It’s that time of year, when some NFL teams have started looking toward next season. As each club is eliminated, The Ringer will examine what went right, what went wrong, and where the franchise could go from here. Up next are the Green Bay Packers, who were eliminated from postseason contention on Sunday after losing to the Chicago Bears, 24-17.
What Went Right
Aaron Rodgers nearly completed the fourth Hail Mary of his career on Sunday, so this team still has some sway upstairs. Rodgers set the NFL record for attempts without an interception (402) and has just two interceptions on 537 pass attempts this year. Even at the tail end of his prime, Rodgers has a level of control over the game that few have ever possessed. Don’t listen to the people saying he has lost his magic.
The Packers have surrounded Rodgers with young talent on both sides of the ball. The team may have continued its streak of finding gems at receiver with Geronimo Allison, who looked like a capable tertiary option before landing on IR with a groin injury, and rookie receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling developed a rapport with Rodgers quickly after Allison went down. Running back Aaron Jones (finally) emerged in the second half of the season as the most talented Packers running back in years, though he left with a knee injury in the first quarter on Sunday. Green Bay’s offensive line, bolstered by perhaps the best left tackle in the league in David Bakhtiari, entered Week 15 fifth in adjusted line yards in run blocking.
After nine years of ups and downs under defensive coordinator Dom Capers (he oversaw two top-five pass defenses and two bottom-two pass defenses), Green Bay replaced him in 2018 with Mike Pettine, who revitalized the unit more than its 25th DVOA rating would indicate (the team is tied for fifth in sacks through 14 weeks). Third-year linebacker Blake Martinez has been a stud, and first-round cornerback Jaire Alexander has had no trouble adapting the NFL’s physicality.
#Packers Jaire Alexander For President— Steve Frederick (@_SteveFrederick) November 26, 2018
Blows up the screen pass by blocking Thielen into Diggs AND makes the Tackle For Loss. pic.twitter.com/JmRVV59gQQ
Beyond Rodgers, Green Bay’s key contributors are young, cheap, and ahead of the curve.
What Went Wrong
Green Bay failed to make the playoffs in a season where Rodgers was healthy for the first time since he took over as the starter. Head coach Mike McCarthy already paid the price and was fired for failing to adapt to the times (though he did more than he gets credit for) and maximize perhaps the most gifted quarterback in NFL history. Firing the quarterback coach without consulting said quarterback was likely a mistake. Yet plenty went wrong beyond just McCarthy. The defense suffered a rash of injuries as linebacker Nick Perry, defensive linemen Muhammad Wilkerson and Mike Daniels, and defensive backs Davon House and Kevin King all landed on injured reserve.
The front office is not blameless. The Jimmy Graham signing looks like a misfire: Graham has been a shell of himself, providing neither athleticism over the middle nor his usual catch radius on jump balls. Still, Green Bay had plenty of strong individual performers but failed to turn them into a successful season. The Packers’ whole was far less than the sum of its parts, which is bad coaching in a nutshell. The chance to coach Rodgers should make Green Bay one of the most coveted football coaching gigs of the 21st century. The list of potential candidates is long (and likely will involve interviews with University of Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley and New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels), but whoever gets the job will need to maximize Rodgers (i.e., win a Super Bowl). There’s no other acceptable outcome for someone of Rodger’s stature.
After making Rodgers the highest-paid football player ever with a four-year deal worth as much as $134 million with $98.7 million guaranteed, Green Bay has just under $40 million in projected cap space in 2019 according to Spotrac. That is almost exactly the league median, and it’s unclear how Green Bay will spend it. Under old GM Ted Thompson, the team prioritized keeping in-house talent rather than building through free agency. New GM Brian Gutekunst, who replaced Thompson in January, reversed course this past offseason and signed big-name free agents like Graham and Muhammad Wilkerson. Whether Gutekunst doubles down on that strategy or returns to focusing on building through the draft is the main question this offseason, as the team must decide whether it will retain pass rusher Clay Matthews, receiver Randall Cobb, and Davon House. If Matthews is willing to take a hometown discount, he’ll likely be welcomed back. But Matthews will be 33 in May, and it wouldn’t be shocking to see him leave after receiver Jordy Nelson was shown the door last year.
Cutting Nelson was seen as a precursor for a Cobb extension, but instead the team drafted Valdes-Scantling and Equanimeous St. Brown (football’s Lonzo Ball), and Cobb could be considered expendable as well, especially if he finds a richer deal elsewhere.
Wilkerson is also a free agent this year after signing a one-year deal last offseason, but that “prove it” deal ended with him on IR, so his price may be even lower than the $5 million he signed for in March.
The Packers have two first-round draft picks in 2019 after acquiring New Orleans’s last year when the Saints moved up for UTSA pass rusher Marcus Davenport. That first pick might be in the top 10, while their second one might be at the end of the first round. This year’s draft is loaded with defensive linemen, and the Packers could acquire a pass rusher to replace Matthews (perhaps Clemson’s Clelin Ferrell or Kentucky’s Josh Allen—yes, there’s a second Josh Allen), or grab a clogger on the interior to pair with Mike Daniels (Clemson’s Dexter Lawrence, Michigan’s Rashan Gary), or take Alabama safety Deionte Thompson to replace their former Alabama safety whom they traded away in October (Ha Ha Clinton-Dix).