Monday, September 5, 2011

Green Bay Packers 2011 Season Preview: The Super Bowl Title Defense Begins

I am a little late this year in getting out my Packers season preview, barely making it before the season starts. And the good thing about being late on this is we have the final 53 man roster out already. Although, that list could change before kickoff this Thursday.

For hard core Packer fans there is not much new here. I will just go through the roster, position by position and give my thoughts on where they have improved and where they have potential weaknesses.

Overall, the Packers are bringing back the same core of starters as last year's Super Bowl team. Except, they have their famous "guy lost to the IR in 2010" back. That list includes big-time potential players like Jermicheal Finley and Ryan Grant. Like most Championship teams, they lost a few guys to free agency. But the roster was not ransacked by other teams like it usually is. Still players like Cullen Jenkins (to the Eagles), Brandon Jackson (to the Browns) and Daryn Colledge (to the Cardinals) will be missed. I know, I know. I included Colledge in that list, in spite of all the Colledge bashing that has been going on lately about his toughness, was a solid plug in the O line.

It should be noted that the Packers managed to get back a couple of key guys in spite of them being free agents, most notably, James Jones and John Kuhn. Also a solid draft class (as always) added by Ted Thompson and his crew will try to contribute right away. Well, at least some of them. Also, let's not forget the guys that were added as undrafted free agents. Some of them might end up being valuable contributors, if not full time starters even.

The decision on the fringe guys to make the 53 man roster seems to be based on trying to keep the best "athletes" rather than players with most experience or past contributions. Which might lead to a lot of tough decisions, but is a overall smart way to go about it.

Let's go position-by-position:

Quarterbacks (2)

Aaron Rodgers, Matt Flynn

Who is this guy?: Rodgers and his Fu Munchu
No big surprises here. The team is hoping for Rodgers to carry on from where he left of after that string of impeccable playoff performances; all on the road. "Experts" think he is a potential league MVP this year. But my hopes are tapered in that regard. I want to see Rodgers play a full 16 game regular season at an elite level before giving any credence to MVP talks. If you look at games last year mid-season (especially against the Lions, Redskins and Dolphins), there were so many drives stalled because of some inaccurate/rushed throws. I know I am coming out harsh on him here because some of that was because of a porous line and dropped catches. But when you talk MVP, you need him to step it up to the next level and take this potent offense to execute at the explosive level that it can.

There is still that "elephant in the room", concussion concerns about Rodgers. If he goes down with another concussion this year, league rules are very stringent in players getting back onto the field after a concussion, rightly so. This makes it imperative that we have a starter caliber backup behind Rodgers. Packers think Matt Flynn is that guy. Flynn proved he is capable of starting a game or two with his performance against the Patriots last year.

Running Backs (4)

Ryan Grant, James Starks, John Kuhn, Alex Green

Ryan Grant
Packers don't have room for three FBs this time. So just John Kuhn (and maybe some TE blockers) for FB responsibilities. Ryan Grant seems to be a little rusty right now. Then again, its only pre-season, so lets hold judgement till he plays a couple games. But James Starks looks real explosive at the moment. He just has the looks of being the more effective runner. But the question with him is, can he stay healthy? He believes so, especially after his new dietary regimen this off season. Alex Green is expected to be the 3rd down back. It's fair to say he has a long way to go to fill into the shoes of Brandon Jackson from last year, in terms of his blocking.

I expect Starks, if he can stay healthy to become the No.1 back by mid-season. Overall, it's going to be two-headed running attack with him and Grant sharing the load. For the first time in many years, I am excited about the Packers' running game, which will only be helped by the explosive passing attack that spreads out the defense creating more running lanes. Let's see how it pans out though.

Wide Receivers (5)

Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, Jordy Nelson, James Jones, Randall Cobb

One word here: DEPTH. In spite of many people writing off Driver, I expect him to surprise us all with a solid year of production. The old man is in great physical shape now, in spite of his age. James Jones has expressed, time and again this off-season about wanting to improve on his "dropped balls" issue from last year. Believe it or not, his first couple years at Green Bay, he had a reputation of having good hands. So there is hope. If he doesn't improve, Jordy Nelson might just overtake Jones and become a starter/3rd option.

