Will Aaron Rodgers Return to Form in 2016?
For the reigning 2014 NFL MVP, it was clear from the moment Jordy Nelson tore his left ACL in the Packers' second preseason game that the 2015 season would be a very different story for Aaron Rodgers.
Rodgers indeed struggled, at least by his lofty standards, completing just 60.7 percent of his passes on 6.68 yards per attempt (both by far career lows) for 3,821 yards, 31 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions.
His 0.06 Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) per drop back -- a statistic in which he led the league in 2014 with a mark of 0.34 -- ranked in the bottom fifth among quarterbacks with at least 300 drop backs in 2015.
He's going to be better in 2016, right?
Rodgers’ Depleted Arsenal
The Packers' offensive struggles in 2015 extended well beyond the loss of their top receiver. Randall Cobb battled through a sprained AC joint in his shoulder for the first several weeks and struggled to adjust to the increased defensive attention in Nelson's absence the rest of the way, posting a 79-catch, 829-yard, 6-touchdown line.
Davante Adams, Nelson’s de facto replacement, missed four games with an ankle injury and was otherwise a massive disappointment. He made only 50 catches -- with 10 drops -- for 483 yards and 1 touchdown, while his 0.34 Reception NEP per target ranked second to last among wide receivers with at least 75 targets.
Rodgers was forced to lean heavily on James Jones (whom the Packers signed just a week before the beginning of the 2015 season and have reportedly had "no interest" in re-signing this summer) to the tune of a 50-catch, 890-yard, 8-touchdown line. Rodgers elevated the 32-year-old cast-off to an incredible 0.94 Reception NEP per target, ranking fourth among wide receivers with at least 75 targets.
Eddie Lacy, expected to be a steady presence in the backfield following strong rookie and sophomore campaigns, was ineffective throughout most of 2015. He managed just 758 yards and 3 touchdowns on the ground while ranking 29th in Rushing NEP per attempt among the 44 running backs with at least 100 carries. The Packers' feeble running game had a visible impact on Rodgers' performance, as his yards per attempt off play-action plummeted from 9.8 in 2014 to just 5.5 last season.
Rodgers also suffered from an unusual lack of protection in the pocket. The Packers' typically stout offensive line surrendered the 4th-most sacks (51) while ranking 25th in Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Sack Rate at 7.9 percent, a statistic in which Rodgers' line ranked 5th and 8th, respectively, in 2013 and 2014.
The Packers' 2015 schedule was also brutal, particularly for Rodgers, as half of his opponents ranked among the top 10 units in the league according to Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP. At first glance, the Packers' 2016 schedule is ostensibly much more forgiving, as they face off against the NFC East and AFC South.
A Return to the Norm
It's difficult to overstate the impact that Nelson, the best receiver by Reception NEP per target since 2000, has on the Packers' offense. In 2014, he hauled in 98 receptions for 1,519 yards and 13 touchdowns while compiling a career-high 140.05 Reception NEP. A repeat performance may be unrealistic, as he is now 31 years old, but there's little reason to believe he can't still produce at an elite level if healthy.
Cobb's underwhelming 2015 season looks like an outlier rather than a trend -- his 0.53 Reception NEP per target was far below the 0.80 to 1.07 range throughout the rest of his career, including a 0.94 mark in 2014 which was tied for second-best (just ahead of Nelson's 0.93) among qualified wide receivers. Still about a month shy of his 26th birthday, Cobb appears extremely likely to bounce back in 2016.
Better protection from an offensive line that is widely expected to rebound and renewed effectiveness from a slimmed-down Eddie Lacy should significantly bolster the outlook of the Packers' offense as a whole in 2016. This offseason, the Packers also added Jared Cook, an underachieving, albeit athletic, tight end who could add an element that has been largely missing from Rodgers’ offense for years. With ascending Jeff Janis -- who exploded for a 7-catch, 145-yard, 2-touchdown line in the Packers' Divisional Round overtime loss to Arizona -- and young receivers Ty Montgomery, Jared Abbrederis, and Trevor Davis poised to compete with Adams, Rodgers' supplementary weapons have plenty of upside on paper.
All of the pieces are in place for a return to dominance for Rodgers. Ultimately, his ill-fated 2015 season should be just a blip on his Hall of Fame career.