Mike McCarthy, gone. The end of an era in Green Bay, but hopefully the beginning of an ascending level of play from Aaron Rodgers compared to what we’ve seen of late. I don’t love the timing of the Packers decision, but the time had come for McCarthy to move on.
Now the Packers are faced with a massive opportunity to find a way to maximize the rest of Aaron Rodgers’ days in the NFL or continue to underwhelm despite ingredients many teams would kill for. The 2019 offseason plan starts with a coaching hire, but it doesn’t stop there by a long shot.
Keep head coach options vast
Given Rodgers’ age, contract and rare talent, we could be talking about one of the more important head coaching hires in recent NFL history. For the most part, an NFL quarterback’s ability to reach their peak level of play relies heavily on a system that plays to those strengths consistently. Green Bay’s offense desperately needs a mind that can build route concepts on top of each other to make things easier on the receivers and get Rodgers in more of a rhythm.
Having said that, I don’t believe the Packers next head coach has to be an offensive-minded one. For teams with young quarterbacks in need of development and confidence, I strongly advise the hiring of a young, energetic offensive head coach to lead your franchise. But for a veteran like Rodgers who is already largely developed and fully confident, I think that need is lessened.
Here is what Rodgers needs, in my opinion:
1. A scheme that stays aggressive, but works all three levels of the field more frequently and gives Rodgers more gimme throws to get him in rhythm. Make him want to make quicker decisions and he will eventually mold himself to the style of play when he sees it can be consistently successful.
2. More consistent mechanics. This starts with more balls coming out on schedule, in a timely fashion. Mechanics are muscle memory, and when nothing is consistent throw-to-throw, that issue is exacerbated.
3. Someone who can speak to Rodgers and train him in a way that won’t challenge his ego or status as an elite quarterback, but is also persistent enough to help him realize he is a part of the problem right now. If Rodgers can’t get to that point, all of this could be for naught.
I cannot comment on what coach might be able to bring all three of those elements to the table, but I would love to talk to John DeFilippo or Eric Bieniemy about the head coaching position, and Kliff Kingsbury about offensive coordinator if the team hires a defensive-minded head coach.
Some people are excited about the futures of Byron Leftwich and Freddie Kitchens, but I’m not sure this will be a role they are ready for. I have to see a lot more of them before I’m ready to go there, although NFL teams will admittedly have a lot more insight on the duo than I.
One sleeper name I’d like to see get strong consideration: Bucs offensive coordinator Todd Monken, who has kept that offense ticking through poor play and multiple changes at the quarterback position. That’s rare in today’s NFL.
Identify the cornerstones
Rodgers, Davante Adams, David Bakhtiari and Aaron Jones are the cornerstones on offense, and you probably roll with Lane Taylor, Corey Linsley and Bryan Bulaga as starters next season, although they might need to prepare for life after their injury prone right tackle at some point soon.
Right guard and wide receiver remain the teams’ two biggest needs, although flashes from Marquez Valdes-Scantling and E.Q. St. Brown have somewhat lessened the need at pass catcher. Jimmy Graham probably sticks it out another year at tight end.
On defense, you’re set at the cornerback position. Jaire Alexander is a budding star, while Josh Jackson and Kevin King need to be developed in order to round out the team’s top three. Same thing at linebacker and the defensive line, where depth could be acquired, but Blake Martinez and Oren Burks should be your 2019 second level starters with Mike Daniels, Kenny Clark and Dean Lowry patrolling the trenches in front of them.
Accept the mini-rebuild
One of the hardest things for a typically successful organization to do is accept that a rebuild needs to happen. We saw that in the Giants and Cardinals this past offseason. The Packers aren’t close to needing that level of a facelift, but they’ve gotta get better in several key areas, and that doesn’t involve bringing back any of their big-name free agents.
Getting Randall Cobb and Clay Matthews massive contract hits off the books will be huge, as neither have lived up to the value they were re-signed for. Other vets like Marcedes Lewis and Lance Kendricks are done after this year as well, while Tramon Williams and Mason Crosby should be on their last legs in Green Bay.
Lastly, don’t re-sign Jake Ryan. A mediocre athlete coming off a torn ACL that has to come off the field situationally is not a player you re-sign to even a team-friendly long term contract. Martinez is better, and this is what you drafted Burks for. He’s replaceable, time to move on.
Target these free agents
1. Earl Thomas, S, Seattle Seahawks
And that’s it. I cannot emphasize this enough: if the only thing Green Bay does in free agency is acquire Earl Thomas, they killed the pre-draft offseason. Killed it.
