the past that they can be very good pass rushers. The problem with Matthews and Perry is keeping them on the field, as both have had injury issues throughout their respective careers.

That’s why young outside linebackers like Kyler Fackrell, Vince Biegel and Reggie Gilbert have to step up their game in 2018.

But the bottom line is that Gutekunst has upgraded the team in a number of areas,  both in the draft and also in the liberal use of free agency, bringing in the likes of Graham, Wilkerson, Williams, Bell and Lewis.

The trade to acquire Kizer at quarterback also appears to be an upgrade.

The use of free agency was rare back in the days of Thompson, but when he dipped his pan in the free agency waters, he sometimes found gold, which was the case with both Charles Woodson and Julius Peppers.

Gutekunst was on Thompson’s scouting staff when both of those signings took place and they were obviously a lesson learned. That is not to say all of the free agency signings Gutekunst has made so far in 2018 will yield similar results, but all of the players he has signed have shown talent at times in the past, as four of the free agents he has signed have played in the Pro Bowl.

Add to the fact that the Packers have also made a number of coaching changes under head coach Mike McCarthy, with the biggest one being Pettine as the new defensive coordinator, the Packers appear to be a much better team in 2018, compared to last season.

Gutekunst has definitely aided that effort with the approach he has taken to add more talent to the Green Bay roster.

So far, so good, for the rookie.

Reviewing the 2018 NFL Draft of the Green Bay Packers

Brian Gutekunst as GM

The 2018 NFL draft for the Green Bay Packers is now over. How would I view the draft for the Pack overall? I have a number of thoughts. In conjunction with my opinion, I’m going to use the scouting insights of NFL scout Chris Landry.

Much like in the 2015 NFL draft which was run by then general manager Ted Thompson, the Packers focused on the cornerback position in the first two rounds. In that regard, I think new general manager Brian Gutekunst did quite well, especially based on the pre-draft scouting report by Landry.

Landry had both Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson rated with a 6.4 grade, which classifies as an early second-round value. Both players were on his horizontal draft board (best players regardless of position). Alexander was ranked No. 37, while Jackson was ranked No. 30. Jackson was ranked third, while Alexander was ranked fourth on Landry’s cornerback draft board.

I had the Packers taking Jackson in the second round in my third mock draft.

Green Bay desperately needed to upgrade the talent and youth at the cornerback position in this draft and they did just that. New defensive coordinator Mike Pettine has to be happy with these selections.

Later in this article, you will see Landry’s breakdown on the selections of both Alexander and Jackson, as well as all the other selections that the Packers made in the draft.

I also saw that he Packers definitely got bigger and faster at the wide receiver position with the three players they selected. J’Mon Moore of Missouri is 6’3″, weighs 207 pounds and ran a 4.48 in the 40 at his pro day. Marquez Valdes-Scantling of USF is 6’4″, weighs 206 pounds and ran a 4.37 in the 40 at the NFL Scouting Combine. Equanimeous St. Brown is 6’5″, weighs 214 pounds and ran a 4.48 in the 40 at the combine.

Landry had both Moore and Brown ranked on his horizontal board, which ranks players from first to fourth-round value. Landry has Brown ranked No. 86 and has the former Fighting Irish star graded with a 5.9 mark, which means a third-round value. Landry had Moore ranked No. 129 and has the former Tiger star graded with a 5.5 mark, which means a fourth-round value.

I had the Packers taking Brown in my first mock draft.

Valdes-Scantling was not on Landry’s horizontal board and was graded with a 5.4 mark, which means fifth to sixth-round value.

The Packers had a lot of question marks at wide receiver prior to the draft. For one, the team released Jordy Nelson. Secondly, the best wide receiver on the team, Davante Adams, who the Packers signed to a four-year $58.75 extension in late December, is coming off a season with multiple concussions. Finally, Randall Cobb is is in the final year of his four-year $40 deal, one which he has not exactly lived up to.

Adding Moore, Valdes-Scantling and Brown gives the Packers a lot of options at the wide receiver position, as well as speed and size as I mentioned earlier.

I’m sure quarterback Aaron Rodgers wasn’t unhappy with the selections of these big and talented receivers. Nor was head coach Mike McCarthy.

In the third round the Packers picked linebacker Oren Burks. While I would have preferred adding an edge rusher at that point of the draft, the Packers have been trying to find a cover-linebacker for years now in the pass-happy league that they play in. It appears that Burks can fill that role.

Landry did not have Burks ranked in his horizontal draft board, but did have the former Vandy star graded with a 5.4 mark, which means a fifth to sixth-round value. Obviously the Packers graded Burks differently.

I liked the selection of offensive lineman Cole Madison in Round 5. I had the Packers taking Madison in my second mock draft. Landry had Madison ranked No. 9 on his guard draft board, although Madison played right tackle throughout his career at Washington State. Landry also had Madison ranked No. 158 on his horizontal draft board with a 5.5 grade which means fourth-round value.

And believe it or not, I had no problem with the Packers selecting punter JK Scott of Alabama in Round 5. Landry has Scott ranked as the second-best punter on his specialists board and gave the former Crimson Tide star a 5.4 grade, which means fifth to sixth-round value. It’s not a good omen for current Green Bay punter Justin Vogel that the Packers initially assigned Scott the same No. 8 that Vogel wears.

I also had no problem with two (DE James Looney of Cal and OLB Kendall Donnerson of Southeast Missouri State) of the three players that the Packers picked in Round 7. I do have a problem with one of them, long snapper Hunter Bradley of Mississippi State. More on Bradley in a moment.

Landry gave Looney a 5.4 grade, which means fifth to sixth-round value. Landry did not  have Donnerson listed on his horizontal or linebackers draft board, but as you will see on his evaluation below, he definitely believes Donnerson has some definite upside.

In terms of selecting Bradley, I’m still scratching my head. I can’t recall the Packers ever drafting a long snapper before. Green Bay has drafted players who played different positions and who could also long snap, but never just a long snapper. I saw some players on the draft board at the time Green Bay picked Bradley who could have helped the Packers more in other areas.

The selections of both Scott and Bradley tell me that the Packers are making a concerted effort to improve the special teams units of coach Ron Zook. Both Scott and Bradley would have to really mess up the bed in training camp to not make the team.

Overall, the big problem that I had with this draft with the Packers was not addressing the pass-rushing issues (except for Donnerson in Round 7) that the team has. It’s great to improve the secondary and to draft a cover-linebacker like the Packers did in this draft, but if an opposing quarterback has too much time to pass, he’ll eventually find an open receiver.

Again, just look at last season. The Packers were tied for 17th in the NFL in sacks last season with 37. That is almost 20 sacks behind the NFL leader, the Steelers, who had 56.

The lack of a potent pass rush by the Packers led to the secondary being exposed last season. Green Bay was ranked second-worst in the NFL in opponent’s passer rating, as the season average was 102.0.

Not only that, the Packers also allowed opposing QBs to complete 67.8 percent of their passes. The Pack also allowed 30 touchdown passes and only had 11 picks. The defense also allowed 55 completions of 20 yards or better.

The secondary will be better with Alexander and Jackson, that is for sure. Burks should be a solid cover-LB. But where will the pass rush come from? Yes, the Packers still have Clay Matthews (7.5 sacks in 14 games) and Nick Perry (seven sacks in 12 games) at OLB. Plus, the team added DE Muhammad Wilkerson. And maybe players like Kyler Fackrell and Vince Biegel will become the pass rushers like they were in college at OLB. But all of those players, minus Wilkerson, did not exactly light the world on fire last year with pass pressure for the Packers.

I was also shocked that the Packers did not select one player from Wisconsin. They may have wanted to add a Badger or two, but were unable to due to another team selecting that player before the Packers had a chance to. I do know the Packers were very interested in tight end Troy Fumagalli, who was selected by the Denver Broncos in Round 5.

Finally, Gutekunst put the Packers in a great position in the 2019 NFL draft by acquiring a first round pick from the New Orleans Saints.

Below is Landry’s breakdown of all the selections that the Packers made in the 2018 NFL draft.

Round 1: Cornerback Jaire Alexander (Louisville)

Jaire Alexander II

Green Bay gave up the No. 27, No. 76 and No. 186 picks to move up nine spots. The Packers are also receiving a seventh-rounder (pick No. 248). Alexander (5’10/196) converted from wide receiver and broke out for five interceptions as a sophomore in 2016 before missing all but six games as a junior with a broken hand and recurring knee injuries. Alexander had a 28.6% completion rate and a 19.9 passer rating allowed in 2017, lowest among draft-eligible corners. A twitchy athlete with ballhawking flashes and sticky man-cover skills, Alexander blazed 4.38 in Indy and destroyed agility drills. His lone weakness on tape came in run support, where Alexander needs to improve as a tackler. Long term, Alexander offers high-end No. 2 or low-end No. 1 cornerback upside.

