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Roster Roundouts ’10: A Green Bay Packers Season Preview

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Green Bay Packers (projected finish: 7-9)

Team synopsis: A very talented — but just as young — Packer team is still quite reliant on a few players such as QB Aaron Rodgers, CB Charles Woodson, LB Clay Matthews, and WR Greg Jennings.  But it may be just as reliant on an offensive line this year that struggles to protect Rodgers, and on Rodgers himself to make better use of the pocket on plays where it’s actually there.  Rodgers/McCarthy is as good of a bet as any to be the next formidable QB/QB guru duo in NFL annals, but I do think there will be a 2010 sized bump in the road before they get there.

Best Players

  • QB Aaron Rodgers (drafted — Cal/2005 1st round pick)
  • WR Greg Jennings (drafted — Western Michigan/2006 2nd round pick)
  • WR Donald Driver (drafted — Alcorn State/1999 7th round pick)
  • TE Jermichael Finley (drafted — Texas/2008 3rd round pick)
  • DE Ryan Pickett (signed — St. Louis/2006 free agent)
  • LB Clay Matthews (drafted — USC/2009 1st round pick)
  • LB Nick Barnett (drafted — Oregon State/2003 1st round pick)
  • CB Charles Woodson (signed — Oakland/2006 free agent)
  • FS Nick Collins (drafted — Bethune-Cookman/2005 2nd round pick)

Best Prospects

  • WR Jordy Nelson (drafted — Kansas State/2008 2nd round pick)
  • OT Brian Bulaga (drafted — Iowa/2010 1st round pick)
  • RG Josh Sitton (drafted — UCF/2008 4th round pick)
  • NT B.J. Raji (drafted — Boston College/2009 1st round pick)
  • LB Brad Jones (drafted — Colorado/2009 7th round pick)

More on Rodgers: even the Packers didn’t feel like he was capable of numbers like this prior to the 2008 season.  They felt like they needed to find out; you might not remember a time where Brett Favre’s inability to successfully retire actually hurt his team, but the Packers couldn’t afford to get deeper into his contract and not find out if he could play.  They drafted Brian Brohm out of Louisville, thinking that, in the strong QB draft class of 2008, a second rounder spent on Brohm was as valuable as the last 1st they spent on Rodgers three years before.

In his first season as a starter, he exceeded expectations.  He finished average, or above average, in every passing statistic.  Last year, the team released Brohm, and watched Rodgers improve in every statistical category, except sack rate, which declined severely (6.0% to 8.5%, as the overall sack environment went down).  As always, the real Rodgers is probably in between, and as long as he’s executing this well on third down, he will remain one of the best passers in the NFC.

This year, though, watch out.  Rodgers’ line is, put nicely, in transition.  Chad Clifton signed a 3-year, $20 million contract in the offseason, out of high demand at his position.  The team drafted Brian Bulaga, who figures to play somewhere right away, possibly at RT for Mark Tauscher, who is back on a one year deal.  Tauscher is younger than Clifton, but his career has been less prolific.  The good news is that the Packers have three starting caliber tackles, which should help avoid the disaster that was the first half of last season.  The bad news is that it’s two aging guys and a rookie.  LG Darryn Colledge is still a major weakness.  C Scott Wells is just a guy, even if he’s been at his position for a long time.  RG Josh Sitton, at least, is looking to lock down the role of franchise RG, after starting 16 games last year.

Aaron Rodgers is one of a few quarterbacks (Donovan McNabb, Ben Roethlisberger, David Garrard, Jason Campbell) who are better under pressure than merely under the threat of pressure.  The other thing all these quarterbacks share in common: they get hit.  A lot.  Rodgers figures to be hit a lot this year as well, which means that his league-leading 1.3% INT rate is not sustainable.  In fact, that rate could drift into the 3% range for the first time in Rodgers career.  That, along with a declining completion percentage and unsustainable yards per attempt figures could mean a decline season across the board for Rodgers.

He can circumvent these effects by continuing to be excellent on third downs, but his limited success on that down against division rivals Chicago, Detroit, and Minnesota compared to all other opponents, suggests that the more film that is there on his tendencies, the more limited Rodgers will be in critical third and longs.

The Packers might also struggle to get contribution from their running game.  Ryan Grant got dinged up in the first quarter of preseason action this year.  He should be okay for the first game, but it’s still a negative indicator that the no. 1 tailback on an offense-heavy team gets drilled that early in a preseason game.  Backup Brandon Jackson was ineffective in that role last year, and has only one out of three seasons averaging better than 3.7 YPC on the ground.  James Starks, the team’s 6th round pick out of Buffalo has potential.  But this year, it’s Grant and whatever injuries he may incur running the football.

