STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
The Packers rode their offense to a 15-1 record in 2011, but it ultimately couldnít overcome the teamís defensive deficiencies, and the season ended in a disappointing loss to the Giants in the playoffs. An offense that averaged a league-leading 35 points per game and was led by All-Pro QB Aaron Rodgers got them off to a 13-0 start. A late season loss at Kansas City derailed the Packersí bid for a perfect season, though they got back on track with two wins heading into the playoffs.
It wasnít hard to figure out Green Bayís biggest weakness. The Packers allowed a league-worst 411.6 total yards per game and an astounding 299.8 passing yards per game. A league-high 31 interceptions allowed them to cover up some of these flaws, but it wasnít enough in the postseason. There was zero doubt heading into the offseason that the Packers needed to address their defense, first and foremost.
General Manager Ted Thompson is well known for staying out of the free agent market and that didnít change this offseason. Thompson has used the NFL draft almost exclusively to build his teams, and in 2012 the Packers used six of eight draft picks on defensive players. Early in the draft the focus was on improving Green Bayís feeble pass rush. First-round pick Nick Perry has the size and speed to free up Clay Matthews from continual double teams. Heíll need to transition into an outside linebacker after playing in a 4-3 defense in college, but defensive coordinator Dom Capers has a knack for finding ways to maximize a playerís potential. Second-rounder, DT Jerel Worthy, should be able to step in right away and provide a pass rushing boost up the middle. Green Bay then jumped back into the second round and selected CB Casey Hayward from Vanderbilt. Hayward could force Charles Woodson over to safety and take over as one of the teamís starting cornerbacks. The Packers used their remaining picks to build depth on the defense, offensive line and land a possible backup quarterback.
The Packers are still expected to have an elite offense in 2012. Itís a unit that starts with Aaron Rodgers, but also runs through their strong wide receiver corps of Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, James Jones, Randall Cobb and Donald Driver. The biggest change will likely be at running back, where Ryan Grant is testing the free agent market. James Starks and Alex Green return as possible starters, but they battled injuries all of last season and Green Bay will likely bring in other running backs to compete. Backup QB Matt Flynn also departed via free agency, which means that the Packers will be looking for another quarterback to hold a clipboard for Rodgers.
Anthony Hargrove, DE (Seahawks)
Hargrove has been something of a journeyman, but could provide a bit of pass-rushing help. He was suspended for eight games as part of the Saintsí bounty scandal, so that will have to wait, however.
Jeff Saturday, C (Colts)
The loss of Scott Wells via free agency opened up a hole on Green Bayís offensive line, but Saturday fits in nicely. He should be able to anchor an offensive line that always seems to be a little shaky.
Nick Perry, DE, USC (Round 1, 28th overall)
Perry will be counted on to get to opposing quarterbacks and force teams to account for him. Heíll be transitioning to linebacker, so he could develop slower than some would like.
Jerel Worthy, DT, Michigan St. (Round 2, 51st overall)
The Packers spent all of last year looking for a replacement for Cullen Jenkins and they hope that they have found one in Worthy.
Casey Hayward, CB, Vanderbilt (Round 2, 62nd overall)
Green Bayís secondary was torched last year. Losing Nick Collins in Week 2 didnít help, but the Packers had a problem covering wide receivers all season long. As a result, Hayward may be able to find himself a starting job right away.
Ryan Grant, RB (FA)
Grant led the team in rushing attempts last year but lacked the big-play ability that he showed in past seasons. Heís adequate and doesnít fumble, but, at press time, it appears the Packers will move on.
Matt Flynn, QB (Seahawks)
Losing Flynn only hurts if Aaron Rodgers goes down with a long-term injury during the season. Either nobody will notice heís gone, or it will have a dramatic effect.
HOW MUCH CAN THE DEFENSE IMPROVE?
The Packers fell from fifth overall in passing yards allowed in 2010 to 32nd in 2011. Plus, they dropped from 47 sacks to 29. Itís difficult to pinpoint exactly how that happened, but losing S Nick Collins in the second game of the season and DE Cullen Jenkins prior to the season obviously didnít help. GM Ted Thompson has decided to grab as many young defensive players as he can to see if any of them can provide some immediate help. Coordinator Dom Capers will need to figure out each playerís strengths and weaknesses in order to get the most out of them, but heís displayed an aptitude for that in the past. One of the most logical moves would be moving Charles Woodson from cornerback to safety. Woodson is slowing a bit as he ages and is best used as a playmaker. How much the defense improves likely boils down to how much pressure it can put on opposing quarterbacks, an area of focus in the draft.
CAN THE OFFENSE REPEAT LAST SEASONíS SUCCESS?
Aaron Rodgers set an NFL record in 2011 with a 122.5 passer rating by throwing for 45 touchdowns and just six interceptions. Itís hard to imagine that he can duplicate or exceed those numbers in 2012, but he shouldnít fall off too much. The offense returns all of its key contributors except for Ryan Grant (though thereís still a chance he could be brought back) and how much he contributed can be debated. Head coach Mike McCarthy has said that he intends to run the ball more this coming season, so there figures to be an increased focus on generating rushing attempts. Still, itís hard to imagine that the Packers wouldnít put the ball in Rodgersí capable hands as often as possible.
WHO WILL RUN THE BALL?
Ryan Grantís best years were likely behind him even before the 2011 season began. He was coming off of a knee injury that ended his 2010 season and even took a pay cut to stay with the Packers. It wasnít surprising that the Packers let him walk as a free agent. James Starks has shown the ability to handle the majority of snaps but misses too many blocking assignments and is often injured. Heíll likely get the first look as the featured back in Green Bayís offense. Alex Green was an interesting rookie last season, but a knee injury ended his campaign after just four games. The Packers will need to take a wait and see approach to find out what he can give them. Brandon Saine is the wild card in the teamís backfield. An undrafted free agent out of Ohio State, Saine made a name for himself on the practice squad and played in eight games in 2011. Coach Mike McCarthy likes his ability to make defenders miss and is willing to throw to him out of the backfield. As a result, the unheralded Saine could find a niche as a third-down back in Green Bayís offense.
RISING: Randall Cobb should see more time on the field this season and could move ahead of Donald Driver on the wideout depth chart.
DECLINING: Veteran Donald Driver is still around, but his role continues to diminish.
SLEEPER: Brandon Saine could get a decent amount of time as a third-down option and would be an injury away from a starting spot.
SUPERSLEEPER: Alex Green will be competing for a backup running back slot, but will first need to prove that heís healthy.
Clay Matthews, LB
Matthews took a step back last season, though some of that was due to injury and the constant double teams he saw. He could return to double-digit sacks if Nick Perry can provide some pass- rushing help on the opposite side of the line.
Charles Woodson, CB
Woodson remains one of the top playmaking defenders in
Desmond Bishop, LB
Bishop doesnít get much ink, but he had 115 tackles and five sacks in just 13 games last season.
RotoWire Rank: 4