If the Packers are to return to Titletown this season, these 5 guys must step up big
By Brian E Murphy, PackersInsider.com Senior Analyst
GREEN BAY ~With all due respect to the franchises that are Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews, if the Packers are to return the Lombardi Trophy back to Green Bay this season, where it belongs, it’s going to require that another group of players rise up and play great.
In 2010, it was a magical playoff run of four games, but it would not have been possible without some other guys stepping up. Nick Collins at safety was fantastic. So were Sam Shields and Tramon Williams with timely interceptions.
Cullen Jenkins was important on the defensive line.
And at receiver, James Jones, Jordy Nelson, and Greg Jennings all came up big in different moments.
Remember, there was no Jermichael Finley.
Making the playoffs doesn’t seem like the hard part. It was in 2010. Remember, the Packers barely made it into the playoffs, at the last minute. They needed to win their final two games, against the Giants and Bears, to get in. They also needed some miraculous help from the Lions, which they got.
However it happens again in the 2013 playoffs (if they make it), it will take some guys blossoming up a level or two in the playoffs if the Packers are to return to the pinnacle. Here are the five guys I can see being the difference in another early playoff exit, and another run to a Super Bowl.
#5- Tie: Desmond Bishop, ILB and B.J. Raji, NT/DT/DE
In 2010, the Packers overcame a ton of injuries. Their injury list was the talk of the league for much have that year, with 18 guys going on I.R. during the year. Fortunately, none of them were guys they couldn’t play without. In 2012, the Packers lost one of those indispensable guys in preseason game one.
That was inside linebacker Desmond Bishop. He tore his hamstring, completely, in the first preseason game last August in San Diego. Not only was he good, and getting better, he was the most physical of the Packers inside linebackers. For the Packers to get back to that level, and become more physical, Bishop is going to have to be his same self. Recovering from an injury like that, it might be asking a lot.
Raji played great in that 2010 playoff run, and with better depth on the DL this year than perhaps any time since 2010, Raji should be fresh enough to wreak more havoc on opposing backfields. Plus it’s a contract year for the big fella from Boston College, and that seems to inspire a lot of players to produce their best stuff. Packer fans hope this is another case of that.
#4- Morgan Burnett, S
I was going to put the other safety on here, whether that’s going to be M.D. Jennings, Jerron McMillian, or Sean Richardson. And for the record, I think McMillian is the best bet of those three to become good.
But for the Packers to get to the top, I see Burnett blossoming into a Pro-Bowl quality centerfielder back there, and I believe it’s possible. He’s shown great strides, similar to the development of former Pro-Bowl safety Nick Collins over his first three seasons.
If Burnett stays healthy, I expect one of the other safeties to earn the full time gig next to him, and help stabilize things back there. If that is the case, and if the front-seven make any significant improvements from last year, I believe Burnett can become a ball hawk back there and come up with a handful of interceptions back there, as well as multiple pass breakups. In short, look for him to come up with a bunch of big plays that both help the Packers win games, and help put his name on the map towards stardom. Like Raji, he’s in a contract year and he stands to gain a lot financially with a breakout season. The Packers probably cannot afford to pay both if both reach this level. But it’s a problem the Packers would welcome.
#3- Eddie Lacy, RB
Some armchair quarterbacks and pundits say the offense doesn’t need any help because they have Aaron Rodgers. While Rodgers is probably the best QB in the league today, the offense certainly needs help in places. Think about this: Throw out the magical 2010 playoff run, and the Rodgers Era has one lone playoff win, over Joe Webb and the Vikings last year. Other than that, they’ve lost to San Francisco, the NY Giants, and Arizona Cardinals. That’s it. And as great as we think Rodgers still is, he’ll probably never be better than he has been the past four-year stretch. He could use a solid or great running game.
