Sports on Earth's NFL writers Mike Tanier, Dan Pompei, Russ Lande and Robert Weintraub will be providing an offseason assessment of all 32 NFL teams -- identifying the most pressing problems facing each one and proposing the best solutions. Click here for links to every entry in the series.
As they shiver and shovel through an unforgiving Green Bay winter, the Packers should be warmed by the thought that they remain a Super Bowl contender. Considering they lost their best player, Aaron Rodgers, for seven games, and their second-best player, Clay Matthews, for five, an NFC North division title and an 8-7-1 record along with a first-round playoff exit were not awful results.
So while the Packers were not good enough in 2013, they also were not so wretched that they need to ready the explosives. In order to get where the 49ers and Seahawks of the league are, the Packers simply need to examine who they are and how they do things, and then make some subtle adjustments.
Problem: General manager Ted Thompson usually treats free agents like some people treat door-to-door proselytizers. That is, he slams the door in their faces.
Solution: See the light.
Thompson and Mike McCarthy have done a remarkable job of drafting and developing players, to the point that they may be the best in the NFL at it. They should continue to pride themselves on planting seeds and cultivating, but it would not hurt for them to open their minds to other avenues of player acquisition.
On their opening day roster, the Packers had only three players who had played so much as a single game with another NFL team. No other team had fewer than nine such players. That this historic organization takes an old-fashioned approach to team building is appropriate, but this isn't 1966 anymore. It isn't even 2006 anymore. The NFL keeps evolving, and the Packers are at a disadvantage when competing against teams like the Seahawks and Colts that are constantly churning their rosters and acquiring players from every possible avenue, including free agency, trades, waiver wires, other teams' practice squads, the CFL and even other sports.
The problem with player development is it often conflicts with veteran player acquisition. It's difficult to do both well, but ignoring players from other places eventually leads to an imbalance in roster depth. The Packers don't need to go all Dan Snyder in free agency. Just a few select investments to patch holes or upgrade certain positions would be wise. It worked when Thompson splurged on Charles Woodson and Ryan Pickett eight years ago, and it's time for a couple more moves like those.
Problem: As it stands now, Rodgers' backup quarterback will be Scott Tolzien.
Solution: Don't walk a tightrope without a net.
Including the game in which Rodgers was hurt, the Packers went 0-3-1 with replacement quarterbacks Seneca Wallace and Tolzien. Finally, sanity prevailed and Matt Flynn was signed, leading Green Bay to a 2-2 record in games he started. If Flynn had been on the roster earlier, the Packers almost assuredly would not have lost so much blood.
Now Flynn's contract is up, and he might not want to re-sign with the Packers if he has a chance to join a team with a less stable quarterback situation. If Flynn flees, the Packers need to sign another veteran. A fairly solid group of potential No. 2 quarterbacks should be available in free agency, including Matt Cassel, Kellen Clemens, Rex Grossman, Chad Henne, Colt McCoy, Josh McCown and Luke McCown. Someone from that group would work.
Rodgers has been very durable in his career, but the Pack can't go into a season with a developmental quarterback as his primary backup if they have a hope of surviving an injury.
Problem: Tight end Jermichael Finley is a free agent and coming off neck fusion surgery.
Solution: Give Finley a chance if he can be had for the right price. Otherwise, look to the draft.
Despite Finley's considerable abilities and the fact that he may have the best passer in football throwing to him, he has not been a difference maker in Green Bay. Finley and Rodgers have not always been of like mind, and Finley's hands and durability have both betrayed him at times. Blocking is not a strong suit for Finley either, but overall, he has been a solid player who has created matchup problems and helped the Packers win.
Assuming Finley is healthy, he has value. But there is a limit to the value. If he and the Packers can't come to an agreement, he can be replaced in the draft. Among the tight ends the Packers could consider in the first few rounds are Jace Amaro of Texas Tech, Austin Seferian-Jenkins of Washington, Troy Niklas of Notre Dame and C.J. Fiedorowicz of Iowa. The assumption is North Carolina's Eric Ebron will be gone when the Packers' 21st selection comes up, but if he is available, he will be an easy pick.
Problem: The Packers' defensive linemen may be packing their bags.
Solution: Ask them if they need help rolling up their T-shirts.
Four of the Packers' primary defensive linemen have expiring contracts, and there is a question as to whether any of them will be back. Johnny Jolly's career may be over after a disc injury, while C.J. Wilson had a down year. Free agents B.J. Raji and Pickett could add something to the Packers' defense next year, but neither is worth overpaying. Keep in mind that with those players, the Packers had the 25th ranked defense in the NFL last year, and finished 29th in yards per rush. Between the quartet, they had one sack.
Allowing some or all of those players to leave will create more opportunities for promising young players. Mike Daniels already had become arguably the team's best upfront player and is ready to assume leadership of the defensive line. Josh Boyd has caught the eye of coaches and should be ready for an enhanced role. And McCarthy is on record as saying he expects 2013 first-round pick Datone Jones to step up big next year. If the Packers can bring in another young widebody, they might be better off without the vets.
McCarthy has talked about utilizing personnel better. That could mean moving players around more and trying to attack offenses in different ways. Linebacker Nick Perry, for instance, might play some snaps on the defensive line. It is possible the Packers will be looking for different types of defensive linemen than the ones who lined up on their front in the past. If that's the case, having so many players with expiring contracts could give them the freedom to build a better quarterback trap.