Green Bay Packers 2013 Season Preview
By John McMullen, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - How much is too much to ask?
That could be the question which defines the 2013 Green Bay Packers season.
During his quiet times Packers All-Pro quarterback Aaron Rodgers probably feels like he has the weight of the world on his shoulders on occasion.
Everyone knows football is a bottom line business and while losing can really magnify the smallest of blemishes, winning can often mask all kinds of deficiencies.
In fact when you're on the right side of the scoreboard -- more often than not -- questions often go unasked, especially in a media market like Green Bay, where there is little competition for the back page of the tabloids and beat writers aren't willing to sell their first born for the next scoop.
Packers general manager Ted Thompson has enjoyed a cozy existence in the Badger State, cobbling together a sterling reputation which under closer scrutiny may not be all that it's cracked up to be.
Never a fan of free agency, Thompson prefers to build through the draft, hardly an out of the box-type philosophy these days but one which has given him a pass over the years because it generally works when you're making the right decisions.
Thompson certainly struck the Bull's-eye in 2005 when he selected Rodgers with the 24th overall pick out of Cal in his first draft as personnel chief of the club.
Since then, however, there have been far too many misses and the 2013 version of the Packers is showing more than a few holes, ones that are often covered up by arguably the best player in all of football.
Sure, Rodgers has amassed a gaudy 46-16 regular season record as a starter since the former MVP took over for Brett Favre in Titletown in the 2008 season and he has earned a Super Bowl ring, but who's to say that wouldn't have been two or even three championships if the Pack had at least a passable running game and a more accomplished offensive line?
A stunning exit to the New York Giants after a 15-1 regular season in 2011 coupled with a drubbing at the hands of the San Francisco 49ers in last year's divisional round finally awoke Thompson, who at least attempted to address both issues during the offseason in an effort to alleviate some of the pressure Rodgers faces on a weekly basis.
The offensive line was revamped with the flip-flopping of the woefully overmatched Marshall Newhouse and former first-round pick Bryan Bulaga, with Bulaga shifting over to the all-important left tackle position on Rodgers' blindside.
Meanwhile, Green Bay, which seemingly hasn't had a legitimate running threat since John Brockington called Lambeau Field home, finally addressed that position by bringing in both Eddie Lacy and Jonathan Franklin in the draft.
Part of that plan imploded during training camp when Bulaga suffered a torn ACL during the club's intra-squad scrimmage, leaving few options for coach Mike McCarthy.
And remember Bulaga was no gimmee at left tackle to begin with. Sure, he was developing into a more than adequate right tackle with a nice upside but the Iowa product missed seven games in 2012 after fracturing his hip. Meanwhile, Bulaga really wasn't the type of athlete who projected well on the left side when he came out of college in 2010.
All that said, Bulaga was expected to be an upgrade in a division which features elite weakside pass rushers like Jared Allen, Julius Peppers and potentially Ziggy Ansah.
Now McCarthy is back at square one, He could move Newhouse back to left tackle where he allowed nine sacks and a team-high 33 hurries in 2012 but the top option to protect Rodgers' future health is rookie David Bakhtiari, a fourth- round draft choice in 2013 out of Colorado who lacks quickness and is best- suited on the inside of the line.
It's more than conceivable Rodgers could win 10 games with the University of Wisconsin's offensive line in front of him so Bulaga's injury isn't going to send the people of Green Bay into a panic but at some point you have to believe all the hits A-Rod has taken over the past few seasons will begin to accumulate.
2012 RECORD: 11-5 (1st, NFC North)
LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2012, lost to San Francisco 49ers in divisional round.
