By Steve Muench, ESPN.com
~The Green Bay Packers’ dream 2011 season came to an abrupt halt with a disappointing home playoff loss to the New York Giants, and you can be sure they are itching to get back to work on another Super Bowl run.
The Packers have signed free-agent C Jeff Saturday and appear to be in pursuit of some other available players, but a good portion of that work will be done through the 2012 draft.
What holes will Green Bay be looking to fill when it comes on the clock? Here’s a look at the possibilities for each of the Packers’ top six picks, including two compensatory selections at the end of the fourth round.
The Packers are clearly in need of pass-rush help. They finished second in the league with 47 total sacks in 2010 — including 13½ from OLB Clay Matthews — but ranked 29th last season with Matthews contributing only six of Green Bay’s 29 total sacks.
With Matthews needing help on the opposite side, Clemson DE/OLB Andre Branch (Scouts Inc. Grade: 92) makes a lot of sense at No. 29 overall.
Branch has the initial quickness and athletic ability to get to the quarterback, which would make it tougher for offenses to double-team Matthews, and Branch’s experience dropping into coverage and ability to hold up there make him a good fit for the Packers’ 3-4 scheme.
Packers FS Nick Collins suffered what could be a career-ending neck injury last season, and even if he does return Collins likely won’t be the same player. That makes safety help a pressing need, and Green Bay would do well to land LSU’s Brandon Taylor (Scouts Inc. Grade: 84) in the second round. Taylor has the range to play a center fielder-type role in coverage, and the toughness and tenacity to hold up well in run support.
The Aaron Rodgers-led passing attack is one of the most potent in the league and will remain the focal point of the offense, but improving an inconsistent ground game should be a priority. This is especially true considering the weather in Green Bay late in the season.
Brandon Jackson (second round, 2007) is the only back the Packers have drafted earlier than the third round since 1990 and he didn’t exactly pan out, so don’t expect that trend to change unless Boise State’s Doug Martin (87) somehow slides to them in the late second round. However, Washington’s Chris Polk (71) is a name to remember. He isn’t much of a big-play threat, but Polk is a tough and instinctive runner who doesn’t leave many yards on the field. He’s also a reliable receiver and, perhaps more importantly, an effective pass-blocker.
The Packers now have three picks in the fourth with which they could address offensive tackle, cornerback and center. Let’s start with tackle, which may not seem like a need at first glance. However, Chad Clifton is on the downside of his career, 2011 first-round pick Derek Sherrod is coming off a season-ending leg injury and Marshall Newhouse might be better suited to play guard.
With all that in mind, keep an eye on Boise State’s Nate Potter (64), who has the arm length and agility to emerge as a quality No. 3 tackle who can provide depth on both sides and potentially develop into a starter in this scheme.
As for cornerback, today’s defenses can never have enough quality corners and age has to start catching up with 35-year-old Charles Woodson. That means a player like West Virginia’s Keith Tandy (53) is a possibility. Tandy may not have the natural ability to become an above-average man-to-man corner, but he’s a tough player who closes and tackles well.
Green Bay signed Saturday after Scott Wells departed for the St. Louis Rams, but Saturday, who will turn 37 in June, clearly isn’t the long-term answer. Georgia’s Ben Jones (56) is the No. 2 center on our board at this point and could very well be available to the Packers late in the fourth. Jones would benefit from playing behind Saturday for a year, and he has the frame (6-foot-25, 303 pounds) and skill set to develop into a starter.
Full story found here
By Robert McGinn, Journal-Sentinel
~Green Bay – Defensive end Mike Neal has dug himself a hole with the Green Bay Packers from which it might be impossible for him to recover.
Neal’s sagging career took another major hit Tuesday when the National Football League suspended him for the first four games of next season for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing substances.
Neal, a second-round draft choice in 2010 from Purdue, will be allowed to participate in the off-season program and training camp. If he makes the final 53-man roster, he would be suspended without pay for the first four games.
Citing confidentiality, a team spokesman said the Packers would not comment. Attempts to reach Neal were unsuccessful.
Agent Roosevelt Barnes said his client’s appeal already had been denied.
“He’s very remorseful,” said Barnes. “He’ll serve his suspension and then be ready to come back and play.”
Neal’s mother, Rhonda, said more than 10 times during an interview that her son had not taken performance-enhancing drugs.
“Mikey, we call him Mikey, has never taken a performance-enhancing drug in his life,” she said. “If he would have taken it they would have found out through college, they would have found out when he first got to the NFL. He has been tested several times at random, like the rest of the guys.”
However, she refused to say what substance had gotten her son suspended.
“It’s nothing that can make him stronger, better or anything else,” Rhonda Neal said. “It was absolutely nothing like that.
“But I will tell you this. The same thing he was caught with, I take it all the time. I’m not on drugs. I am on a lot of medication because I just got through with chemotherapy.
“He did not take my medication. What he has is just common. It’s absolutely nothing.”
