Can Green Bay Win The NFC North in 2016?
A Packers Player Jersey
Overview of Green Bay Entering the 2016 Pre-Season
The Packers ended the 2015 regular season with a disappointing 10-6 record and second place in the NFC North Division. After winning its first six games, Green Bay finished the regular season losing six of its last ten games. What hurt were losses to the Lions, Bears, and Vikings all at home.
Although the Packers beat the Washington Redskins in a wildcard game, they lost in overtime to the Arizona Cardinals for the right to play in the NFC championship game.
After pointing out its shortcomings in 2015 and analyzing Green Bay's moves in the offseason, this article evaluates the Packers' offense, defense, and special teams for 2016. It then speculates whether Green Bay can win their division.
Packers Shortcomings in 2015
The Green Packers were a very disappointing and underachieving team in 2015. The Packers underachievement was due to three primary reasons: bad seasons from key players; injuries; and bad coaching. Each reason will now be examined in detail.
1. Bad Seasons from Key Players
Several key players on offense had bad years in 2015. On top of the list were Aaron Rodgers, Eddie Lacy, Randall Cobb, and Devante Adams. These bad performances resulted in the Packers finishing only 25th in offense.
Although Aaron Rodgers threw for 31 touchdowns with eight interceptions, his passing completion was only 60 percent and passer rating only 92, the worst it has been since 2008. All too often, Green Bay couldn't generate a good passing game.
Running back Eddie Lacy also had his worst year since entering the NFL. He only gained 700 yards over the 2015 season, and by the end of the season, he was very overweight and not in good playing shape.
Randal Cobb and Davante Adams were not very productive in Green Bay's passing game. These receivers couldn't get off of defensive press coverage and never gave the Packers a deep passing threat after Jordy Nelson was lost for the season in August of 2015. Cobb only had 829 yards over the season, and Davante Adams only 483.
Other disappointments came from punter Tim Masthay, tackle Don Barclay, and inside linebacker Joe Thomas.
Injuries also hurt the Packers a lot in 2015. The biggest loss resulted in the pre-season injury of receiver Jordy Nelson. With Nelson sidelined for the entire year with an ACL knee injury, the Packers had no deep downfield passing threat.
Another key injury was inside linebacker Sam Barrington in the first game. Palmer and Joe Thomas were not adequate replacements until Jake Ryan did better toward the end of the year.
The loss of left tackle David Bakhtiari and right tackle Brian Bulaga at different times of the year also led to Aaron Rodgers getting sacked more than he should have.
3. Bad Coaching
After Green Bay lost to Seattle due to special teams mistakes in the 2014 season NFC championship game, coach Mike McCarthy decided to handoff offensive play calling to assistant Tom Clements and play more of a role in supervising the defense and special teams. The result was that Aaron Rodgers had his worst season since 2008 and Green Bay's offense was terrible. Toward the end of the season, McCarthy took back the responsibility for play calling, but it was too little and too late to right the Packers offensive ship. Bad performances by tight ends and running backs also resulted in the dismissal of these position coaches.
Green Bay Moves in the 2016 Offseason
In the 2016 offseason, Green Bay evaluated all of the players on its roster, and based on performances and needs for the 2016 season made the following personnel moves:
1. The Signing of Its Unrestricted Free Agents
The most important unrestricted free agents signed were kicker Mason Crosby and running back James Starks. For the past few years, Crosby has been an above-average kicker in making field goals and extra points. The Pack could not afford to lose him. The same was true for running back James Starks who is a capable backup for Eddie Lacy.
2. The Signing of Free Agents from Other Teams
Since Green Bay was unhappy with the play of tight end Richard Rodgers in 2015, it signed tight end Jared Cook from the St. Louis Rams. The Packers hope that Cook delivers more receptions and yards after the catch than Richard Rodgers had in 2015.
3. Green Bay's Unsigned Free Agents
During the offseason, Green Bay elected not to re-sign quarterback Scott Tolzien and cornerback Casey Hayward. This was done because second-year quarterback Brett Hundley is now a capable backup for Aaron Rodgers and Hayward wasn't needed due to the development of second-year cornerbacks Damarious Randall and Quintin Rollins.
