From Clark Judge, CBS Sportsline
~The Green Bay Packers had so many injuries last season, they almost failed to make the playoffs, not qualifying until the last day. But then a funny thing happened: They ran the table, winning their first Super Bowl since 1996, and now all those injuries that crippled Green Bay last season make them the favorite to return.
Follow the logic: With 15 players on injured reserve, including six starters, the Packers were forced to press unlikely candidates into starting spots — people like running back James Starks, safety Charlie Peprah, tight end Andrew Quarless and linebacker Desmond Bishop. So they played, they produced and now they’re part of a roster that is so deep it’s hard to find cracks in the ground floor.
But that’s our job, so let’s start looking. The Packers don’t need to find a starter in this year’s draft. They have plenty of quality candidates. But they still have needs, though they’re few with all the players they have coming back. Nevertheless, there isn’t anyone out there who can’t improve, and the Packers qualify. So let’s start the search and find what they’re missing.
QB: Aaron Rodgers was the Super Bowl MVP, one of the best quarterbacks in the business and is entering his fourth season as a starter. That’s good. Matt Flynn is the backup, and while inexperienced, he nearly beat New England in last year’s only start. That’s even better. Consider the Packers loaded here.
RB: The Packers played nearly all of last season without Ryan Grant, and they were supposed to be handicapped. Turns out they weren’t, largely because James Starks got a chance to play — and he became the postseason’s leading rusher. With Starks pushing Grant, the Packers are in better shape at this position than they’ve been in years, even though Brandon Jackson and John Kuhn are free agents. I could see them drafting a prospect to groom, but not immediately.
WR: Donald Driver turned 36 this month, and while he has been good for a long time, he’s bound to crater. So prepare for that day. Yeah, I know, the Packers have James Jones and Jordy Nelson to step in — which is what they did in Super Bowl XLV — but neither seems qualified as a No. 2, especially the inconsistent Jones, who drops too many passes. Brett Swain is a guy who may show up, but I wouldn’t count on it. What I would count on is drafting another top receiver for one of the game’s top quarterbacks. If you build your club around Aaron Rodgers, you better arm him with weapons — and having Jermichael Finley back at tight end will help. But so would another top wideout.
TE: Finley is back, and he’s not only a terrific red zone threat and one of Rodgers’ favorite targets; he’s one of the best pass-catching tight ends in the game. Yet the Packers won without him, and this is not brain surgery, folks. The Packers are better because of the Finley injury. Why? Because they discovered Quarless, and while he’s no Finley, the Packers proved they can win with him.
OL: The club addressed the tackle position last year with the draft of University of Iowa tackle Bryan Bulaga, and he performed better than expected after stepping in for injured Mark Tauscher in Week 5. On the left side, Chad Clifton — who rebounded surprisingly well from knee problems — was injury free for the first time in three seasons and played well enough to be chosen to the Pro Bowl. But he turns 35 this season and has durability issues. Plus, Bulaga is best suited for the left side. With Tauscher seemingly out of the picture, this becomes an area the club may have to address again. Granted, the Packers could move Bulaga to left tackle and try third-year pro T.J. Langat right tackle, but he’s in the mix at left guard, too. Plus, the team could do nothing, and hope Clifton has a repeat of 2010. Nevertheless, another tackle wouldn’t hurt.
DL: Depth was an issue in 2010 when the Packers played without defensive tackle Johnny Jolley (suspended); without defensive end Cullen Jenkins for five games, including the last four of the regular season; without Ryan Pickett for two games; and without Justin Harrell and Mike Neal for most of the season. Yet the club withstood the losses, largely because defensive tackle B.J. Raji was terrific, producing 6.5 sacks and plugging the middle of the league’s 18th-best run defense. Expect the Packers to be better against the run because they will have the bodies they did not a year ago. But they could use help on the outside. Pickett was nothing more than ordinary after splitting out to defensive end, and Cullen Jenkins probably will move on — opening the door for someone like Jarius Wynn.
LB: When Green Bay lost outside linebacker Brad Jones to a season-ending injury, it plugged Frank Zombo and free agent Erik Walden into his position, and both produced results.