Although records are incomplete, Neal is one of only a handful of Packers players known to have been suspended for performance-enhancing drugs.
In August 1989, offensive linemen Keith Uecker and Mike Ariey were suspended 30 days by the NFL for steroid abuse.
In December 1998, linebacker Jude Waddy was suspended four games for steroid abuse, a penalty he served late that season and in early ’99.
In the last decade, defensive lineman Cletidus Hunt (2001), linebacker Torrance Marshall (2003) and cornerback Erwin Swiney (2004) were handed four-game suspensions for violating the NFL’s drug and alcohol policy. It was never made clear what their substance of abuse was.
Because the Packers have been largely immune from problems involving performance-enhancing substances, it’s hard to say if general manager Ted Thompson and coach Mike McCarthy will give Neal another chance or just release him.
The Packers won’t lose anything financially if they work with Neal in the off-season. But, if Neal remains on the roster for the first day of training camp, they would have to pay him a reporting bonus of $491,500 because he played more than 11% (13.2%) of the defensive snaps in 2011.
If Neal makes the team, he would lose $31,765 per game, or $127,059 of his $540,000 base salary, during the four-game suspension. His original contract was for $2.95 million over four years.
Under the NFL drug policy, one positive test, an attempt to dilute or substitute a specimen or an attempt to manipulate the test results in a four-game suspension.
Step Two brings an eight-game suspension, and Step Three brings a suspension of 12 months or more.
In two seasons, Neal has played 237 snaps in 10 of a possible 37 games. Last season, he played 158 snaps over the final eight games and really never made a play.
As a rookie, Neal missed time with rib cartilage damage before suffering a torn rotator cuff.
Last season, he suffered knee cartilage damage Aug. 16, underwent arthroscopic surgery and didn’t return until Nov. 20.
At Purdue, Neal had major knee, turf toe and shoulder injuries.
Rhonda Neal insisted that the substance that resulted in her son’s suspension had nothing to do with his well-documented attempts to recover from knee surgery.
“It was absolutely nothing to do with injury or knees,” she said. “He’s not taking any supplements that were not on the approved list. Everything Michael takes his natural.”
Although Neal said in September that he slept no more than two or three hours each night, his mother insisted he had never taken sleeping pills.
Near the end of a telephone interview, Rhonda Neal said, “If he has taken some kind of performance-enhancing drugs, then shame on all of the athletics and shame on the NFL for allowing him to get as far as he did while taking it. Because he didn’t.
“This is my son. He never has.”
Full story here
By Brian E Murphy, PackersInsider senior editor
~The Packers pass rush last year did two things well.
First, they made opposing QB’s feel very comfortable back in the pocket. Second, they made the Packers coverage units look a lot worse than they really are.
There’s no denying the Packers have to upgrade their pass rush in 2012. How much has to come from the ROLB spot, and how much has to come from the DL spots remains open to debate. But somehow, somewhere, it has to get better.
This is the first in a serious of looks at possible guys in the upcoming draft who could help out in this area.
South Carolina’s Melvin Ingram is a guy who won’t be there at pick 28 when the Packers are on the clock, so as with the pick of Clay Matthews in 2009, it would take a trade up to obtain Ingram.
He’s in the 270-pound range, similar to the Steelers Lamar Woodley. Bigger than Clay Matthews by about 30 pounds, he’d be a great complement to Matthews over at the right outside linebacker spot.
A few weeks ago, Melvin sat down with Draft Countdown’s Scott Wright for a quick Q & A:
Draft Countdown: Let’s start off with a hard-hitting question: What is the most embarrassing song on your iPod?
Melvin Ingram: I really don’t have any embarrassing songs. I listen to a lot of Rocko, Wayne, Bootsie and Yo Gotti.
Draft Countdown: You played defensive end at South Carolina and some teams are projecting you to outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme. Do you have a preference?
Melvin Ingram: Whatever they want me to play. I feel like I could be a dominant football player at any position they put me so there’s really not a position that I prefer.
Draft Countdown: How would you describe your game to someone that’s never seen you play? What would you say are your strenghts and weaknesses?
Melvin Ingram: I’m a passionate football player. I describe myself as a passionate football player. I try to go out and give my all on every single play. Try to gut myself. That’s how I want to be remembered, as the person who gave it his all on every play.
Draft Countdown: Weaknesses?
Melvin Ingram: I don’t feel like I have a weakness, I just try to work on every aspect of my game. You can never be too good at something so I try to get better at every aspect.
Draft Countdown: South Carolina had a unique situation at defensive end last year, with you, a guy who many feel has first round potential in Devin Taylor and an extremely high-profile recruit in Jadeveon Clowney. In fact, you were probably the least hyped member of that group before the season. You certainly emerged as a leader and people knew your name when all was said and done, but was there any adversity in terms of minutes or playing time?
