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Monday, March 28, 2005

Packers Pre-Draft Update

by Mark Lawrence
PackerChatters Staff

The Packers have had a very exciting, if perhaps less than inspiring off-season. The first major change was to relieve GM/HC Mike Sherman of his GM responsibilities, and bring in Ted Thompson from Seattle. Ted has worked for years under Ron Wolf as a scout, and for more years under Mike Holmgren as head of scouting. He brings to the Packers a new look at drafting and team building.

We have seen little of Thompson's actions in Green Bay, and it's unclear exactly which Seattle acquisitions were his primary responsibility, so making detailed predictions at this point would be speculative at best. None the less we have seen enough to make some things clear. Thompson clearly is of the belief that you assign values to positions and to players, and you must not overpay for either. Because of this belief, Green Bay was relieved within two days of the start of free agency of our top three FAs: offensive guards Mike Wahle and Marco Rivera, and free safety Darren Sharper.

Mike Wahle is a 28 year old high energy very physical and athletic guard. His ability to pull and block in space was a key to the Packer's sweeps and screens. There is little question in my mind that he is one of the top few guards in the NFL. However, Carolina was willing to pay him like a tackle - $11.5M signing bonus, $27M over 5 years. Although I think Wahle is a special player and was a fantastic contributor to Green Bay's offense, I also think this contract is completely out of line for a guard and I support Thompson's unwillingness to compete at this financial level.

Marco Rivera is a 32 year old guard with a history of knee problems, and a history of playing through any imaginable pain. However, while Rivera was and is a model warrior, it's unclear that he can maintain his performance in the face of his body's deterioration. Rivera signed with Dallas for $19M over 5 years. Again, while I have only the highest regards for Rivera and his play, I think again this contract is excessive for a guard and I support Thompson's decision to not bid at this level.

Darren Sharper is a playmaker, but he has never been a particularly reliable safety. In the last two years he has been injured for much of the time, and appears to have lost a step. While his ball-hawking skills are superb, as demonstrated by the large numbers of interceptions he grabs every year, he seems to get lost in coverage all too often and seems to be to have been a liability in pass protection at least as often as he was an asset. Sharper was scheduled to make a completely unrealistic $8M this year, and refused (wisely, as it turns out) to agree to a more realistic $2M / year. He was snapped up by Minnesota in a rather ironic move: Sharper's greatest value to the Packers over the years has been his almost unique ability to play Randy Moss over the top and limit his otherwise back-breaking game. Moss, however, has been traded by Minnesota to Oakland and will more or less not appear in our division again. So, in my opinion, Minnesota got a slowing, arguably injury-prone unreliable playmaker whose most impressive skill is playing an ex-viking. For this they gave a $4M signing bonus and $14M over 4 years. Again, too rich for my blood, and apparently for Thompson's too.

Finally, in a move worthy of a Salvador Dali painting, San Diego signed the Packer's backup safety Bhawoh Jue to a three-year, $4.5 million deal that included a $1.5 million signing bonus. While Jue is a relatively physically gifted back, his unreliability in coverage and inability to deliver the big hit made it difficult for him to work into a starting position even in the Packers depleted secondary. Some speculate that Jue was signed due to his familiarity with Moss, as San Diego will now be facing Randy twice a year. If this is the case, all us Packers fans can say is that Jue certainly is deeply familiar with Moss, or at least with the back of Moss' jersey.

On the FA signing front, the Packers have been notably quiet. They have signed a pair of second-level guards. First, Thompson signed the Patriot's former second-round pick Adrian Klemm. Klemm is a very athletic tackle/guard who has been injured for most of the last two years. If he can stay healthy, this signing will look like genius. If he cannot, his contract, $2.6M for 2 years including $800k signing bonus, is such that cutting him will do minimal cap damage. The projected cap for '05 is about $85M. When divided by 54 players, this works out to about $1.6M per player per year. So Klemm's $1.3 cap number is less than the average player makes. Next, the Packers signed 33 year old Matt O'Dwyer. O'Dwyer is an excellent journeyman guard, and while he's probably not a long-term solution, he will almost certainly play well for a year. He signed for the veteran minimum of $765K, with a cap cost of $455k due to the veteran exemption. When you include existing Packers Grey Ruegamer, Kevin Barry and Steve Morley, it seems to me the outlook for fielding five good offensive linemen is pretty good. Perhaps we will not have on of the top three offensive lines in the NFL this year, and perhaps it will prove to suit our new guards abilities to do more straight ahead blocking like Pittsburgh and less pulling, countering, sweeps and traps like '03 and '04, but I think we'll do just fine.

