Resident offensive line expert Ben Muth previews the three teams on which he'll be focusing this season: Dallas, Denver, and Cleveland.
24 Apr 2013
by Andy Benoit
The 2013 "State of the Team" articles will run daily through the NFL draft. These offer a snapshot look at a team’s roster, with players classified by color based on how they fit their role. My analysis is based on film study, not statistics, although we will try to note when my judgment differs significantly from FO's advanced stats, and explain a little bit why. Starters are in bold, and you will notice that many units are listed with 12 starters rather than just 11. This denotes the extra playing time that nickelbacks and third receivers usually get in today's NFL.
Some players colored pink as "just a guy" are younger low-round picks who just haven't seen much playing time, but keep in mind that 99 percent of the time, there’s a negative reason why such a player has rarely seen the field.
Players colored red as "upgrade needed" are not necessarily bad players. Sometimes, this simply means the player is a decent backup who should not be starting.
Since I generally don't do analysis on special teams, those categorizations are based strictly on FO stats, with any comments written by Aaron Schatz. We're only listing kickers and punters, as most teams go into training camp without specific players set as return specialists.
Injuries and horrendous offensive line play curtailed the Packers a bit in 2012. They still managed to survive (or, by normal team standards, "thrive") because they have arguably the league’s best quarterback, plus a deep reserve of receiving talent and an outstanding coaching staff. But this wasn’t the crisp Packers offense that produced a Super Bowl title and a 15-win season. The natural order will be restored this season if more receivers stay healthy and if the line can improve just enough to be average (or even slightly below average).
QB: Aaron Rodgers, Graham Harrell
RB: James Starks, Alex Green, John Kuhn (H-Back), DuJuan Harris; Lost: Cedric Benson, Ryan Grant
Rodgers is brilliant in all phases. He’d be even more brilliant if he had a stable run game to lean on. It’s time for Green to step up and be the bell cow. He showed hints of power, burst, and agility last season, but rarely did he consistently show all of those traits together for prolonged stretches. If he can’t be more reliable, the resoundingly average Starks will get most of the touches. Kuhn is a good blocker in both the run and pass game, which Green Bay does a good job taking advantage of.
WR: Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, James Jones, Jarrett Boykin; Lost: Greg Jennings, Donald Driver
TE: Jermichael Finley, Andrew Quarless, D.J. Williams, Matthew Mulligan; Lost: Tom Crabtree
Cobb could supplant Nelson as Rodgers’ top target this year. He’s already probably supplanted him as Green Bay’s most dangerous receiver, thanks to the versatility that allows him to play wide outside, in the slot, or out of the backfield. Expect him to become this offense's focal point. Jennings will be missed, but there are ways to replace him, especially since Nelson emerged over the past two years. Jones, who caught 14 touchdowns last season and had only one drop, is a quality No. 3 now that he’s outgrown his inconsistency. It’s time for the sensationally athletic Finley to do the same, and he got the ball rolling with a strong finish in 2012. The fact that Green Bay signed Mulligan –- a blocking, short area receiving-type tight end –- despite already having Quarless and Williams on board, suggests that there could be plans for Finley being used more out wide and in the slot this year.
LT: Marshall Newhouse LG: T.J. Lang C: Evan Dietrich-Smith RG: Josh Sitton RT: Bryan Bulaga
Backups: Don Barclay, Derek Sherrod; Lost: Jeff Saturday
Just going off the past season-and-a-half of their film, it’s apparent that Newhouse and Bulaga both need to be given help in pass protection. Schematically, that’s usually not feasible. One of these guys will have to really step up (which is no guarantee to happen). It’s still a little too early to write Bulaga off –- there have been hints of encouragement -– but overall, he struggled mightily in almost every game last season. Durability is also a concern, although not as much as it is for Sherrod. The 2011 first-rounder was expected to hold down the left tackle duties, but it remains to be seen whether he can ever recover from the horrendous leg injury he suffered late in 2011. Lang has been more stable at guard than he was at tackle, but there’s still a sizeable talent gap between him and Sitton, which defenses look to exploit. The early indications are that Dietrich-Smith is better equipped to come off the bench.
