Tag Archives: D.J. Smith

Next Man Up

Coming off ‘The Statement Game’ of the 2012 season, it’s clear that this seasons Packers defense is exactly what this team needs in order to win a Super Bowl. As I explained earlier this year, a top ranked defense is not required for this team to get back to the Super Bowl. Instead, an average, respectable defense will suffice. And so far, the defense has been average, while working on becoming a good defense.

The return to form by the Claymaker is a big reason the defense has improved so much.

The game stats show a defense that has been average: 14th in yards per game and 19th in points per game. But the Packers rank high in game-changing plays: leading the league in sacks with 21, and 10th in the league in takeaways. And this last number will surely rise because the Packers have not recovered a fumble and there have been numerous interceptions dropped in recent games.

It’s a remarkable turnaround from the embarrassment that was the 2011 defense. Unfortunately, the ability for this defense to continue its improvement is in jeopardy because of a rash of injuries at all levels of the defense.

In the defensive backfield, Sam Shields went down with a shin injury and is out for this Sunday’s game. It appears to be a short-term injury. But even with Shields returning to 2010 form, his loss will not be noticed. Stepping into Shields’ shoes will be rookie Casey Hayward. Justifying why TT traded up (and trade-raped The Hoodie) to get him, Hayward has played like a seasoned veteran in limited playing time. Not only has Hayward shown he’s not just the zone-cover man many draftniks pegged him, but he’s also shown a knack for the ball with 3 INT’s so far – two more than the next best rookie.

And replacing Hayward in the sub-packages will be Davon House, the guy that may very well have won Shields’ starting spot had he not suffered a shoulder injury in the first pre-season game. House, in limited time during the pre-season and training camp, had clearly separated himself from the competition with both good coverage and strong, aggressive tackling in run support. Combined with Hayward, the defense should not miss Shields.

The linebackers have been hit the hardest with Nick Perry and D.J. Smith both getting injured. Perry avoided the dreaded ACL injury, but is out for the near future. Smith, on the other hand, suffered a freak knee injury and is already on the season-ending IR list. Still, their losses will likewise be minimal for the defense going forward.

As a first-round pick, Perry has underwhelmed to date. In six starts, he registered only 18 tackles and 2 sacks. The transition to OLB proved a tall task (to date – still too early to say whether he can or cannot make this transition) for the rookie. He was largely ineffective getting to the QB and was lost in coverage. As a result, Erik Walden often saw more playing-time. Though Walden’s number may not reflect it (he only has a half-sack), he seems to be around the QB more and has mounted a steadier pass-rush than Perry. And he certainly is more comfortable in coverage. This doesn’t even account for Dezman Moses, the undrafted free agent star from pre-season. Moses’ tenacity has already earned him a spot in the psycho sub-package and with Perry’s injury, he’s likely to see more playing time.

You would think that D.J. Smith’s injury would be the most crippling to this defense. After all, he’s already the second-string MLB and was an up-and-coming second-year player. But, frankly, Smith’s play has been average at best. Far too often his lack of size was exploited in pass coverage. And, surprisingly, Smith had not been strong in the run game. He often got beat to the edge and wasn’t attacking the ball carrier. As a result, the drop-off in production will likely not be as significant as many expect from a third-stringer.

The most pressing injury to the defense is B.J. Raji. Raji has been ruled out for the second-straight game due to an ankle injury. He practiced in a limited fashion this week. But, wisely, he is being held out until he’s fully healthy. It is imperative that Raji not rush back too soon. Ankle injuries can be fickle. And the defense can ill afford to have Raji deal with a lingering ankle injury.

Unlike other injured defensive starters, Raji returning from his injured ankle is imperative for the continued success on defense.

Don’t let last week fool you. Despite the Packers’ dominating effort last week in holding Foster to under 30-yards rushing, Raji is an important fixture for the future success of this defense and team. He’s a monster up-front and started playing to his talent again this year. He was playing stout against the run, and generated solid and consistent up-the-middle pressure. The Packers simply don’t have another talent like him that can replace him over the long-haul. It is because of this that makes Raji’s injury the most important injury to the defense.

