Green Bay Packers 2019: Return to January?

Green Bay Packers 2019: Return to January?
Green Bay Packers 2019: Return to January?

Green Bay Packers Stats From 2018

Record: 6-9-1

Pythagorean Wins: 7.4

ATS: 6-10; average line -2.4

Over/Under: 8-8; average total 48.0

Close Games Record: 3-6-1

Turnover Differential: 0.0

Offense: 11th in EPA per play (+0.07);  5.8 yards per play

Defense:  22nd in EPA per play (+0.07);  5.7 yards per play

Bye, bye, Mike McCarthy!

It finally happened: Mike McCarthy got fired after a disastrous home loss against the Arizona Cardinals when the Green Bay Packers were 4-7-1. All reports indicated that Aaron Rodgers and McCarthy had a destroyed relationship. McCarthy might have been an outstanding offensive coach in early years, but he couldn’t adapt his offense while the league has been evolving. There were reports that Rodgers called many audibles because he didn’t like McCarthy’s play calls.

Aaron Rodgers didn’t play like a consistent top-five quarterback over the past four years, and that shouldn’t be a discussion. It was part McCarthy’s static scheme, part a lack of quality wide receiver play but also Rodgers himself. It didn’t help that he played with an injured knee and a tibial plateau fracture since week one last year. The combination sets up for failure.

Fun fact: despite all the struggles and Rodgers’ injury, the Packers offense were 9th in offensive expected points added per play through 16 weeks with Aaron Rodgers as the starter. They went pass-heavy on early downs, which is +EV, but they didn’t use their excellent run game enough in situations where you should use it. Often the Packers called a pass on third and short that resulted in a lousy result instead of getting an easy first down by running with the second-most efficient run game, as measured by EPA.

The defense couldn’t produce a consistent pass rush, and the young secondary played with two rookies at the cornerback positions. The Packers had some bad luck, for instance going 3-6-1 in close games. Their Pythagorean win expectation was 7.4 wins, and they could have gone 7-9 or 8-8 despite all the off-field issues.

Welcome, Matt LaFleur!

The 39-year-old Matt LaFleur will be a rookie head coach for the Cheeseheads in 2019 and also call offensive plays. As a Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay disciple, Matt LaFleur showed two faces as a first-year play-caller at Tennessee last year. First, the positive side: As Ted Nguyen has beautifully broken down for The Athletic, LaFleur showed a lot of the Shanahan/McVay principles at Tennessee last year.

Many plays have led to success in the past. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Marcus Mariota had the third-highest expected completion percentage. The staple is the outside-zone run scheme with married play-action passes. Play-action is a cheat code in this league. The Packers used play-action 20 percent of the time last year, 27th in the league. The Titans used it on 29 percent of their passes, good for 6th overall.

 

There were two reasons why LaFleur’s offense failed last year. One, he didn’t have a talented attack. Marcus Mariota was injured, and it’s still up in the air whether he gets a big contract. Secondly, his situational play-calling was one of the worst in the entire NFL. It was too run-heavy and too predictive. For instance: on 1st & 10 outside of the red zone, LaFleur called 59 percent runs, despite averaging four (!) yards per play more through the air in that situation. Their 8.6 yards per passing play on 1st & 10 ranked 9th in the NFL. In Green Bay, LaFleur will have a better offensive line and a better QB. His situational play-calling can only improve from now on.

Aaron Rodgers – Return to Greatness?

There are some certainty and some uncertainty. We know that Aaron Rodgers is one of the most talented quarterbacks in the history of the NFL. He just hasn’t been showing that consistently over the past years. We also know that Green Bay is returning four starters from an offensive line that graded as the best pass-blocking unit in 2018, by Pro Football Focus. The next thing we know is that Matt LaFleur will install a McVay/Shanahan style offense with an outside-zone run scheme and a lot of play-action. And one priority is being unpredictable:

“We also want to create what we call an illusion of complexity. Meaning we are going to run the same concepts but how many ways can we run them? Whether it’s out of 11 personnel, 12 personnel 13 personnel. Just to maybe make it look a little more difficult to the defense.”

But there are three things we don’t know: will Aaron Rodgers be fully committed and buy into LaFleur’s offense and will their relationship work? At age 35, Rodgers doesn’t have many years left to work on his legacy. Will Matt LaFleur improve his play-calling tendencies? And will the young receivers step up and progress throughout the season? If Aaron Rodgers buys into LaFleur’s system and you can answer one of the latter two questions with “yes,” we could see the Packers offense at the top of the league. Aaron Rodgers *can* return to greatness in this setup.

Young Guys Catching Passes

We don’t need to lose too many words about the offensive line. Left tackle David Bakhtiari might be the best pass-blocking tackle in the league, Bryan Bulaga isn’t much worse either. Corey Linsley is a stud at center. The guard positions are the two question marks, but that was the case in 2018 as well. Lane Taylor should get the starting gig at left guard while second-round rookie Elgton Jenkins might battle with free-agent acquisition Billy Turner for the right guard spot.

The guard positions are not as exciting as the core of Bakhtiari, Bulaga, and Linsley. An underrated loss might be new Browns coach James Campen who has coached the Packers offensive line for over a decade. New OL coach Adam Stenavich spent the last two years with the 49ers and collected some experience in the outside-zone scheme.

