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Aaron Rodgers can’t be everything to the Packers

Rodgers carried the team last season, but Green Bay needs its new faces to step up in 2017.

NFL: NFC Championship-Green Bay Packers at Atlanta Falcons John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Through 10 games last fall, Aaron Rodgers wasn’t playing like Aaron Rodgers. Statistically, he was closer to second-year passer Marcus Mariota than a two-time league MVP. He was good, but not great.

Put a good quarterback rather than a great one in the Green Bay Packers’ lineup, and you get a 4-6 record. Replace him with prime Rodgers, and you get an eight-game winning streak and a spot in the NFC Championship.

Rodgers had a 96.0 passer rating through 10 games last fall, as Green Bay slid to third place in the NFC North and was in serious danger of missing the playoffs for the first time since 2008. Then after a Week 11 loss, Rodgers said “I feel like we can run the table.”

It was like he flipped the switch, reverting back to the player who carried the Packers on his shoulders so many times. He led Green Bay on an eight-game winning streak, beating five playoff teams along the way.

His stats during that span? A shade under 300 passing yards per game, a 68.9 percent completion rate, a 21:1 TD:INT ratio, and a ridiculous 117.9 rating.

No player in the NFL defines his team’s success more than Rodgers, especially as the Packers have evolved into an offense-first franchise in recent years. But to get back to the Super Bowl, they can’t just rely on him.

The Packers defense has failed Aaron Rodgers in the second half of his career

When the strong-armed quarterback took over as the starter in 2008, Green Bay had at least three defensive players named to the Pro Bowl in each of his first four seasons at the helm. In 2010, when the Packers won their fourth Super Bowl title, Nick Collins, A.J. Hawk, Clay Matthews, Tramon Williams, and Charles Woodson were all standout players who made sure Rodgers didn’t have to win a shootout to carry his team to victory.

Since 2012, however, the Packers have only had six total defenders earn Pro Bowl nods. At no area has their defensive decline been more apparent than in the secondary. Injuries and aging phased out a once-intimidating unit, forcing the team to look for help in the draft. Instead of breeding a new generation of ball hawks, Green Bay has gotten limited returns from draftees like Quinten Rollins, Damarious Randall, and Demetri Goodson. The biggest free agent defensive back it signed from 2012 to 2016 was Jarrett Bush.

Further compounding the problem has been the team’s inability to retain valuable contributors. Casey Hayward struggled with injuries toward the end of his tenure with Green Bay and was allowed to walk in free agency in 2016. He earned his first All-Pro selection last season with the Chargers after leading the league with seven interceptions. The loss of other free agents like Davon House (who returned to Green Bay this offseason after two years with the Jaguars) and Tramon Williams didn’t have as big an impact but still cost the Packers valuable contributors in a season they were desperately needed.

That limited output has shown up in the box score. The Packers defense ranked second in the league in points allowed in 2010 and second in yardage allowed in 2009. Since 2011, they haven’t ranked higher than 11th in either category. Last fall, those ranks dropped to 21st and 22nd, respectively, and they managed just four interceptions all year.

The Packers are slowly changing their ways to fix the holes in their roster

Green Bay has taken a slightly bolder — for the franchise, at least — approach to free agency during Rodgers’ 30s. In 2014, the Packers added pass rusher Julius Peppers, who rewarded their faith with 25 sacks over three seasons and a Pro Bowl appearance. Though two quiet years followed — the team’s most notable free agent addition in 2015-16 was Jared Cook — general manager Ted Thompson made another splash this year by replacing Cook with Martellus Bennett.

That may not seem like much, but it’s certainly a shift. From 2011-13, Green Bay signed only three free agents who spent the prior season in another team’s uniform. The most well-known name of those three was 37-year-old Jeff Saturday, who was with the Packers for one inconsistent season and then retired. Bringing on Peppers for a few seasons, and now adding Bennett, is a high-cost commitment to win-now players who complement the team’s current roster.

2017 has signaled the team’s biggest embrace of free agency in the past decade. After signing seven free agents from 2012-16, Green Bay has brought in five fresh faces this offseason.

Packers Free Agent Pickups, 2012-2017

Year Player Former Team Total Contract Value
Year Player Former Team Total Contract Value
2012 Jeff Saturday Colts $7.75m
2012 Cedric Benson Bengals $825k
2012 Anthony Hargrove Seahawks $825k
2013 None - -
2014 Julius Peppers Bears $26m
2014 Letroy Guion Vikings $1m
2015 None - -
2016 Jared Cook Rams $2.75m
2016 Lerentee McCray Broncos $800k
2017 Martellus Bennett Patriots $21m
2017 Lance Kendricks Rams $4m
2017 Davon House Jaguars $2.8m
2017 Jahri Evans Saints $2.25m
2017 Ricky Jean Francois Washington $2m

But will that be enough?

