Dissecting Thompson, McCarthy’s Words at NFL Combine
Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson and head coach Mike McCarthy both spoke to the media on Friday at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis. As usual, both were short and did not offer a lot of substance to what they had to say.
With three straight disappointing appearances in the postseason now behind them, following their Super Bowl championship in 2010, Thompson and McCarthy have many eyes trained on them during this offseason. There has already been speculation on what they might do to address the needs their team has heading into the 2014 season.
NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport created a stir when he reported that the Packers plan to be more active in free agency than they have in years. His report stated that the Packers could add “up to five” new players. This raised many eyebrows, as it goes against what Thompson has done year in and year out during his time as GM: build and develop, largely through the draft.
With Friday’s media sessions, there was hope to gain some insight into what Thompson and McCarthy said. The Journal-Sentinel’s Packers blog provided a recap of Thompson’s comments. Our friends over at Acme Packing Company laid out a nice recap of McCarthy’s comments.
I have the snippets below with some of my own thoughts on what was said.
On cornerback Sam Shields: “I think Sam’s been a good player for us. He does a good job and he’s one of the fellas that we’d like to have back.”
Shields definitely was a solid fella last season. He led the Packers with four interceptions and was their best defensive back overall. There have been no rumblings about a new contract for Shields yet, and with each passing day, it appears likely the team will let him hit the open market. Thompson likely has a figure in mind for Shields but may be concerned that he and his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, are looking for an inflated amount. If Shields truly wants to break the bank, he’s not likely going to do so in Green Bay.
The Packers need to extend receivers Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb soon and that may require some money from this year’s cap if they want to get a deal done before this next season’s end. During a recent No Huddle Radio podcast, I named Shields as the one player that I thought the Packers most needed to re-sign. He’s a young and known entity in the defense and has elevated his play each year. Those types of players don’t grow on trees and he represents a huge success in what Thompson tries to do: acquire and develop young talent.
On whether the team will be more active players in free agency and look to use most of their cap space to find defensive veterans: “Well, who knows? I think we have a very solid defense coming back in terms of personnel. Like I said, we like to have our own guys back and if we can find value in the free agent market to help us we’ll do that, too. We’ll do whatever, as will the 31 other teams. They’re all going to go about this the same way.”
Well, not all teams go about things the same way, Ted. If they did, the Packers would probably have fared slightly better than they did when quarterback Aaron Rodgers went down. Not having quality depth put a lot of pressure on the defense to keep the score close and give the backup quarterbacks a fighting chance. They can only blame injuries so much. The fact remains that the Packers lacked a play-making spark on every level of the defense last season. Players make plays.
If you don’t currently have any, you have to find some. The draft may provide that, but Thompson’s track record with first-round picks has not been good lately. Those are supposed to be your immediate contributors and impact players. Three of the last four first-rounders saw very limited time on the field in 2013. Two of them saw hardly any (Bryan Bulaga, Derek Sherrod) due to injury. Sure, Thompson has seen a few later round guys emerge, but that’s a crapshoot at best. A few mid-range veteran guys (O’Brien Schofield, Donte Whitner, for example) adding depth or perhaps unseating some current and average players would help the team take a step or two forward in improving on the defensive side of the ball.
On the Packers continuing issues with injuries: “We do intensive evaluations with Dr. McKenzie and our medical staff and our strength and conditioning people. Mike has done a lot of different things in the off-season and during the season practice trying to work on that, trying to adjust those things. It’s not an exact science. Things happen. Guys step in a hole. Trip somewhere. Some of the injuries we had, you can’t really explain them. It wasn’t like, ‘Gosh, we did something wrong here.’ It was just bad luck. Sometimes, you have that and you just have to try to keep plugging away. Nobody likes injuries. Nobody likes to talk about them. But they happen. We do try to evaluate what we’ve done and if we need to try to tweak something or change something, it makes us a little bit better.”
I’m out of things to say about the health situation in Green Bay. I have never been a big believer in luck. Especially when what is happening falls more under a different term: trend. Three of the last four seasons have been plagued with injury after injury. If luck is to blame, then he seems to have moved out of Green Bay. These comments from Thompson are echoed by McCarthy as well. The Packers keep trying to convince themselves that the injury situation is largely out of their control. While some of the injuries are unavoidable, it still stands to reason that some other NFL teams seem to have found a way to keep their players available on game day. I’m not a doctor and don’t have a solution to this issue, but it doesn’t seem like one that is going away anytime soon.
