Jeff Risdon. 2nd September, 2010 - 1:46 am
2009 record: 11-5
Turnover Ratio: +24
Sack Differential: -14
Point Differential: +164
Coming In: P Tim Mashtay
Going Out: DE Aaron Kampman, RB Ahman Green, S Matt Giordano, RB DeShawn Wynn, P Jeremy Kapinos, DT Johnny Jolly
Key Rookies: OL Bryan Bulaga, S Morgan Burnett, DE Mike Neal
QB: Aaron Rodgers is proof that the old school style of QB development still works. Sitting for what had to seem like an eternity (3 years in reality) behind some guy named Favre, Rodgers took over as a more mature, polished product. He has taken that to a new level and is poised to ascend to the pantheon of the next generation of great quarterbacks. Rodgers had a breakout season in 2009, and it?s hard to see him not thriving in 2010 and beyond.
The 2005 1st rounder has a great, live arm and has greatly improved his touch since leaving Cal. Few throw as accurate a deep ball, and he can rifle the intermediate throws with great precision. Rodgers is athletic with above-average mobility--his 316 yards rushing last year ranked 2nd amongst all QBs. Sacks have been a problem, though midway through last season the coaching staff stopped calling deep drops and ordered Rodgers to get rid of the ball quicker, which he successfully incorporated into his repertoire. He is quicker to audible and check down to short hitch and slant routes, which worked out fantastic because of his pinpoint accuracy and the ability of his receivers to run after the catch.
There are some things that lead me to believe that Rodgers will fall back a bit in 2010, and it goes just beyond fantasy numbers, where he was the MVP a year ago. The TD/INT ratio of 30/7 came against some truly awful pass defenses--the entire, putrid NFC West and the AFC North, in which only the Bengals were decent in pass coverage. This year the non-division schedule brings the AFC East and NFC East, where even the poorer teams (BUF, WAS) have strong secondaries and the good teams (MIA, DAL, NYJ) are outstanding in coverage. Rodgers threw just one INT on 3rd down; just two other 16-game starters have thrown less than 4 on 3rd down in the last 10 seasons--Peyton Manning in 2004 and 2006, Chad Pennington in 2008. That success will not be replicated. He?s also not great at throwing fades or back-shoulder tosses in the red zone. Don?t get me wrong--Rodgers is a legit MVP candidate, but if you?re banking on him carrying your fantasy team to a title, scale back expectations.
Matt Flynn whipped the departed Brian Brohm for the #2 job based on his pluckiness, his rapport with teammates, and his ability to nail the short and intermediate throws. He would obviously be a downgrade from Rodgers, but Packers fans probably don?t realize how fortunate they are to have a quality #2 like Flynn should he have to fill in for a game or two. His downfield throwing is not an asset and he?s not very game-tested, however. Green Bay will not carry three QBs on the active roster, and if an injury arose expect them to scour for a veteran fill-in in lieu of a developmental project like Graham Harrell.
RB: Ryan Grant returns as the feature back, for better or worse--mostly better. Few backs are as consistently productive as Grant has been over the past few seasons. He almost never loses yardage and has an inherent knack for falling forward in the holes. Grant lacks breakaway speed and isn?t the sort who will run over a defender, but he?s slippery on the move and does a fine job setting up and making cuts off his blockers. He?s piled up a pretty heavy workload, which means the legs aren?t exactly fresh and he?s more vulnerable to injury, and he remains a major liability in pass protection (see complete, half-hearted whiffs on Jared Allen and Cliff Avril last year). Grant is not an elite back but fits well in this offense. He?d fit even better if they got him some help.
There is fervent hope in Green Bay that Brandon Jackson can finally emerge as the legit #2 back, something that just hasn?t materialized. Jackson is too tentative and fails to break tackles. He gets most of his action in obvious passing downs because he?s an adept receiver (few are better on screens), but with all the talent at WR and TE that?s a small niche here. Jackson has had his best camp thus far, so there is reason for optimism.