Rodgers has much of the support he needs on offense thanks to the presence of players like Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, and Davante Adams. Over the last half of 2016, Rodgers’ performance elevated all three of them. Nelson’s stats from the final six games of the season project out to a 117-reception, 1,584 yard, 13 touchdown campaign. Adams’ 2016, his third season in the league, more than doubled his career numbers in terms of receptions, receiving yards, and touchdowns. Cobb overcame injury to provide an explosive presence.

And now he has Bennett. The Packers haven’t added a free agent who can boost their offense quite like a versatile tight end.

What he doesn’t have is the kind of defense that can carry him to a win when he only puts two touchdowns on the board — the Packers were 1-3 last fall in games where they scored 21 points or fewer.

Still, there were a handful of impactful but expensive free agents the team could have pursued, and while Green Bay is the league’s smallest market (and one of its coldest), the opportunity to win right away could have been enough to lure players north. A.J. Bouye and Stephon Gilmore would have been uncharacteristic acquisitions but would have undoubtedly helped. So would re-signing Micah Hyde, the team’s second-most consistent defensive back behind Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.

Letting Hyde walk was a little surprising, but not re-signing guard T.J. Lang was really surprising — and controversial. According to Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, some Packers players were miffed that the team lowballed Lang, who played through a hip injury all last year. He later signed a three-year, $28.5 million deal with the Lions.

“The tough part is, as you get older in this league and you see guys leave — and you have to ask why, a lot,” Rodgers told ESPN Wisconsin’s Jason Wilde. “It’s tough to lose veteran leadership — Julius, T.J., Micah, John Kuhn last year. We’ve replaced them — but the leadership part is tough, and I think that’s an undervalued part of our league that we need guys to step up.”

The Packers don’t like to spend money where they don’t have to, though. They could have invested in another major signing this offseason to bolster a flagging defense. Instead ...

Green Bay is putting its faith in a deep draft class

The Packers came out of the 2017 NFL draft with defensive help in their first four picks. Each pick belies a player they hope will replace the members of 2010’s Super Bowl-winning defense. Kevin King out of Washington is a big cornerback who can be a deterrent similar to Woodson. NC State safety Josh Jones is the center fielder who could fill Nick Collins’ spot. Auburn’s Montravius Adams and Wisconsin’s Vince Biegel could be B.J. Raji and A.J. Hawk, respectively.

Those are simplistic, best-case scenarios, but they make sense. Thompson hit his defensive positions of need, but he also filled the roles that carried Green Bay to its last NFL title. That group will pair with a backlog of young veterans like Randall, Rollins, and Kenny Clark to rebuild the franchise’s Super Bowl bonafides.

That wasn’t limited to the defense. Green Bay’s biggest deficiency on offense comes at tailback, where efforts to build a consistent, yard-churning runner in the Ryan Grant mold have yielded mixed results. Eddie Lacy once looked like the answer, but his inability to stay healthy led to his downfall at Lambeau. Stopgap replacements like Christine Michael, James Starks, Alex Green, Cedric Benson, DuJuan Harris, and Knile Davis have been useful in spurts but ultimately lacking. Former wideout Ty Montgomery looked good in flashes last season, but he still has several questions to answer about his long-term viability at the position.

The Packers neglected the position in the early rounds of a deep draft, choosing to focus on defense instead. Then the Packers went a little nuts on Day 3, adding three running backs: Jamaal Williams, Aaron Jones, and Devante Mays. Those picks, combined with the team’s May 1 release of Michael, suggests bringing in a veteran back like LeGarrette Blount or Chris Johnson is off the table.

Green Bay needs these young players to contribute in a hurry to build a roster that can win when Rodgers is merely good, but not great.

The essence of the Packers has always been anchored to their star quarterbacks. Green Bay’s system of internal development only works with an otherworldly player under center. It started with Bart Starr, back when the strategy was a necessity. It was revived with Brett Favre, who ended a near 30-year span of futility when he arrived in Wisconsin. It continues with Rodgers, the player whose rocket arm has willed the Pack to the playoffs for eight straight seasons.

The Packers stop and start with Rodgers. However, unless they can add the defensive depth that led to a 2010 title, even Rodgers’ best football won’t be enough to carry the team to another Super Bowl.