Defensive coordinator Dom Capers likes to make it a chess match, particularly with his nickel and dime sub packages. He’ll use hybrid coverages and a mix of zone blitzes. He’s able to do so because he has corners who can play man coverage and a dominant pass rusher whom offenses must specifically game plan for in Clay Matthews. Last season, the Packers overcame injuries during the regular season but fell apart against a complex, multidimensional 49ers offense. It won’t help the rebound efforts to have Charles Woodson gone; despite what many believe, the 36-year-old was a hugely critical component because of his versatility in Green Bay’s sub-packages. It’s bizarre that no team has signed the veteran this offseason.
DE: Ryan Pickett, Jerel Worthy, C.J. Wilson, Mike Neal
DT: B.J. Raji, Jordan Miller, Johnny Jolly
Pickett and Raji are two of the best cloggers in football. Raji has been criticized at times for his occasionally up-and-down play -- he particularly struggled against San Francisco -- but much of time he still dictates all the action in the trenches in ways that go unnoticed by both fans and announcers. Worthy, like Raji, has terrific athleticism for his size, and could match Pickett and Raji if he bounces back from his January ACL surgery and reaches his full potential. It may take him a half-season or more to do that. In the meantime, Wilson is a suitable fill-in while Neal brings athleticism that fits well on the frequently-used two-man defensive line packages. Prior to derailing his career with drug problems, Jolly was an up-and-coming sheer power player. The Packers are supposedly looking to get stronger in all phases, which makes him worth a look.
OLB: Clay Matthews, Nick Perry, Dezman Moses, Micah Johnson; Lost: Erik Walden
ILB: Desmond Bishop, A.J. Hawk, Brad Jones; Lost: D.J. Smith
Matthews is far more than just a pass rusher. (Though even if he were just a pass rusher, he’d still be a superstar, given how no player in football can skim the edge with his combination of leverage and suppleness.) What makes the fifth-year pro special is his ability to disrupt blocks as a playside run defender, his knack for chasing down ballcarriers from the backside, and his comfort operating in space (particularly between the numbers). Perry was drafted in the first round to provide some much-needed energy opposite Matthews. The jury’s still out on him, as he spent most of his rookie season injured. Also injured for much of last year were Bishop and Smith, two outstanding athletes who are critical to a lot of the inside blitz designs that Capers employs. Rounding out this unit, Hawk is an anomaly in that he’s better in space than in traffic, but also more suited for the base 3-4 than the nickel. Jones has extremely athletic movement in both traffic and space. His improvements in coverage speak to a very bright future on his horizon.
CB: Tramon Williams, Sam Shields, Casey Heyward, Davon House, Jarrett Bush
S: Morgan Burnett, M.D. Jennings, Jerron McMillian; Lost: Charles Woodson
Williams hasn’t quite been the same since his 2011 shoulder injury, but he’s still one of the league’s more respected man-cover guys. Shields is excellent downfield on the outside. Hayward is only equipped to play the slot at this point, which is fine, as he plays it so remarkably well. House has the potential to one day start on the outside. At safety, Burnett can call the signals. He’s at his best near the box and in help-coverage. McMillan was drafted as more of a run-stopping safety, but showed glimpses of intriguing pass defense prowess as a rookie last year.
K: Mason Crosby, Giorgio Tavecchio; P: Tim Masthay
Remember yesterday's notes about David Akers and field-goal kicker inconsistency? Crosby seems like a worse case. If you want to try to subjectively read facial expressions, Crosby really looked like he had the yips, and Mike McCarthy sounded more like a guy who had lost confidence in his kicker than Jim Harbaugh did. Plus, Akers has always been better than Crosby on kickoffs. If Crosby starts off poorly in camp, there's no reason for loyalty here.
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