By Brian E Murphy, Packers Insider senior editor
~After seeing the stretched-out NFL Network’s Top 100 Players, and then ESPN’s Jaws Top 30 NFL QB’s, I felt it was time to take a look at who the most important Packer players are for 2012. These aren’t necessarily the best ten players, but who I feel are the most important.
Again, there’s nothing in stone. In 2001, New England’s Drew Bledsoe would have been ranked number one on his team, yet he went down and they still ended up shocking the world and winning a Super Bowl. Their young, untested backup QB turned out to be Tom Brady. I have confidence in Graham Harrell, but perhaps not to lead a Super Bowl-winning team.
Last year in New York, there was worry at WR after they let Steve Smith go. Turned out Victor Cruz wasn’t bad.
With that being said, here’s how I see it now.
TOP TEN – MOST IMPORTANT PACKERS 2012
1. QB AARON RODGERS
Great QB’s win Super Bowls in today’s NFL, and Rodgers is as great as they get. With him healthy, the Packers will again be on the verge of greatness and a constant threat to win the Super Bowl. Without him, forget Super Bowl hopes. The year Rodgers had last year was all-time great, and it should have resulted in a 2nd Super Bowl. But his receivers, running backs, and OL let him down in that Giant collapse in the playoff loss.
2. OLB CLAY MATTHEWS
He’s the one guy who has the ability and persistence to make opposing QB’s worried and rushed back there in the pocket. With help, he disrupts QB’s as much as anyone, as witnessed in the 2010 season. Last year, he had no help. With the additions of Nick Perry and a bunch of guys on the DL, there should be a lot more good things coming from Clay’s sidekicks, and that should free him up more and we should see more of his biceps following sacks in 2012.
3. LT MARSHALL NEWHOUSE
This is not a top-ten “best” list. But the blind side protector of #12 is critical. I’ve read a piece on some random blog that tried to make a case that the LT position is overrated. That’s hog wash, especially for this team. Case-in-point: the two Packer losses last year. Week 15 last year in Kansas City, we saw Tamba Hali run right around Marshall Newhouse all day long. What happened to Rodgers, and the whole offense? Case number two, what did the Giants pass rush do to the timing of that same offense in the playoff failure? The strip-sack of Rodgers on a play he took a quick 3-step drop with 7 pass-protectors prevented a touchdown pass to Jennings, and basically ended the Packers season. The left tackle position is critical and for years, Chad Clifton was a rock there.
4. C JEFF SATURDAY
Fans tend to overlook the importance of the guy snapping the ball, but quarterbacks don’t. Saturday is old. He’s about six years older than Scott Wells, who was let go. If Saturday holds up well, plays like he has for years, there will be no issues here. But if he hits the wall, or struggles in a new system, it could lead to a few more games like in Kansas City last year. Rodgers has to be protected. That’s extremely important and I feel people take it for granted too often. Last year, Rodgers took a lot of risks. Any single play where he’s sacked, or scrambles, his ankle or anything else could break. They need to protect the franchise, and it starts with the center calling out the assignments.
5. DB CHARLES WOODSON
This elite athlete was drafted in 1998! That’s the same draft as Fred Taylor and Randy Moss. And Vonnie Holliday. He has to slow down, and has a bit. But I expect with the increased pass rush up front, that Woodson will again jump a lot of routes in 2012 and make more than his fair share of big plays, as we’ve been spoiled and accustomed to seeing since he fell into our laps as a free agent in 2006.
6. NUMBER-TWO SAFETY
We still don’t know who that will be on opening day, or certainly in week 17. And if Morgan Burnett goes down, it’s even more urgent. But Nick Collins was an elite player back there and he was missed more than almost anyone could have anticipated. Charlie Peprah was weak last year, and if it’s him again, or a young guy like M.D. Jennings, Anthony Levine, or the rookie 4th round pick Jerron Mcmillian, the player must perform better than we saw from the position last year when they allowed an all-time NFL record in passing yards.
7. CB TRAMON WILLIAMS
Williams wasn’t himself last year due to the bad shoulder. The sad thing is he is saying it’s still a problem. He was supposed to be the Packers best cover guy, and he was victimized far too often in 2011. He needs to revert to his 2010 season for the Packers, and once again, an improved pass-rush will automatically make him look a lot better.
8. WR GREG JENNINGS
All the other WR’s in the Packers deep core are very good, but they are replaceable. Jennings is not. True, Matt Flynn still threw a franchise-record six touchdown passes in week 17 with no Jennings in the lineup. But that game was an anomaly. Jennings has been very durable in his career, but the knee issue was a concern late last year and Packer Nation prays that it was just a temporary thing.
9. NT B.J. RAJI
Last year, Raji had no help pushing the pocket, he played too much, and he got worn out early and often. As a result, he was just a fat body in there, along the lines of a Johnny Jolly or Howard Green. The Packers need Raji to be the guy they drafted, worthy of a top-five pick, and the guy who helped down the stretch in 2010.
10. OLB NICK PERRY
Imagine if Clay Matthews run of good health runs out. Nick Perry will have to provide the instant impact that Matthews did as a rookie in 2009. Even if Matthews remains healthy, Perry has to be a beast off the edge and frequently beat one-on-one blocking on passing situations and make opposing quarterbacks feel the heat from both sides. If he does that, and gives the Packers a top-notch OLB combo, it will immediately make the whole D-backfield look a lot better, and allow more touches for the offense.
Just missed the list: