Jeff Risdon. 3rd September, 2008 - 4:46 pm
Last Season: 13-3, 1st in NFC North, Lost in NFC Championship game, +144 point differential, +4 turnover ratio
Additions: LB Brandon Chillar, P Derrick Frost
Subtractions: QB Brett Favre, DL Corey Williams, TE Bubba Franks, CB Frank Williams, WR Koren Robinson, LS Rob David, P Jon Ryan
Rookies of Note: None will see much action other than on special teams or if the injury bug bites hard. Keep an eye on QB Matt Flynn and WR/KR Jordy Nelson.
What I like
Offense: For all the accolades heaped upon Brett Favre?s renaissance in 2007, much of the credit must go to the Packers' wide receivers. Led by Donald Driver, this group is fast, deep, and elusive. The Packers led the league in yards after catch, and this group should challenge for that honor again even without Favre. Driver is amazingly consistent and remains one of the better intermediate route targets at age 33. He is a physical wideout with sneaky speed once he gets the ball. Greg Jennings emerged as one of the better deep threats in the league, and he is the reigning YAC champ thanks to his quick feet and great balance. With speedy James Jones coming off a decent rookie season at #3, the Packers can spread out defenses. Big Ruvell Martin established himself in the preseason as Rodgers default safety blanket, and he makes a nice red zone target. Rookie Jordy Nelson played reasonably well in preseason but remains at #5 on the depth chart, though he would be no worse than #3 on many other teams. TE Donald Lee is a converted wideout who has worked very hard to become a respectable blocker without sacrificing much of his pas catching skills.
The offensive line is solid across the board. Tackles Kyle Clifton and Mark Tauscher have played together forever, and both handle their business without much fanfare but strong results. Center Scott Wells does an excellent job of blitz recognition and excels at catching defensive tackles at the precise moment they are off-balance. The guards are nothing special but also not a detriment. The Packers have some promising young depth up front, led by G Josh Sitton, who would have won the starting LG spot if not for a MCL tear that will keep him out until October.
The Packers found themselves a keeper in kicker Mason Crosby, who showed a real strong leg on kickoffs and was near-perfect kicking FGs on the road. He should find the range in the difficult weather and field conditions at Lambeau Field with a little more experience. And is there a more aptly names Packer than new punter Derrick Frost?
Defense: The LB corps is a huge reason why this team has won 19 of its last 22 regular season games. AJ Hawk is real close to being the dominant force the Packers expected when they made him the 5th overall pick in the 2006 draft. There aren?t many guys better at open field tackling than Hawk, who continues to improve in coverage as well. MLB Nick Barnett has outstanding range and instincts, and he seldom misses tackles either. The Packers like to bring Barnett on the blitz up the gut, and he does an exceptional job of anticipating both the snap count and the front line shift. Brady Poppinga often gets cited as the weak link. Compared to Hawk and Barnett, that?s true. But Poppinga is a solid jack-of-all-trades who excels at a lot of little things like stringing out edge runs, chipping the TE off the line, and sniffing out screens and draws. Adding veteran Brandon Chillar to the rotation brings much-needed depth, and he has the ability to play any LB spot. The team is high on young Desmond Bishop, a big-time hitter who showed marked improvement this offseason.
Aaron Kampman is the best elite player you?ve probably never heard of. Jared Allen gets all the attention, but Kampman registered the most total QB pressures in the league. He also registered more sacks per pass attempt than anyone but Allen, and he makes more plays in the backfield against the run than almost anyone. He pairs with Cullen Jenkins to form one of the best overall DE combos in the league. Jenkins slid outside with much success, and a lot of his contributions don?t show up on the stat sheet. Kabeer Gjaba-Biamila is still valuable as a pass-rush specialist, though he?s extremely hot and cold and worthless against the run. NT Ryan Pickett has salvaged his career nicely and became a more active, less wide widebody against the run in 2007.
The Packers trot out one of most recognizable CB tandems in the league in Al Harris and Charles Woodson. Neither is as good as they used to be circa 2004, and their play is often exaggerated by the likes of sycophants Madden and Buck, but it?s still a largely effective duo. They employ a very physical press style that is a real change for receivers, and those who can?t handle the adjustment are effectively eliminated before the end of the first drive (see Bernard Berrian or Santana Moss). Young safety Aaron Rouse is bigger than some LB's but showed good coverage instincts to go with his hitting prowess.
What I dislike
Offense: Speculate all you want, but the plain truth is that nobody really knows how Aaron Rodgers is going to fill Favre?s shoes as the starting QB. It?s incredibly difficult to replace a legend, and how he handles that pressure is only part of the story. Rodgers has had trouble staying healthy in limited duty over his career. He?s also a Jeff Tedford QB, the ranks of which populate the dreaded ?el busto? list like many a sore thumb: Akili Smith, Kyle Boller, Joey Harrington, AJ Feeley, David Carr. All of those QB's struggle at two basic QB skills--handling the pass rush and not staring down the intended receiver. Rodgers has played better than any of those guys in the few glimpses we?ve had of him, but there were times when Carr, Harrington, and Boller looked like world beaters, too. If Rodgers flops or gets hurt, the backup is 7th round rookie Matt Flynn, a guy I like but also a guy who shouldn?t be taking regular season NFL snaps anytime soon.