Cobb's specialty this season will mainly be punt and kick off returns. He has also shown so much promise this off-season as a WR that he might be a very productive option on this offense in the slot. He is the perfect candidate to be groomed as the heir to Donald Driver; a tough physical receiver who is not afraid of traffic.

Tight Ends (5)

Jermichael Finley, Andrew Quarless, Tom Crabtree, Ryan Taylor, D.J. Williams

Finley: Will it be his YOTTO?
Here comes the first quirky portion of the roster. The Packers have FIVE, that's right... FIVE TEs on their roster. Finley, obviously is supposed to be the main catching TE that has to stretch the field. If he can stay healthy, he is the best match up option the Packers have right now. As many people keep bellowing out all the time: he is too big to be covered by a DB and too fast to be covered by a LB. And a double team on him opens up all other WR options that just won the Super Bowl.

Quarless is expected to take the next step forward in to developing into a legit TE. Taylor and Williams were drafted this year and have shown a lot of promise this pre-season. I think they are mainly on the roster as a back up option in case Finley, who is a free agent after this season, cannot be signed at the end of the season.

Tom Crabtree has nothing flashy about his play. But I can make the case that this fan favorite is the best blocker among all TEs and is invaluable, not only in special teams, but also as a pass blocker, given that the Packers have only one FB in Kuhn.

Offensive Line (8)

Chad Clifton, T.J. Lang, Scott Wells, Josh Sitton, Bryan Bulaga, Marshall Newhouse, Derek Sherrod, Evan Dietrich Smith.

Another head-scratcher on this year's roster is that the Packers are going in with only eight O linemen. So much of the offense is dependent on how the line protects Rodgers. I suspect the reason for going with only eight guys probably says more about the quality (or lack there of) of guys that they had to let go. I wouldn't be shocked if they add another person into this group very soon.

The starting five - Clifton, Lang, Wells, Sitton and Bulaga are solid. The backups can hold their wn as stop gap options. What worries me though is if one or more of the starters go down with an injury? Do we trust guys like Sherrod, Newhouse and Smith to step in and play at a high level. Don't get me wrong, Newhouse and Sherrod have shown a lot of potential, but they might need more time to develop into starter caliber players.

Praying for good health here more so than any position, other than maybe Rodgers.

Defensive Line (6)

B.J. Raji, Ryan Pickett, Mike Neal, Howard Green, Jarius Wynn, C.J. Wilson

BJ Raji aka "The Freezer"
Cullen Jenkins will be missed for sure. On the flip side, the Packers had to play without him (injuries) in a few games the last couple of years. So they are kind of used to it. Mike Neal is supposed to be the beast that replaces Jenkins, but he is finding it hard to even be healthy enough to make it onto the field. CJ Wilson and Wynn are just backup material as of now. They could develop into starter material though. Howard Green is a 350 pound body that will be in on some snaps, just to eat up blockers. Whatever plays he makes is just bonus.

Last year, Raji was playing the Nose Tackle position, while Pickett and Jenkins were DEs. The Packers, this off-season, are trying to play Raji at DE and Pickett at NT in some situations. This might just increase the play making opportunities for Raji, with his power and speed combination off the edge, as compared to just eating up blockers at NT. It's definitely a wrinkle to watch for; which might even become a staple if it is successful.

Linebackers (10)

Clay Matthews, Desmond Bishop, A.J. Hawk, Erik Walden, Frank Zombo, Vic So'oto, Jamari Lattimore, Brad Jones, Robert Francois, D.J. Smith.

Yup. The Packers are going in with ten Linebackers. At least six of them will play the OLB position. This doesn't really mean that they have a lot of depth here; just a lot of bodies. The Packers are hoping that one of the guys out of: Jones, Zombo, Walden, Smith or So'oto could blossom into that elite OLB opposite Clay Mathews. As it stands now, it will be a platoon combination of some sort out of those guys.

