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By CHRIS HAVEL
Packers’ DT Pennel suspended 4 games; TE, ILB hot positions
Fan frustration with the Green Bay Packers is largely the team’s own doing. Success elevates expectations.
The Packers’ “off” season – a 10-6 record and berth in the NFC Wild Card playoffs – might be considered reason for optimism in a majority of NFC cities. In Green Bay, it raises numerous questions in terms of “where” and “how” the team can get better.
The “how” generally is draft centric. The Packers’ draft-and-develop philosophy under GM Ted Thompson and head coach Mike McCarthy has produced one of the league’s top teams in the past decade.
Still, criticism comes quickly to a fan base that is knowledgeable, passionate and teeming with unsolicited but well-intentioned suggestions.
Most agree that Thompson’s 2015 draft class played beyond reasonable expectations. Defensive backs Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins played well and often. Receiver Ty Montgomery flashed before suffering a season-ending ankle injury on Oct. 18. Linebacker Jake Ryan eventually earned a job in the starting lineup and frequently played like a rookie.
However, because it’s easy to identify the Packers’ shortcomings (frankly, there aren’t many) fans are more apt to beg for help. Then, if Thompson doesn’t oblige and the chronic problems linger, they say, “See, the GM didn’t acquire so-and-so in free agency, and the team underachieved because of it.”
Perhaps that’s true in some instances. More likely it’s because the Packers have so few holes that fans become vocal about fixing the perceived problems. It is much easier to criticize the Packers’ personnel moves than it is, say, the Jacksonville Jaguars or Tennessee Titans.
Where would you begin in those situations? In Green Bay, it’s been evident for some time that inside linebacker, tight end, a backup offensive lineman and an explosive third down back are in great demand.
Fans don’t seem to care whether the Packers acquire players at those positions in the draft or free agency. They just want to see upgrades and true competition when training camp opens. They might like third-year tight end Richard Rodgers, but they want more from the position. They might be in favor of keeping Clay Matthews inside, but ultimately they realize that he needs to stay outside and the defense needs an interior force.
A player such as ex-Rams linebacker James Laurinaitis could be a possibility. Laurinaitis, you will recall, ended Aaron Rodgers’ amazing attempts-without-an-interception streak by making a diving stab of a tipped pass. Laurinaitis believes he can still play at a high level. It remains to be seen at which level he still wants to be paid.
Ex-Rams tight end Jared Cook also is available and the Packers would be wise to kick the tires. Cook would represent an upgrade at the position and challenge to start.
The news that Packers defensive tackle Mike Pennel is going to be suspended for four games due to a violation of the league’s substances of abuse program is troubling.
Pennel had an opportunity in front of him. Now, he has made the prospect of improving and helping his team win a lot more difficult. It doesn’t help that Pennel is the third player in the defensive line that has one strike against him. Recently re-signed Letroy Guion and Datone Jones (in a contract season) already are in the league’s substances of abuse program.
Any future missteps by any of the three could mean a huge hole in the Packers’ defense. It could lead to the return of free agent B.J. Raji, especially if he tours the free agent market and doesn’t like what he’s offered. It also could mean spending the 27th pick in the draft on a defensive lineman, a possibility in a draft deep at the position.
The talk last week of the Packers acquiring ex-Bears great Matt Forte has cooled a bit. When McCarthy introduced his coaching staff this week it was clear the Packers expect Eddie Lacy to return in tip-top shape and rarin’ to go.
New running backs coach Ben Sirmans discussed it at length. He sounded confident Lacy will be able to reach his potential without conditioning or weight becoming chronic obstacles. Sirmans, it is interesting to note, last coached at St. Louis. Perhaps the ex-Rams running backs coach is merely the first of one or two others from that organization to come to Green Bay.
The Packers have the salary cap room to play in free agency. That, coupled with an open plea from McCarthy to add a big-bodied target on offense, is a strong indication that Thompson will address tight end/receiver, inside linebacker and running back in free agency and/or the draft.
Chris Havel is a national best-selling author and his latest book is Lombardi: An Illustrated Life. Havel can be heard Monday through Friday from 4-6 p.m. CDT on WDUZ FM 107.5 The Fan, or on AM-1400, as well as Fan Internet Radio (www.thefan1075.com). Havel also hosts Event USA’s MVP Parties the evening before home games.