Two of the four teams in the NFL’s conference championship games last weekend featured old starting quarterbacks playing really good football.
New Orleans’ Drew Brees (age 40) was an MVP candidate this year who led the NFL with his career-best passer rating (115.7). New England’s Tom Brady (41) remains the indispensable player on a team that next weekend will appear in its ninth Super Bowl since he became the starter in 2001
What’s instructive is the way their teams have built their offenses in recent years to help their aging stars at the game’s key position. New England and New Orleans haven’t done it exactly the same, but they’re close enough to suggest what the Green Bay Packers should be thinking about as age (35) and injuries start slowing Aaron Rodgers down.
What jumps out most is that even as passing keeps increasing leaguewide, the Saints and Patriots in recent years have emphasized the running back position and offensive line play.
In 2017, after three straight 7-9 seasons, the Saints spent a first-round draft pick on a starting right tackle (Ryan Ramczyk) and an early third-rounder on a running back (Alvin Kamara). Yes, it’s important that both ended up being very good players. But just using high picks at those positions shows the Saints were looking to help Brees in the twilight of his career.
Ramczyk joined an offensive line that includes some other big investments: a former third-rounder at left tackle (Terron Armstead), a former first-rounder at left guard (Andrus Peat) and a center (Max Unger) who was the key acquisition in the trade that sent star tight end Jimmy Graham to Seattle.
The Saints also drafted Kamara high even though they had a good starter in former first-round pick Mark Ingram. Now their 1-2 punch at running back is as good as any team in the league.
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Likewise, just last April, Patriots coach Bill Belichick selected a guard (Isaiah Wynn, No. 23 overall) with one first-round pick and a running back (Sony Michel, No. 31) with another. Wynn’s season ended in training camp because of a torn Achilles, and a lot of pundits considered the Michel pick a reach at the time. But after watching Michel (53 carries for 242 yards in the playoffs) hammer the ball down the field in the playoffs the last two weeks, is anyone calling him a reach now?
The Patriots also have a second running back, James White, who’s the best receiver in the game coming out of the backfield. He had a staggering 15 receptions in a postseason rout of the Chargers and is as valuable as anyone in that offense not named Brady. He and Michel are now the heart of the Patriots’ offense.
What jumped out as much as anything the last couple of weeks isn’t just how quickly Brady got the ball out, but also how clean the pocket was. You might have noticed that at the end of the AFC championship game against the Chiefs, Brady’s white jersey didn’t have a grass stain or speck of dirt on it. That’s a direct result of how well the Patriots run the ball and protect their quarterback.
Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst will have a lot of work to do in the offseason if he wants to help Rodgers in the same way. To run the ball like new coach Matt LaFleur has said he wants to, Gutekunst will have to add a quality running back (Aaron Jones’ health is too shaky) and rebuild his offensive line.
These things aren’t free. With 10 draft picks, including two in the first round, and $40 million or more in salary-cap room, Gutekunst has some resources to spend at those spots, but he also has needs almost across the board. He’s going to have to make some smart choices.
Helping Rodgers as he gets older is the reason signing Le’Veon Bell should at least be on the table. I’ve gotten plenty of pushback on that proposition, and I understand it. Bell will cost a lot of money, reportedly is a positive test away from a marijuana suspension and plays a position in which players are viewed as more or less interchangeable. Teams are wary of investing a lot of money in any one of them.
But a few backs are a cut above, and Bell is among them. He’s in the class of the Rams’ Todd Gurley for excelling not only as a runner but in the passing game, which is no small thing in today’s NFL.
Remember also that running back is on the Packers’ list of big needs. Jones is a good player, but after his third MCL tear in 13 months the Packers would be crazy to count on him to stay healthy, especially if he’s getting 15 or more touches a game.
It’s either sign a good back (Bell is by far the best available) or add one in the draft, very possibly with a high pick. In fact, I could see Gutekunst spending his second first-rounder (No. 30 overall) on a back, which is fine. But if he signed Bell, the GM could use it on the highest-graded prospect at almost any other position and address a big need. He has only so many high picks to go around.
Now maybe new coach Matt LaFleur wants to base his offense on the outside zone run like his mentor, Kyle Shanahan of the San Francisco 49ers. If so, Bell, an inside runner, wouldn’t be worth the money.
But if LaFleur’s template is Sean McVay’s offense with Gurley – LaFleur was McVay’s offensive coordinator two years ago – then Bell is the guy.
Bell turns 27 in February, so anyone signing him should look at it as a two-year deal even though on paper it will be longer. Yes, cost is a concern, especially at that position. If it’s $16 million or $17 million a year, take a pass. But in the $12 million or $13 million range, and LaFleur covets him? It’s something Gutekunst has to strongly consider.
“I’d do it,” said a scout with an NFC team. “Cold-weather back. He can catch and run. He’s a big-time weapon.”
To protect Rodgers better, Gutekunst has some serious work to do on the offensive line, too.
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His team is strong at left tackle (David Bakhtiari) and center (Corey Linsley). But Bryan Bulaga’s declining health (back injury last season, knee and hip in previous years) puts starting right tackle in play, as is at least one guard spot and maybe both.
To give Rodgers more room to step up in the pocket, Gutekunst definitely needs to upgrade right guard, where Byron Bell was the primary starter last season. The GM also must find a viable starter at left guard in case Lane Taylor doesn’t bounce back from a tough 2018 that included sitting out all last offseason because of ankle surgery.
Anyone who watched the Packers last season knows their needs run much deeper than running back and offensive line. Edge rusher is at the top of the list, and there’s also tight end, safety, inside linebacker and cornerback because of Kevin King’s precarious health.
Gutekunst’s resources, while plentiful, aren’t unlimited. But the Patriots and Saints show one smart way to spend them as Rodgers’ career hits its home stretch.