As we (thankfully) wind down our final week of the offseason, every pundit and their cousin has been offering up some sort of roster breakdown, ranking, or other evaluation of the team for our perusal. And most of those reviews are typically very optimistic. Too right...the last week in July is pretty much the only time Packer fans can be fervently positive about a team that has yet to get a win under its belt.
But, as I take a stroll through the Packer Blogosphere, you see that (rather unfortunately) there is still a schism among the fans. I myself can write a piece critical of Nick Collins, and there is someone there to tell me that Collins shouldn't be criticized, because Ted Thompson is single-handedly destroying this team. On another article, I write something vaguely critical of Thompson's draft, and people come out of the woodwork to voraciously defend him and his genius.
At one time, Mike Sherman was the dividing force among Packer fans. More recently, it was Brett Favre. Now, Thompson appears to be the one that causes the most debate and divisiveness amongst our own.
Mind you, I can't stand infighting among Packer fans. Been there, done that, and really have come to believe that there is something wrong when a group of fans all wearing the same colors and waving the same banner have to tear one another apart. God created Viking fans for this kind of abuse. But, the reality is still there. If you are "on board" with Thompson, you tend to have a highly optimistic view of the team (which isn't a stretch...nearly every fan of every team tends to have visions of 16-0 in July). But those fans who aren't buying what Thompson is selling tend to have a much more dismal view of the roster and the team (and its future).
Who is right? Is the Packer glass completely full? Or, is it completely drained? Naturally, it all depends on your perspective. Here's is a half-full and half-empty evaluation of all the major position groups.
Glass Half-Full: The fact that the Packers are not wallowing in post-Favre limbo as so many other teams do following the exodus of a HOF signal caller is thanks to the free-fall of Aaron Rodgers in the 2005 draft, and the wise decision to allow him to develop from the sideline and on the practice field for three seasons. Kudos to TT and MM for not turning A-Rodge into another David Carr, like the 49ers did to Alex Smith.
Rodgers is coming off a very solid season, and has proven that he can fill the shoes of Brett Favre, playing through an injured shoulder for much of the 2008 season. He does and says all the right things, and finished with a 93.8 quarterback efficiency rating last season, good enough to rank 6th in the NFL. With Greg Jennings re-signed at WR, things only look up for Aaron Rodgers' progress in his sophomore season as a starter.
Glass Half-Empty: While many have debated whether or not Rodgers is able to pull out a fourth-quarter comeback or not, there's one statistic that looms large for him: he was sacked 34 times last season, the most sacks the Packers have allowed since 1999. Rodgers has to develop the pressure awareness and be able to safely get rid of the ball at critical times, particularly because this offense hinges on his health.
Brian Brohm and Matt Flynn continue to be the only competition allowed for Rodgers, and thankfully, neither had to see the field much last year. As optimistic as we are for their development, most reports have both not at a point to be able to adequately lead the team for any stretch of time. Naturally, we may be surprised by Flynn in the event of a Rodgers injury, but we'd all still hope it doesn't happen.
Glass Half-Full: Ryan Grant reported late last training camp after a contract squabble, and predictably, pulled a hamstring that hampered him all year. Despite missing two games and being hobbled for several more, he still managed to rush for 1,203 yards last year, which when added to the 956 he finished with over the last nine games of 2007 is a pretty respectable total for 23 games.
You would think that Grant, going into his second full season as a starter, should be hitting his prime and will be running again like he was during the playoff run of 2007. Brandon Jackson has proven that, if given the chance, he can make something happen out of the backfield, and DeShawn Wynn has been impressing people with his offseason approach this year.
Glass Half-Empty: It's a lot easier to get 1,200 yards when you are getting the lion's share of carries. Despite missing two games completely, Grant still got 312 carries last season (71.3%), while Aaron Rodgers rushed 56 times (12.8%). That left Brandon Jackson and the rest of the running backs with only 54 touches (total, including those two games where Grant was unavailable), which means that Mike McCarthy was set on feeding the ball to his new millionaire running back.
Grant has been typically good when the team is doing well, but disappears when we need the running game most. A mediocre 3.9 ypc is what we could typically expect from Grant, who rarely broke the big play, and had as many fumbles as touchdowns (4). Grant needs to establish himself as a consistent threat this year, and McCarthy needs to make sure the running game is a threat this year (not just Grant).
Glass Half-Full: While plenty of buzz was spent on BJ Raji and Clay Matthews this draft, there was certainly a lot of excitement for fifth-round draft choice Quinn Johnson, the LSU fullback who is readily known as a pure lead blocker and is expected to upgrade the running game. Korey Hall and John Kuhn have done an adequate job in that role over the last two seasons, and one of them will likely stick around to provide a receiving threat on passing downs.