The mounting injuries are harkening many back to the 2010 Super Bowl run. Like that juggernaut, this Packers team must adopt the ‘Next Man Up’ mantra to survive this recent rash of injuries. But, because of the depth this team has built up, the Packers have players ready to step up and ensure there will be little to no drop-off in production for most of the injured players.

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Packers’ Training Camp Primer

In his pre-training camp presser, Mike McCarthy made it clear that he was displeased with his team’s focus leading up to camp. He even went as far as saying some players were taking it for granted. But, with one swift personnel decision – cutting Charlie Peprah – he made a loud statement that should get everyone’s attention: each player must earn their spot on this roster. Peprah, a starter (albeit by default) for the last two seasons, was cut the day before camp opens, despite the fact there is no clear cut starter opposite Morgan Burnett. The Packers go to camp with an M.D. Jennings – an undrafted free agent a year ago – and Jerron McMillian – a rookie fourth-round selection out of the national powerhouse of Maine.

The battle between M.D. and McMillian (and perhaps Woodson) is just one of several intriguing story lines to watch during training camp. Here’s a look at several other position battles and players development worth watching.

Offense –

Yes. I know. Our offense was about as good as it gets last year. But, there’s still plenty of things to watch over the next 1-month-plus. I think the most important thing to watch for is the continued (hopefully) development of LT Marshall Newhouse. A fifth-round selection two drafts ago has ascended to the starting LT spot after an up-and-down season last year. He has prototypical size and length, and the requisite quickness to man the position. As expected though,  as a first-year starter, he had his fair share of growing pains. He, by far, gave up the most sacks among offensive linemen with 11.5. But the constant refrain from the coaching staff about Newhouse has always been that he is smart and never gets beat by the same move twice. And to that point, Newhouse need only look at fellow tackle, Bryan Bulaga, who similarly suffered through a rough first year starting, only to bounce back with a near-Pro Bowl year last season. They say the biggest jump occurs between the first and second season. It would be a coupe for the Packers to find their LT of the future in Newhouse to pair with Bulaga going forward.

Staying with the player development theme, I can’t wait to see how Randall Cobb progresses in year two. He immediately became a household name in Packers country after the first game when he returned a kickoff 100+ yards, which included an unreal act of balance mid-run, and he also took a quick dump-off to the house for a 30+ yard TD. Unfortunately for him, he set the bar awfully high going forward. As much as the Packers offense has to offer, Cobb has a unique blend of speed and athleticism. He needs to be on the field more. To do so, though, he needs to refine his route-running and become reliable. If he does, he should get more looks than both Jones and Driver.

An under-the-radar player to watch is D.J. Williams. Williams was a highly-regarded fifth-round selection a year ago. A John Mackey award winner. But, he looked far from the nation’s top tight end in his rookie season. He simply did not pass the eye test whenever he saw the field. He is short and not particularly a blazer either. And, to top it off, he lost the trust of the offense when he lined up wrong in the Week 7 matchup against the Vikes. This gaffe necessitated A-Rodg calling a timeout. He rarely saw the playing field after that moment. Still, the Packers need him to take that second-year leap. With Quarles most likely starting the season on the PUP list, the backup TE position is wide open. Both Crabtree and Ryan Taylor are assets to the team in other ways than catching the ball. Given the number of formations employed by McCarthy, which includes two tight end sets, Williams must show he belongs.

Of course, we will all be watching the running back position. Starks is the lead horse right now; but he must prove he can stay healthy for a season. Alex Green is coming off an ACL injury, but is needed to play a prominent role in spelling Starks and becoming a third-down type back. This battle will be written about more extensively in the coming weeks.

Defense –

Every player. Every position. That could very easily sum up what we are all looking forward to the most – a respectable defense. But there are a few players and battles worth our extra attention.