Thickly built Kregg Lumpkin has just one carry in two years as the #3 back, and a bum hamstring leaves his roster spot in jeopardy, particularly if the team elects to keep all three quality FBs on the roster. In John Kuhn, Quinn Johnson, and Korey Hall the team boasts a trio of starting-caliber blockers, with Kuhn being the best receiver and Johnson the most likely to get a handful of carries.
WR/TE: One of the big reasons Rodgers can shine at QB is this stellar cast. Greg Jennings is an emerging star as the #1 wideout, a role which has peacefully transitioned to him from Donald Driver. Jennings isn?t too big but he has great feet and shifty speed that allow him to consistently get separation on deeper routes. The Western Michigan product is a very crafty runner after the catch, and he plucks the ball with his hands in a very wide catch radius for a guy his size. His production ebbs and wanes, though some of that is a function of an offense that is designed to spread the ball to multiple receivers all over the field. Rodgers clearly trusts him, and when they need a big play on 3rd and 14, Jennings is usually the man to deliver.
Driver still remains a very viable, productive receiver at age 35. He?s just as valuable here for his leadership and mentoring of the younger wideouts; his work ethic remains top notch and he?s got a future as a position coach should he ever want to do that. The catch totals keep sliding a little every year (82 to 74 to 70) and probably will fall to about the 60 range this year, but Driver continues to get reliably open on the 12-to-25 yard routes that make up the bread and butter of the Packers offense. He also remains one of the best blocking wideouts in the game, a trait that unfortunately has not rubbed off on his mates. Even though he?s not the #1 receiver per se, he?s probably the one wideout the team really cannot afford to lose from the lineup for an extended period, and he?s not getting any younger. Consider that a light yellow flag for the offense.
Jordy Nelson and James Jones share the #3 and #4 roles, largely depending on the situation. Nelson is bigger and much more physical, but he also tends to get open better downfield. Jones is shiftier and has better footwork, but his hands are iffy and he operates better on quick-hit tosses and combo routes inside Jennings. Nelson is the more reliable and complete receiver, but Jones? ability to create after the catch is special. In an interesting twist, they are both essentially playing for the same contract, which raises the ante on motivation and internal competition. Expect Nelson to finish with more catches and see more action thanks to his better versatility, but Jones might wind up with more TDs and highlights on your favorite sports shows.
The Packers could be in a pinch if they need to utilize their deep depth at wideout. Brett Swain was a 7th rounder a year ago and played sparingly. He?s the next in line, but a camp injury leaves his status in question. Nobody else has registered an NFL catch.
If you read pretty much any season preview or fantasy publications, you have no doubt seen that Jermichael Finley is The Next Great Tight End. Finley burst onto the scene a year ago, netting 55 receptions for almost 700 yards and representing the only legit red zone receiving target on the team. He?s a great physical specimen (6?5?, 250) that presents himself well as a target and has great agility for his size. His hands are trustworthy and Finley can take a big hit and hold on. That?s what makes people salivate...but it?s not the whole story. He?s still fighting a well-earned rep for not practicing hard or putting in the work in the film room. Considering his size and strength, Finley is a poor blocker. Normally that gets remedied by splitting him outside--he often winds up as the wide-side outside receiver--but Finley simply doesn?t bend his knees or extend his arms while blocking.
Donald Lee falls into the role of blocking TE after giving way in the starting lineup to Finley. Lee is a very solid #2 TE and is more of a traditional positional fit: tough, not very fast, good possession hands, no threat to run, decent in-line blocker. His hands weren?t so reliable last year, a trend that could curtail his career here if he doesn?t rediscover them. Converted LB Spencer Havner is breathing down his neck and is significantly cheaper, albeit much less experienced. Still, Havner?s primary role here is on special teams, though he has some H-back skills too. Rookie Andrew Quarless has impressed onlookers with his polished route running and litheness, though his blocking is a work in progress. And Tim Crabtree could earn a roster spot as the best in-line blocker of the bunch. He?s a game special teamer that can also long snap if needed. There?s almost no conceivable way the Packers keep 5 tight ends, certainly not with also keeping 3 fullbacks, so expect one or more of these useful depth players to wind up elsewhere.