Round 2: Cornerback Josh Jackson (Iowa)

at Camp Randall Stadium on November 11, 2017 in Madison, Wisconsin.

Jackson (6’0/196) dabbled at wideout his first two years as a Hawkeye before breaking out to lead the nation in interceptions (8) and pass breakups (26) as a 2017 redshirt junior cornerback, earning first-team All-American and Big Ten DB of the Year. Jackson had an anemic 32.2 passer rating allowed in 2017. Although Jackson lacks blazing straight-line speed (4.54), he tested as a top-five SPARQ athlete in this cornerback class and offers field-flipping ball skills. Most scouts thought Jackson would be better in zone than man coverage. The Packers just doubled up at the position after taking Jaire Alexander in round one.

Round 3: Linebacker Oren Burks (Vanderbilt)

Oren Burks

Burks (6’3/233) was a four-year starter in the Commodores’ back seven, initially manning safety, moving to “star” (linebacker/safety hybrid) as a junior, and settling in at inside linebacker as a senior, all told recording 15.5 career tackles for loss and five interceptions. Burks’ stock soared at the Combine, testing as a 95th -percentile athlete with 4.59 speed and a quick three-cone time (6.82). Burks once would have been labeled a “tweener,” but the value of his style of play and versatility has grown in a pass-heavier NFL. He’s a sleeper to become a Mark Barron-level defender.

Round 4: Wide Receiver J’Mon Moore Missouri

J'Mon Moore

Moore (6’3/207) was a three-year starter for the Tigers, graduating with a 158/2,477/21 career receiving line at 15.7 yards per catch. Moore had 391 of his 2017 receiving yards on 20-plus-yard catches, third most in the SEC. An 85th-percentile SPARQ athlete with 4.49 (Pro Day) speed and a 38-inch vertical, Moore’s pre-draft concerns were rawness and off-field concerns, but he is every bit an NFL-caliber wide receiver on game tape.

Round 5: Offensive Lineman Cole Madison (Washington State)

Cole Madison II

Madison (6’5/308) made 47 starts at right tackle on the Cougars’ offensive line, earning second-team All-Pac 12 as a senior and ranking fifth among Pac 12 offensive tackles in pass-blocking efficiency rating (97.7). Just a 14th-percentile SPARQ athlete, Madison was a quality college starter who will likely struggle in the pros. He would do well to carve out a Sam Young-like swing tackle career.

Round 5: Punter JK Scott (Alabama)

JK Scott

Scott (6’6/208) punted for the Crimson Tide all four years, graduating at the school’s all-time leader in gross average (45.6). Scott dropped 50% of his 2017 punts inside the opponents’ 20-yard line and doubled as Alabama’s kickoff specialist. Scott showed enough versatility, leg strength, and accuracy in the SEC that he has a shot to become a long-term NFL solution at punter.

Round 6: Wide Receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling (USF)

Marquez Valdes-Scantling

Valdes-Scantling (6’4/206) transferred from NC State to USF for his final two seasons, where he logged a 75/1,294/11 career receiving line and averaged 17.3 yards per reception. Valdes-Scantling padded his resume with a 4.37 forty and 10-foot-4 broad jump in Indy. Valdes-Scantling’s sheer size and speed give him Devery Henderson-like potential, but his ball skills and route running are both well below average on tape. Valdes-Scantling is a one-trick pony, and isn’t great at the one trick.

Round 6: Wide Receiver Equanimeous St. Brown (Notre Dame)

Equanimeous St. Brown II

Brown (6’5/214) turned pro after starting two years for the Irish, logging a 92/1,484/16.1/13 career receiving line, and regressing from 961 yards and nine TDs with DeShone Kizer as a sophomore to 515/4 as a junior in a much worse passing attack. St. Brown blazed 4.48 at the Combine and showed he’s been in the weight room with 20 bench-press reps. A height-weight-speed projection with Jekyll & Hyde game tape, St. Brown offers No. 1 wideout traits with some Dorial Green-Beckham-like moments mixed in. He’s a classic boom-bust pick.

Round 7: Defensive End James Looney (California)

James Looney

Looney was a Shrine game invite and is an upfield disruptor. At Cal he often created instant penetration after jumping the snap, creating plays for loss. Looney then went to the NFL Combine at produced an athletic profile in the 93rd percentile, which is outstanding. Looney finished his collegiate career with seven sacks.

Round 7: Long Snapper Hunter Bradley (Mississippi State)

Hunter Bradley

Bradley is the first snapper of longer than normal snaps to be selected this year. Being a seventh-round pick makes it likely Bradley snaps the snaps longer than other snaps for the Packers this season.

Round 7: Outside Linebacker Kendall Donnerson (Southeast Missouri State)

Kendall Donnerson

Donnerson (6’2/248) was a two-year starter at SEMO, earning first-team All-Ohio Valley Conference as a senior with 13.5 tackles for loss and six sacks. Donnerson put himself on the map with a monster Pro Day workout, running 4.44 with a 40-inch vertical and 7.03 three-cone time. Donnerson is a developmental project, but he offers pass-rush upside based on his H/W/S combo.

 

Green Bay Packers: Welcoming Back Tramon Williams Makes a Lot of Sense

Tramon Williams Super Bowl XLV

I remember the day well. It was the first day of training camp in 2007 for the Green Bay Packers. As I stood in front of the Don Hutson Center watching the team practice on Clark Hinkle Field, one player in the secondary really stood out to me.

He was a relatively obscure player by the name of Tramon Williams. The unknown cornerback covered receivers like Donald Driver and Greg Jennings like a glove as Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers threw passes to them. I kept thinking to myself, who is that guy?

The secondary of the Packers had some very talented players in 2007. Charles Woodson led the way, with Al Harris and Nick Collins not far behind. But it was Williams who stood out for me that day.

At that point in time, Williams was just trying to make the roster of the Packers for the first time. In 2006, Williams had been undrafted out of Louisiana Tech and was signed by the Houston Texans. After he was released by the Texans, the Packers signed Williams to their practice squad where he remained throughout the 2006 season.

But in 2007, it wasn’t just my eyes which were opened. The coaching staff of the Packers also liked what they saw and Williams made the team. He played in all 16 games that season, had 17 tackles and started one game. He also picked off a pass.

In 2008, Williams really started to make an impact, as he made nine starts, made 57 tackles, picked off five passes and forced two fumbles. In 2009, Williams started 10 games, had 55 tackles, picked off four more passes, plus had a sack.

It was in 2010 in which Williams became a full-time starter and also had a breakout year. No. 38 had 57 tackles, six picks, one forced fumble and three fumble recoveries. That performance led to Williams being named to the Pro Bowl.

But as good as the 2010 season was for Williams, he was extra special in the 2010 postseason.

In the Wild Card game versus the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field, Williams made the game-winning interception with less than a minute to go in the game, as the Packers hung on to beat the Eagles 21-16.

Six days later in a Divisional Playoff game against the No. 1 seeded Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome, Williams picked off two more passes, including one he returned for a touchdown for 70 yards just before halftime. That pick basically broke the back of the Dirty Birds in the game, as the Green Bay upset Atlanta 48-21.

After beating the Chicago Bears 21-14 in the NFC title game at Soldier Field, the Packers faced the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLV.

Williams and the Green Bay secondary were put in a very difficult situation, as Woodson (broken collarbone) was unable to play in the second half of the game, plus rookie cornerback Sam Shields (shoulder) also missed most of the second half.

But somehow the secondary held together on the last drive of the Steelers (with less than two minutes remaining in the game), as the Packers had a 31-25 lead. On fourth down, it was none other than Williams who broke up a pass from Ben Roethlisberger to Mike Wallace to secure the victory which allowed the Packers to hoist the Vince Lombardi Trophy.

Talk about apropos.

In 2011, Williams suffered a shoulder injury early in the season and missed a game, but still played through the lingering injury the rest of the year.

That was the only time Williams missed a game between 2010 through 2014. In those five years. Williams had 18 picks for 229 yards and one touchdown. He also averaged 68 tackles per season, had two forced fumbles, recovered seven fumbles and had 3.5 sacks.

Unfortunately, just like with Favre, many in Packer Nation still remember the last play Williams was involved in during a NFC title game. Favre threw an interception in the 2007 NFC title game which led to a game-winning field goal which put the New York Giants in the Super Bowl, while Williams was beaten on a game-winning touchdown pass in overtime against the Seattle Seahawks in the 2014 NFL title game.