Lost in the excitement of the Packers drafting Worthy and Daniels, and signing Hargrove, Merling, and Muir, is last year’s darling to replace Cullen Jenkins – Mike Neal. A second-round selection in 2010, Neal flashed promise his first season before going down with a season-ending injury. Last season, he was hampered with a nagging injury that some say was a major reason for his limited production. He undoubtedly has talent if he can get past the injury bug. Of course I’m excited to see the fresh faces and what they can offer; but I’m not ready to give up on Neal quite yet. Unfortunately, any strides he makes during training camp will be tempered while he serves a 4-game suspension.

A.J. Hawk demonstrates every fans reaction when he makes a “play.”

My favorite training camp battle is A.J. Hawk vs. D.J. Smith. As much as the coaches sugar-coat Hawk’s play and value to the team, they cannot mask the fact he is an average, at best, middle linebacker. He creates no turnovers, gets swallowed up by linemen in the run-game, and when he does make a tackle, its five-yards down the field. Heck, even at a charity golf event, Hawk can’t wrap-up! Enter D.J. Smith. Undersized and under-appreciated coming out of Appalachian St., Smith has done nothing but make tackles his entire career at all levels – and not simply the five-yards-down-the-field variety either. In the limited action Smith got in place of an injured Hawk, Smith made his presence felt. In three starts, he had 27 tackles and 1 INT. Smith attacks the game, similar to how Bishop attacks it. And this was noticeable from his very first play from scrimmage (the first play of the video) when he subbed in for Hawk agains the Lions. When is the last time you saw Hawk diagnose the play, attack the line, shed a block, and make the tackle… wait for it… BEHIND the line of scrimmage?! But for the enormous contract Hawk somehow signed last offseason, Smith would figure to be the leader for the starting spot. It will be a very interesting battle to watch. And if Smith makes that second-year leap, the coaches will need to make the tough decision and bench (maybe even cut) Hawk.

Obviously, the whole secondary could be highlighted. The safety position is in flux, as mentioned at the outset. Tramon is still injured from the first game of last season. And we still have Jarrett Bush on our squad (although, I have slightly warmed to him after the way he played in Super Bowl XLV). But, two players that could be key for the Packers’ secondary success are Sam Shields and Davon House. Shields was a rockstar his first year after being undrafted out Miami. It can safely be said that, but for Shields’ emergence, the Packers don’t make it to Super Bowl XLV. His ability to line up one-on-one that season allowed Woodson to roam and wreak havoc. That emergence was about as surprising as his rapid decline last season. The loss of an offseason due to the lockout hurt no player more than Sam Shields. (You can also wonder whether his first-year success, culminated by the Super Bowl win and gaudy neck tattoo, got to his head and resulted in less-than-stellar offseason training.) Davon House, meanwhile, was hyped during training camp for his ability to track the ball and make a play on it. He suffered an injury midway through camp, and never returned to form. When he did see the field, he looked lost and not NFL-ready. By all accounts, though, he has taken advantage of the full offseason. With everyone’s eye on Casey Hayward, the second-round pick, as well as the other new faces on defense, House has slid under the radar. If he can return to form, he may be a critical piece to the Packers’ defense.

Check back here in the coming weeks for a further breakdown of what is necessary from our defense in order to get back to the promised land. Clearly, the worst statistical defense won’t get the job done. So, what will? That talker, and more, to come. But for now, we can all rejoice in the fact that football season is finally here!

Why the Packers Aren’t Active in Free Agency

There will not be any Reggie White type signings for the Pack in the foreseeable future.

The Packers just completed one of its best regular seasons in franchise history. But, a 15-1 record guaranteed nothing, as the team fell in the first playoff game in miserable fashion. It’s clear the Packers are just a few difference-makers on defense from claiming its 5th Super Bowl title. So, TT should be active in getting those difference-makers in free agency, right? Wrong. Although it would be nice, the Packers simply cannot be active in free agency.