There is promise though. So'oto and Walden are the most intriguing ones to me. I expect one of them to come to the fore here. Lattimore and Smith are more "project material" than they are ready to contribute.

The ILB position lacks a lot of depth. Behind Hawk, who will be the play caller on defense, and Bishop, there is not much depth. Francois is a relative unknown to be a full time player. An injury to one of these guys could be devastating.

The Packers let go of the oft injured Nick Barnett and the injured Brandon Chillar over the off-season. The cutting of Nick Barnett might have a number of reasons apart from just his injuries. They were also getting rid of his huge salary and more importantly, the Packers considered his absence a addition by subtraction. The thinking is that the absence of his dominating personality in the locker room will only help the team chemistry more than his absence will hurt them on the field. A calculated risk. But, AJ Hawk proved last year that he has a level head to lead this defense with his calm demeanor at all times of the game.

Defensive Backs (10)

Charles Woodson, Tramon Williams, Nick Collins, Morgan Burnett, Sam Shields, Jarrett Bush, Pat Lee, Charlie Peprah, M.D. Jennings, Davon House

Charles Woodson. Tramon Williams. Enough said.

Charles Woodson and Nick Collins
The Packers have insane depth at the Cornerback position. That though, is assuming Sam Shields doesn't have a sophomore slump. Pat Lee had a good last couple weeks at training camp to make barely scrape through into the roster. He has potential to break out into the Sam Shields of this year, if he can stay healthy. Rookie Davon House has been injured most of this off-season. He has shown glimpses of good play making potential in whatever limited time he got to play. But as an option for playing as the dime back, he will have the opportunity to ease into learning to play Corner at the Pro level. Secretly, I am rooting for this kid as he is a New Mexico State Alum (Go Aggies!). I was a bit sad that Josh Gordy didn't make the team, but hey, they just have too much of riches at the position already, I guess.

Nick Barnett will look to be his usual solid self at Safety. Morgan Burnett has put in efforts to try be more physical this off-season. Let's see if he can stay healthy though. Charlie Peprah might be a backup on paper, but his more cerebral than physical and is very valuable to Dom Capers scheme. MD Jennings made enough plays at Sefety and Special teams this off-season to warrant a spot onto the final roster. Bush made the cut because he is versatile enough to play both Corner or Safety positions as a backup, apart from his contributions in Special Teams.

Special Teams (3)

Mason Crosby, Tim Masthay, Brett Goode (long snapper)

Crosby got his big extension this off-season. Packers probably think its good to lock up one of the more above average level kicker than to keep venturing year after year to take a flier on a kicker that may not pan out. Got to give it to Crosby though; he has one of the strongest legs of kickers in the league right now. And the new kickoff rule will help him get more touch backs, nullifying opponent kick returns to a great extent.

Tim Masthay can already sniff pro-bowl whispers. He was just brilliant towards the end of last season, nailing kicks both in terms of positioning and hang time, so that the coverage unit could hide its weaknesses. Looking for him to continue where he left off. From his pre-season performances, looks like he will.


I am going to avoid using the "R" word that rhymes with "Compete" in fears that I might jinx the Packers in the process. On paper, the Packers are loaded in most positions. Yeah, there are places where you would like to have a little more depth, but hey, with a Salary Cap and a 53 man roster, there is only so many holes you can fill. And I think Ted Thompson and his staff have done as good a job as anyone on the league in setting up for a good run this year.

I still am going to be a little cautious in terms of my expectations. I think they will make the playoffs, but I will not be surprised if they struggle to get there. Call me cynical, but I don't know if the Packers could go through a season without critical injuries. Add to it that the Packers have the second youngest roster in the league this season. How will their lack of experience handle all the success from last year? How can we be sure, in spite of re-assurances from so many Packers, that complacency won't set in? The fact that the NFC North is touted to be one of the better, if not the best division is not going to make it any easier for the Pack.

I still think this group of talented young guns have it in them to pull off a 11-5 season.

And so the SB XLV title defense begins.......

Go Pack Go!

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