HEAD COACH (RECORD): Mike McCarthy (74-38 in seven seasons, 6-4 postseason)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Tom Clements (eighth season with Packers, second as OC)
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Dom Capers (fifth season with Packers)
KEY ADDITIONS: TE Matthew Mulligan (from Rams), QB Vince Young (street free agent), DE Datone Jones (1st round, UCLA), EB Eddie Lacy (2nd round, Alabama), OT David Bakhtiari (4th round, Colorado), RB Johnathan Franklin (4th round, UCLA)
KEY DEPARTURES: LB Desmond Bishop (to Vikings), TE Tom Crabtree (to Bucs), WR Donald Driver (retired), WR Greg Jennings (to Vikings), C Jeff Saturday (retired), LB Erik Walden (to Colts), DB Charles Woodson (released), LB Frank Zombo (Chiefs)
QB: Rodgers led the league in passer rating for the second consecutive season in 2012, becoming the first NFL quarterback to do so since Peyton Manning led the league in the category in three straight seasons (2004-06). Meanwhile, Rodgers' combined passer rating of 114.9 from 2011-12 was the best two-season passer rating in NFL history and since taking over as the starter in 2008, A- Rod has posted more 100-plus passer rating games than any other quarterback in the league.
Rodgers is the rare pocket passer who excels when extending plays with his feet and throwing on the run. I suppose if you want to poke any holes in him as a player you might point to his leadership skills. Rodgers is an aloof, cocky guy and Jermichael Finley, Donald Driver and Greg Jennings have all taken shots at him in the past.
The backup situation is shaky. Graham Harrell hasn't flashed all that much when given an opportunity so veteran Vince Young was brought in to push him.
RB: The Packers' lack of a run game is almost a perfect storm-type situation.
Obviously Rodgers' skills, along with the rule changes that have made throwing the ball far easier in today's NFL, trend toward the passing game. Add in the fact that Thompson never really addressed the position until this year and the fact that McCarthy would rather climb up a tree to throw it than stand on level ground and run it all contribute to Green Bay's woes on the ground.
Lacy could and should be the answer. The former Alabama star is a powerful one-cut, downhill runner who could develop into a chain-mover fairly early in his career. Lacy, however, came in out of shape and must learn to pass protect before McCarthy is more comfortable with him.
"He doesn't waste any steps," the Packers coach said when describing Lacy's style.
With pedestrian options like DuJuan Harris, Alex Green and James Starks as alternatives Lacy should get every chance to fail. McCarthy, though, has always been enamored with Harris, a player who isn't about to put opposing defenses on edge.
"Entitlement is abundant sometimes when you're dealing with some of these guys coming into our league from college, and when you see a young man like DuJuan Harris, it's refreshing to see how motivated he is," McCarthy said. "He's not the tallest guy in the world, and I'm sure that�s why from a personnel evaluation standpoint he was passed over, but the young man is a damn good football player."
Franklin is more of a third-down back and also needs to prove he can pick up the blitz to get on the field.
WR: When Jennings was leading the parade at WR for the Packers, this could have been the deepest group in all of football. Jennings was a legit No. 1, Jordy Nelson, who posted 49 catches for 745 yards and seven TDs in 2012 despite missing four full games and most of two others due to injuries, was an elite second option, Randall Cobb was a difference maker from the slot and James Jones was the best fourth receiver in all of football.
When Jennings went down, however, things got a little easier for opposing defenses because Nelson probably isn't a true No. 1, while moving Cobb and Jones one-step up the ladder meant they were dealing with better defensive backs. Now that Jennings is in Minnesota and there is no obvious replacement, Nelson really needs to stay on the field and command a double team.
However, Nelson underwent knee surgery during the preseason as doctors attempted to correct a nerve issue that has bothered him since his days in college at Kansas State. Nelson reportedly felt like he could have played with the pain all season but the Pack rolled the dice and hope to have a healthy Nelson in time for the regular-season opener at San Francisco on Sept. 8.
Jones, who led the league with 14 touchdown catches last season, is a home-run hitter outside the numbers but not the all-around threat or route-runner Jennings was. Cobb, meanwhile, is best utilized out of the slot where he can use his short-area quickness to create headaches. Cobb is also dealing with own injury concerns, a painful biceps injury which McCarthy expects to be a play-through-pain proposition for the entire season.