We all know TT has done a helluva job building this team through the draft. Undoubtedly, TT is one of the best in the league in mining the middle- to late-rounds for talented players that can contribute and develop into key members for the squad: JMike (3rd Rd.), James Jones (3rd), Sitton (4th), T.J. Lang (4th), Newhouse (5th), Starks (6th), Bishop (6th), Crosby (6th), and D.J. Smith (6th). The list only grows longer when you consider the undrafted free agents he has hit on. But, as with all things in life, this success comes with a cost.

Of the players identified above, most have received a healthy new contract to keep them around for the foreseeable future. And, that is the reason why the Packers simply cannot participate in free agency. To keep the core that won Super Bowl XLV together, TT must have enough money to pay them. And coming down the pipeline are not simply core players needing new deals. Instead, TT has the daunting task of figuring out cap-friendly deals to keep Greg Jennings, Clay Matthews, and Aaron Rodgers.

First up is Greg Jennings. The star receiver is in his last year of a 4-year extension he signed in 2009. Jennings will hit free agency at the ripe age of 29 and is one of the best WR’s in the business. If you’ve been paying attention at all to the free agency frenzy this past week, you know that WR’s have been getting absurd contracts. Consider, Josh Morgan – all 9 career TD’s in 4 seasons – is getting $12M over two years, $7.3M of which is fully guaranteed. Or, Pierre Garcon – he whose single-season career bests are 6 TDs and 947 yards – signed a 5-year, $42.5M contract, $20.5M guaranteed. (Sidenote – do you think other franchises have asterisks next to Redskins-signed players when agents use said contracts for favorable comparisons in negotiations? I’ve gotta think anytime an agent cites to a Dan Snyder contract, TT and Russ Ball smirk and say try again.) Needless to say, Jennings is in line for a substantial deal; one that is going to require TT and Russ Ball to get as creative as ever to not cripple the Pack’s salary cap for the future.

Next, we have the Claymaker. Matthews is still only 25, but has already established himself as one of the best defensive players in the game. He was second for Defensive MVP in 2010 and is the best defensive player that has donned the Green-and-Gold since Reggie White. If you thought last season’s defensive efforts were meager, just imagine if the offense didn’t have to devote two players to Clay every snap. It’s not a pretty thought. Matthews’ rookie contract expires in 2014. He’s in line for a massive contract extension. Super Mario Williams just got a 6-year, $100M contract, and this, off a season he finished with a knee injury. Last season, Da Bears (still suck) signed a 30-year-old Julius Peppers to a 6-year, $84M deal, with $42M guaranteed. When Matthews hits free agency, he will only be 27 and hardly have had a poor season (assuming he’s healthy (knock on wood!!!)). This contract might be particularly difficult. I would not be shocked if the Pack slap the franchise tag on Clay to give them extra time to figure out a deal.

Free agency is a no-go when you need to resign this Orca in the next year or two.

Finally, and probably the reason why Claymaker’s contract may be on the back-burner for a while, Rodgers is in line for a new contract. Savvy as always, TT signed Rodgers to a healthy extension back in 2008 when Rodgers had yet to even complete his first season starting. Obviously, the contract extension was a shrewd move. And, Rodgers still has 3 years before he reaches free agency. But, to say Rodgers has outperformed his contract would be the understatement of the year – remember, if the Pack had franchised Flynn, the franchise number for Flynn would have been more than Rodgers’ 2012 salary. TT will look to sign Rodgers to a deal to keep him in Green-and-Gold for the rest of his career (or at least until his good years are past and the Vikes will overpay out of desperation). Drew Brees’ contract (whenever he signs it) will set a new benchmark for elite QBs. Right now, Mr. Bundchen is playing on a 5-year, $78.5M deal, of which $48.5M is guaranteed. Whenever Rodgers reaches a new deal, I imagine it will reach 9-figures.

Long story longer, if you weren’t keeping track (and I’m not sure I even did), keeping those three players alone will likely cost the Packers upwards of $200M+. And that doesn’t even account for B.J. Raji, Sam Shields (assuming he doesn’t regress like last season), Bryan Bulaga, JMike (again), and Mike Neal (kidding) to name a few others that will also likely need to be resigned.