The best unit on offense is the receivers.  Greg Jennings is one of the ten best receivers in the game.  Donald Driver was one of the 15 best last year, and is 35.  A list of the comparable receivers to his career suggests that the end is very near, but expecting one more 800+ yard season isn’t unreasonable.  Even if Driver can’t continue his pace, third year man Jordy Nelson (Green Bay) is probably ready for primetime after averaging 14.5 yards per catch last season.  And if Driver gets hurt this year, James Jones, a fourth year player, is capable of being a third receiver.  Tight end Jermichael Finley is a match-up nightmare.  When talking about the players who make Rodgers a fantastic red zone QB, Finley doesn’t get enough credit.  Corner’s can’t cover him.  Safeties can’t cover him.  Most linebackers have the size to cover him, but demonstrate poor cover skills on an island.  Finley has even more room to grow, and a lot of personnel types are surprised that the raw specimen made an impact as quickly as he did.

Defensively, the Packers are going to have to pick up some slack if the passing offense and rushing offenses slide a little bit.  They have the talent at all three levels to do so.  On the defensive line, an indefinite suspension to Johnny Jolly is a big deal, thinning out the line just a bit.  Nose tackle BJ Raji is an absolute stud in the making on the interior, he will provide matchup issues for most center/guard combos.  His presence allows Ryan Pickett to slide outside in the Packers’ 3-4.  Those two, combined with LB Nick Barnett are the center of a great run-stuffing unit.  Rookie Mike Neal will be asked to step up (and possibly in for) Jolly on the left side.  None of those guys are going to pressure the QB, so it’s up to second year players Brad Jones and Clay Matthews to put pressure on the quarterback.

There are reasons to be skeptical that that pressure can get there.  Matthews’ excellent rookie year was partially to credit to the half-season presence of Aaron Kampman.  Kampman is gone, and Jones will be forced into a full time role.  He could excel with the added snaps, or exposed by the same sample.  AJ Hawk has continued to disappoint on the inside next to Barnett.  Hawk’s emergence could really make a difference for a unit that needs the boost, but right now, he provides mediocrity at a non-premium position.

The secondary might be the weakest unit on the roster.  Al Harris continues to rehab from a serious, career-threatening, foot injury.  Defensive player of the year Charles Woodson returns as the other corner, while Tramon Williams will fill in for Al Harris rehabs.  Don’t forget about 2008 2nd rounder Pat Lee (Auburn), who missed the entire 2009 season, but clearly has an opportunity as de-facto nickelback with Harris out.  SS Atari Bigby will get pushed (finally) by third round pick, SS Morgan Burnett (Ga. Tech).  There are no questions about Nick Collins at FS, one of the best in the league in his prime.

Fighting for a spot on the roster

Graham Harrell is the new Brian Brohm, taking to the Packers roster after a stellar college career.

The Packers usually only keep 3 RBs (figuring that waiver pickups can play in their system on short notice), so Kregg Lumpkin could be pushed by Starks.  Conversely, the WCO offense allows them to hold multiple fullbacks, and so Quinn Johnson is going to push either John Kuhn or Korey Hall to make the roster.

The 5th receiver spot, formerly held by Ruvell Martin, can now go to someone else.  Perhaps, anyone else.  Brett Swain is the front runner.  Chastin West, Patrick Williams, Shawn Gore, Jason Chery, and Charles Dillon are the challengers.  Spencer Havner, a converted LB, emerged last year as the clear cut no. 2 TE, which puts Donald Lee in all sorts of roster trouble.  Tom Crabtree and draft choice Andrew Quarless will battle for his spot.

Marshall Newhouse, the teams 5th round pick out of TCU, and Jason Spitz (who backs up at center and guard) are the two primary backups on the interior.  With the three starting caliber tackles, the Packers don’t necessarily have to keep more than eight lineman.  But they probably will, because giving up on Breno Giacomini, T.J. Lang, and Allen Barbre at the same time likely isn’t in the cards.  Lang, in particular, might have a future at LG (this year), or RT (next year), so he’s probably safe.

DE Justin Harrell, unable to participate in much of the offseason work, is more likely than not to be released.  Cullen Jenkins and rookie second rounder Mike Neal will split time at LDE.  That leaves two spots for Ronald Talley, Jairus Wynn, and rookie C.J. Wilson.

Brandon Chillar, Desmond Bishop, and Brady Poppinga might make up the most impressive group of backup ILBs in football, and it’s a little surprising that none have unseated Hawk yet.  But the Packers are very much void of pass rushers, could add a veteran, and anyone on the roster who flashes raw skills in the preseason could make the final roster, because there are two (or at least one) open spot(s) at LB that have no frontrunner.

One spot at safety will be determined between special teamers Charlie Peprah and Will Blackmon.  I’m guessing Peprah is the front-runner.  If Lee doesn’t seize the moment in the offseason, he could be released so the team can keep Jarrett Bush as a special teamer, and Brandon Underwood as a ‘teamer/fifth corner.  Right now, Underwood would be the last defensive cut.

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