Aaron Rodgers (USA Today Sports Images)
Aaron Rodgers (USA Today Sports Images)
GREEN BAY PACKERS
2013 record: 8-7-1
Projected current salary-cap space (according to OverTheCap.com): $32.2 million under the cap
Possible salary-cap casualties: LB A.J. Hawk.
Draft situation: The Packers will draft 21st in the first round and own all their original picks.
Revisiting 2013: Even though the Packers lost two of three to open the season, they appeared to be right where everyone imagined they'd be — NFC North favorites — when the Chicago Bears came to town in Week 9 for a Monday night game at Lambeau. That's when one hit changed the season. The Bears' Shea McClellin came down hard on Aaron Rodgers, who suffered a broken collarbone and missed the following seven games. Including the Bears loss, the Packers went 2-5-1 (with a bizarre tie to the lowly Minnesota Vikings, and four of the five losses to non-playoff teams) while patching the quarterback spot with Seneca Wallace, Scott Tolzien and Matt Flynn with wildly inconsistent results. But putting on his hero cap, Rodgers returned to face the Bears in Week 17 with the North on the line, and he hit Randall Cobb — also back after missing a huge chunk of the season — for the game-winning score in the final minute. The division was theirs, but they lost in a thrilling game at Lambeau the following week to the arch-rival San Francisco 49ers, who ended their 2012 season and also started out 2013 with a loss.
Glaring hole to fill: If you were to triage the Packers' defensive needs, you could say they must find defensive linemen (plural), safeties (plural) and at least one linebacker, but really, it could be in almost any order. Those positions all must be addressed, with the versatile Neal, Pickett and Raji and also Shields due to hit free agency. But even if they were to re-sign all of them, which the Packers will not, they still would have holes on that side. Offensively creative and powerful teams such as the the Cincinnati Bengals and 49ers had their way with this group, which allowed at least 27 points in nine of the final 10 regular-season games.
Toughest decision: Would GM Ted Thompson really let Dietrich-Smith walk? Rodgers has campaigned for his center, who turned in a strong 2013 season, to stick around. But the word around the Packers is that they want to get bigger up front, and EDS is on the lighter side at 308 pounds. Plus, it's a center market that could be very top-heavy with the contract extension recently signed by the Eagles' Jason Kelce ($13 million guaranteed) and free-agent-to-be Alex Mack of the Cleveland Browns, who could go north of that with his next deal. The Packers generally are conservative when it comes to situations such as this and might not get into a bidding war with, say, the New York Giants, who are moving on from their center, David Baas, and — oh, by the way — whose new offensive coordinator, Ben McAdoo, just happens to have come from Green Bay. Rodgers might not be happy if Dietrich-Smith left, and there's no plug-and-play replacement currently on the roster, it doesn't appear.
Best-case offseason scenario: The Packers are certain to retain some of their key in-house pieces, and they'll spend close to the cap on a few exterior purchases for the first time in recent memory, perhaps adding a veteran pass rusher (Seattle's Chris Clemons, if he's cut?) and a workmanlike defensive lineman who can handle playing multiple techniques. They also will want to hone in on some active, fast-flowing back-seven players who can be around the ball more and force turnovers, and it's possible that a talented player who fits that mold will fall to them at 21 in the draft. Thompson won't be as active as most Packers fans want, and the Packers will watch a few good players walk, but overall, the team should be geared up for another playoff run next season with a healthy Rodgers.
Previous Blueprints: 32. Houston Texans; 31. Washington Redskins; 30. Jacksonville Jaguars; 29. Cleveland Browns; 28. Oakland Raiders; 27. Atlanta Falcons; 26. Tampa Bay Buccaneers; 25. Minnesota Vikings; 24. Buffalo Bills; 23. Detroit Lions; 22. Tennessee Titans; 21. New York Giants; 20. St. Louis Rams; 19. Chicago Bears; 18. Pittsburgh Steelers; 17. Dallas Cowboys; 16. Baltimore Ravens; 15. New York Jets; 14. Miami Dolphins; 13. Arizona Cardinals
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