The Green Bay Packers won the Super Bowl, as I predicted last August (just saying), last year despite having many players on IR, including several key players. Among those were Ryan Grant, their lead back, Jermichael Finley, their stud tight end, Morgan Burnett, a talented rookie starter at strong safety, Nick Barnett, a starter at middle linebacker, Mark Tauscher, a starter at right tackle, as well as Mike Neal and Brad Jones, two key young players on their defense.
Grant and Finley are both back for the offense, while 2010 3rd round pick Morgan Burnett is back for the defense. Nick Barnett and Mark Tauscher were both cut, while Brad Jones is expected to start opposite Clay Matthews at rush linebacker, and 2010 2nd round pick Mike Neal is expected to start at defensive end in place of the departed Cullen Jenkins. It’s for this reason that the Packers have the best chance to repeat since the 2003-2004 Patriots. They weren’t even at full strength when they won last year.
Aaron Rodgers is back and obviously that’s the most important thing. He was the Super Bowl MVP last year. They return 4 of 5 starters on the offensive line, assuming you count Bryan Bulaga, who stepped in at right tackle when Mark Tauscher went on IR late last season. The only offensive lineman who did not return was Daryn Colledge, a mediocre guard and the weak link in this line.
Colledge will be replaced in the lineup by Caleb Schlauderaff, a rookie 6th rounder. As surprising as the Packers’ decision to draft Schlauderaff was, many didn’t think he’d even get drafted, their decision to, at least for now, pencil him in as the starter is even more surprising and head scratching. However, the Packers have such a great track record of drafting and developing young talent that you almost have to give them the benefit of the doubt on this one.
Chad Clifton and Bryan Bulaga will start as the tackles. Clifton, on the left side, is still an adequate blindside protector even at his age, 35. Bulaga, meanwhile, really struggled as a rookie, surrendering 13 sacks and committing 10 penalties on the right side. The 2010 1st round pick should be better in his 2nd season. The Packers drafted Derek Sherrod in the first round. If Clifton gets hurt, very possible, or struggles, or Bulaga continues to struggle, they could plug Sherrod into the lineup. TJ Lang could also play right tackle again or move to left guard. He’s versatile, but not that great.
At right guard, Josh Sitton emerged as one of the best at his position last season. Sitton was a 4th round pick in 2008 so it just goes to show how good this team is at finding talent. He allowed 1 sack all season and was a beast as a run blocker. At center, Scott Wells is another good player who surrendered just 2 sacks all last season. Aaron Rodgers should be well enough protected once again.
His running game should be even better. This team’s offense really took off once they were able to run the ball. After many, many mediocre weeks of Brandon Jackson, James Starks, a rookie, took the lead back job and stabilized the running back position in the absence of Ryan Grant. Grant is now back and will form a two headed rushing attack with Starks. 3rd round rookie Alex Green is expected to be the 3rd down back in place of Brandon Jackson, who signed with Cleveland. Fullback John Kuhn could get the goal line carries, as he did at times last season. If the team can run as well as they did down the stretch last year, this offense might be unstoppable, just as it was down the stretch last season.
That’s one of the reasons why this team could be even better this season. Another is how good Aaron Rodgers was down the stretch. From week 9 on, including playoffs, Rodgers was 237 for 338 (70.1%), for 3015 yards (8.9 YPA), 25 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions. On top of all this, the Packers haven’t lost by more than 4 in any non-overtime game since week 8 of 2009!
If you discount the 2 games where Aaron Rodgers either didn’t start and/or didn’t finish, they haven’t lost by more than 3 in any non-overtime game since week 8 of 2009. That’s insane! They’ve lost 5 games by more than 7 points in the past 3 seasons, including 5 playoff games. That means in Aaron Rodgers’ career, he’s played 52 games and 47 were either wins or single touchdown losses. That’s double insane!
Their point differential from 2010 was 148, 2nd in the league last year and yet they only won 10 games. That says they had some bad luck in the regular season. Assuming they have better health and better luck, this team could easily have the best record in the league this year, considering how well they played down the stretch.
Rodgers once again has as many weapons as any quarterback in the league. In fact, he has more than he did last season. Jermichael Finley was on pace for the career year everyone projected him to have with 21 catches for 301 yards and a touchdown in 4 games before going down for the season with an injury. His replacements, primarily rookie Andrew Quarless, were not the nearly the same.
The Packers also added receiver Randall Cobb in the 2nd round. He probably won’t play much offensively until Donald Driver retires, he’s currently 5th on the depth chart, but he could be their kick returner and their punt returner, two aspects of their team that were actually weaknesses in 2010. If Cobb can become an elite return man, their offense will be that much better.
The reason Cobb is 5th on the depth chart is that the Packers have 4 very good receivers ahead of him. Greg Jennings is the #1 receiver and deservedly so. With 224 catches for 3670 yards and 25 touchdowns since Aaron Rodgers took over as the starter 3 years ago, Jennings is to Rodgers as Donald Driver was to Brett Favre.