But they could use a playmaker opposite Clay Matthews, runner-up in the Defensive Player of the Year voting, so they can start in April. I know, Jones is back and he showed some pass-rush ability in 2009. But he has durability issues. Zombo and Jones were decent, but the Packers could upgrade. Understand that we’re grasping. Green Bay ranked second in scoring defense last season and fifth overall, so its needs aren’t urgent. Nevertheless, it could vault to the top of the charts by improving this position. Oh, and its inside linebackers? With Hawk, Bishop and Nick Barnett inside, the Packers are deep and solid.
DB: There is no better pair of cornerbacks than Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams, but Woodson might be better suited to safety, which leaves nickel-back Sam Shields to step in. OK, fine. But then what? Pat Lee is inexperienced, which means there could be a need for a backup. But there isn’t at safety, where Woodson could be in the mix. If he’s not — and I’m not saying he must move — the Packers have the always dependable Nick Collins, Peprah, Atari Bigby and Morgan Burnett, last year’s promising rookie who was lost to a knee injury. Yeah, I’d say they’re stronger than most here.
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|Five possibilities: Packers|
|Cameron Heyward, DL, Ohio State: Can line up almost anywhere. Not a real outside pass-rusher but is terrific vs. the run and is versatile.
Aaron Williams, CB, Texas: Has great size, making him a prototypical NFL cornerback. Good run defender and solid defending the pass.
Jonathan Baldwin, WR, Pittsburgh: He should go somewhere late in the first round or early in the second. Has great size and is capable of making the circus catch.
Brooks Reed, OLB, Arizona: Three-year starter who is a bit of a tweener. More suited as 3-4 OLB and is a solid special-teams contributor.
Gabe Carimi, OT, Wisconsin: He probably won’t last this long, and the odds of Green Bay taking a tackle with the first pick two years in a row are slim. But if he’s there, how do you pass on him?
|Team Needs: All 32 teams|
By Don Banks, Sports Illustrated
~Now that the Pack is all the way back, the reality is they’re not going away again for quite some time. If you had to identify a team that’s well positioned to weather what could be the most unusual offseason in NFL history, and come out standing strong on the other side, the Green Bay Packers might just win by unanimous vote.
The newly christened champions of Super Bowl XLV are young, talented and extremely well run, from the very top of their organization on down. Plenty of teams talk about having a Super Bowl window of opportunity, but the view from where the Packers stand today looks clearer and brighter than it has for any NFL champion in recent memory.
Consider the following:
• Super Bowl MVP Aaron Rodgers is just 27 and entering his prime as one of the game’s elite quarterbacks. His 4-0 playoff run and Super Bowl victory over the Steelers finally chased away the last lingering ghost of Brett Favre in Green Bay and established Rodgers as one of the game’s preeminent playmakers and team leaders. Only Rodgers’ penchant for concussions in 2010, when he suffered two, registers as a potential concern that bears monitoring.
• Green Bay general manager Ted Thompson and head coach Mike McCarthy are an effective and disciplined management tandem, and Packers team president Mark Murphy indicated that both are in line for contract extensions this offseason following their Super Bowl triumph. Thompson and McCarthy have two years remaining on the five-year deals they signed after Green Bay’s trip to the 2007 NFC title game, but now they’re in line for even longer deals and significant pay raises as they continue working like hand in glove in terms of their now-proven personnel and coaching philosophies.
• If there is free agency this offseason in the NFL, which is no sure thing given the state of the league’s labor stand off, the Packers are in relatively great shape. Defensive lineman Cullen Jenkins, receiver James Jones, running back Brandon Jackson and kicker Mason Crosby would be unrestricted under any format that makes unsigned veterans of four years or more free. But Green Bay has a whopping 69 players under contract and wisely moved this season to lock up talents like emerging cornerback Tramon Williams, inside linebacker Desmond Bishop, defensive lineman Ryan Pickett and safety Nick Collins.