Opportunity is knocking behind the proven veterans with Jarrett Boykin, Jeremy Ross and undrafted rookie Tyrone Walker all getting long looks.
"He's got strong hands, he's a quick little dude, he's got some nastiness to him. He's not going to let anybody push him around," Jones told the Packers' web site when talking about Walker, a 5-foot-10, 190-pound Illinois State product. "He's not 4.3 but he's fast enough to get behind you. He just plays with a lot of confidence. He comes back to the ball, sticks his hands out, catches the ball well."
TE: Perhaps the real replacement for Jennings will be TE Jermichael Finley, who had 61 receptions a season ago, the most by a tight end in franchise history.
Finley is the only Green Bay TE to register three 55-catch seasons but has always been regarded as a bit of an underachiever who is prone to drops in big situations. When focused and on his game Finely can be a matchup nightmare in the mold of Jimmy Graham.
"Jermichael has had a great spring, summer," Rodgers said. "I'm excited about his progress."
Penn State product Andrew Quarless needs will handle most of the in-line stuff and DJ Williams, a former fifth-round pick, will have his chance with Tom Crabtree now in Tampa Bay.
OL: Apologists for the Packers' offensive line say it's really not all that bad and point to the fact that Rodgers is prone to hang onto the ball as long as possible in an effort to extend things for his receivers, the kind of mentality that can result in a ton of big plays down the field but also means the Pro Bowler gets sacked more than most, a league-high 51 times last season.
Detractors point to the fact Thompson accumulated four right tackles and missed on the one guy who had the feet to play on the left side, Derek Sherrod. Expecting Bakhtiari to hit the ground running at left tackle is a little much and just about every scout projected his long-term future to be inside. Newhouse should be better now that he is on the right side but at the end of the day, he's just a pedestrian player and Don Barclay is pushing him.
"You'd like to have it set so there's enough time for those guys to play together," offensive coordinator Tom Clements said when asked about picking a a starter at right tackle.
Center Evan Dietrich-Smith was a big upgrade over the now-retired Jeff Saturday but that was because Saturday was done as a player. The Packers' guards, Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang, are clearly the strength of the unit.
Backups Barclay, who makes Bakhtiari look like Jonathan Ogden as far as athleticism goes, and former first-round Sherrod, who has not played since breaking his leg during the 2011 season, are less likelier stop-gaps along the line but anything is possible at this point.
DL: Green Bay's front seven has come up small in the postseason over the past two years. B.J. Raji should be and has been a difference-maker but lacks consistency and will disappear for long stretches. Finding out why will go a long way in curing this unit.
Veteran nose tackle Ryan Pickett is OK as a two-gap run stuffer but is on the wrong side of 30. Rookie first-round pick Datone Jones will be asked to step in on Day 1 and inject both youth and athleticism to this unit.
"We're not there yet," Jones said. "We have to get better every day. We've got something to prove every day."
C.J. Wilson, who is coming off an injury-plagued season, serves as insurance for Jones, while Johnny Jolly is trying to resurrect his career after a three- year self-imposed vacation spurned by off-field problems like drug abuse, a league suspension and prison time.
"I wouldn't say it's easy," Jolly said when discussing his comeback. "There's a little rust on me. Everything will take a little time, but I'll get there."
Youngsters Mike Daniels, a second-year defensive end from Iowa who has been a bit of a camp star while showing off some imposing quickness, and fifth-round pick Josh Boyd, a space eater who with plus athletic ability, could also figure in.
Jerel Worthy remains on the PUP list as he continues to rehab from knee- reconstruction surgery and could return at midseason, but with the depth added it's more likely he misses the entire year.
LB: Clay Matthews is the Packers best defensive player and one of the better pass rushers in all of football, ranking No. 5 in the NFL last season with 13 sacks despite missing four games due to a hamstring injury. Matthews has finished in the top five in the league in sacks in two of the last three seasons and has registered 42.5 sacks since entering the NFL in 2009. He is one-dimension though and looked lost when trying to diagnose Colin Kaepernick and the read-option.
