After weeks of speculation on Aaron Rodgers, Khalil Mack, and the Packers’ Week 1 roster, we’ve gotten a flood of answers in the past couple days. With Rodgers signed, Mack traded to Chi-town, and the roster relatively set, we have a better idea of how the season will kick off. It’s been a flurry of activity, and the moment we’ve all been waiting for is just around the corner: the regular season. Here’s what (I think) I know.
1. Man of his word
Brian Gutekunst has done everything he said he’d do since becoming general manager. He said he would use every avenue available to improve the team, and he’s demonstrated that with multiple player trades, free agent signings, and draft pick trades over the past few months. All of those moves could have been dwarfed by a trade for Khalil Mack, a perennial all-pro who looks the part of a future hall of famer through his first four seasons. The trade would have transformed the defense, unquestionably, and forced the team to tie up almost a third of their salary cap in Aaron Rodgers and Mack. While Green Bay didn’t get Khalil (he was traded to the Bears for two first-round picks), the Packers reportedly made an offer and took a shot at bringing in the gifted pass rusher. We can’t get every player we pursue, but in the past Green Bay didn’t even look into acquiring players like Mack. Gutekunst is in on seemingly every acquisition conversation, which is encouraging in and of itself.
2. Gruden best deliver, real soon
Forgive me for the brief break from Packer talk. Speaking of trust in a general manager, Jon Gruden is destroying his credibility fast in Oakland. Signed to a 10-year, $100 million contract this offseason, Gruden has taken over personnel decisions from Raiders’ general manager Reggie McKenzie. Since then he’s cut high draft picks and traded away one of the best defenders in the NFL. The signing earned quite a bit of praise from Raider fans and fans across the league, but nobody seems to know what to expect now. The Raiders may regret that mega-deal in the near future if the team comes out of the gates slow this year.
3. NFC North Battle
With the addition of Mack, the Bears’ Super Bowl odds went from 100-1 to 40-1. They now have a stellar team pass rush and a plethora of young talent on the offensive side of the ball. The purple folk in Minnesota have a stacked team that went to the NFC Championship a year ago. The Lions are consistently tough, though admittedly they haven’t shown much promise of breaking through. The point is, the Packers have a tough road ahead of them to win what is potentially the best division in the NFL. As always, we have one thing that nobody else does, Aaron Rodgers. If he stays healthy and the defense gets better, the team will have as good a shot as any at coming out on top. It all starts Sunday night against Chicago, look for the Packers to come out with a chip on their shoulder after the embarrassing 7-9 season a year ago.
4. Waiver Process
Prior to me talking about player cuts, allow me to briefly describe the NFL waiver process for those of you who don’t know. When players are cut, they go to the waiver wire, where other NFL teams can claim them. If a player is claimed off waivers, they are required to go to that team. That’s why cutting a player doesn’t guarantee they make the practice squad, as they could get signed to another team’s active roster. The waiver process goes on for about 24 hours after players are released. What this all means is that the Packers may not be done. They trimmed the roster to 53 players Saturday, but they could cut a few more and replace them with talent that was waived by other clubs this weekend. Once players clear waiver (go unclaimed) they become free agents and can join a practice squad or sign with a team of their choosing.
5. Pass Catching Depth
Most teams keep five wide receivers, but six isn’t uncommon. Seven is a lot, but it happens once in a while. Eight? Eight is unheard of, but it’s what the Packers did. Couple that with the four tight ends they held onto and they have 12 pass catchers on offense. That’s an insane total, and it likely won’t last long. The team kept only two runners, but will have three when Aaron Jones returns from suspension and could let a receiver or tight end go then. As for the depth chart, the top three receivers have been Davante Adams, Randall Cobb, and Geronimo Allison. Beyond them, Marquez Valdez-Scantling appears to have the most promise, but Jake Kumerow likely takes the role as No. 4. Of the remaining three, don’t expect to see much of J’Mon Moore, Equanimeous St. Brown, or Treveor Davis on offense early on in the season, but injury or development could lead to them moving up the depth chart at some point. For the tight ends, Jimmy Graham and Marcedes Lewis are the top two, with Robert Tonyan and Lance Kendricks likely to see lesser roles in the offense, at least for now.
6. No Fullback?
The team sent Aaron Ripkowski out during cuts, meaning there is no fullback on the roster. The team isn’t likely to pick one up and in the modern game a fullback isn’t as relevant as it once was. That being said, the team has used Lance Kendricks in a role similar to a fullback in the past and we’ll likely continue to see him, and maybe Robert Tonyan in that role.
7. Biegel sent packing
After taking Vince Biegel out of Wisconsin with the first pick of the fourth round in last year’s draft, the Packers cut him prior to his second season. That’s about as big of a bust as you can have with that pick. Biegel didn’t look like a capable NFL outside linebacker this season and his release was the right call. That being said, it still stings knowing the pick was effectively wasted.
8. Outside linebacker depth
Speaking of the Biegel release, the team ended up keeping four outside linebackers, with Reggie Gilbert and Kyler Fackrell backing up Clay Matthews and Nick Perry. That’s fewer men at the position than in years past, and it could be a problem given Matthews’ and Perry’s injury woes in recent seasons. The team may look to claim a few other players at the position prior to week one to shore up the depth.
9. Who’s inside?
Last year the team had three inside linebackers on the team to open the season: Blake Martinez, Jake Ryan, and Joe Thomas. With Thomas gone and Ryan on injured reserve with a torn ACL, there are a few new faces. Oren Burks is expected to start next to Martinez but his shoulder injury could sideline him for the first few weeks. Look for the newly acquired Antonio Morrison (who the team traded for earlier this week) to start in Burks’ place. Morrison led the Colts in tackles with 109 in 15 games last season. Taken six picks ahead of Martinez in the 2016 NFL draft, he could prove to be an important addition. Outside of those three, the team kept James Crawford, an undrafted rookie out of the University of Illinois. He looks the part but wasn’t highly prolific in college. The team could seek to upgrade the depth and replace Crawford via the waiver wire in the coming days.
10. Predicting Big Things
Overall, the Packers’ roster this season looks much improved from a year ago (admittedly I talk myself into this thought every season). The linebacker depth and offensive line depth leaves much to be desired, but the team looks solid at most other positions. The improved secondary and the addition of defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, coupled with the arrival of Jimmy Graham and Marcedes Lewis on offense, should give Aaron Rodgers an improved team to work with. All that, and we’re back to full health for No. 12. He was on pace for an MVP season a year ago, and I fully expect he’ll resume that pace from the word go in Week 1. My predictions for the season? Aaron wins MVP and the team goes 11-5 or 12-4. Playoffs… well, what happens then is anybody’s guess with the Packers facing off against a tough NFC that boasts extremely solid teams in Philadelphia, Los Angeles (Rams), Minnesota, New Orleans, and Atlanta. Is it our year again? We’ll see. At the very least, we have reason to brim with hope.