Favre was traded to the New York Jets in 2008 and then played with the Minnesota Vikings for two years after that, but he never returned to play for the Packers again.

Williams left via free agency in 2015 to play with the Cleveland Browns.

But unlike Favre, Williams is getting an opportunity to come back after spending two years (2015-2016) with the Browns (including one under new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine when he was head coach there) and last season with the Arizona Cardinals.

Tramon Williams vs. the Eagles

Bringing back Williams was made official on Friday when general manager Brian Gutekunst announced the signing of Williams.

I had an inkling that the Packers might sign Williams, similar to my thoughts as to why Muhammad Wilkerson would be a good addition to the team. In both cases, it was having the opportunity to play again in the defensive system of Pettine.

In a recent story, I wrote how the Packers did in the legal tampering period of free agency. I added this conjecture in the piece:

In terms of what the Packers might possibly do soon again in free agency now that it’s official, my guess is that they will try and bring in a veteran cornerback who knows how to play in the Pettine system and who also knows all about being a Packer.

That cornerback is Tramon Williams. Yes, I know Williams is 35 now, but he is still playing good football in the NFL and would be a solid addition as a stop-gap at cornerback.

Also, in my latest mock draft, published three days ago, I wrote this:

The Packers also need to add a veteran to their young cornerback corp, which also has fourth-year CB Quinten Rollins, who is coming off an Achilles injury. Adding Tramon Williams via free agency would definitely help, as although he is 35, he is still playing well in the secondary (like he did with Arizona last season), plus he has played in the Pettine defensive system in Cleveland.

Well, the Packers did indeed sign Williams and he will definitely help the other players in the young secondary of the Packers. Not only with his knowledge, but also with his play.

Besides Rollins, the Packers also have last year’s second-round pick Kevin King, plus undrafted free agents Josh Hawkins, Lenzy Pipkins, Donatello Brown and Herb Waters.

A former teammate of Williams in Green Bay, veteran Davon House, who returned to play with the Packers last season after spending two years with the Jacksonville Jaguars, remains on the free agent market.

Williams will also aid the rookie cornerbacks who the Packers will select in the 2018 NFL draft. I see the Packers picking at least two cornerbacks in the upcoming draft, plus most likely a safety due to the departure of Morgan Burnett in free agency.

Bottom line, Williams will be able to provide the veteran leadership in the secondary that the Packers were desperately looking for. Yes, Williams is 35, but he is also still playing good football, as evidenced by his play in the talented Arizona secondary last season, when he started nine games and had two interceptions and 13 pass breakups.

Green Bay Packers: Could Muhammad Wilkerson Reunite with Mike Pettine?

Muhammad Wilkerson

Back on March 11, 2014, when I was with Bleacher Report, I wrote that there was a good possibility that Julius Peppers could become a member of the Green Bay Packers if he was released by the Chicago Bears.

Well, a day later, Peppers was released by da Bears. And four days after that, the Packers and then general manager Ted Thompson signed Peppers to a three-year $26 million dollar deal.

The deal tuned out to be a really good one for the Pack. In those three years, No. 56 had 25 sacks, 10 forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries and two interceptions, which were both returned for touchdowns. The Packers were also in the NFC championship game in two of the three years Peppers was a Packer.

One of the reasons that I thought Peppers might come to Green Bay was because he would be able to reunite with Mike Trgovac, who was Peppers’ defensive line coach in 2002 as a rookie and also his defensive coordinator from 2003-08 when Peppers was with the Carolina Panthers.

We could see the same thing happen again in 2018. In this case, we might see defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson reunite with his first defensive coordinator, Mike Pettine, who is now the defensive coordinator of the Packers.

Wilkerson will be a free agent after his official release by the New York Jets, who announced today that Wilkerson will be cut. In 2011, which was Wilkerson’s rookie year with the Jets, and in 2012, the defense of that team was coordinated by Pettine.

The Jets selected Wilkerson, who played his college ball at Temple, with the 30th pick of Round 1 in the 2011 NFL draft.

Pettine did one hell of a job as the defensive coordinator of the J-E-T-S, as the team was ranked first, third, fifth and eighth in total defense in the four years (2009 through 2012) he ran the defense.

