Can Packers win the big prize?

Posted Aug. 17, 2010 @ 10:21 a.m.
Posted By Dan Arkush

In many ways, the dense, early-morning fog that engulfed Green Bay during the two days PFW spent at the Packers' training camp early last week continues to symbolize the state of the team PFW picked to win the Super Bowl.

Did PFW editors go too far out on a limb with their preseason prediction (in the PFW / Yahoo! Sports Preview 2010 magazine) that the Packers, clearly the NFL's hottest team during the second half of last season, will beat the Colts in Super Bowl XLV in North Texas Feb. 6?

Truth be told, while there appear to be a lot more positive than negative signs entering the second half of the Packers' training camp, there also have been a lot more negative than positive reactions to our Super Bowl prediction from the many team insiders and league observers we talked to during and after our visit.

Forget about the theory that the Packers would be really sitting pretty in the NFC North if Brett Favre does indeed decide to retire once and for all.

"I gotta say I think the Vikings are still better than the Packers even without Favre," said one Packers insider who couldn't be closer to the team. "Hey, they were really good last year!"

And there are more people in the know than you might think who genuinely believe the Vikings could be just as good this year, even if Tarvaris Jackson ends up being the starting QB instead of Favre.

"With Favre, everyone seems to believe that there is a difference in the Vikings because there is not a lot of faith in Tarvaris, but I don't think that will be the hindrance that everyone thinks," one veteran pro scout told PFW. "(Jackson) has improved, and defensively, and in the run game, the Vikings could still do enough where they could compete with anyone.

"What happens with the quarterback, because Favre has been there before, he gives you a chance in big, big games, whether or not he throws a pick or a TD at the end of it. That is where his presence is so big. But again, Jackson has improved. He has more knowledge of the offense, and I think he is more hungry to prove himself. Tarvaris does not scare you the same way that (Michael) Vick does, but he is a better thrower. He is definitely a better passer."

Another NFL talent evaluator agrees that it seems a bit premature to jump on a Packers bandwagon that's supposedly destined for Cowboys Stadium in February.

"Across the board, the Vikings have more talent than the Packers at nearly every position," the evaluator told PFW. "The (Vikings') defensive line is as good as it gets. Their secondary has been banged up, too, but when that group is healthy, they have two Pro Bowl-caliber corners (Antoine Winfield and Cedric Griffin).

"How (MLB) E.J. Henderson comes back will be critical. They were not the same after he went down last season. They have some issues with (WR) Percy Harvin to deal with, too. I'm not buying all of the migraine problems. The guy was a nightmare to coach in college. He works on his own schedule. But every team has issues to deal with.

"Collectively, it's hard to find a group of more talented players than they have in Minnesota."

Although both teams' preseason openers are far from a legitimate barometer of the shape of things to come in the NFC North, the Vikings looked a lot more like a heavyweight playoff contender this past Saturday evening than the Packers.

While Minnesota and backup QB Sage Rosenfels (157 yards passing and two TDs in the second quarter) did a number on the Rams and rookie QB Sam Bradford in a 28-7 victory in steamy St. Louis, the Packers were upended in Lambeau Field 27-24 by the Browns, a team they totally dominated twice in '09 (in a preseason game and a regular-season game in October).

Green Bay's starting offense, by far the biggest reason PFW is so high on the team, lived up to its lofty expectations in the preseason opener, although a concussion suffered by rock-solid featured back Ryan Grant must be monitored closely.

But the starting defense, which performed so well most of last season in the first year under 3-4 guru Dom Capers, spent a lot of time spinning its wheels against the Browns.

Missing only star second-year OLB Clay Matthews, who is currently sidelined with the same type of hamstring injury that shut him down a year ago at this time, and veteran DBs Al Harris, who remains on the mend from a gruesome knee injury, and Atari Bigby, who is recovering from ankle surgery and looks like a strong candidate to start the season on the physically-unable-to-perform list, the Packers' starting unit yielded 162 yards and three TDs to the Browns.

So the question remains: Are the Packers a good pick or a bad pick to dethrone the defending Super Bowl champion Saints?

Let's delve into that question a bit deeper, starting with a rundown of the reasons why they might be considered a good pick:

The offense

It clearly appears that QB Aaron Rodgers deserves elite status along with the likes of Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Philip Rivers. Although the defense actually looked ahead of the offense the first half of training camp, there was no denying the feeling during our visit that Rodgers, who couldn't have looked more comfortable, could light it up in a heartbeat.

Rodgers was excellent in the preseason opener against Cleveland, directing TD drives of 84 and 72 yards while completing 12-of-13 passes and registering a 143.3 passer rating.

"(Head coach) Mike McCarthy does not get enough credit for what he has done with that offense," an NFL talent evaluator told PFW. "He is very underrated as an X's and O's guy and for what he has been able to get out of the QB position. If he had stayed in San Francisco, I think it would have made a big difference in the development of Alex Smith.