The rest of the group after Matthews is far more ho-hum. Inside 'backers A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones don't stand out and edge player Nick Perry has a long way to go, although he has the natural size and skill along with the pedigree to be really solid complement to Matthews.
In an effort to make the team 290-pound Mike Neal was been dual-training on the line and as a rush linebacker.
DB: Although he hasn't really earned it the Packers have a lot of confidence in Sam Shields, who is back in his starting position at right cornerback after a disappointing 2012 season.
"I want to be that lockdown guy," Shields told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel during training camp. "My goal is to get to the Pro Bowl, win the Super Bowl, just be that lockdown guy. Just covering them big guys, being able to stay on that one side and whoever comes to that side be able to guard him. Having a Pro Bowl year."
That's good because his running mate, Tramon Williams, is 30 and has never been the most physical player in the world, making him susceptible to the Calvin Johnson- and Brandon Marshall-types in the NFC North. That said, Williams has always been a big play guy, amassing a career-high six INTs and three more in the postseason during the Pack's Super Bowl run in 2010.
Nickel back Casey Hayward showed a lot of playmaking potential as a rookie in 2012, becoming the first Packer freshman with four INTs over a three-game span since Tom Flynn in 1984. He finished fifth in the NFL and led all rookies with six picks overall. If he can clean up some of his technique problems and play with more consistency. Green Bay will really have something.
Veteran dime back Jarrett Bush is a former undrafted free agent and waiver wire pickup who has played in all 16 games for five straight seasons. He is capable of holding down things for a short period of time but tends to get exposed with higher reps and remains best suited as a core special teams contributor. Rookie Micah Hyde and Davon House are also in the mix.
Free safety Morgan Burnett was one of only two defenders and one of only four non-offensive linemen in the NFL to appear in 100 percent of his team's snaps in 2012. He's the glue of the defensive backfield but he and strong safety M.D. Jennings are often overmatched when locked in man-to-man pass coverage.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Punter Tim Masthay isn't flashy but recorded a solid 43.5-yard gross average, a 38.9-yard net average and placed 30 of his 70 punts inside the 20 in 2012, matching the team record for the most punts inside the 20 in a season.
Kicker Mason Crosby, on the other hand, was a disaster for most of the 2012 although he did clear the 100-point mark for the sixth straight season, a statistic which points back to the brilliance of Rodgers. Former Cal kicker Giorgio Tavecchio was brought in to push the shaky Crosby.
"It's a kicking competition," McCarthy said of Crosby and Tavecchio. "Let those guys battle it out."
Cobb has been an elite returner but his injury and the fact that his role on offense continues to expand takes him out of the equation here. Expect Green Bay to give backup receiver Ross as well as Franklin chances in the return game.
"With everything we do in practice, we'll have plenty of information on the ability of our returners to catch the ball and secure the ball after the catch," special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum said.
COACHING: McCarthy has led Green Bay to the playoffs in five of his seven seasons as head coach, joining Vince Lombardi and Mike Holmgren as the only coaches to guide the Packers to a Super Bowl win with a victory over Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XLV.
He joined former Pittsburgh-mentor Bill Cowher as the only Super Bowl winning coaches to lead their respective teams to three road wins as the No. 6 seed in the postseason en route to a world title but then faltered over the past two years with his club in a better position.
Including playoffs, McCarthy has a gaudy 80-42 record since taking over as head coach in 2006, a .656 winning percentage that ranks No. 3 among current NFL head coaches. If he mixes in the running game a little more, he might go down as one of the best head coached of his era.
Defensive coordinator Dom Capers had the big reputation but his unit has been sliding for a few years.
THE SKINNY: Thompson's failure to address long-term problems with the Packers roster and McCarthy's stubbornness to mix in the running game has already knocked Green Bay from the ranks of serious Super Bowl contenders down to a potential playoff club. The wrong hit on Rodgers would send then spiraling even further.
08/19 14:34:28 ET