TT’s drafting prowess is the reason the Packers are set to become the team of the decade. To do so, though, TT must forego free agency in order to ensure he can resign the best players. So, those hoping the Packers will make a run at Kamerion Wimbley, consider: do you want Wimbley or the cap room to ensure the core of our team is together? I think it’s a no-brainer when you look at the big picture.

Players to watch at the NFL Combine

The NFL Offseason officially begins next week in Indianapolis at the NFL Combine – you know, the only interview done in tights and briefs. Despite their 15-1 regular season record, the Packers have plenty of positions they could use upgrades – basically anywhere on defense! While you’re watching highlights, reading updates, or listening to the talking heads (don’t try lying to yourself, we all know we are going to be doing this, even though we’d like to deny this fact), here are a few players Packers fans should keep their eyes on. And these are intended not to be the obvious candidates that would be great picks if they fell to us.

Vinny Curry – Curry is a fringe 1st-rd. pick according to the experts on the ole interweb, and a player not many people have heard of. Curry is a DE/OLB hybrid from Marshall. He’s 6’4″, 260+ lbs., and apparently is a “refined pass-rusher,” according to Mel Kiper’s Hair. He posted 23 sacks the past two seasons. Other reports indicate he has some real speed off the edge and has been compared to Cameron Wake. The Combine will be important to show off his athleticism and whether he has the ability to make the conversion to OLB.

Nick Perry – Perry is a player shooting up many draft boards and the Combine is likely only going to make it occur quicker. He’s a 6’3″, 250 lb. junior DE/OLB hybrid that had 9.5 sacks last season for USC (hmmm… could TT go back to the well?). Like so many of these young hybrid players coming out of college, Perry has very little experience working in space. He, too, has a great speed off the edge, and reports indicate he’s a hard worker that came from a tough upbringing in Detroit. Things to watch – reports indicate he is undersized for his position, and may have shorter arms (recall how much this fact has negatively impacted Bryan Bulaga… oh wait.)

Whitney Mercilus – Again, a DE/OLB hybrid out of Illinois. He led the nation in sacks (16) and forced fumbles (9) last season. Clearly, a player of this ability would be nice opposite the Claymaker. But, Mercilus screams one-hit wonder (think Vernon Gholston). In 2009 to 2010, he recorded 24 tackles and 2 sacks… total. The Combine will be the perfect place for him to display his athleticism, and his value will likely shoot up too high for the Packers selection. And for the record, a report has compared him favorably to Jason Paul-Pierre.

Dont’a Hightower – Hightower was the catalyst for the best defense in college last season (and perhaps the last decade-plus). He is an absolute beast ILB and would be the ideal replacement for A.J. “T-Rex Arms” Hawk. I was very pleased with D.J. Smith’s performance last season, but at this point, let’s get the best players available and sort out where each player will play later. Who knows, if Smith improves and we grabbed Hightower, moving Bishop to OLB might be a possibility. But I digress. Hightower is a thumper. Reports seem to indicate that he may be a tad bit slower than some would like. If this is true – i.e. he doesn’t test out well at the Combine – he could fall into TT’s lap, and would be a coup for the Pack.

In addition to these few specific players to watch for, there are a number of very good DE prospects to look for at the end of the 1st rd.: Fletcher Cox (Miss. St.), Jerel Worthy (Mich. St.), and Devon Still (PSU). In the secondary, look for Mark Barron (S – Alabama), Janoris Jenkins (CB – N. Alabama), and a second-rd. prospect in Trumaine Johnson (DB – Montana). Regarding T. Johnson, allegedly he’s a big and athletic guy that looks the part, but has some mental shortcomings – i.e. he’s a mental midget and may be quite fond of himself. His interview will go a long way in how high he climbs on the draft board.

In order to win one for the thumb, the Packers need to desperately upgrade several positions in its defense. As we know, TT is averse to upgrading the roster through free agency (to put it mildly). Hitting on their first several picks in the upcoming draft is crucial. The NFL Combine is where this process begins.