This fantasy preview is part of a preseason series by FantasyLabs Editor-in-Chief Matthew Freedman with contributions from Ian Hartitz and Joe Holka. Other pieces in the series are available on our Fantasy Football Preview Dashboard.
The Packers are perennial conference favorites with Aaron Rodgers under center but have not reached the Super Bowl since 2010. For a storied franchise with 10 or more wins in five of the last six seasons, that may not be good enough. Green Bay seems likely to employ a pass-first approach again in 2017, with Jordy Nelson another season removed from his ACL injury and Ty Montgomery settled in at running back. Division winners at 10-6 after closing out the season on a six-game winning steak, the Packers are always a strong bet to make the postseason. For the franchise, 2017 is about playing football in February 2018.
Head coach Mike McCarthy’s first stint with the Packers was as the quarterbacks coach in 1999 — a disappointing 8-8 season in which Brett Favre threw for 4,000 yards and wore Wranglers. The Packers cleaned house in the offseason, and McCarthy was hired as the offensive coordinator in New Orleans, where he stayed for a half-decade (2000-04) before one season (2005) as the 49ers OC.
While McCarthy roamed the French Quarter and streets of San Francisco, Favre thrived in the Frozen Tundra in HC Mike Sherman’s West Coast offense, leading the team to five straight winning seasons while breaking franchise records in touchdown passes (2003) and passing yards (2004). Sherman trailed only Hall-of-Famer Vince Lombardi with his .663 winning percentage. Regardless, Sherman was fired after the 2005 season, when the team (decimated by injuries) went 4-12 for its first losing season since 1991.
General manager Ted Thompson picked McCarthy to be Sherman’s successor, and within two seasons the Packers were 13-3 and in the NFC Championship as McCarthy finished second in 2007 Coach of the Year voting behind Bill Belichick. Thompson promptly signed McCarthy to a five-year contract extension worth $3.4 million per year. The transition from Favre to Rodgers started the next season, when the Packers went 6-10 and missed the playoffs despite finishing fifth in the NFL in points scored. Since then the Packers have never missed the playoffs, winning the Super Bowl two years later.
Although Joe Philbin (2007-11), Tom Clements (2012-14), and Edgar Bennett (2015-present) have all spent time serving as OC, McCarthy has been the team’s primary play-caller for much of his tenure. In 2015, Clements was given play-calling duties and elevated to associate HC and Bennett was promoted from wide receivers coach to OC. In Week 14, however, displeased with Clements’ performance, McCarthy reassumed control of the offense and has said that he will “never surrender play-calling again.” Bennett is still OC, but Clements is no longer in Green Bay.
While we should expect the Packers to be a high-scoring team — only once in the Rodgers era have they finished outside the top 10 in scoring (2015, the Jordy-less season) — we shouldn’t necessarily expect them to have a pass-happy offense. They were second in pass/run ratio last year, but they had a wide receiver playing running back for most of the season. On average they’ve skewed toward the pass with Rodgers, but they’ve been top-10 in pass/run ratio only twice in the last nine years. In general, they tend to be balanced.
That said, it’s highly likely they won’t be a run-heavy team. Not once in the Rodgers era have the Packers been top-10 in rushing attempts, and while they don’t throw the ball a voluminous amount they’ve still been top-10 in passing yards every season of the Rodgers era except for 2015.
How is it that they rank high in passing yardage without throwing the ball a lot? Rodgers is efficient, and the team doesn’t play quickly: Not once in the Rodgers era have the Packers been top-five in neutral pace. At the same time, with the exception of last year, the offense has been top-10 in pace since Nelson’s breakout in 2011.
In 2017, it seems likely that McCarthy’s offense will play faster and throw more than the average offense — which makes sense with Rodgers at quarterback — but we shouldn’t expect the Packers to be top-five in pass attempts, pass/run ratio, or pace. Historically, that’s not how they’ve played.
Outside of wide receiver, there’s been significant turnover on offense:
- QB: Aaron Rodgers
- RB: Ty Montgomery/Eddie Lacy/James Starks/Christine Michael –> Montgomery/Jamaal Williams/Aaron Jones
- WR: Jordy Nelson
- WR: Davante Adams
- WR: Randall Cobb
- TE: Jared Cook/Richard Rodgers –> Martellus Bennett/Lance Kendricks/Rodgers
- LT: David Bakhtiari
- LG: Lane Taylor
- C: J.C. Tretter–> Corey Linsley
- RG: T.J. Lang –> Jahri Evans
- RT: Bryan Bulaga
The most notable turnover is probably in the backfield. At least in the short term, Montgomery — a converted slot receiver who filled in for an injured Lacy last season — looks to be the feature back, although he’s reportedly being pushed for snaps by the fourth-rounder Williams. Replacing Cook is Bennett, a top-10 overall Pro Football Focus tight end. He represents an upgrade at the position.
