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Off-season Outlook: Green Bay Packers

There is more than enough returning talent to ensure Green Bay challenges in the NFC North again in 2016, so long as it figures out its direction.

Next season’s playoff race begins this spring as all 32 teams retool their rosters, so it’s time to take a look at what each franchise must do for a better season in 2016. Next up is the Packers, who seem set to get another crack at Super Bowl contention thanks to their well-structured roster. Check back for our other 31 off-season outlooks, which we will be rolling out in reverse draft order over the coming weeks leading up to free agency and the draft.

Key free agents

OT Don Barclay, K Mason Crosby, FB John Kuhn, CB Casey Hayward, WR James Jones, OLB Mike Neal, OLB Nick Perry, DT B.J. Raji, RB James Starks

Player(s) that must be re-signed

Crosby, Starks, Neal or Perry.True to Packers form, not a lot of desperation here. Honestly, the Packers could let all 17 of their remaining pending free agents walk without finding themselves in too much trouble.

Crosby could be the priority, which is a little unusual given that he’s a kicker, but just ask the teams that have struggled to find consistency at that position how interested they would be in the 31-year-old. After his disastrous 2012 season, Crosby has strung together a strong stretch, connecting on 89.2%, 81.8% and 85.7% of his field goal attempts the past three seasons, respectively. He also connected on all 36 extra points this past year, no small task given the changes to that play.

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It’s not outside the realm of possibility that the Packers use their franchise tag on Crosby. The Patriots did so with Stephen Gostkowski last season, at a price of $4.59 million, before the two parties later agreed to a four-year deal worth $17.2 million, with $10 million-plus in guarantees. Crosby should be somewhere south of that deal if he signs long-term, but the franchise tag will be the fallback.

Starks is coming off a career-best season, so it would be hard to see him leave now. Even with his 43 catches and 995 yards from scrimmage, he’s not likely to break the bank after turning 30 later this month—not with a loaded set of free-agent RBs and a deep draft class. Green Bay might be able to replace his production. Why bother with all that, though, if Starks can re-signed at a reasonable price? Eddie Lacy’s fluctuating weight makes having a reliable No. 2 back all the more important.

We’ll dive deeper into the linebackers momentarily. The Packers’ plan, for now, is to move Clay Matthews back outside permanently. There, he’ll join Julius Peppers, who is expected to return for one more season after chalking up 10.5 sacks in 2015. So, the starters are all but set.

However, the depth behind the Matthews-Peppers combo would be nonexistent if Neal and Perry are both allowed to walk. While Matthews is an every-down guy, Peppers came off the field on a third of Green Bay’s defensive snaps last year. Limited OLB options behind him would all but eliminate any chance Matthews could wander on defense a bit.

Most important position to improve

Linebacker.While maintaining depth at outside linebacker will be on GM Ted Thompson’s to-do list, he really has to push for help inside if Matthews shifts back to his edge spot.

One of the two ILB starters in that scenario should be Jake Ryan, who showed enough flashes as a rookie to count on him headed into next season. Beyond that? Well, 2013 draft pick Sam Barrington would be the favorite to join Ryan on the first-team defense, but he still has to get back from the foot injury that sidelined him after Week 1.

As is, inside linebacker sets up as the weak point of the Packers’ defense next year. The worries would be outside instead if Peppers hangs ’em up or the staff keeps Matthews where he played in 2015. Should either of those occur, it would increase the likelihood that Green Bay attempts to retain both Perry and Neal.

The key to it all is Matthews. Wherever he lines up, the Packers are in good shape.

Other positions to improve

Tight end, running back, offensive tackle. Richard Rodgers caught 58 passes and scored eight times this past season. He also averaged an underwhelming 8.8 yards per catch—67th among all TEs with a reception. Take out his Hail Mary catch and that clip drops a full yard. In other words, despite his clear role in the Packers’ passing attack, he hardly qualifies as a matchup headache in the way that tight ends like Rob Gronkowski or Greg Olsen do.

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Green Bay could use one of those threats. (Who couldn’t?) There are a number of draft prospects who at least offer such potential, starting with Hunter Henry and Austin Hooper. If the Packers opt for a rare dip into free agency, a roll of the dice on a Coby Fleener or Vernon Davis might be worth it at the right price.

Running back only becomes a focus if Starks walks or the Packers give up on Lacy. That duo combined for 1,359 yards rushing behind a shoddy line; if the front is better, that number should climb.

The O-line makes for an interesting conundrum. When everyone is healthy and playing well, the Packers have a steady starting five. Neither of those variables maintained its trajectory during the 2015 season, leaving the Packers scrambling in December and January. Fill-in tackle Don Barclay is a free agent, so at the very least the Packers have to find another swing OT—it probably should not be Barclay again. Perhaps J.C. Tretter can handle the job in a pinch, as he did late in 2016. However ...

Tretter, left tackle David Bakhtiari and guards Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang all are on track to be free agents after the 2016 season. If Barclay heads out now and the Packers can’t keep all four of those players, they could find themselves scrambling next off-season. Bet on them getting ahead of the curve.

Overall priority this off-season

Making sure 2015 doesn’t happen again. Hey, give the Packers a load of credit. They weren’t even all that good this season, up to and including the unexpected inconsistency from Aaron Rodgers, and they still won 10 games and pushed the Cardinals to overtime in the divisional round.

Jordy Nelson’s return alone will give Green Bay a bump headed into 2016. His presence is why receiver is not listed on the list of needed upgrades, by the way—Nelson, Randall Cobb, Jeff Janis, Jared Abbrederis, injured rookie Ty Montgomery and the maddening Davante Adams make a group that can excel assuming Rodgers returns to his usual self. He needs Nelson’s reliability.

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The real challenge for Green Bay this off-season, though, is just stabilizing again. The play-calling was awful all year, the line was in disarray at times, the run game was inconsistent and the defense was somewhat in flux because of Matthews working inside. There is more than enough returning talent to ensure Green Bay challenges in the NFC North again in 2016, so long as it figures out its direction.

Picking up some depth, be it through the draft or a rare trip into the free agent market, has to happen. That’s true along the offensive line, in the linebacking corps and at a handful of other spots. Losing a player to injury—even a player of Nelson’s or both offensive tackles’ caliber—shouldn’t leave a contender like the Packers scrambling as much as they had to this past year.