OL: If the Packers fail to make the playoffs, this unit is probably going to bear the most responsibility. Things got so bad a year ago that Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher, both former starters out of football at the time, were brought back to rescue the tackle positions. They will start again in 2010, though both are well on the wrong side of 30. Clifton has fought with a host of injuries that have made him a shell of his former self, yet he?s still clearly the best tackle on the roster. The cagey veteran remains a plus run blocker on the left side, and he?s just functional enough in pass protection. Tauscher plays with the requisite menace of a right tackle, and he blocks down quite well. Outside speed gives him trouble, and he struggles against 3-man fronts. Yet he was a huge upgrade over the turnstiles he replaced, and keeping him healthy is an absolute imperative. The top reserve on the right side is Breno Giacomini, a lumbering grabber who would not make a lot of teams? practice squads.
Green Bay drafted Iowa tackle Bryan Bulaga with their 1st round pick, yet have done everything they can to hinder his development. He has moved from right tackle to left guard to left tackle and finally (?) to the top reserve at both LG and LT. Some draftniks (myself included) thought he was a G/T tweener, but the surest way to exacerbate that problem is to keep flopping positions. That he was unable to beat out incumbent LG Daryn Colledge should be seen as a very bad sign, as Colledge would not start on most other teams. His weak run blocking is a major detriment.
Center Scott Wells and RG Josh Sitton are nothing special but work well together. Several camp observers have remarked about Sitton?s improved play, so he could raise it up a notch. Top interior reserve Jason Spitz is returning from a back injury, but prior to that he was arguably better than either Wells or Sitton. Second-year swingman TJ Lang is a wild card and is the most menacing run blocker on the roster, but he?s been hurt most of the offseason and really struggled in pass protection a year ago. Offensive Coordinator Joe Philbin tweaked the offense to help out the weak points up front, but there?s only so much lipstick you can put on a pig before someone eats your bacon.
DL: The 3-man front of Cullen Jenkins, B.J. Raji, and Ryan Pickett is a good one. Pickett and Raji have switched positions, a move that should help maintain the improved run defense. Pickett slides out to left end while Raji takes over at nose tackle, though both guys can play either spot. The primary function up front in Dom Capers? defense is to stop the run and occupy all 5 offensive linemen, and this trio does that pretty well. Pickett has gone from being something of a disappointment earlier in his career to being a valuable above-average starter thanks to improved conditioning and better application of film study. He knows all the tricks and subtleties of how to attack all the different schemes and opponents. Raji struggled some in his rookie season, but the 2009 first rounder was battling a bum ankle all year that robbed him of his explosiveness, which is his main calling card. He should be healthier in 2010 and also more dynamic of an interior presence. He?s very quick for a man pushing 340 pounds, though he struggled to get off blocks and needs to learn to use his hands better.
Jenkins is the pass rusher of the group. He had some adjustment pains early on from sliding farther inside, but played better as the season bore on. The Packers used him quite effectively with blitzers coming from either side of him and letting him attack both the B and C gaps, keeping the OL off balance and making it difficult for the QB to read the rush. Jenkins also proved adept at backside containment, frequently pushing runners outside and disrupting the flow of the play.
The starters here are very good, but they absolutely must remain healthy because the backups are a huge question mark. Second-round pick Mike Neal is the top reserve end, making the transition from college 3-technique to NFL 5-technique. He had trouble getting off blocks in college, though he?s aggressive and strong. El busto Justin Harrell has one shot left at salvaging his NFL career, which has been ravaged by chronic back injuries. To no one?s surprise, the former first rounder has missed more practice time this summer with said back injury. Any contribution from Harrell should be considered an unexpected bonus. Jarius Wynn occupied space as a rookie a year ago, a role that athletic 7th rounder C.J. Wilson will fill this year. With Anthony Toribio as the only reserve nose man on the roster, the bench here is woefully inexperienced and underwhelming talent-wise. Losing Johnny Jolly to legal problems is a major blow.
LB: There is abundant talent here, but finding the proper mix of that talent has been a bit of a challenge for the coaching staff. Two spots are a given--Nick Barnett as the right ILB and Clay Matthews as the pass rushing LOLB. Both are Pro Bowl caliber talents that fit very well into Capers? mix-n-match pressure scheme. Barnett is the leader of the defense and a savvy field general. Hyper-aggressive and extremely difficult to block, Barnett?s strong ability in pass coverage last year was a revelation. He should be even quicker this year, as Barnett is one more year removed from major knee surgery. Matthews notched 10 sacks as a first-round rookie a year ago, but just as important was his all-around solid play. He?s clearly learned well from his family, which includes a Hall of Fame uncle (Bruce Matthews, the best OL of the last 25 years) and borderline Hall of Fame father (Clay, an excellent hybrid DE/OLB). Young Matthews quickly reads and reacts, and he has the physical prowess to loop inside on a delay blitz one play, break up a screen pass on the next, then follow that up with providing good coverage on a split-out tight end on the following play.
It?s the other LBs that must raise their level of play for this defense to improve. A.J. Hawk starts as the other inside backer, but he just hasn?t lived up to his first-round expectations (a common theme for this franchise). It?s not that Hawk isn?t a good player; he?s a solid run defender with good instincts. But he rarely makes a big play and lacks explosiveness and range. He leaves the field in passing situations, where he is neither a good blitzer nor real adept in coverage. Desmond Bishop is sort of Hawk?s antithesis. He flies all over the field and attacks with passion, but he also frequently overruns plays and lacks quick diagnosing skills. He?s small for a 3-4 inside backer and must have the defensive line tie up blockers, but he?s much more active than the conservative Hawk. Brandon Chillar is primarily the nickel LB, as he is sound in coverage but can also time his blitzes well. Chillar can play inside or outside, adding versatility to the mix. He is not much of a run defender. Brad Jones flashed some pass rush ability as a rookie, getting 4 sacks last year, but that number is a bit deceiving--all came late in games where the opponent was in clear pass-only mode. He?s missed most of the summer with a shoulder injury, which means his progress will be stunted. Finding a complementary rusher to Matthews is paramount to giving the defense some balance. One intriguing candidate that has emerged in the preseason: undrafted rookie Frank Zombo from Central Michigan. His active rushing skills could push former starter/current misfit Brady Poppinga farther down the depth chart.
DB: It?s the Charles Woodson show! The veteran corner absolutely earned the 2009 Defensive Player of the Year award with his stellar play a year ago. With 9 INTs, 4 forced fumbles and scores of key tackles that prevented first downs, plus consistently strong man press coverage, Woodson often appeared to be all over the field. He remains one of the most physical corners in the game and is excellent in run support. The fact that he can play anywhere in the secondary makes him more valuable and keeps offenses guessing.
The question is how much does Woodson fall back in 2010. He?s 34 now, and recent winners of the DPOY award have had trouble replicating the magic. Consider the man who won it before him, James Harrison, who went from 16.5 sacks, 110 tackles and 7 forced fumbles to 10 sacks, 79 tackles, and 5 forced fumbles. Those are still darn impressive numbers, but they?re not really close to the award-winning production. Harrison had a lot more help to compensate for his inevitable regression than Woodson has here.
Longtime running mate Al Harris is probably done after suffering a devastating knee injury, where he tore every tendon. That elevates Tramon Williams to the other starting role. Williams was uneven a year ago, showing some very innate ball skills but also a proclivity for penalties and getting caught staring into the backfield. He?s generally quick to make the tackle and has the fight in him to handle the expanded role, but he must use his feet more and his hands less in coverage before the ball is thrown. It?s the spots behind Williams where the Packers are really in trouble.
All the rest of the corners have major questions. Patrick Lee has played very little in two seasons due to injuries, and he?s likely the nickel back. I actually liked Lee coming out of Auburn, but it?s a real stretch to think he can return from multiple severe injuries without losing some ability, plus he?s missed the last 25 games of experience in his young career. Jarrett Bush was overmatched as the dime back a year ago but finds himself in that role again. Undrafted rookie Sam Shields has looked very good in camp and could jump over both Bush and Lee. Best known for clocking the fastest (unofficial) 40 time of any player in the last draft process at 4.20, Shields is a converted WR that was brought to camp as a return man but has outplayed his competition at CB. That says more about the talent, or lack thereof, around him than anything sparkling about Shields, but you have to respect the promise he offers. Brandon Underwood appears to have squandered his shot with some off-field problems and a shoulder injury.
Nick Collins is a bright spot at free safety. Rangy and smart, Collins is an excellent center fielder that provides reliable over-the-top help with hard-hitting run support. He tends to play better against tougher competition. He will be asked to do more with Harris gone. Atari Bigby has been underwhelming as the strong safety, which prompted the team to draft Morgan Burnett in the 3rd round. Burnett was a punishing hitter at Georgia Tech, but was not noted for being a great tackler or being real aware in coverage. He appears to have won the starting job and has legit promise, but there will be growing pains. Will Blackmon switched from corner, where he was awful, but his primary function is as a below-average return specialist. Former Raven Derrick Martin provides some depth.
These units must show improvement across the board. Mason Crosby has a huge leg but his kickoffs are a mystery; he?s capable of putting 3 in a row 8 yards deep, but then won?t get one beyond the ten for two games. The team will not tolerate him going 6-14 beyond 38 yards once again. Will Blackmon hopes to return from a knee injury to retake the punt return gig, where he is largely mediocre but flashes great skills just often enough. He?s historically better on punts that kickoffs, where the team has had open auditions with a whole slew of candidates for the better part of three seasons now. Jordy Nelson and Brandon Jackson are the early clubhouse leaders.
There is an intense camp battle for the punting job, where the departed Jeremy Kapinos was simply awful a year ago. Tim Mashtay and giant Aussie Chris Bryan are slugging it out, with Mashtay a slight favorite. Neither can be any worse than Kapinos, though better coverage units would have helped him out. According to NFL.com, no team missed more tackles on special teams than Green Bay a year ago--which says something considering how awful Pittsburgh was in that capacity. The lousy special teams didn?t hurt too badly a year ago, but against the tougher schedule this season they must improve or it will cost them games.
3 Keys to the season
1. Managing regression. Last year the Packers led the league in turnover margin and rocketed from 28th to 5th in run defense. History says they will fall back in both areas this year. The key will be not falling back too far and bolstering their other weaknesses, namely red zone production and special teams. Trading off dominance in one area for improvement in lousiness in other areas is critical to sustaining success.
2. Sorting out the defense. There are a lot of moving parts to Dom Capers? defense, and a lot of new faces in new places are being counted on to deliver. Making those transitions as seamless and productive as possible is not a given, but the talent is largely there to pull it off.
3. Health. The starters here are good enough to compete for a Super Bowl, but the depth at many spots is almost embarrassingly thin. Any injuries along the offensive or defensive lines or in the secondary will be devastating, as would any extended loss of Ryan Grant or Nick Barnett. They largely avoided the injury bug a year ago, but that?s hard to do again.
Expectations are high in Green Bay, and that is not unfounded. Aaron Rodgers is a legit MVP candidate and the skill position starters are upper echelon. There is exciting young talent on defense with some strong veterans sprinkled around for good measure. Having said that, I?m just not sold on this team. The offensive line is subpar at best, and the secondary issues that several teams exploited last year have not been addressed, nor has the need for a more balanced pass rush. A tougher schedule and the burden of expectations make another 11-win season unrealistic. I forecast a 9-7 finish for the Packers, a win total that will require some help to make it back to the playoffs. They have the ability to make that low total look foolish, but I need to see it before I believe it.