Green Bay will have to overcome some turnover on the offensive line, but the Packers still have two top-15 PFF tackles in Bakhtiari and Bulaga. The veteran guard Evans is a downgrade from Lang, who left in free agency, but the Packers are strong in the middle with a top-10 PFF center in Linsley. Overall, Thompson and McCarthy have done an admirable job of reconstructing this unit.
Dom Capers will enter his ninth year as the Packers defensive coordinator with not a ton of new faces but considerable shuffling on the depth chart:
- DE: Mike Daniels
- NT: Letroy Guion/Christian Ringo –> Kenny Clark
- DE: Kenny Clark/Dean Lowry –> Lowry/Ricky Jean Francois
- OLB: Nick Perry/Julius Peppers/Jay Elliot –> Perry/Elliott
- MLB: Blake Martinez –> Martinez/Jordan Tripp
- MLB: Jake Ryan/Joe Thomas
- OLB: Clay Matthews/Datone Jones/Kyler Fackrell –> Matthews/Fackrell
- CB: Damarious Randall –> Davon House
- CB: Quinten Rollins/Ladarius Gunter –> Gunter
- SCB: Micah Hyde –> Randall/Rollins
- SS: Morgan Burnett
- FS: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix
Clark is slated to move to nose tackle but was a top-35 PFF pass rusher last year. With the departure of Peppers, Perry could emerge as the team’s top pass rusher, given that in 2016 he was a top-20 PFF rusher. While the safeties Burnett and Clinton-Dix constitute one of the top defensive backfield duos in the league, the Packers are still weak in the secondary. Randall, Rollins, and Gunter are no better than replacement-level corners, and House is hardly an improvement. Last year the Packers were 31st in yards and 29th in touchdowns allowed through the air, and they haven’t done much to fix their secondary problems.
For all the uncertainty surrounding the defense and secondary, the team’s skill position players should be productive — but how many weapons can this elite offense reasonably support?
Aaron Rodgers, QB
Rodgers put the Packers offense on his back in the second half of the 2016 season, completing 71.0 percent of his passes during the team’s season-ending win streak. With a career-high 610 pass attempts Rodgers finally was given the opportunity to marry volume with efficiency, throwing a career-high 45 touchdowns. With the exception of the Jordy-less 2015 and the injury-impacted 2013, Rodgers has been a top-two fantasy quarterback every year he’s been a starter. Even if his volume regresses — last year he set career-high marks in rushing attempts (67) and rushing yards (369) — “R-E-L-A-X.” Last year he was second in the league with 0.54 fantasy points per dropback and 5.3 passes of 20-plus yards per game. His efficiency and tendency to throw deep aren’t going anywhere.
Right now Rodgers has an average draft position (ADP) of 25.4 in DRAFT best ball leagues. He’s typically the first quarterback off the board and is the first passer highlighted in our top 100 NFL players, but drafting passers with premium picks isn’t usually sharp. Rodgers, though, will likely be a popular daily fantasy sports play. Even though he was expensive last year, paying up for him was a viable strategy, as he led the position with 26.07 DraftKings points per game (PPG) and a +6.34 Plus/Minus and had a strong 73.7 percent Consistency Rating (per our Trends tool). Of course, he also led the position with a 9.7 percent ownership rate in large-field tournaments. This year FantasyLabs users can review ownership trends across guaranteed prize pools of various buy-in levels with our DFS Ownership Dashboard, which is reason enough to subscribe to FantasyLabs.
Nevertheless, Rodgers has historically been better and lower-owned at home (25.1 PPG, 7.6 percent) and as a favorite (23.77, 8.6) than on the road (22.12, 10.5) and as a dog (22.81, 11.6). As a home favorite — and he’s almost always favored at home — Rodgers has been great (25.26 PPG) at reduced ownership (8.0 percent). It’s possible that sharp players will take advantage of Rodgers’ ownership discount as a home favorite. Be sure to monitor our Vegas Dashboard to see how the market views the Packers at Lambeau Field. If you want to stack Rodgers with Nelson, Adams, Cobb, or Montgomery, do it with our Lineup Builder.