By not adequately addressing the back up quarterback situation last season, Thompson seemed to be banking on the fact that Rodgers had never missed significant time before. That lack of depth cost Green Bay wins that could have helped their playoff seeding. I called for better depth after his last comment. What Thompson does behind his starters will be very telling, in terms of what they expect the health situation to be this year. To assume that it will magically fix itself is ignoring obvious facts.
On his reaction to draft prospect Michael Sam’s recent announcement that he is gay: “I haven’t had much of one. I think there’s a lot to do about much of nothing. With the Packers and every one of these teams, what we’ve been talking about the last 10 minutes since I’ve been standing here is how do we win and how do we do things? If someone can help us win games and be a good citizen, we’re fine with him.”
I haven’t said much about Sam. Not because I don’t think his situation is newsworthy, but because I don’t see anything he does on the football field as something to talk about. Sure, he was SEC co-defensive player of the year last season. Still, nothing that I have seen stands out. If the Packers are looking to add pass rushing depth in the draft, there will be many better options than Sam, with some as late as the 6th round. He’s a great story and a potential pioneer in the NFL if he ends up on a roster this season, but he’s nothing special as a player.
On the evolution of the tight end position and how it has changed scouting prospects: “I think the position is the same. People use tight ends differently. There are different style of tight ends. There are some that lean more toward the blocking part. And there are some that lean more toward the receiving part. But I don’t know that it’s more difficult now than it is before.”
This is your classic smoke screen by Thompson. He doesn’t like tipping his hand and admitting that the position has changed or talking about what he looks for would do just that. It’s no secret that tight end could become a big need for the Packers if Jermichael Finley doesn’t return to football or the team. Green Bay has already met with North Carolina tight end prospect Eric Ebron. While that means little in terms of the team’s interest in Ebron, he is projected as a first-rounder and could be the first tight end taken. With it very likely that Ebron is off the board by the time the Packers pick at the 21st spot (assuming they stay there), it’s at least worth noting that the two sides chatted.
On Combine week and what is most impactful to him: “The interviews from my perspective are the most important part, if you look at how the interview process has grown over the years, just the implementation of video, the players and prospects are more prepared than they were probably 10-15 years ago so there’s a lot more interaction. I think the biggest thing that I’ve noticed in the last 5-10 years particularly with the NFL Network and the atmosphere they’ve created here at the Indianapolis combine. There’s a lot to gain from coming down here.”
The Packers place a high value on how prospects carry themselves and the impression they leave as far as what type of teammate they will be. This is emulated above when part of what Thompson said in response to the question about Sam in that he looks for a player that will be a “good citizen”.
This is one area I applaud the Packers approach. While it may keep the team from getting after a mega-talented player who may have done more good than not, it also helps ensure that we won’t be hearing about the latest Packers player who was arrested or suspended. It’s part of the team’s “low risk-high reward” mantra.
On running back Johnathan Franklin and the expectations of him coming into this season: “Jonathan really did some very good things. I think the game that stands out is his performance against Cincinnati. He’s a great fit for us and it’s unfortunate when he did get hurt, hopefully he’ll be ready to go next year. He fits into our program, he’s a great teammate, a hard worker. He definitely has impact play ability and we’re probably going to do a better job of getting him involved on Sundays.”
With Eddie Lacy solidifying himself as the team’s starting back, the rest of the backfield can now take shape. James Starks and John Kuhn are free agents and it is uncertain if either or both will return. DuJuan Harris provided a nice spark to the team’s running game at the end of 2012, but missed all of last year with a knee injury. Still, Harris projects to be back. With the team having moved up to select Franklin in the fourth round last year, I would be surprised if he were not part of the team’s plans this season. If the game against the Cincinnati Bengals was any indication of what Franklin can do when he is fully healthy, the Packers may soon have one of the league’s best rushing attacks. It has been a long time since I have found myself legitimately saying that last sentence.
On offensive lineman Bryan Bulaga’s recovery from an ACL injury last year: “Brian Bulaga is in Florida currently in his rehab. Everything’s on schedule, he’s on time and he has hit his targets, but as I told Bryan when he left in the exit interview, I will be in touch with him to let him know what our plan is whether it’s the left or right side and that decision will really be made once we get a little further into the cut-ups. With our coaching staff changes, we’re probably about five days behind than we’d like to be right now. So once we get through the protections we’ll make the final decision on right or left and at that time I will communicate with Bryan.”