Rookie Eddie Lacy has the ability to take the running game to that next level, but two things have to happen. First, he has to stay healthy. Second, and this is perhaps asking for more than the good health, the offensive line must emerge into a good one instead of a bad one. They’ve run-blocked soft, rarely opening up holes you see from other teams a lot, and they’ve also allowed Rodgers to be sacked more than any other QB the past three seasons, which has to stop. That’s why coach McCarthy has shifted the OL right to left, and why they added two offensive linemen in this past draft. One already has been lost for the season though.
Lacy was considered by most to be the best RB in this draft. But questions about his past toe injury and surgery scared away teams, allowing the Packers to (potentially) steal him in the second round. I can remember another former top RB in a draft slip from a sure first-round pick into the second round because of past injuries. That was in 1988 with Oklahoma State’s Thurman Thomas. The Bills happily “gambled” on his health and it paid off for four Super Bowl appearances and an eventual Hall of Fame for Thomas.
If Lacy can get the good fortune of some nice health for a few years, like a Ray Rice, Emmitt Smith, Arian Foster, Matt Forte, Chris Johnson, I am quite certain he will be able to help balance the Packers offense, and take some pressure off Rodgers, the passing game, and the offensive tackles.
#2- Nick Perry, OLB
A season-opening wrist injury derailed last year’s first round pick, as he ultimately ended his season on IR after 5 1/2 games.
It wasn’t an easy, seamless transition from putting his hand on the ground to standing up as a rush-backer, but the former Trojan showed plenty of glimpses of why Ted Thompson was delighted to use his first round pick on the strong man from USC.
Even though he was playing with a cast on his hand after the opening week game against the Niners, he often displayed the combination of power, speed, and size that made him an attractive bookend to Clay Matthews at OLB.
Again, asking for good health for a Packer seems like wishing for lottery numbers, but if Perry were to play in all 16 games, I would not be surprised to see double-digit sacks from him. He’s not going to command double teams like Matthews is, and he can be too fast or too strong for certain guys who will be assigned to block him.
Plus he has the brute strength to hold the edge on run plays. He will have two perfect early tests as week one sees Colin Kaepernick and Frank Gore, and week two sees Robert Griffin III and Alfred Morris.
I expect a healthy Perry to make a huge early statement, on national TV, and make a name for himself.
#1- Datone Jones, DE
I don’t mean to but too much pressure on the rookie. Remember, last year’s top two rookies were expected to propel this defense up another level, and they really provided nothing in the end as both of them (Perry and Jerel Worthy) ended up on IR.
But Jones, unlike Perry last year, could have a seamless transition from college to the NFL as he is used to this scheme on defense. And like Perry, Jones has fantastic skills to be a special player.
He’s well aware of what Kaepernick did to the Packers soft defense last January, and he’s not afraid to take on the challenge of stopping him.
Jones says Kaepernick can’t keep running like he did against the Packers, when he gained 181 yards on the ground, the most ever for any quarterback in any NFL game, regular season or playoffs. Jones watched that 49ers-Packers playoff game, and he told the Green Bay Press-Gazette that if Kaepernick tries to do that for a whole season, he won’t last for a whole season.
“I thought he was pretty good,” Jones said, “but I don’t think they’re going to be able to run him like that. He takes one good hit, there goes their season.”
If matched one-on-one with a tackle, he possesses the ability to consistently make plays with his blend of quickness, anticipation, and power. He claims to pattern his game after Reggie White and J.J. Watt.
He’s nothing like Reggie, as Packer fans know. White was huge, for his era.
But Jones’ size and athletic ability are close to Watt, and are very close to 49er Pro-Bowler Justin Smith. Smith is 6-4, 285, while Jones is listed at 6-4, 283, so almost identical.
Now there’s a lot more to becoming a great defensive lineman than mere specs. But Jones also has what it takes in terms of desire and dedication. He wants to be great. He doesn’t just want to be a guy, collect a paycheck. He has desire and tenacity.
Along with luck with health, this attitude is usually what separates a player from a Jamal Reynolds and a Justin Smith. The Packers hope, and I expect, Jones’ career will resemble Smith a lot more than Reynolds.