In the props market, Rodgers is tied at +500 with Tom Brady for the highest odds to win the MVP. That line is probably fair: The Patriots and Packers currently have the highest implied odds to win the Super Bowl, and Rodgers and Brady lead all active players with two MVPs apiece. For what it’s worth, both of Rodgers’ MVPs have come since Nelson emerged as his No. 1 wideout.
At +700, Rodgers has the third-highest implied odds to finish the regular season with the most passing yards. Drew Brees is +350 and Brady is +550. Brees has won the passing title in seven of the last 11 years, and over the last half-decade Brady has significantly outperformed Rodgers on a per-game basis: 284.3 yards vs. 266.6. Even Matt Ryan (293.3) at +1,000 has outperformed Rodgers. Given that he had a career-high 610 attempts last year and was still only seventh in the league with 276.8 yards per game, Rodgers should probably be avoided at the current line.
Ty Montgomery, RB
Montgomery has the build (6’0″ and 221 lbs.) of a feature back and the skills of an elite slot receiver. He was the 2016 leader in elusive rating as a running back as well as a top-15 runner and receiver (PFF). He led the NFL in yards after contact per touch (2.8) and his 9.1 percent breakaway run rate was second. He is dynamic with the ball in his hands, especially when in space or battling through contact at the second level. Via my Rushing Expectation methodology, Montgomery’s efficiency as a runner and receiver last year was in the 70th and 83rd percentile of a 60-player sample.
The overwhelming majority of Montgomery’s runs were against seven or fewer defenders in the box, but it’s tough to hold that against him. Defenses rarely have the luxury of dedicating more than seven defenders to stopping the run against Green Bay, and that is unlikely to change in 2017. Although Montgomery needs to improve his pass protection, he has a massive opportunity to emerge as a top-10 producer. In his nine games last year with at least 10 opportunities (including playoffs), he turned 6.2 targets and 9.2 carries into 91.1 yards, 4.9 receptions, and 0.55 touchdowns per game as well as 17.56 DraftKings PPG. At a minimum, he’s likely to be a strong receiving back in an offense that slants toward the pass.
Jamaal Williams, RB
At Brigham Young, the rookie Williams had a strong track record of reliable ball security and pass protection, which could enable him to overtake Montgomery on the depth chart. While Williams is more of a two-down grinder (6’0″ and 212 lbs., 4.59-second 40) than dynamic playmaker, he did have a 45/440/1 receiving line in his first two seasons of college. He can catch the ball. And he’s also a workhorse. He led BYU in yards rushing each year he played (he missed 2015 “for personal reasons”), and on a per-game basis across his entire college career he averaged 103.9 yards and 0.84 touchdowns per contest. If he finds himself playing a significant number of snaps, he might be good enough as an all-around back to acquit himself well.
Aaron Jones, RB
Selected in the fifth round, Jones enters the NFL as an intriguing player. A mid-sized (5’9″ and 208 lbs.) workhorse out of Texas-El Paso, Jones feasted against Conference USA competition for four seasons, averaging 136 scrimmage yards and 1.14 touchdowns per contest across his career. Although he has middling straight-line speed (4.56-second 40), Jones has elite agility (6.82-second three-cone) and explosiveness (127.0-inch broad) and was a capable receiver in college with a 67/632/7 receiving line across his final 26 games. He’s currently buried on the third-string offense, but he might have more upside than Williams given his superior receiving skills and athletic profile.
Jordy Nelson, WR
Even though he’s 32 years old, Nelson is still a scoring monster. Eleven of his 14 touchdowns came in the red zone, where he led the league with 29 and 15 targets inside the 20- and 10-yard lines. Returning from his 2015 preseason ACL tear, Nelson struggled to isolate himself from defensive backs early in the season — he had 2.3 yards of separation in Weeks 1-11 — but from Week 12 on his average separation spiked to 3.3 (Next Gen Stats). An elite route-runner, Jordy lined up all over the field: 508 snaps lined up out wide on the left, 284 snaps on the right, and 278 snaps in the slot. His versatility as a receiver should allow the Packers to scheme him open regularly.
While it’s possible that the addition of the Black Unicorn could result in fewer high-value targets for Jordy near the end zone, it’s likely that he’ll still get his. Since 2013, he’s averaged 13.7 targets per season inside the 10. He’s an established red-zone threat. Since breaking out in 2011, Jordy has seven and 17 more touchdowns receiving than Antonio Brown and Julio Jones in 16 and three fewer games. Over the last three years he’s averaged 19.77 DraftKings PPG. He’s fair value (and probably discounted) at his 12.1 DRAFT ADP.