Former GM Mike Sherman was in the habit of drafting for talent and upside, without much regard for immediate ability to start and contribute. This has left GM Thompson with a roster filled with under-developed speed at defensive back - if 40 yard times equated directly to coverage ability, the Packers would have probably the best secondary in the NFL ever. However, these speedy youngsters spend the last year injured, confused, and generally running around like super-sonic chickens with their heads cut off.

The source of this confusion is currently thought to be ex-coordinator Bob Slowik and defensive back coach Kurt Schottenheimer. They were promptly relieved of their positions at the end of the season, and replaced by Miami coordinator Jim Bates and about half of his staff. Rumors coming out of Lambeau field would have us believe that Thompson and Bates are impressed by much of the talent in the Green Bay defensive, and believe improved coaching and schemes will lead to a perfectly adequate defense.

At this point, Green Bay has several critical holes left to fill in their defense. Mike Barnett, drafted to be a linebacker, seems to many to be undersized and out of place playing in the middle and stopping runs. It is thought by many that Thompson will look to draft or acquire a larger MLB and move Barnett to the outside.

Green Bay currently has no safeties on the roster who have ever started a game in the NFL. Last year, Thompson's previous team, the Seahawks, started two rookies at safety. As questionable as this may seem, I see no sign that the performance they got out of their rookies was any less impressive than the performance we got out of our more experienced safeties. In any case, I think it's rather obvious that we'll be drafting at least one safety with the intention of starting him immediately.

Edge rusher KGB has lived for several years now with non-stop double teams, and this has had a profound negative impact on his play. It has been clear for these several years that Green Bay needs a complimentary edge rusher coming from the other side. However, all attempts at acquiring such a player in either the draft, free agency, or trades have met with complete and ignominious failure. The hall of shame for includes the #10 overall draft pick Jamal Reynolds, who never showed the ability to play in the NFL; expensive and fragile free agent Joe Johnson, who never showed the ability to play in Green Bay, and pre-draft trade R-Kal Trulock, who never seemed to catch on to a defensive scheme that, well, frankly, no one seemed to catch on to. It seems drafting or acquiring a speedy DE will be a priority.

Finally, the Packers have proven quite weak at the nose guard position. Free agent Grady Jackson has proven to be a very adequate nose tackle, but when he was injured last year the Packers promptly lost the next four games in a row, giving up rushing numbers that would look reasonable if the '92 Cowboys were playing St.Norbert's college. If you've never heard of St.Norbert's college, that's ok, you still get my point. The Packers have several other tackles on the roster including super-under-achiever Cleditus Hunt, but none of these alternatives was able to fill in for Grady in any meaningful fashion. Jackson, meanwhile, has expressed great dissatisfaction with the fact the he has proven key to the Packer's defense, yet has no long-term contract and is paid enormously less than aforementioned Hunt. It seems getting an athletic 330 pounder that can provide a push up the middle is also a Packers priority.

So, the Packers seem to be in a position where they need a minimum of four new defensive starters: a LB, two safeties, and a DE. Additionally, it seems critical to address the depth at the DT position. It does not seem realistic to think that all these starters can be found in a single draft. So, it would seem that the Packers will have to continue to watch the waiver wire, and hope that the June cuts yield some better choices than the February free agent market had. Additionally, it will be key to the Packer's defense to get their four young DBs - Ahmad Carroll, Chris Johnson, Joey Thomas and Jason Horton - up to speed and playing reliably in the new defensive scheme.

The good news in all this: the Packers' defensive players played so poorly compared to their talent level that it seems impossible that they could do anything but improve.

The bad news: there is a lot of room for improvement.

Next up: the NFL draft, and Ted Thompson's first chance to make a real mark on the Packers.

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