Wilkerson was there for two of those years. In those two years, Wilkerson had 118 total tackles, eight sacks, one safety, six passes defensed and four forced fumbles.

Mike Pettine

Mike Pettine

In his entire seven-year career with the Jets, Wilkerson had 405 tackles, 44.5 sacks, 28 passes defensed, two interceptions, 11 forced fumbles and one fumble recovery (for a touchdown).

Wilkerson was named to the Pro Bowl squad in 2015 and was voted second-team All-Pro twice (2013 & 2015).

To me, that is pretty nice production out of a defensive end who primarily played in a 3-4 defensive scheme.

Yes, I know the concerns about Wilkerson. That his motor isn’t always running to full capacity when he plays and that he has been late to meetings at times.

Still, look at his production. Plus, getting together with Pettine could possibly invigorate his focus back on football.

Not to mention having a teammate like Mike Daniels making sure Wilkerson toes the line correctly.

Speaking of Daniels, he is part of a defensive line that certainly could use some help in 2018. The depth chart for the line currently is Daniels, Kenny Clark, Quinton Dial, Dean Lowry and Montravius Adams (two total tackles as a rookie 2017).

The 6’4″, 315-pound Wilkerson would certainly help that group, especially based on his production. Plus, Wilkerson won’t be 29 until October.

Daniels, along with Clark, are considered the two best defensive linemen on the Packers. In six years with Green Bay, Daniels has 207 tackles, 27 sacks, one pass defensed, one interception, two forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries (one for a touchdown), plus went to the Pro Bowl in 2017.

The solid production from Daniels doesn’t even approach the production of Wilkerson. This is not to say Daniels is not a good defensive lineman, because he is, but Wilkerson has even better ability and his production has proven it.

To me, adding Wilkerson to the defensive line group of the Packers would help in a number of ways.

One, the defensive line would be fresher as Pettine would be able to rotate the group as needed. Secondly, the linebackers would be able to make more plays, both in stopping the run and in rushing the passer, because Wilkerson is double-teamed so often. Finally, all of those things will help the secondary, because that should mean a much better pass rush to force the opposing quarterback off his spot and create havoc.

Time will tell if Wilkerson and Pettine will reunite or not, but if nothing else, I sure believe that new general manager Brian Gutekunst is considering it.

At least, based on his comments at the NFL Scouting Combine yesterday in Indianapolis.

“Obviously there’s limits in what you can do, but we’d like to be really aggressive and see (if) we can be in every conversation,” Gutekunst said. “Now whether that leads to us ending up signing a bunch or not, we’ll see. Like I said, there’s limitations there. But we’d like to be as aggressive as we can to try to improve our football team. At the same time, it’s a smaller market and it’s a little bit riskier market. So I think as my mentor and predecessor would say, you have to be very cautious as you enter that. But I think we’d like to look at every option we can.”

Wilkerson is certainly an option. Plus, because he was released, the Packers can sign him at any time. Even before the official ability to sign free agents begins on March 14.

Signing Wilkerson would be an aggressive move by Gutekunst and the Packers. Just like it was when Thompson and the Packers signed Peppers to a three-year deal back in 2012.

That signing helped the Packers to go on to have two appearances in the NFC title game in three years.

I know the Packers would be thrilled to have the same thing happen this time around if they inked Wilkerson.

We shall see.

Green Bay Packers: More Wisconsin Badgers on the Way in the 2018 NFL Draft?

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The Green Bay Packers made a significant change this offseason that many of the members of Packer Nation have been asking for. That was, the firing of defensive coordinator Dom Capers.

When head coach Mike McCarthy made that change, many, like NFL scout Chris Landry, thought that Vic Fangio might be a possibility to replace Capers.

But while Fangio decided to stay on as defensive coordinator for the Chicago Bears, McCarthy decided instead to bring in Mike Pettine to run his defense.

Pettine hadn’t coached in the NFL since 2015, which was his second and last year as head coach of the Cleveland Browns, where he was 10-22 over those two seasons. Not a great record, but it looks pretty good compared to the 0-16 mark that the Browns had in 2017.

Pettine was named head coach of the Browns because of his prowess as a defensive coordinator in the NFL. In five years at that position, four with the New York Jets under head coach Rex Ryan and one with the Buffalo Bills, Pettine always coordinated a top 10 defense.