The Packers secondary is young and in desperate need of a quarterback on the back end, but they let Micah Hyde walk, traded away an inconsistent HaHa Clinton-Dix and have received disappointing play from second-year safety Josh Jones. If they don’t patch things up at safety this season, it is hard to see the fortunes of this defense changing.
Thomas is one of the more cerebral and hard-working players in the league, while also being a great communicator on the field. His ability to play single-high would allow Ibraheim Campbell and Jones to work closer to the line of scrimmage, where both players prefer to be. It would also give Green Bay the combination of stabilizing force and splash plays that they have been missing for too long at the position.
The Packers can still win in 2019 if they hit on the key pieces of their mini-rebuild this offseason. Thomas is arguably the most important step in that plan of attack.
Find a starting-caliber edge pass rusher
Nick Perry is currently robbing Green Bay of money and cap space, but there isn’t much the Packers can do about it right now except hope he starts to play better. Somehow Kyler Fackrell has eight sacks this season, but some of those have been lucky tallies, and he’s a liability against the run. Matthews is on his way out. Reggie Gilbert is just a rotational piece.
Perry will need to start next season, but Fackrell and Gilbert would be better served coming off the bench situationally than playing every down. The tough part is finding a clear-cut impact edge rusher in free agency. The market looks great now, but Jadeveon Clowney, Demarcus Lawrence and Frank Clark will almost certainly get tagged, while Ezekiel Ansah and Brandon Graham aren’t ideal scheme fits (if the current scheme stays of course). Preston Smith is a healthier, more consistent version of Perry, which might be too much of the same thing off the edge.
Dee Ford is an interesting option for the Packers, but he could also be tagged and I do wonder if he’s worth the money given his injury history and somewhat inconsistent play over the years.
I’d rather take my chance in the draft if I’m Green Bay, where a player like Florida’s Jachai Polite, Kentucky’s Josh Allen or Florida State’ Brian Burns could fall into their laps with their first Round 1 pick. Getting an impact speed-bend pass rusher to test tackles in a totally different way than Green Bay’s current edge defenders do would be a game-changer for this defense.
Fill 2 of wide receiver, tight end or right guard
The draft board looks like it could align perfectly with Green Bay’s needs if they find a way to sign Earl Thomas and draft an edge defender early. Their second first round pick looks like it’ll be in the late Round 1 stages of the draft, with their second round pick about ten spots behind it. If wide receiver and guard are the targets, the Packers could find two starters in this range of the draft.
Valdes-Scantling is fast and Adams can certainly win vertically, but I watch Oklahoma wide receiver Marquise Brown’s best plays and I salivate thinking about what Rodgers could do with that type of speed combined with his deep ball in a creative offense. Brown should be available in the 25-45 range, where the Packers have two picks and a clear need for an impact receiver.
One other player I wouldn’t rule out: Iowa tight end Noah Fant. We know the Packers have an affinity for Iowa players, and Fant is the type of deep threat tight end the Packers have been trying to land for years. It’s obvious Green Bay doesn’t care about blocking from their tight ends (Jimmy Graham, Jared Cook), which is good because Fant gives you nothing there. What he does give you is rare athleticism, vertical prowess and post-catch ability for a tight end. The fit would be perfect.
Adding Fant and Lodge or Brown with these two picks is a distinct possibility, and one that Green Bay fans should welcome. However, if offensive line is the target with one of the picks, Kansas State’s Dalton Risner makes a lot of sense. Plug-and-play right guard with experience and ability to play right tackle in a pinch if Bulaga goes down. Should be available in this same range.
Boston College’s Chris Lindstrom is another stud guard prospect that deserves consideration in the second and third rounds.
1. Keep the head coach search broad for now and find someone who can appeal to Rodgers individually, even if that person only becomes the offensive coordinator. Might be a situation where the front office hand picks both spots if agreeable between all parties.
2. Identifying the cornerstones of the roster leaves the offseason focus on edge pass rush, free safety, right guard and playmakers at receiver.
3. Accept the mini-rebuild. Move on from older veterans filling space on your roster and don’t re-sign Jake Ryan.
4. Sign Earl Thomas. Whatever it takes.
6. With two more picks likely in the top 45, the Packers can double up at playmaker or grab one receiver and a top offensive lineman. Right tackle remains a consideration, but I might wait on it until next year if no one falls. How about a skill group of Adams/Valdez-Scantling/St. Brown/Marquise Brown/Noah Fant/Jimmy Graham/Aaron Jones for next year?
Green Bay Packers fans, you are welcome.