— The NFL may be a copycat league, but some teams are harder to copy than others.
Let’s say you are a general manager who hopes to use the 2010 Packers as your blueprint for building a champion. First, you must find an “Aaron Rodgers type:” an elite quarterback prospect who falls to you in the draft, then spends three seasons watching a Hall of Famer from the bench. Good luck with that.
Next, you must find “the next Clay Mathews,” knowing that pass rushers with his talent and intensity come along once every five years. You can settle for Von Miller or Robert Quinn, but you must then hope your defensive coordinator helps them thrive. Anyone coach can crib the basics of Dom Capers’ playbook, but Capers succeeds by evolving and adding new wrinkles to his scheme. Few coaches possess both his experience and his imagination.
While the Packers are inimitable in some ways, some parts can be copied: the cornerback blitzes, the four-receiver passing concepts, and the full house backfield. This doesn’t require four years of planning, a bunch of first-round picks, and a coaching overhaul. In fact, it can be done on the cheap.
That’s how the Packers did it.
Once you get past Rodgers, Matthews, and a few others, their roster is loaded with late draft picks and street free agents, exactly the kind of players teams will be forced to rely on in the lockout-marred 2011 season.
Here are some “Packers types” who will be available after the first round in this year’s draft. With a little bargain hunting, a team can make itself look a lot more like the defending champions.
The Woodson Type
Charles Woodson, like Rodgers and Matthews, is a rare bird. How many former Heisman Trophy winning defenders are hanging around the free agent wire, hoping to re-ignite their careers as hybrid cornerback/safety/pass rushers? (Answer: Zero). LSU’s Patrick Peterson and Raiders free agent Nnamdi Asomugha could provide Woodson-level talent at premium prices, but neither can duplicate his experience and versatility.
Still, a younger player could fill the Woodson role. All it takes is a cornerback who:
In other words, a team seeking a Woodson type must find a smart, experienced defensive back who can take on blocks, not necessarily a natural cover corner.
Here are two late-round prospects who can fill the Woodson role.
Kevin Rutland of Missouri is a well-built defender who has played cornerback and safety. He has five career sacks, four in his senior season, and gets high marks for his intelligence and intangibles.
Rutland ran a 4.59 40-yard dash at the Combine (it improved to 4.46 at his pro day) and may not have the speed or quickness to be a natural cover corner. But he is built to defend big receivers and fast tight ends, making a natural to line up in the slot, where he can easily blitz off the edge. After a fine pro day, he’s a fourth- or fifth-round prospect.
Anthony Gaitor of Florida International is undersized at 5-foot-9, 175 pounds and doesn’t have the elite quickness a tiny cornerback needs to shut down No. 1 receivers. He also played against lower-level competition. But Gaitor was a four-year starter, and he played cornerback, free safety, in the slot, and even as a hybrid nickel linebacker.
Gaitor has a knack for recognizing reverses, options, and wide receiver screens. He takes on blockers, penetrates, and disrupts plays, making him perfect for an edge-blitz role. He also has four career sacks. Gaitor will be on the board in the fourth or fifth round.
The Jones and Jordy Type
When the Packers used spread formations and empty backfields, each receiver had a clearly defined role, particularly backups James Jones and Jordy Nelson. Jones was a boundary receiver who worked the sidelines: according to the Football Outsiders database, 77 of his 87 passes were thrown outside the hashmarks. Nelson, meanwhile, was a classic underneath receiver -- 49 of the 64 passes thrown to him traveled less than 15 yards in the air, 37 of them less than 10 yards.
A boundary receiver must have the route-running skill to make sudden cuts, plus the body control to outjump defenders and keep his feet inbounds. He does not have to be huge, tough, or particularly great at reading zones. By contrast, an underneath receiver must be able to diagnose coverages, find holes in zones, and brace for impact after the catch. His cuts don’t have to be perfect, and he does not need blazing speed.
Teams looking for a Jones to work the sidelines or a Nelson to work the middle (or both) should consider these mid-round prospects:
Vincent Brown of San Diego State is not as big or fast as an elite prospect like A.J. Green. He gets to full speed in a hurry, however, which forces defenders to backpedal and allows him to run out-routes and stop routes. Brown can out-jump defenders and reacts well to badly thrown passes. He’s a James Jones type, only better. Brown’s stock is rising after a fine pro day, so teams may have to pounce on him in the second round.
Niles Paul of Nebraska is built like a running back (6-foot-1, 224 pounds), and was effective on drags and crossing routes. Paul can also return punts and kicks and make tackles on special teams, musts for any player hoping to stick as a third or fourth wideout. He’s not a natural route runner, but give him a Nelson-like role in a spread offense, and Paul will not only make some catches in traffic but stretch the seam with the occasional deep route. Paul ran a 4.45 40-yard dash at his Pro Day, so he won’t last past the third round.
The Kuhn and Korey Type
According to the Football Outsiders database, the Packers used some variation on the full-house, three-running back formation 43 times in the 2010 regular season. The rest of the league combined only used three-back backfields 163 times. Forty-three plays may not sound like a lot, but for opponents worried about Rodgers’ arm and multi-receiver sets, the sudden switch to the full house caused multiple problems.
Even when they weren’t in the full house formation, the Packers often used fullback John Kuhn as an I-formation tailback, giving them a pile-driving rushing option. With Kuhn, Korey Hall, and Quinn Johnson on the roster, the Packers could put three fullbacks on the field at once. It was a powerful counterpoint to a pass-heavy offense, and it’s a tactic that is easy to copy -- fullbacks are usually lying around in the seventh round of the draft, or after the draft as rookie free agents.
Teams looking for a Kuhn type (fullback-halfback tweener) or a Hall-Johnson type (traditional thumper) can stock up on players like the ones listed below. As a bonus, these role players provide an upgrade on special teams.
Robert Hughes of Notre Dame, like Kuhn, is a converted running back. Hughes is agile for a 230-pounder, able to make cuts at the line of scrimmage, spin away from tacklers, and outrun many linebackers. On tape, Hughes looks more the Chargers’ Mike Tolbert, another fullback-halfback tweener, than Kuhn. That’s not a bad thing, either. Tolbert rushed for 735 yards and 11 touchdowns last year. Hughes may still be on the board in the seventh round.
Owen Marecic was a two-way starter for Stanford, playing both fullback and linebacker. As a fullback, he was a steady lead blocker who could squirt through holes. As a linebacker, he was a fundamentally-sound gap plugger. Like Hall (who played linebacker in college), Marecic can anchor the special teams units, so he may be drafted in the sixth or seventh round. He’s a natural as a full-house fullback.