Davante Adams, WR
Adams is best as a role player, but that doesn’t mean his 2016 was a fluke, especially since Rodgers has consistently targeted him for two seasons now (7.2/7.6 targets per game in 2015/16). Although he doesn’t have exceptional speed (4.56-second 40), Adams led the team with 8.4 yards per target last year and was second with his 12.4-yard average depth of target. Only five players in the league saw more than Adams’ 10 targets inside the 10-yard line.
Right now Adams is +10,000 to lead the league in receiving touchdowns: Nelson is +2800. While Nelson led the NFL last year with 14, Adams was in a three-way tie for second with 12. Considering that Rodgers propelled James Jones to a league-high 14 touchdowns in 2012 — with Jordy active for 12 games and just a year removed from 15 scores — it’s possible for another receiver in Green Bay to outscore Nelson (and everyone else in the NFL). Adams is an obvious regression candidate, but he’s almost certainly discounted given his quarterback and situation.
Randall Cobb, WR
Cobb ran 75.1 percent of his plays in the slot in 2016, so it’s easy to view him as a niche receiver with a limited and diminishing skill set. Over the last three years, his performance has markedly declined:
- 2014: 19.40 DraftKings PPG
- 2015: 13.24
- 2016: 11.64
At the same time, it’s probably unwise to read too much into these numbers. In 2015, the Packers were without Nelson and Cobb (playing through a season-long shoulder injury) had to masquerade as the team’s No. 1 receiver, a role to which he was ill-suited.
And then last year he had to deal with neck/back, hamstring, and ankle injuries that caused him to miss three full games and significant parts of two more games and to function as a decoy in yet another game before the Packers held him out for two weeks to heal. If we discount the three injury-impacted games in which he partially played, Cobb appeared in 13 games (including playoffs). In those games, he averaged 15.43 DraftKings PPG.
Just as Adams’ 2016 potential was undervalued because people overweighted his 2015 injury-tainted performance, Cobb’s 2017 potential is being undervalued because of 2016. Cobb has some underappreciated upside at his 75.6 DRAFT ADP. Amazingly he turns only 27 right before the season starts.
Martellus Bennett, TE
Despite getting only 73 (and 10 red zone) targets, Bennett was serviceable for the Patriots last season, averaging 11.07 PPG during the regular season on 77.5 percent of the offensive snaps. Bennett finds himself again with an elite quarterback on a team likely to be favored in most games — a historically favorable situation for tight ends. With an average of 5.2 touchdowns per season over the last half-decade, Bennett offers some situational upside at his 92.0 DRAFT ADP.
In the futures market the Packers currently have a 2017 win total of 10.0 games with a -150 over and +120 under. They’re also -500 to make the playoffs and +350 not to. Writing for Rotoworld, Warren Sharp gives the Packers the 12th-hardest schedule of the season but with substantially easier run defenses than pass defenses. The public is bullish on the Packers for good cause. They have arguably the best quarterback in the league, they’ve made the playoffs for the last eight years, and the Packers (on average) are 10.3-5.6-0.1 in the Rodgers era. I don’t see much advantage to betting against the Packers given the current lines — and betting against Rodgers seems #notsharp — but given the problems on defense the lines carry hidden risk.
The Packers are currently +750 to win the Super Bowl, +400 to win the NFC, and -200 to win the NFC North. The Patriots are the only team with greater odds to win the Super Bowl at +350, but they also are expected to walk though the AFC with a +190 odds. While New England is the clear class of their conference, the Packers will have to deal with teams like the Seahawks, Falcons, and Cowboys to get to the Super Bowl. Since 2011 (when Nelson broke out), the Packers have won the division each year except for one (2015, the year Jordy missed with his ACL injury). As long as Rodgers and Nelson stay on the field, the Packers should retain their NFC North title.
In researching for this piece I consulted Evan Silva’s excellent Packers Fantasy Preview at Rotoworld and relied on data from Pro Football Reference, Pro Football Focus, Football Outsiders, Football Perspective, PlayerProfiler, Team Rankings, The Power Rank, NFL.com, and the apps at RotoViz as well as the FantasyLabs Tools and Models.
Ian Hartitz and Matt LaMarca contributed research to this article.