Speaking of Driver, he’s still around, unlike Favre, though he probably won’t be for much longer. Driver is 36 and considered retirement this offseason after winning the Super Bowl in February. He had a mere 51 catches for 565 yards in 2010, both his lowest totals since 2001, and only scored 4 times. He’s really only in the lineup for sentimental reasons as the former late round pick has been with the Packers since 1999, catching 698 balls for 9615 yards and 53 scores in his time with the team. Even so, he could easily be passed by James Jones and/or Jordy Nelson on the depth chart at some point this season.
Jones caught 50 passes for 679 yards and 5 touchdowns last season, despite not being a starter for most of the season. He was rewarded with a long term deal this offseason and could be Driver’s successor in the lineup. Meanwhile, Jordy Nelson, another potential Driver successor, caught 45 passes for 582 yards and 2 touchdowns in 2010 and stepped up big time in the Super Bowl with 9 catches for 140 yards and a score, potentially a sign of things to come.
The Packers offense is explosive, but you can’t win a Super Bowl unless you have a great defense as well and the Packers do. I’ll get to beast pass rusher Clay Matthews in a bit, but first, I’m going to talk about the secondary. Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams might be the best corner duo in the league. Woodson is the bigger name, but Williams was actually the better player last year.
Williams had the 2nd lowest quarterback rating allowed of any cornerback last year behind only Asante Samuel. He allowed a 46.8% completion rate and 3 touchdowns to 6 interceptions. He was even better in the postseason, where he had 3 interceptions in 4 games, including a key pick six against Atlanta, and the game clincher against Philadelphia.
Woodson, meanwhile, is not exactly a bad player himself. He won defensive player of the year in 2009 and though last year was a down year by his standards, he still played well. He’s 35 in October, but keeps himself in amazing shape so he should have another good year. Meanwhile, nickel corner Sam Shields was a revelation for this team last year, especially in the postseason when he intercepted 2 passes against Chicago.
Shields was a former wide receiver who played one year of cornerback at Miami and then went undrafted in 2010. The Packers picked him up as an undrafted free agent and in his rookie season he was able to make a huge impact on the team. Some might even argue that they don’t win last year if they don’t have Sam Shields. It’s amazing how good this team is at finding talent.
A 3rd talented starter in their secondary is Nick Collins. Collins has picked off 17 passes in the last 3 seasons, with 3 pick sixes. He also allowed just a 37.5% completion percentage and only one touchdown last year. The 4th starter in the secondary is Morgan Burnett. He is the worst of the 4 starters, but if Morgan Burnett is your worst starter in your secondary, you’re doing alright for yourself. Burnett impressed as a rookie before getting hurt and should have a solid season in his 2nd year this year. Charlie Peprah did a decent job of filling in for Burnett last season, but he’s best suited for the backup role he’ll be in this season.
Supporting this amazing secondary is a pass rush that got to the quarterback 47 times last season. The leader of their pass rush is undoubtedly Clay Matthews, who had 13.5 sacks last season while playing the 2nd half of the season with a stress fracture in his leg. He also had a pick six just in case you thought he couldn’t do that. He’s fully healthy now and ready for even bigger things. He had 6 sacks in his first 2 games last season when he was fully healthy. Imagine what he can do when he’s healthy for a full season.
Even more impressive is the fact that Matthews did all that without a consistent pass rusher opposite him. Brad Jones was supposed to continue his strong play from late 2009 in 2010, but he got hurt and missed 10 games. He didn’t record a sack. Frank Zombo and Erik Walden also tried their hand at being the #2 rush linebacker, with no consistent success. The Packers drafted Ricky Elmore in the 6th round so maybe he can do something at the position at some point this season.
The Packers’ #2 pass rusher, Cullen Jenkins, who had 7 sacks in 11 games last season, is gone. He’ll be replaced with 2010 2nd round pick Mike Neal in the lineup. This makes it even more important that someone step up as a #2 pass rusher after Matthews. It could be Neal himself. Neal has a lot of upside and looked decent in limited action last season.
Their 3rd best pass rusher should remain BJ Raji this year. 6.5 sacks is a ton for a nose tackle and Raji is even a beast against the run in addition to his pass rushing abilities. However, he’s still a nose tackle and a nose tackle should never be anything higher than your 3rd best pass rusher. At the other end position, Ryan Pickett is currently the starter, but that could change as 2010 7th round pick CJ Wilson could beat him out at some point.
Inside at middle linebacker, Nick Barnett was cut this offseason, but he became expendable when Desmond Bishop came out of nowhere to have a great season with Barnett hurt. The Packers picked AJ Hawk, a former first round pick who has had a solid tenure with the Packers, over the injury prone again Barnett this offseason. Hawk received a 5 year deal this offseason and is a solid player, though he never has lived up to his billing as a former 5th overall pick.
Given how well Aaron Rodgers played down the stretch last season and given that they are getting key players back from injury that they didn’t even have last year when they won it all, there’s a very good chance I end up picking the Packers to win it all and repeat as champions even though no one has done that since the 2003-2004 Patriots and even though that’s boring. They are one of the most complete teams in the league and they have continuity coming out of a lockout. Even if I don’t pick them to repeat, barring major injury, this should be one of the best regular season teams in the NFC.
Running backs: B-
Receiving corps: A
Offensive line: B-
Run defense: B
Pass rush: A-
Pass coverage: A
Projection: 13-3 1st in NFC North