The Green Bay Packers have already made some moves in free agency to help bolster their roster and chances in 2014. The addition of defensive lineman Julius Peppers made big headlines a few weeks back and indicated a shift in the team’s approach to improving on the past few seasons.
With the addition of Peppers, the Packers Super Bowl odds dropped from 16-1 to 10-1, according to sites like FootballBettingCenter.com.
But will the addition of Peppers really have that much of an impact on this Packers team? With just one playoff victory since winning Super Bowl XLV in 2011, the Packers have lacked that spark and edge that got them over the hump during that incredible run over three years ago.
With Aaron Rodgers and quarterback and a solid stable of receivers, Green Bay has been able to maintain its production on the offensive side of the ball. The addition of Eddie Lacy last season (NFL Rookie of the year) rounded off the offense and took it a step closer to being more complete.
The defense has been the point of emphasis in looking at the most glaring needs that the Packers have had and continue to have. In 2011, defensive lineman Cullen Jenkins departed in free agency and the Packers struggled to get consistent production from the defensive line. Jenkins was replaced by Jarius Wynn, and I use the term “replaced” very loosely there.
The Packers D-line has seen flashes of production since, but not consistently. The addition of Peppers will hopefully help that unit make more of an impact on Sundays.
Prior to the start of the 2012 season, the Packers lost inside linebacker Desmond Bishop to a season-ending injury and the team released him prior to the start of the 2013 season. Bishop’s spot has since been replaced by a combination of DJ Smith, who is no longer with the team and was released last offseason, and Brad Jones.
Jones has spurred debates about whether he is the future at inside linebacker, was worth the contract that he received last offseason (three years, $11.75 million), and most importantly, whether he still has room to turn into the player the Packers need him to be. That remains to be seen but there have been many rumblings that inside linebacker should be addressed relatively early in this upcoming draft by Green Bay.
But the one position that the Packers have virtually put a band aid on over the past three seasons is safety. Since losing Nick Collins early in 2011 and along side Morgan Burnett, the Packers have run with Charlie Peprah, Jerron McMillian and M.D. Jennings as starters. None of those three are on the team any longer and McMillian was released mid-season this past year after being drafted in the fourth round in 2012.
Still, over that three-year span, the Packers have managed to win 32 games and three straight division titles. That goes to show what having an elite quarterback and a good offense can do for a team with a deficiency elsewhere. But imagine what could have been if the Packers had done more to address that need at safety. Perhaps a few more wins, better seeding, playoff wins or if you want to dream big, another chance at a Super Bowl. I’m not saying that one position was the missing link, but it is arguably the team’s biggest need.
Peprah filled in nicely for Atari Bigby in 2010 and helped the Packers to a championship but was nothing special in 2011. The Packers learned the hard way that neither Jennings nor McMillian were their guy either and many had their doubts about both going into last season. Heading into this season and with Jennings off to Chicago, the Packers need a new starting safety.
In the pure sense of the word, you envision a running mate with Burnett. But with as many defensive looks as the Packers use and as many times that they run their nickel package, it’s not always a traditional free safety that they need.
At last week’s NFL owner’s meetings, Packers head coach Mike McCarthy said that he wants to see Micah Hyde become an every-down player this season. Hyde is listed as a cornerback and so for that to happen at that position, he would have to supplant either Sam Shields or Tramon Williams at outside cornerback. Shields is a planted at his spot after receiving a new and lucrative contract. Williams may end up moving inside or down the depth chart if age starts to catch up to him and he regresses this season, but heading into this year, Green Bay likely has him penciled in to start on the outside.
The Packers play a lot of nickel and run a third cornerback in the slot, which was Hyde’s primary role last season. It would seem that he is already an every-down player in that sense, but Hyde played just half of the defensive snaps in 2013. If McCarthy’s thought rings true, the Packers need to find a way to get Hyde on the field for the other half of each game.
Moving Hyde to safety is one way to accomplish that and is one option to address the safety spot. It’s an unknown, as it would be a position change. Hyde is a good athlete and showed that he belongs on the field last season. He’s smart and seemed to pick up the defensive scheme well for a young player. Still, there is always risk when moving a guy from one position to the next.
Playing some safety in college is not playing safety in Green Bay’s defense. Playing slot cornerback in Green Bay’s defense is not playing safety either. I have my reservations about the Packers brashly assuming that they can put Hyde out there and see the improvement that they need at safety. He may turn into a good safety, if moved, but it’s far from a slam dunk.
Another option that Green Bay has is to address the safety position in next month’s draft. This year’s class is said to be deep at the safety position so the Packers would seemingly have options to address it early on, even when 20 other teams are picking ahead of them. The popular names like Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Calvin Pryor may not be on the board when the Packers pick first and the Packers may not be looking to take a safety in round one either.
Other guys such as Jimmie Ward, Deone Buccanon, Craig Loston and Terrence Brooks could become options in some of the early rounds as well. We have also seen enough of Packers general manager Ted Thompson to know that he may also have his eye on the next kid out of the University of Eastern Vermont to be the team’s answer at safety.
If the Packers are going to use the draft to fill this need, they need to hit on the pick. Green Bay may take multiple defensive backs in this draft, but to swing and miss on another safety would be a huge detriment to the rest of the defense. It won’t be excused and Thompson will face heavy criticism from media and fans alike. The draft is always a gamble, but it’s Thompson’s job to reduce the risk.
The last avenue that is still available to the Packers is free agency. Many Packers fans hoped that the team was going to address the need at safety early in free agency. As in on day one. It was “Jairus Byrd or bust!”. Day one of free agency came and went and gone were Donte Whitner, Byrd, Malcolm Jenkins, T.J. Ward and Antoine Bethea.
At this point, even Chris Clemons has found a team after sitting out there for multiple weeks. Unless a team is going to part with a safety during training camp, the pickings are slim on the open market. We’re talking about guys like Ryan Clark, Thomas DeCoud, Patrick Chung and Michael Huff, to name a few.
For the Packers to go the route of one of those names, or worse, would be a surprise. Anything is possible after what we saw them do with the backup quarterback position last year, but even Thompson admitted he probably could have done more to solidify that need. If one of those guys are coming to Green Bay, it likely means an injury has occurred and bigger issues loom.
However the Packers plan to fill the need at safety, they need to see marked improvement. Technically, improving is as easy as can be when there were no interceptions by a safety last season and passes defended can be counted on one hand. But the 2014 Green Bay defensive backfield needs to look more like the 2009 and 2010 unit than any of the past three years. Otherwise, the Packers will, once again, struggle to compete with top-tier teams this season.
Jason Perone is an independent sports blogger writing about the Packers on AllGreenBayPackers.comFollow Jason Perone: