Wondering if and how your NFL team can make the playoffs in the coming season? Adam Rank and Marc Sessler have you covered in this ongoing series, as they provide five reasons why each of the league’s 32 teams will make an appearance in the 2018 postseason. Today, Sessler examines the Green Bay Packers.
1) Let’s start with the most obvious reason of all
The grand return of Aaron Rodgers.
Take last season and whip it into the circular file. The Packers were dead men walking without their supremely talented rainmaker of a quarterback.
Lost for the bulk of Green Bay’s schedule with a broken right collarbone, Rodgers made it back in time for a critical start against the Panthers in Week 15. The Packers lost that game and sent their star quarterback back to injured reserve, a move that compelled a handful of teams to call for his release, arguing the move violated league rules.
Nice try, but no dice.
Rodgers rolled through OTAs as a fully operational signal-caller set to hit camp with a clean bill of health. It’s concerning how the rest of the roster fell to pieces with a messy Brett Hundley taking over last season, but that only shows what Rodgers does for this team on a weekly basis.
Alongside Tom Brady, Rodgers has spent the prime of his career teaching a master class in pre-snap artistry, field vision, footwork, level-above-human throwing ability and last-minute magic-spinning. If he was miffed about the release of wideout Jordy Nelson and quarterbacks aide Alex Van Pelt, an impending new contract — making him the richest passer on Earth — should help.
2) Bye-bye, Dom Capers. Hello, Mike Pettine
Packers fans have endured their share of soul-flatting playoff losses, a rash of January meltdowns that so often included one troubling, consistent image: the sight of defensive play-caller Dom Capers, up in the booth, staring down at a Green Bay unit refusing to get the job done. Season after season, rinse and repeat.
Today, the unkillable Capers is gone, replaced by former Jets defensive coordinator and Browns head coach Mike Pettine. He’s quickly “proved to be a popular hire among the veteran players,” per ESPN’s Rob Demovsky, while playing a key role in adding free-agent defensive behemoth Muhammad Wilkerson.
Pettine spent the past two seasons away from football. He was determined to find the right fit, and he told me in 2016 that it was incredibly helpful to gain a “30,000-foot view of the league,” saying he was “exposed to more ideas and what’s working and what’s not working. And you also get a better sense of the personnel around the league.”
Pettine brings much-needed change to a defensive staff that sorely needed new ideas.
3) New-look front office
If Pettine’s arrival is a breath of fresh air, the same can be said of a front-office shift that saw Brian Gutekunst replace Ted Thompson as general manager.
Thompson deserves credit for plenty of wins over the years, but Gutekunst has broken free from his mentor to embrace a more aggressive approach to team-building. While Thompson shunned free agency with zeal, Gutekunst gave Pettine a system-friendly player in Wilkerson and rebuilt the tight end roster with free-agent adds Jimmy Graham and Marcedes Lewis. It remains to be seen what Graham has left — his yards per catch dipped from 14.2 in 2016 to 9.1 last season — but there’s plenty to like about pairing this big-bodied playmaker with Rodgers.
Would Graham be here if Thompson were in charge?
4) A rookie class built off speed
Gutekunst gifted Pettine with more than just Wilkerson, using Green Bay’s first two picks in the 2018 NFL Draft on cornerbacks. First-rounder Jaire Alexander brings 4.38 wheels and a reputation for rugged on-field confidence to the position. He has a shot to start immediately on the outside across from second-year corner Kevin King. Second-rounder Josh Jackson isn’t as quick, but he led the NCAA in picks and pass breakups in 2017. These young hopefuls join free-agent additions Davon House and Tramon Williams.
Some were surprised to see the Packers part ways with Jordy Nelson, but his speed was an issue last season. Green Bay’s wideout room looks different after adding rookie deep threat J’Mon Moore in the fourth round. He struggled with drops in college, but he should fit nicely with Davante Adams, Randall Cobb and third-year man Geronimo Allison. The Packers added additional burst with sixth-rounder Equanimeous St. Brown — clocked at 4.48 — after grabbing fifth-rounder Marquez Valdes-Scantling, who ran a daunting 4.37. We’ll find out if any of these new faces can play, but the draft brought much-needed juice.
Gutekunst also picked up an additional 2019 first-rounder from New Orleans after moving down from No. 14 to No. 27 (before jumping back up to grab Alexander), a swap that sets the Packers up nicely next offseason.
5) Intriguing backfield depth
It’s unclear how Green Bay plans to rush the quarterback beyond established pass-rushers Clay Matthews and Nick Perry. The offensive line raises questions, too, but I like what the Packers have at running back.
Jamaal Williams and Aaron Jones give the team a pair of second-year players who showed promise as rookies. Ty Montgomery is coming off an injury-plagued season and might be headed for the lightest workload of the three, but not while Jones serves a two-game suspension to open the year for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy.
This backfield looks like a car crash for fantasy heads, but not in the real world. Head coach Mike McCarthy has hinted at a committee approach that could wind up looking somewhat Saints-like, saying: “We feel like we’ve got three guys that have all done it, but they haven’t done it over a long period of time, so I think it’s just practical thinking from that position and realizing that it’s a very demanding position.”
Rodgers will do the rest.
Follow Marc Sessler on Twitter @MarcSesslerNFL.