Melvin Ingram: No, there was never any adversity or anything like that. There was never fighting for playing time. I was always going to work hard no matter who came in. If a little baby came in and was going to play on our team I was still going to work hard. I knew what I could do, I just had to show the world.
Draft Countdown: In what ways were you a leader on the Gamecocks defense?
Melvin Ingram: I feel like I’m a great leader. My momma always told me anybody can lead by just saying something, but a real leader would lead by example. I try to lead by example and let everyone feed off my energy.
Draft Countdown: What current NFL player do you compare favorably to?
Melvin Ingram: I try to compare myself to Ray Lewis. I feel like he plays football the right way. I feel like there is a wrong and right way to play football and he plays the right way. He plays with such passion and energy on every play, I feel like he puts it all out on the line on every play so I try to be known as a player like him.
Draft Countdown: How would you describe personality? Is it different on the field?
Melvin Ingram: On the field I’m a totally different person. I’m a mad man on the field. Off the field I’m a people person. I’m a loveable guy, I try to make friends every day.
Draft Countdown: What is your greatest football accomplishment to date?
Melvin Ingram: Just being able to wake up everyday and play football.
Draft Countdown: What are you going to do when your playing career is over?
Melvin Ingram: I still want to be around football. Coach or something.
Draft Countdown: Did you have a favorite player growing up?
Melvin Ingram: Ray Lewis. He’s been my favorite player ever since I can remember.
Draft Countdown: Who is the best opposing player you faced during your college career? What offensive lineman was the toughest to beat?
Melvin Ingram: I feel like I went against a lot of great players. I don’t know if there is anyone who stands out. I feel like everybody I went against had tremendous talent.
Draft Countdown: Are there any younger players at South Carolina that you see developing into stars, either at the college or pro level?
Melvin Ingram: Of course. Clowney (DE), Marcus Lattimore (RB), D.J. Swearinger (S), DeVonte Holloman (LB), Devin Taylor (DE). We have a lot of people that are going to play in the NFL. Akeem Auguste (CB). Vic Hampton (CB). I feel like my whole defense and my whole team will one day play in the NFL.
Draft Countdown: What current pro are you looking forward to going up against in the NFL? Is there an offensive lineman that you want to test your skills against?
Melvin Ingram: Everybody. I’m a competitive person, I like to compete in everything. I’m just looking forward to the day in / day out good competition.
Draft Countdown: You battled through a foot injury last season. Is that type of toughness something you take pride in? Melvin Ingram: Of course. There’s a difference between being injured and being hurt. Being injured you can’t play. Being hurt you can play. Soreness and being hurt is just weakness leaving the body so as long as you can play, I feel like you should play.
Draft Countdown: What are you hoping to prove to scouts during the pre-draft process?
Melvin Ingram: There isn’t anything in particular that I’m trying to prove. If there is something that people don’t think I can do, I just to show them that I can.
Draft Countdown: It’s still early, but do you have any goals in mind for the NFL Draft?
Melvin Ingram: Just to be drafted.
Full interview here
By Bob McGinn, Journal-Sentinel
~Green Bay – It took coach Mike McCarthy five weeks before he had the time and was in the right mood to watch tape of the Green Bay Packers’ 37-20 loss to the New York Giants in the NFC divisional playoffs.
It took him portions of two days, one for the offense and one for the defense and special teams.
Even now, he isn’t quite sure why the game unfolded as it did.
“This will be a game I still don’t have my hands around,” McCarthy said at the NFL combine. “If you can keep your team on a path you have a chance. The Giants are an example of that. They got a lot of things moving in a positive motion at the end of the year.”
Now, the Packers will be remembered as a one-and-done playoff team that was one of just six clubs in NFL history to win 15 or more games in the regular season.
McCarthy talked about the collapse of the Packers at Lambeau Field with a friend who works as a sports psychologist. Without mentioning what they discussed, it was clear that the drowning death of Michael Philbin, the son of offensive coordinator Joe Philbin, one week before the playoff game was among many factors to come up.
“He said, ‘I don’t have anything for you,’ ” McCarthy said. “He did say there were a lot of external elements the team was going through . . . you quantify that into the preparation and the mind set and the heartbeat.
“I mean, we’re plus-24 and we go and turn the ball over four times and it wasn’t anything that they did. . . . I’m not trying to discredit the Giants. . . .
“But John Kuhn never fumbles, and he fumbled off the back of Bryan Bulaga. Ryan Grant is going to the ground and gets hit and it’s out. We have a seven-man protection and a three-step drop and we give up a sack-fumble.”
Was McCarthy anxious playing a red-hot New York team as a 7 ½-point favorite?
“I wasn’t at all,” he said. “I thought the Giants probably were one of the better teams in the tournament, but we were playing at home and had the ability to prepare in the weather.”
Ball security might be the No. 1 point of emphasis in McCarthy’s program. As the playoffs loomed, he made sure the Packers practiced outside each Wednesday and Thursday for more than a month, mainly trying to insure proper ball-handling.
Full story here