Contrary to his holdout position, RB Ryan Grant still has a lot to prove. The Packers running game was the epitome of ?moribund? before Grant came from nowhere to lead the NFL in rushing over the last 8 weeks. Some pundits will tell you that is a sign of emerging greatness, but I smell fluke a la Quentin Griffin or Nick Goings. Running almost exclusively from 3 and 4 WR sets, Grant benefitted from zero safety run support and the fear in LBs of play action. He?s not the kind of RB who will thrive against 7 man fronts (Grant had 9 carries for 6 yards in short yardage situations), and you can bet teams will challenge Rodgers to prove his merit before backing off the run. Grant tweaked his hamstring late in preseason, the kind of injury that lingers for a long time. There is very little behind him; Brandon Jackson flopped when given the chance, and the team cut Vernand Morency and Deshawn Wynn in favor of short-yardage specialist-in-the-making Kregg Lumpkin, an undrafted rookie from Georgia. Receiving out of the backfield is not pretty--almost half of Grant?s 30 receptions actually lost yardage, though Jackson has some potential in that capacity.
Defense: The defensive tackle spot is developing as a major question mark. Ryan Pickett missed all the preseason with a bum hamstring, and on a guy his size that?s a big injury. Johnny Jolly was slowed by injury in preseason and is more likely to spend 2008 in jail on felony drug charges than he is on Lambeau Field. Justin Harrell is on the PUP as much because he?s flat-out awful as he is injured. When the Packers selected him in the 1st round of the 2007 draft, the three Packer Backers at Buffalo Wild Wings in Muskegon, MI, just shook their heads and started pounding beers in disconsolate dismay. Guys, you were right. Cullen Jenkins can slide inside, but that means KGB is on the field when the other team might run, and that spells disaster for the Packers' D.
I hinted at it above, but the situation at CB isn?t as great as many would have you believe. Al Harris is slipping in his advancing age, no longer able to catch up with wideouts who beat his jam. You could throw a flag for holding on Harris on at least 75% of passing plays, but his reputation buys him a lot of leeway. Charles Woodson leads the league in DB penalties over the last 3 seasons, and his legs are starting to fade as well. Woodson remains very good in run support and still plays the ball as well as anyone. Harris is even better than Woodson against the run, so it?s not like the starting corners are a liability, but they are not as good as their reputation and both are on the downside of their illustrious careers. The liability factor comes in after those two. The nickel back is Tramon Williams, still looking for Shaun McDonald and Devin Hester in the slot. Behind Williams is injury-prone Will Blackmon and rookie Pat Lee, who failed to impress the coaches this summer. The safeties won?t be much help. Atari Bigby is (or rather, should be) strictly a surrogate LB, great against the run but a liability in coverage help--just ask Harris. FS Nick Collins picks up RBs out of the backfield very well but isn?t a hitter or a playmaker at a position where most teams have one. Aaron Rouse will help if the coaches play him more.
Best Case: The Favre hangover lingers longer in the media than it does on the field; Rodgers stays healthy and the passing offense doesn?t skip a beat; Grant proves he?s no fluke RB; the DT hole gets covered by all the talent surrounding it; Harris and Woodson remain worthy of starting at CB; Crosby finds the range at home; the OL improves run blocking in less than 3 WR sets. There is still enough talent on this team to win the NFC North again with 10 or 11 wins, and any team that makes the playoffs in the NFC has a legit shot to make the Super Bowl.
Worst Case: If you follow football at all, you know this one already--the enormous vacuum in Favre?s wake sucks all the energy and confidence out of the offense, and the defense can?t cover for it consistently. The team was lucky to notch 8 wins in 2006, and a regression back to 6 or 7 wins is realistic.
Bellwether Games: The Packers open the season with three games that will tell you a great deal: MIN, @DET, DAL. The Vikings are the hunter with the Packers firmly in their sights on Monday Night Football, with the lingering shadow of Favre all over Cheesehead land. The roadie to Detroit is a classic letdown game, and the Lions have the personnel to exploit the Packers? weaknesses in the secondary and interior OL. Then comes the powerful Cowboys, looking to solidify themselves as the team to beat in the NFC.
Prediction: Even with Brett Favre this team would have a really difficult time coming close to the 13 wins of 2007. The QB situation is just one of the questions that faces this team as they look to repeat in the NFC North. I have a hunch that enough of those questions (the aging CBs, the gaping hole at DT, the running game) will not get answered positive that the Packers are going to slide out of the playoffs. Green Bay finishes with the most scrutinized 7-9 finish in NFL history.