The Packers also did not resign outside linebacker Mike Neal, receiver James Jones. and fullback John Kuhn. With the return of Nelson, Green Bay now has depth at receivers and outside linebackers. Kuhn who is talented but older could be replaced by Ripkowski who is also a good special team player.
In March of 2016, nose tackle B.J. Raji announced a one-year hiatus from football. This was an unexpected retirement and left a need for a nose tackle to be filled by the college draft.
5. College Draft Signings
In the 2016 college draft, Green Bay used its first pick on nose tackle Kenny Clark from UCLA to help fill the void left from B.J. Raji's retirement. On defense, the Packers also selected defensive end, Dean Lowry, from Northwestern, inside linebacker Blake Martinez, and outside linebacker Kyler Fackrell. On offense, Green Bay chose offensive tackle Jason Spriggs from Indiana and receiver Trevor Davis from California. Lowry and Martinez were picked to add depth to the defensive line and inside linebacker position respectively. Spriggs was signed to give more depth to the tackle position.
Prospects for Packers Offense in 2016
If the Packers are to win the NFC North Division and be a Super Bowl contender, the offense must be a lot better than it was in 2015. I feel the success of the offense in 2016 hinges on four factors.
1. Aaron Rodgers Must Do Better
Although Aaron Rodgers threw for 31 touchdowns with 8 interceptions in 2015, that wasn't good enough for Green Bay's 25th ranked offense. Rodgers must have a higher passing completion record, fewer interceptions, and be able to connect on more long passes with his receivers. If Rodgers returns to the previous MVP form, the Packers offense will thrive in 2016.
2. Passing Game Must Improve
After Jordy Nelson was lost to injury for the whole 2015 season, Green Bay couldn't compensate for his loss. Nelson's loss was felt the most in the Packers' long passing game. Besides being able to complete more long passes, all receivers, notably Davante Adams and Randall Cobb must step up their game and be able to defeat defensive press coverage. Young receivers like Jeff Janis, Ty Montgomery, and Trevor Davis must also develop and be more of a factor in the passing game.
3. Offensive and Defensive Lines Must Stay Healthy
It is a truth that football games are won with good line play. Green Bay has good linemen, especially on offense, however, the starters must stay injury-free. In 2015, the Packers had no good depth on their offensive line. This showed when four starters were lost for parts of games in 2015. Starting tackles Bakhtiari and Bulaga were especially hard to replace which was evident when Rodgers was sacked many times during their absence. Green Bay hopes that first-year tackle Jason Spriggs and other young players will step up their play in 2016.
4. Can Eddie Lacy and the Running Game Do Better?
Eddie Lacy had his worst year since joining the Packers. Consequently, the running game suffered and was never able to compensate for a poor passing attack. Lacy is now down to his playing weight and should have the motivation to do well because he will be an unrestricted free agent in 2017.
Prospects for the Packers Defense
The Packers defense played better than the offense in 2015. Green Bay, however, was not that good against the run. This was due to a lack of depth on the defensive line and especially among inside linebackers. Although Jake Ryan made some strides as an inside linebacker, there wasn't much talent other than he and Clay Matthews. Since Matthews is being moved to outside linebacker in 2016, the Packers need the return of a healthy Sam Barrington and good play from Ryan and newly drafted Blake Martinez.
On the defensive line, first-round pick Kenny Clark must take B.J. Raji's place as the nose tackle, and other draftees like Dean Lowry must join Mike Daniels and Letroy Guion on the defensive line.
Prospects for Special Teams
Although the Packers greatly improved the play of its special teams in 2015, Tim Masthay had a bad year punting which hurt Green Bay in its field position. After Ty Montgomery was lost for the year with an ankle injury, the Packers had no good kickoff and punt returners. Green Bay hopes that free agent Peter Motrell from Minnesota will challenge Masthay for the role of the punter, and that draft choice Trevor Davis will develop into a kickoff and punt returner. The Packers are confident with Mason Crosby who had an excellent year in 2016 kicking field goals and extra points.
What Green Bay Must Do to Win the NFC North
To win the NFC North Division in 2016, the Packers must have excellent play from its offensive, defensive, and special teams personnel. Head coach McCarthy must handle the offense as well as he did in 2014, and the head defensive and special teams coaches must also do an excellent job. Finally, Green Bay must be fortunate to avoid injuries to its key players.
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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2016 Paul Richard Kuehn