Given that the combination of Kuhn and Hall tallied only ten receptions and eight rushing attempts last year, this could well be the right situation for Johnson, who should be able to help Ryan Grant get back to the form we saw at the end of 2007.
Glass Half-Empty: Quinn Johnson is a rookie, and there's no guarantee he'll be ready to contribute regularly this year, despite being the top-ranked fullback in the draft. Fifth rounders rarely do. The other question has to be if the Packers' West Coast Offense and Zone Blocking Scheme readily compliment such a one-dimensional player, especially given that Hall and Kuhn scored three touchdowns last year on those ten receptions.
Since Johnson has liabilities as a ball-handler, the chances exist for a fullback-by-committee, telegraphing run or pass to the defense depending on who the fullback is.
Glass Half-Full: Greg Jennings was re-signed to a huge contract, and is expected to establish himself full as the Packers' #1 receiver this season. In all actuality, in addition to having a Pro Bowl-caliber WR in Jennings, you would be hard pressed to find a #1 through #4 receiving corps as talented as what the Packers have, anywhere else in the NFL.
While Donald Driver's production fell off slightly in 2008, this can be attributed to the emergence of Jennings, who took in 80 catches to Driver's 76. That stated, 34-year old Driver will likely find himself in the role of possession receiver as Jennings becomes the big-play threat, giving Rodgers plenty of weapons to deal with. James Jones and Jordy Nelson are both big, talented receivers that bring another year of maturity to their game as each vie to be Driver's heir apparent.
Glass Half-Empty: Admittedly, it is hard to find a lot of negatives with this group, but there are always those unexpected developments. Will Jennings continue to play at the level he has been, with the team attitude he's had, now that he's the second-highest paid WR in the league? Will "Forever Young" Driver continue a statistical decline as his body continues to age? Will James Jones bounce back from injury and a sophomore slump to regain the potential we saw his rookie year?
But perhaps the biggest concern for the receivers isn't with the corps themselves, but with the man throwing them the ball. If Rodgers is unable to stay healthy this year, Brohm and Flynn will rely heavily on the receivers to make plays for them, thus the WR's may become less of a factor if McCarthy resorts to a run-first option.
Glass Half-Full: Jermichael Finley was drafted in 2008 with the promise of freakish talent that might rival that of Vernon Davis. He's certainly tried to play the part this offseason, and that has a lot of folks excited that he might be able to team up with Donald Lee to create a Mark Chmura/Keith Jackson-esque pairing that will give Aaron Rodgers somebody open at all times in the passing game.
Despite a dip in production last season, Donald Lee managed to score five touchdowns while in the red zone, making him quite productive. If Finley can develop into the physical threat he could be this season, that would be less drives ending with field goal attempts.
Glass Half-Empty: I have never been on board the Jermichael Finley bandwagon, as he is still painfully young and raw. His "calling out" of Aaron Rodgers last season following a terrible route is still in mind. There's a lot of people pinning a lot of hope on Finley to become a freakish receiving threat, but in reality, our WR corps is pretty solid. The TE position has been called on far more often in the last three seasons to help with blocking and pass protecting...not Finley's strong suit.
Lee is a serviceable starter, but he may be the player who had the most difficulty transitioning from Favre to Rodgers as his quarterback last year. He didn't record a reception in the last two games of 2008, and saw a dip in all his receiving categories from a very nice year in 2007.
Glass Half-Full: With the departure of stalwart tackle Mark Tauscher, Mike McCarthy has gotten his one-time wish granted with a lot of players competing for positions, pushing each other to get better. Jason Spitz is penciled in at center, crusty veteran Chad Clifton will be around one more year to protect Aaron Rodgers' blind side, and Daryn Colledge appears to have finally settled in at guard...and was praised by many as the Packers' most consistent lineman last season.
Third-year man Allen Barbre will be trying pin down the other tackle spot, trying hold off Breno Giacomini and Tony Moll. Josh Sitton has the inside track on the other guard spot, and there is depth along this line, almost completely built by Ted Thompson in the draft.
Now entering the fourth year of the zone blocking scheme, the departure of the remaining Sherman players should usher in the gelling of the running game. In particular, Thompson has targeted players over his last two drafts with a nasty streak in them: Sitton, Guacomini, Meredith, and Lang. While always a work in progress, this line tied for ninth place in 2008 in CHFF's Offensive Hogs Index, and should only get better.
Glass Half-Empty: Since implementing the zone blocking scheme in his rookie season, Mike McCarthy has struggled to get his offense to establish a consistent threat on the ground (with the exception of the latter of the 2007). Since then, he has not only tinkered with the scheme itself, implementing pulling guards and sweeps (not a part of the ZBS), but has constantly tinkered with the starting five. Occasionally, it was due to injury, but most of the time, it has been trying to find an effective lineup. With stalwart tackle Mark Tauscher out, the offensive line shuffle will now spread to four positions instead of three.
As mentioned earlier, the offensive line more than doubled its sack total from 2007 to 2008 (15 to 34), somewhat of a testament to the ability of Brett Favre's pressure awareness and his penchant for throwing the ball haphazardly to avoid the sack. According to the same CHFF link above, the Packers ranked 24th in the league in negative pass plays (interceptions and sacks).
Simply put, there are still a lot of young, raw players vying to become starters along the offensive line of an NFL team. Some of them, like Jason Spitz and Daryn Colledge, still struggle in nearly every game despite being the now-established veteran starters. Without Tauscher bookending one side, any flaws in this line are going to become even more glaring.
Glass Half-Full: The drafting of B.J. Raji has to be considered a coup for the Packers this year...a big body that is already being flexed out to the DE in the new 3-4 scheme. The Packers were shortest on talent along the D-Line last season, with Pickett struggling, Cullen Jenkins injured, KGB cut, and Justin Harrell continuing to try and find the field. With only three down linemen, the Packers are able to get their best talents on the field with fewer holes: Cullen Jenkins at one end, Ryan Pickett at nose, and Raji on the other end. On paper, this looks great, and with Jolly, Harrell, and Montgomety all able to rotate in, the line looks a lot better than the one that allowed 4.6 yards per carry in 2008.
Raji should be expected to take over eventually for Pickett at nose, and hopefully, one of the other vets will be able to take the DE spot.
Glass Half-Empty: The line is full of question marks, and you are always taking a huge risk if you are depending on a rookie (regardless of how high he was drafted) to seal up a position for you. Jolly is still pending the refiling of drug charges and could potentially miss some games this season. Cullen Jenkins has already missed the entire offseason recovering from a torn pectoral muscle, and there is no guarantee as to what level he will be able to compete at whenever he does return. And Pickett showed signs of wear last year, fighting through injuries...is that decline going to continue?
And of course, our favorite target, Justin Harrell, is on his last chance to prove he wasn't Ted Thompson's first collosal bust in the draft. He projects to DE, but has yet to get through a season without injury (this was actually the first OTA's he's participated in), and to show an ounce of impact when he does see the field.
Of all positions, this one continues to have the greatest range of potential: it could be really good, but it could also be really, really bad.
Glass Half-Full: Many of us felt the change to the 3-4 scheme was precipitated by the fact that the Packers actually had four starting-caliber linebackers on the roster. In the process of switching the scheme, the Packers not only added former DE's Aaron Kampman and Jeremy Thompson to the corps, but also drafted Clay Matthews as a 3-4 OLB to boot.
In other words, there probably isn't a deeper position group on the team than the linebackers. Nick Barnett is expected to return from injury, and there seems to be two-deep battles for starting positions all the way down the line. Kampman is making a transition to OLB, and while he hasn't appeared happy with it, he has the right body type and the coaches have raved about his progress.
Like Harrell, many are looking at AJ Hawk to step forward and make his mark in his fourth season. Many have felt that the roles of the inside backers in the 3-4 will work to his gifts very well.
And perhaps no player has benefitted more from the scheme change than Thompson, who will get a chance to show off his athleticism as he competes with Matthews for the other OLB spot.
Glass Half-Empty: Of all the dysfunctional position groups on a dysfunctional defense last year, the linebackers were perhaps the most glaring in their lack of communication and execution. Barnett, Hawk, and Poppinga have all come under criticism for not being able to take their play to the next level, and there are rumors that all three might be supplanted in the starting lineup.
Kampman is a lynchpin for this defense in a lot of ways. Not only are the Packers expecting him to be able to maintain the level of play he's had in a new position (37 sacks over the last three seasons), but his ability to continue to be a playmaker and team leader on the field is critical. You don't want to see your best front-seven playmaker struggle simply because you've gone to a new scheme, effectively taking him out of his role. There's not been any hard evidence to suggest that Kampman is going to make this transition smoothly yet, and if it doesn't go smoothly, it is going to be a difficult season for McCarthy and Capers.
As much as people love Clay Matthews and fervently defend the price paid to get him, he is also a workout warrior rookie who has a lot to prove in the NFL. Only about 40% of first-round picks live up to their draft status, and Matthews walk-on status at USC and only being a one-year starter doesn't work to his advantage when it comes to projecting how much he will contibute in 2009.
Glass Half-Full: The Packers effectively have a Pro Bowl player at three of four positions in the secondary (Woodson, 2008; Harris, 2007, and Collins, 2008). Atari Bigby, who was playing very well before suffering a season-ending injury in the first game last year, is also a lights-out defender that rounds out a very physcial group of defensive backs.
Collins has been embroiled in a contract dispute, skipping most of the OTA's in June, but Dom Capers has assured us that Collins will not have to take on the role of being the play-caller in the backfield this year....the communication responsibilities will be shared among everyone along the defense.
Tramon Williams filled in for an injured Harris last season and played rather well, meaning that he is well-established as the nickel back and heir apparent for either Woodson or Harris. Wil Blackmon and last year's second-rounder Pat Lee are expected to battle for the dime spot, and likewise, the other heir apparent spot. Anthony Smith was brought in via as a free agent as an experienced safety in the 3-4 and should provide depth and tutoring for the young safeties making the transistion.
Glass Half-Empty: The 3-4 scheme is going to have some major impacts on the secondary as well, not just the front seven. Woodson and Harris have made their name by playing tough bump-and-run coverage on receivers, relying on their physicality to pull them through. Now, the 3-4 will force both to play more zone coverage, and the jury is out on how well they will make the adjustment. Both corners are aging, and while neither are showing signs of slowing down much, that loss of a step is critical for cornerbacks.
The offseason antics of Nick Collins also have to be disconcerting. It is one thing to feel you are worthy of a contract increase (despite getting a $2M+ raise this year as it is), but to intentionally withhold your services from OTA's in order to make your point is poor form, even moreso when the OTA's are 3-4 Defense Cram Sessions. Collins isn't that bright, and may return to his pre-2008 form as he struggles to figure out his responsiblities and angles in a new scheme.
And, Jarett Bush was re-signed.
Glass Half-Full: Mason Crosby is on his way to a long, successful career. with 268 points in his first two seasons (an NFL record), and kicked 17 touchbacks last season, the most since Chester Marcol back in 1972. He kicked nearly 80% of his field goals and made all of his extra points.
Last year's punting game was stricken with Frost-bite, with Darren Frost joining the team after pre-season and puting miserably before he was finally cut. Jeremy Kapinos, who was brought in to replace Frost didn't fare too much better in emergency service, but was able to put 41% of his punts inside the 20.
Wil Blackmon will be returning punts again this year, and scored two touchdowns in that role in 2008, ranked 6th in the NFL.
Glass Half-Empty: There's a reason why special teams coach Mike Stock was the first sacrificial lamb in the slaughter of coaches this January. The Packers ranked dead last in the NFL in kickoff returns, 27th in field goal percentage, and 27th in both both gross and net punting yards.
Mason Crosby came up short on a huge, game-winning kick against Minnesota last year. In fact, the Packers lost seven games in 2008 by four points or less. When your special teams are producing at the miserable level they did last year, its not too hard to see why you are losing those close games. Crosby has to get his percentage up into the 90s this year, not slumming down in the 70s. It's easy to score a lot of points when you get a lot of attempts, and the Packers have had very good offenses since Crosby was drafted. But, he needs to make more of them, and particularly, the game winners.
The punting game is still suffering under what I call the "Curse of Hentrich", when Ron Wolf let him go to Tennessee instead of bucking up and paying him the $1M he was asking for . Since that day, the Packers have struggled to find a consistent punter. Kapinos and Durant Brooks will be battling it out, and we will still be wondering why Thompson and McCarthy cut Jon Ryan on the last day of pre-season last year to pick up a guy they hadn't seen kick.
And, again, Jarrett Bush is back.
In essence, the point of this article isn't to give a Pollyanna look at the Packers, or to try to point out the holes and problems that they have. If anything, it is meant to show one thing: no position group on this team is a completely full or empty glass. They all have the potential to be very good, and they all have they potential to be very bad.
This is why Super Bowls are won on paper in July, and why we play the game. There are a lot of things to be excited for this upcoming season...a lot of potential, a lot of young, exciting talent, and lot of growth expected. There are also concerns and worries and pitfalls. Sure, Aaron Rodgers has established himself as a solid quarterback, but one torn muscle in the wrong spot and the whole quarterback position goes from a potential A to a potential F. That's why we watch every week.
Now that you have both perspectives, let's find a spot for all of our "expert analyses" Friday night (preferably a circular file, if you know what I mean), and enjoy the return of Packer football, where all our questions are answered on the field, not on paper.