After Bulaga’s injury, rookie tackle David Bakhtiari won the starting left tackle job and started every game there in 2013. Bakhtiari performed well and it is very conceivable that the Packers may have found their left tackle of the future. In that case, who starts opposite him at right tackle? While it seems logical to assume that Bulaga will return there in 2014, many have speculated that the Packers could go a few different routes. They may actually put Bulaga at left tackle, which there were going to do last year before he was injured. In that scenario, Bakhtiari would likely battle with Don Barclay and any additions via the draft for the right tackle spot. They could keep Bulaga at right tackle, where he played during his first three seasons. Or they could opt to draft one in the early rounds.
While we have seen a few players recover from and return from ACL injuries rather quickly in recent years, those have mostly been running backs and quarterbacks. A 300+ pound offensive lineman is a different story. Last season, defensive lineman Jerel Worthy made it back off of the physically unable to perform list just short of one year after his knee injury. In that case, Bulaga is more likely to return just in time for or sometime during training camp. That is barring a setback, of course. McCarthy’s comments above indicate that they are at least holding out hope that Bulaga can return to starting form.
On the defensive line: “We want to continue our process as far as evaluating d-linemen, we will be a little different on defense as far as how we utilize our defensive players particularly our front players. We do have a number of players that can play both the rush outside position and make some impact from the inside position. But our evaluation as far as what we’re going to do bringing in defensive linemen into our program, if anything, you always want to get bigger, stronger, faster, longer and things like that. We’re definitely not going to be smaller.”
Some have recently said that the Packers plan to get smaller on the defensive line to increase their speed and athletic ability up front. McCarthy refutes that above by saying that they will not get smaller. I’m not implying that McCarthy is not trustworthy, but everyone lies every now and then. Come opening day, the defensive line could end up looking quite a bit different than it was last season. Starters Ryan Pickett and BJ Raji are both free agents and it’s very likely that neither is back. The emergence of Mike Daniels gives the Packers some flexibility with what to do to add depth to and continue building their defensive front.
McCarthy talks about players who can play both outside and inside. That type of versatility is hard to find in a 3-4 defensive lineman and especially one who may potentially be new to the defensive scheme. Sacrificing too much size would likely have a ripple effect on the linebackers behind them who defensive coordinator Dom Capers likes to “keep clean” when pass rushing. This is a position that the Packers could go after in round one of the draft if the right type of player is available. I don’t think McCarthy knows or cares if the Packers are still big or smaller on the defensive line as much as he does about finding a guy who can play. Better yet, who can make plays.
On last year’s first round pick, defensive lineman Datone Jones: “Datone is a very talented young man. His injury in training camp set him back. There’s a number of packages he was a big part of and frankly we really didn’t get to a lot of them just because of the season went with our injuries. I’m looking forward to getting him back in the offseason, I feel strongly that Datone will be one of those second-year players that takes a huge jump and that’ll be my expectation for him.”
This provides a bit of an explanation as to why we didn’t see as much of Jones as we would have liked last season. Hopefully it’s true. To see a first rounder fail to reach the field as often as Jones did without an injury or something unrelated to his ability to point to would raise red flags about whether he was misjudged.
McCarthy talks about Jones taking a leap forward in year two and teams always want to see this from their top draft prospects. Part of the issue could be Jones’s ability to get up over 300 pounds, which is key in a 3-4 defensive lineman. The other part is somewhat out of the team’s control in that of having enough other healthy bodies to keep Jones on the field. As I have said before, players make plays, period. Whether the team is facing injury issues or not, Jones should be one of those out there contributing. Your first round pick needs to be an immediate contributor in most cases. This is a pivotal offseason for Jones and the Packers.
On backup quarterback Matt Flynn: “We’d like to sign our own guys back and Matt is definitely apart of that conversation. I thought Matt came in and did a number of good things, there’s a lot of stability he brings to the quarterback room. Matt is obviously is a good fit our program and I thought he definitely gave us a shot when we needed it, but free agency is upon us and we’ll see what happens.”
We got next to nothing from Thompson about his plans in free agency besides that Shields is one fella he’d like to have back. With the backup quarterback situation biting the Packers as badly as it did, I would have to think that they will do whatever they can to keep Flynn. Before Flynn joined the team, the Packers offense couldn’t move the ball or score with any consistency.
From McCarthy’s comments above, you can gather one of two things. Either nothing at all or that the Packers want Flynn back, but aren’t going to pay him a ton. After Flynn’s tour through Seattle, Oakland and Buffalo last season, one would have to hope that no team is going to throw big money at him like the Seahawks did two years ago. That should favor his returning to Green Bay at a modest salary and understanding that it is the best place and role for him in the NFL.
Jason Perone is an independent sports blogger writing about the Packers on "AllGreenBayPackers.comFollow Jason at: Jason Perone
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