Despite a disappointing 8-7-1 record in 2013, the Green Bay Packers clinched the NFC North and hosted the San Francisco 49ers in the first round of the playoffs. Injuries ravaged this team last year with Aaron Rodgers, Randall Cobb, Jermichael Finely, Bryan Bulaga, Clay Matthews, and Casey Hayward all missing significant amounts of time.
The Packers usually don’t make any noise in free agency, but GM Ted Thompson made an uncharacteristically huge splash this year by signing 12-year veteran Julius Peppers to a three-year deal worth up to $30 million. Accompanied by the signing of B.J. Raji to a “show me” 1-year deal, the Packers have already addressed what many believe to be their biggest need, defensive line (ranked 25th in run defense in 2013).
With free agency essentially over and the 2014 NFL Draft less than a month away, the draft priorities for the Packers are pretty clear. Here are the top needs for the Packers going into next month’s draft:
Last year the Packers gave M.D. Jennings the chance to prove himself at free safety, but with zero interceptions and only one pass defended; it was evident that Jennings was not the answer. Both Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Calvin Pryor have shot up the draft boards and it doesn’t appear that either will be available at 21, the Packers’ first pick.
In the off chance that both Clinton-Dix and Pryor are available, I give the nod to Pryor. Clinton-Dix benefited tremendously from playing alongside a number of future NFL draftees on the Alabama defense, leading to quite of few plays where the ball just happened to fall into his hands. On the other hand, Pryor led an unsung Louisville defense to the 6th ranked pass defense in the nation.
In the likelihood that both Clinton-Dix and Pryor are off the board, the next best option is Jimmie Ward from Northern Illinois. Ward, at 5-foot-11, isn’t as big as some of the other safeties in the draft, but with a strong showing in the Senior Bowl, Ward’s stock has been on the rise. Ward played strong safety in college, but proved that he was a playmaker and that he could cover bigger tight ends and receivers with 7 interceptions in his senior season.
Regardless of what the Packers do in the draft, Thompson and head coach Mike McCarthy plan to give Micah Hyde a chance to work at safety in the offseason after showing that he could be a contributor last year.
In Dom Capers’ 3-4 scheme, inside linebacker is a position of much importance and intrigue for the Green Bay Packers. A.J. Hawk was good, but not great and Brad Jones was practically invisible at times while being hampered by a bad hamstring during the second half of the season.
C.J. Mosley is by far the most athletic and physically gifted ILB in the draft – something lacking in both Hawk and Jones. If the Packers don’t snag Mosley with their first pick, they can find a solid player right down the road in Madison with the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year in Chris Borland. At 5-foot-11, Borland isn’t the most imposing figure at middle linebacker, but he sure was one of the most effective, recording 420 tackles during his five seasons at Wisconsin.
When Jermichael Finley went down in October with a gruesome neck injury, Andrew Quarless was left to fill some big shoes. Quarless is an above average run blocker, but is by no means considered a No.1 tight end. Eric Ebron, the top tight end prospect out of North Carolina, is expected to go in the top 15. That leaves a slew of tight ends expected to go anywhere between the 1st and 3rd rounds.
Jace Amaro out of Texas Tech is 6-foot-5 and possesses freakish athleticism. Amaro was used primarily our of the slot in college and really needs to put in work to become a better blocker, but with James Jones leaving in free agency to the Oakland Raiders, Rodgers could certainly use another red zone target in Amaro.
From 1993 until 2012, the Packers had a total of three starting quarterbacks. In 2013 alone, the Packers had four. After Rodgers went down with a broken collarbone in Week 9, the Packers struggled mightily down the stretch with a record of 3-4-1. In order to avoid another Seneca Wallace/Scott Tolzien/Matt Flynn debacle, expect the Packers to take a quarterback on Day 3.
Bottom line: This team is better than 8-7-1. Actually, they’re much better. They should be the favorites to win the NFC North and compete for the NFC title. The Packers don’t need an overhaul; they just need to sure up a few loose ends.