In Week 3 the Cincinnati Bengals will face one of their toughest challenges of the 2017 season when the team heads north to Green Bay, Wisconsin.
There, the Bengals will take on Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, as Green Bay aims to beat Andy Dalton and the Bengals for the first time during the Rodgers-era. The Bengals remain the only team Rodgers has not taken down in the NFL and he’ll be looking to change that while the Bengals look to prevent the milestone from occurring. Only Peyton Manning and Brett Favre have beaten all NFL teams (other than their own).
We spoke with Jason B. Hirschhorn of Acme Packing Co., SB Nation’s Packers blog, to learn about the Packers’ offseason and what we should expect from Green Bay in 2017.
Notable free agent additions: TE Martellus Bennett, TE Lance Kendricks, CB Davon House, DT Ricky Jean Francois, G Jahri Evans, OLB Nick Perry (re-signed)
Notable free agent departures: G T.J. Lang, RB Eddie Lacy, TE Jared Cook, C JC Tretter, DE Julius Peppers, DE Datone Jones, DB Micah Hyde
Draft picks expected to contribute as rookies:
CB Kevin King (round 2, pick 33): King missed OTAs due to the NFL’s dumb rule about school being in session, but he should see time as a rotational player at a minimum. A good training camp would put him in the discussion to start on the boundary.
S/LB Josh Jones (round 2, pick 61): Jones has taken snaps at safety, in the slot, and notably as a nickel/dime linebacker. The big, powerful safety will almost certainly play a part-time role in the box when the Packers line up in sub packages.
OLB Vince Biegel (round 4, pick 108): The lower-drafted of the two Wisconsin pass-rushers (behind T.J. Watt), Biegel comes in a more polished player with a higher floor (but a lower ceiling). He should have opportunities to compete for a significant backup role and for snaps on special teams if he is fully healthy.
RBs Jamaal Williams (round 4, pick 134) and Aaron Jones (round 5, pick 182): Behind Ty Montgomery, the backup jobs are wide open for a large group of rookie tailbacks. As the first two drafted, Williams (BYU) and Jones (UTEP) will get the first and most opportunities. Williams is a physical slasher who has an angry, punishing running style, while Jones is a traditional third-down back with good blocking and better receiving skills.
Biggest offseason addition: Martellus Bennett. Although the Packers lost a good receiving tight end in Cook, Bennett is a bigger, more physical player who is a drastically better blocker. He is the big-bodied, complete tight end that the Packers have lacked for the better part of two decades, and his arrival should allow Mike McCarthy to get more creative with his formations and play-action passing.
Biggest storyline heading into training camp: Ty Montgomery still wearing #88 after his switch to running back. (No, not really.)
Realistically, the top story is in the secondary, where the Packers need to determine the answers for the issues that plagued the cornerbacks group in 2016. Injuries claimed Sam Shields for the whole season and second-year corners Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins for portions of the year, leaving undrafted second-year player LaDarius Gunter as the de facto #1. In 2017, the Packers brought back Davon House after a down year in Jacksonville and drafted Kevin King, while shifting Randall into the slot. Dom Capers and company must hope that this facelift gives the unit a major boost from last season, when the defense finished with the the sixth-highest passer rating allowed to opponents in the NFL.
Under-the-radar storyline heading into training camp: Pass-rush depth
While the corners struggled mightily last season, they weren’t so bad when the front seven got to the quarterback. In fact, no team had a bigger split between their performance with and without pressure in 2016 than the Packers, and a Capers defense will always be reliant on getting to the quarterback.
This year, the starting outside linebackers are Nick Perry and Clay Matthews, both of whom have battled injuries in recent years. Behind them is fourth-year player Jayrone Elliott, who has a couple of highlight-reel plays but who has not yet found consistent playing time, second-year pro Kyler Fackrell, who wore out in the second half of last season, fourth-round rookie Vince Biegel, who is dealing with foot surgery, and a couple of undrafted players. The Packers will need a couple of the young players to step up and help out the veterans, especially since Capers likes to keep his linebackers in a rotation to avoid wearing them down.
Notable injuries heading into training camp:
- OLB Vince Biegel (foot): Biegel had foot surgery after rookie minicamp to finish repairing an injury he suffered as a senior for the Wisconsin Badgers. He is expected to return around the start of training camp.
- C Corey Linsley (ankle): Linsley had surgery in February to fix an issue that affected him all the way back in 2015. He is also expected to return for camp.
- CB Demetri Goodson (knee): Goodson tore multiple knee ligaments in week 8 of last season. He is expected to start the year on the PUP list.
Cincy Jungle: What were the strongest parts of the Packers' offseason?
APC: The Packers made Aaron Rodgers' arsenal a priority this offseason. Since Jermichael Finley's career ended due to a neck injury, the team has lacked a consistent, field-tilting player at the tight end position. Richard Rodgers provided glimpses of competence during his first three years in the NFL, but his speed limitations have kept him from developing into more than a role player. Even Jared Cook, the pass catcher half responsible for the play of last year's postseason, could approximate Finley's impact in one game and completely disappear in others.
Rather than retain Cook on a new deal, Green Bay instead opted to invest their resources in Martellus Bennett, the top tight end on the market and one of the premier players at the position across the league. Bennett doesn't possess the top-end speed of the player he replaces, but his consistency and extensive skill set make him a superior fit for the offense. At least on paper, he provides Rodgers with a reliable target over the middle to reduce the pressure on Jordy Nelson, Davante Adams, and Randall Cobb.
In a less-heralded move, the Packers also signed free-agent tight end Lance Kendricks. Kendricks provides the speed element missing in the wake of Cook's departure as well as a reliable reserve at the position. The tandem of Kendricks with Bennett gives Green Bay its best tight-end duo since Keith Jackson and Mark Chmura.
Cincy Jungle: What were the weakest parts of the team's offseason?
APC: Outside of pass-rusher Nick Perry, the Packers saw all of their top free agents walk this offseason. Eddie Lacy joined the Seattle Seahawks as their likely new lead back, versatile offensive lineman JC Tretter accepted a lucrative offer to take over center duties with the Cleveland Browns, and Datone Jones moved within the NFC North to join the Minnesota Vikings' pass-rush blitzkrieg.
However, the loss of Pro Bowl guard T.J. Lang will hurt Green Bay most. Lang long provided a steadying presence for the offensive line, especially in the wake of Josh Sitton's surprise departure less than a week before the start of the 2016 regular season. With Lang gone, either Don Barclay, Kyle Murphy, or recently signed Jahri Evans will take over at right guard. Even in a best-case scenario, the Packers will endure a significant drop-off in Lang's vacated spot.
Cincy Jungle: What do you think of the Packers' draft class?
APC: The early portions of the draft focused on the Packers' biggest defensive issues. Kevin King, the lengthy and uber-athletic cover man from Washington, appears set to become a Day 1 contributor in the secondary. Given that Green Bay faces off against Julio Jones, A.J. Green and Dez Bryant over the first five weeks of the season, King's arrival could go a long way towards resolving one of the worst pass defenses in the league from last season.
Second-round pick Josh Jones could also play a significant role as a rookie. While a safety in name, the Packers appear more interested in using him as a de facto linebacker. In recent years, the defense has relied on Joe Thomas to cover tight ends and slot receivers. Jones should provide a significant upgrade over Thomas, at least in theory.
A significant portion of the draft also addressed the running back position. Ty Montgomery remains the starter after showing promise in 2016, but should he falter the Packers have three intriguing rookies -- Jamaal Williams, Aaron Jones, and Devante Mays -- waiting in the wings. Not all three can realistically make the team, but one or more should carve out a niche in the offense.
Cincy Jungle: What are your expectations for the team this year?
APC: The Packers remain a title contender entering 2017. Rodgers comes off a strong year in which he garnered MVP consideration, and the offensive supporting cast around him gained more than it lost during the offseason. The defense must re-establish itself as a viable unit, but the influx of talent provides reason for optimism.
And while many teams have dealt with changes in the coaching staff, Mike McCarthy's staff remains almost unchanged. Some fans complain about the amount of deference McCarthy has given to defensive coordinator Dom Capers, but given that the Packers have qualified for the postseason in each of the last eight years, the continuity makes sense.
Cincy Jungle: What's the strongest position group on the roster?
APC: The Packers' receiving corps ranks as the deepest position group on the team and one of the best in the league. Jordy Nelson garners the most attention, and rightfully so. Davante Adams finished last season tied for the second most touchdown receptions in the league while Cobb proved his worth during a three-touchdown playoff performance against the Giants.
But the group extends beyond the starters. Wideout Geronimo Allison has starter's potential and 2016 draft pick Trevor Davis offers elite speed. Rookie DeAngelo Yancey fits the mold Green Bay prefers at split end while seventh-round pick Malachi Dupre has a much higher ceiling than his draft status suggests. If any miss the final cut come September, they should end up on another roster in short order.
Cincy Jungle: How about weakest position group?
APC: Barring meaningful development from multiple players, the Packers still lack quality down-to-down performers among the off-ball linebackers. Jake Ryan and Blake Martinez expect to see most of the action, and while Ryan played the run well last season, opposing offenses have exposed his deficiencies in pass coverage. Meanwhile, Martinez's play took a nosedive after a decent start in 2016. He has to fend off competition in order to remain a starter in the base defense this year.