From 2009 though 2012 with the Jets, his defenses were ranked first, third, fifth and eighth in the NFL in total defense, while in 2013 with the Bills, his defense was ranked 10th in that category.

There was one player who was a constant for Pettine, both as a coordinator and one year as a head coach. That player was safety Jim Leonhard, who is now the defensive coordinator for the Wisconsin Badgers.

Leonhard played under Pettine with the Jets from 2009 through 2011, then again with the Bills in 2013 and then finally with the Browns in 2014, which was Pettine’s first year as head coach.

In the year off between playing in the NFL and getting into coaching, Leonhard studied film in 2015 with then defensive coordinator Dave Aranda of the Badgers. Then, in 2016, head coach Paul Chryst of the Badgers hired Leonhard as the defensive backs coach of the Badgers to work under the new defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox.

When Wilcox left to become the head coach at Cal, Chryst surprised some people by making Leonhard his new defensive coordinator in 2017.

The decision turned out to be a wise one by Chryst.

Wisconsin has had a fairly long tradition of having good defenses over the past decade. From 2009 though 2012, the Badgers were ranked 16th, 21st, 20th and 13th in total defense in the country.

But when then head coach Gary Andersen brought in Aranda to be the defensive coordinator in 2013, things really changed for the better. First, Aranda switched the Badgers from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 defense.

The players definitely took hold of the new scheme as the Badgers were ranked eighth, fourth and second in total defense from 2013 to 2015, which was Aranda’s final year as defensive coordinator.

The after Aranda left to become the defensive coordinator at LSU, Wilcox took over in 2016, kept the 3-4 scheme, and the defense was ranked sixth in total defense.

But in 2017, in only Leonhard’s second year as a coach and his first as a defensive coordinator, the Badgers were ranked second in total defense (262.1 yards per game) and were exceptional in other statistical categories as well.

The Badgers were ranked third in scoring defense (13.9 points per game), third in rushing defense (98.4 yards per game), fifth in passing defense (163.6 yards per game) and tied for sixth in turnovers gained (29).

Leonhard also used the 3-4 scheme he had learned under both Aranda and Wilcox, plus sprinkled in concepts he had learned playing in the 3-4 defense he played in the NFL under Pettine.

Back when my college buddy Kevin Cosgrove was the defensive coordinator of the Badgers from 1995 through 2003, he told me that the coaching staffs of the Badgers and Packers would get together once every summer before training camp to discuss concepts and schemes.

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Mike Pettine and Jim Leonhard

Now, with Pettine and Leonhard being so closely aligned in the recent past, expect that there will be more than concepts being discussed between the two. I’m sure that there will be a discussion about players as well, especially since a number of former Wisconsin defenders who played under Leonhard in 2017 will be available in the 2018 NFL draft.

There are a number of Badger prospects who should interest Pettine and the Packers on defense. The list includes includes cornerback Nick Nelson, linebacker Jack Cichy, linebacker Garret Dooley, linebacker Leon Jacobs, safety Natrell Jamerson, defensive lineman Alec James and defensive lineman Conor Sheehy.

General manager Ted Thompson of the Packers did select linebacker Vince Biegel of the Badgers in the 2017 NFL draft, when he was selected with the first pick of the fourth round.

But it was the bookend to Biegel on the Badgers, that many, including myself, thought Thompson should have selected. I’m talking about T.J. Watt.

I had the Packers taking Watt in the first round of my first mock draft from last year, as well as in my final mock draft.

Watt ended up being named to the 2017 NFL All-Rookie Team at linebacker.

This year, Thompson has stepped away from his duties as general manager and has been replaced by Brian Gutekunst.

When Thompson was GM, he was almost always a regular at the Wisconsin pro day prior to the draft. You can be assured that Gutekunst will do the same thing and that he will be accompanied by folks like McCarthy, offensive coordinator Joe Philbin and Pettine.

McCarthy and Philbin will be taking a close look at tight end Troy Fumagalli, as well as fullback Austin Ramesh.

Fumagalli would certainly fill a big hole for the Packers at tight end, and the offense of the Packers under McCarthy are always looking for multi-skilled fullbacks, and Ramesh certainly fills that role.

But it is the defense of the Packers which desperately needs upgrading. The Packers were ranked 22nd in total defense in 2017, as they allowed an average of 348.9 yards per game.

Green Bay was ranked 23rd in passing defense (236.8 yards per game) and was ranked 17th in rushing defense (112.1 yards per game).