• The Packers averaged just 27.4 years per starter in Sunday night’s Super Bowl, and perhaps have just started to scratch the surface in regards to young stars such as outside linebacker Clay Matthews, 24, tight end Jermichael Finley, 23, offensive tackle Bryan Bulaga, 21, cornerback Tramon Williams, 27, cornerback Sam Shields, 23, guard Josh Sitton, 24, nose tackle B.J. Raji, 24, and, of course, Rodgers.
Running back James Starks, 24, emerged as a weapon late in the year, giving Green Bay reason to believe he and two-time 1,200-yard rusher Ryan Grant, 28, will more than capably handle the backfield duties for the foreseeable future.
At receiver, even if the Packers lose Jones in free agency, Greg Jennings, 27, and Jordy Nelson, 25, still make the position a strength, and valuable veteran Donald Driver could well return for a 13th NFL season.
• Though it will be choosing in the No. 32 slot of the first round, Green Bay has eight picks plus a likely compensatory selection (for losing free agent Aaron Kampman) coming in the 2011 draft. That should allow the rich to get richer, with the Packers likely in need of another youthful option at offensive tackle or outside linebacker, with maybe the luxury of taking a game-breaking rushing threat if one falls to them.
The theme of continuity should also largely extend all the way down through McCarthy’s ultra-capable and respected assistant coaching staff. Coordinators Joe Philbin (offense) and Dom Capers (defense) will both return. In two years, Capers has already transformed Green Bay into one of the most effective 3-4 teams in the league, with the Packers finishing second in points allowed behind Pittsburgh this season. Capers winning his long-awaited Super Bowl ring after 25 years in the league ranks as one of the best stories of this championship season in Green Bay.
The Packers could lose either assistant head coach/inside linebackers coach Winston Moss or safeties coach Darren Perry, both of whom are on the radar in Oakland and Arizona as defensive coordinator candidates. Moss is probably the most likely to leave, with Raiders head coach Hue Jackson targeting him, but the Packers defensive staff would still be formidable. Cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt is regarded as an up-and-coming talent, outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene has done strong work for Green Bay, and the proven Mike Trgovac remains as defensive line coach.
As for their place in the NFC North, the Packers are clearly the class of the division. Sure, they had to take the wild-card route to the playoffs for the second year in a row, and wound up facing and beating the champion Bears in the NFC title game in Chicago. But Green Bay is the only division club to make back-to-back postseason trips the past two years, and who among the Bears, Vikings and Lions wouldn’t trade rosters with the Packers in a split second?
Broadening the horizon even further, the NFC has advanced 10 different teams to the Super Bowl in the past 10 years, but Green Bay has to be considered a legitimate threat to end that improbable streak. Scan the NFC standings and ask yourself who will be the conference’s likely Super Bowl favorite heading into the 2011 season?
New Orleans, Atlanta and Tampa Bay should still be strong, and the Eagles, Cowboys, Giants and Rams could be playoff contenders. But I can’t find anyone I like as much as Green Bay when it comes to divining the NFC representative for Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis next February. This is a Packers team that could be knocking on that particular door for a long time by today’s ephemeral NFL standards.
In short, heading into a unique offseason that features so much uncertainty, with issues like the continuation of the salary cap, free agency, a rookie wage scale and the length of future regular seasons still unsettled, the Packers have as many questions already answered as anyone in the league. Thompson has built a deep and resilient roster, and whenever NFL football resumes later in 2011, the Packers know they have a young and still-ascending nucleus of players who have just begun to make their mark. Green Bay (14-6) has every right to believe it’ll be even better next season, especially once good health returns to the league-high 15 players it placed on injured reserve this season.
It’s almost comical to talk about dynasties in a league that has featured just one repeat champion since Denver won two Super Bowls in a row in 1997-98, but these Packers have obvious reason to dream big. Often derided for perennially assembling one of the youngest rosters in the league, and eschewing the free-agent quick fix, Thompson can now rightfully claim that his methods have been vindicated and his penchant for patience rewarded.
The NFL still needs to do the hard work of hammering out a new CBA, and the process of determining a new economic model could be long and arduous. But amid all that, the Pack is indeed back. And it looks like they’re going to be staying a while.
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