Green Bay Packers Offensive Depth Chart Projection
Green Bay Packers Offensive Depth Chart Projection

Davante Adams has turned into a premium wide receiver, but many guys in the depth chart are still very young. Second-year players Marquez Valdes-Scantling (“MVS”) and EQ St. Brown occasionally flashed last year while MVS saw a lot more snaps – he had 73 targets in his rookie season. Both averaged over 15 yards per reception.

St. Brown has all the physical tools to be a quality wide receiver in the NFL. If both make a step forward, it will be significant for the Green Bay Packers. MVS and Geronimo Allison are likely to start next to Adams. J’Mon Moore and Jake Kumerov are in the rotation as well.

It’s no secret that Jimmy Graham has probably lost a small step. He’s also 32 years old. But he is coming off an 89-target season with 55 receptions for 636 yards. That 11.6 yards per reception was close from his career average of 12.2. Rookie Jace Sternberger will likely need some time to adjust to the NFL. I expect LaFleur to make full use of the running backs, especially Aaron Jones. Fullback Dan Vitale might also see his fair share of targets.

What’s in Store for the Defense?

The Green Bay Packers will feature an improved defense this year; anything else would be false to predict. The interior defensive line with Mike Daniels and Kenny Clark is top-notch. With Preston Smith, Za’Darius Smith and rookie Rashan Gary, the Packers boosted their edge rush. The Cheeseheads overpaid for the two Smiths, but it’s probably a significant improvement over last year. Gary is still raw and needs time to develop to rush the passer from the outside. Za’Darius Smith can also excel at rushing from the interior. I would expect the depth chart below on earlier downs and Za’Darius lining up inside with Gary on the outside on obvious passing downs. Kyler Fackrell had 10.5 sacks last year but was underwhelming on a play-to-play basis.

Green Bay Packers Defensive Depth Chart Projection
Green Bay Packers Defensive Depth Chart Projection

Blake Martinez has developed into a good linebacker at the pro level, and his PFF coverage grade was superb last year. Oren Burks is a second-year athletic player who needs to take the next step as soon as possible. I don’t know how the rotation at LB is going to look. DC Mike Pettine might also use three safeties a lot.

Last year’s rookie cornerbacks Josh Jackson and Jaire Alexander had solid seasons. I’m not quite sure how Pettine is going to line this group up. Jaire Alexander is naturally more of a slot guy, but he played 500 snaps on the outside last year, probably because of a lack of depth. Kevin King only played 15 games the past two seasons and at 6’3″ I would expect him to play outside with Alexander in the slot.

Rookie strong safety Darnell Savage got the ‘playmaker’ label by draft pundits. He planned to play near the line of scrimmage with excellent tackling skills and instincts. Adrian Amos comes over from Chicago and might play a hybrid role between playing centerfield and dropping down in three-safety sets with Tramon Williams checking in. Improved pass rush, slightly improved secondary – Mike Pettine has a bigger arsenal of weapons.

2019 Schedule

The Green Bay Packers have the advantage of a third-place schedule, playing against Carolina and at San Francisco (after their bye week) within the NFC instead of the Rams or New Orleans. The NFC East seems like the most comfortable division to face, with games against Eli Manning (or Daniel Jones) and Dwayne Haskins (or Case Keenum). In inter-conference matchups, Green Bay is going to face the Chiefs at Arrowhead and the Chargers on the road, too. But they also have two home games against Joe Flacco and Derek Carr. Vic Fangio might play a role in that matchup. And the home-field advantage for the Bolts is almost non-existing.

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The NFC North is not a cake-walk. There are going to be four exciting matchups against the Vikings and Bears while Aaron Rodgers and company should match up well with Detroit. According to Pinnacle win totals, the Packers will play the 19th-hardest program in the league which fits the eye test when looking at their schedule.

Green Bay Packers 2019: Return to January?

The Packers have some positive regression going for them. Aaron Rodgers is healthy, and he’s going to play in a quarterback-friendly scheme with better play designs and more play-action. The offensive line is returning four starters. Young receivers like EQ St. Brown and Marquez Valdez-Scantling could take a step forward.

Even if Matt LaFleur doesn’t improve on his play-calling tendencies at all, he will have a better quarterback to execute it. But in his second year, we should expect some improvement. The defense improved its pass rush and looked to have an improved secondary as well. The schedule isn’t a neck breaker, either. Everything points in the right direction. We need to figure out whether the Rodgers-LaFleur connection works.

If Rodgers buys into Matt LaFleur, this could be one of the best offenses in the league next year. Despite all the struggles, they went 10-10-1 with a +25 point differential in full games with AR since 2017. In my opinion, the floor with a healthy Rodgers is 8-8, and we should go from there. If the offense is clicking, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Packers march into the playoffs comfortably. But there is still some uncertainty involved. The regular-season win total sits at 9.5 with an under tendency at -148. That makes it a right 9.1. I lean towards an overplay at 9. I think this is a 9-7 team with upside – I’m certainly a bit higher on the Cheeseheads than the betting markets.

This team preview will hopefully provide you with a lot of information. But it doesn’t replace your weekly handicapping/pricing process. It’s your job to price all 32 NFL teams and situations accurately weekly. 

 

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