The Packers played the run fairly well in the early part of the 2017 season, but got progressively worse as the year wore on.

The pass defense of the team was basically in disarray all season long.

The Packers were ranked second-worst in the NFL in opponent’s passer rating, as the season average was 102.0. That is an amazing and very disappointing stat. Why? Because there is only one quarterback in NFL history (based on 1,500 pass attempts) who has a passer rating over 100. That is Aaron Rodgers of the Packers, who has a career mark of 103.8.

To give up a season average of 102.0 is almost unfathomable. Plus Green Bay also allowed opposing QBs to complete 67.8 percent of their passes. The Pack also allowed 30 touchdown passes and only had 11 picks. The defense also allowed 55 completions of 20 yards or better.

That is why the Pettine will certainly want to look at cornerbacks in the draft like Nelson, who received a second-round grade from the NFL Draft Advisory Board. Or safeties in the draft like Jamerson, who had a great week of practice at the East-West Shrine Game, plus was named Defensive MVP of the game itself.

Jamerson definitely improved his draft stock in the Shrine game and is currently projected to get selected late in the draft.

Cichy was probably the best player on the Wisconsin defense in 2016 (which included Watt) in 2016, before he tore his pectoral muscle. In seven games in 2016, Cichy was a magnet for the football, as he had 60 total tackles, seven tackles for a loss, 1.5 sacks and two forced fumbles.

Cichy didn’t play in 2017 due to a knee injury suffered in training camp. “Three-Sack Jack” could have come back to play for Wisconsin in 2018, as he was eligible for a medical redshirt, but he decided to declare for the NFL draft instead. Cichy received his nickname due to the three consecutive sacks he had in the 2015 Holiday Bowl versus USC, when the Badgers beat the Trojans 23-21 and Cichy was Defensive MVP of the game.

Jack Cichy

Jack Cichy

Cichy would definitely add some talent to the linebacker depth of the Packers, as he can play inside or outside. Right now Cichy is slotted to be picked anywhere from the fourth through the sixth round. How Cichy is clocked in the 40 at the NFL Scouting Combine and at the Wisconsin pro day will definitely determine where teams will slot him in the draft.

The Packers would seem to be in an excellent position to select Cichy if they like him, as they are slotted to have four picks in the fifth round according to Over The Cap. The Packers will have their own selections in each of the seven rounds of the draft, plus will be also have an additional seventh round pick because of a trade with the Bills, when the team shipped linebacker Lerentee McCray to Buffalo in 2016.

The NFL will officially announce the number of compensatory picks each team will receive soon, but Over The Cap has the Packers getting one in the third round and three in the fifth round. That would mean the Packers would have 12 picks overall in the 2018 NFL draft.

*** The NFL announced on Friday that the Packers were awarded four compensatory picks Friday in the 2018 draft: a fourth-round pick (No. 133 overall), two fifth-round picks (Nos. 172 and 174) and a sixth-round pick (No. 207).

Dooley is another player who could help the linebacker corp for the Packers. He was very consistent for the Badgers at outside linebacker in both 2016 and 2017, as he had 79 total tackles, 17 tackles for a loss and 9.5 sacks. Dooley is another prospect slotted to be selected in the fifth round or later.

Jacobs had a great senior year for the Badgers, as he had 60 total tackles, 10 tackles for a loss, 3.5 sacks, two interceptions, one forced fumble and two fumble recoveries (one for a touchdown). Jacobs, like Cichy, can play either inside or outside. Jacobs is also expected to go late in the draft.

In terms of the defensive line, both James and Sheehy were very good in stopping the run at Wisconsin. James also had 11 sacks in his career as a Badgers, while Sheehy added six. Both James and Sheehy are projected to go late in the draft or be signed as an undrafted rookie free agent.

The draft stock of all these players will be helped or diminished by how they perform at the combine and at their pro day.

All of the Wisconsin draft prospects certainly know how to win, as the Badgers have gone 34-7 under Chryst the past three seasons (10-3, 11-3 and 13-1), which includes bowl wins in the Holiday Bowl, Cotton Bowl and the Orange Bowl.

But based on the connection between Pettine and Leonhard, I definitely could see at least one Badger defender taken in this draft by the Packers, especially based on the seven picks the team will have from the fifth round through the seventh, where a number of the Wisconsin defensive prospects are slotted.