"What McCarthy does so well is find a way to isolate matchups. They have surrounded Rodgers with a lot of skill talent, and they know how to get guys open. They adjusted the protection last year to get them open very quickly and take some of the pressure off the offensive line."

The receivers

Rodgers benefits from arguably the deepest and most talented receiving corps in the league.

Greg Jennings, who remains amazingly fluid, had a spectacular 25-yard TD catch in the preseason opener. The ageless Donald Driver still has a lot of gas left in the tank after having his knees scoped earlier this offseason.

But there's a lot more than the productive one-two punch provided by Jennings and Driver. The consensus among camp observers we talked to is that the stars of the camp up to now have been WRs James Jones and Jordy Nelson, both of whom made their presence felt during the practice sessions we witnessed, particularly Nelson.

And it doesn't get any better at tight end than Jermichael Finley. In addition to having become an absolute monster mismatch for opposing defenders and appearing quite capable of having the same kind of breakout campaign that 49ers TE Vernon Davis had last season, Finley has made a concerted effort to grow up off the field, helped in great part by team leader Driver, a model citizen who commands the utmost respect from players and fans alike.

The latest first-round stud

Following in the lofty footsteps of Matthews, who became an instant star once he cracked the starting lineup in Week Four last season, 2010 first-round OL Bryan Bulaga has wasted little time making his presence felt, establishing himself as the front-runner to begin the season as the starting left guard and proving to be one of the team's five best offensive linemen, according to McCarthy.

Bulaga also has drawn rave reviews for his unassuming lunch-pail work ethic.

"He may not have been the most talented offensive lineman in the draft, but he was very steady and reliable (at Iowa)," PFW draft analyst Nolan Nawrocki said. "You knew exactly what you were getting. They need to get him on the field right away to get his feet wet. I can't imagine any scenario where he is not starting at one of the tackle positions by the end of the season. (Chad) Clifton and (Mark) Tauscher only have so much left in the tank."

The underrated featured back

Granted, he's not very flashy, but Grant's numbers don't lie. All he does is grind out yardage, and the second half of last season, he regained the big-play burst he showed in his first season with the team.

As we noted earlier, though, Grant left the preseason opener with a concussion on his third carry, and the new league rules regarding such an injury will govern when he can return to the playing field. Also, on his first play of the game, he had a rare fumble. That said, he has become a terrific complement to the team's explosive, multifaceted aerial attack.

Capers' clever scheme

The period of adjustment to Capers' intricate 3-4 scheme has been surprisingly short, and it seems like he almost welcomes having to make adjustments when need be, as was the case after the suspension of starting DLE Johnny Jolly for at least a year.

Capers continues to add new wrinkles. Before Matthews went down with his hamstring injury, he had been shifted from right outside linebacker to left outside linebacker, with the athletic and versatile Brandon Chillar prominently entering an OLB mix that is expected to feature interchangeable parts on both the left and right sides. Capers also appears to have expanded the role of DRE Cullen Jenkins, who looked very frisky in camp, counting on Jenkins as a stand-up pass rusher on occasion.

OLB Clay Matthews

There's good reason that daily team observers expect the Packers to go to great pains not to rush Matthews back from his latest hamstring injury. Not only is he a great young player with a nonstop motor, but he also comes across as a great kid who relates well with the Packers' fan base. He looks as though he will become the leader of the defense (once veteran CB Charles Woodson calls it a career), the same way Rodgers has become the leader of the offense.

The Woodson-Collins DB duo

A strong case can be made for Woodson and Nick Collins as the league's best left corner and free safety, respectively, even though team insiders agree Woodson's tremendous '09 campaign ended on a bad note when he was eaten alive by Cardinals WR Larry Fitzgerald in Green Bay's wild-card loss to the Cardinals.

So much for the good things about the Packers. Let's take a look at the not-so-good things, beginning with ...

The injuries

"I feel really good about our team right now, but you just wish you could keep everybody healthy," McCarthy told PFW. "It seems like every training camp you go through, there's a position that gets stressed. Some years are different than others. This year it's the linebacker position."

In addition to Matthews being sidelined during PFW's camp visit, LBs Brady Poppinga (concussion) and Nick Barnett (knee) were being treated with kid gloves.

More is expected from Chillar, as well as second-year pro Brad Jones, who did a surprisingly solid job at left outside linebacker last season after Aaron Kampman went down for the count with a season-ending knee injury.

"But Jones has to get stronger and develop a second move," a personnel expert told PFW. "You need more than upfield speed to win in this league. The Steelers put on a clinic against him last year. They just short-set and stopped him dead in his tracks every time. (Jones) never got three yards off the ball."

Adding more stress to the defensive side of the ball is the absence of Harris. The feisty veteran corner insists he will be in the starting lineup in Week One, but most close observers will believe it when they see it.

With the hard-hitting Bigby also sidelined, the Packers really need Harris' physical presence, which was sorely missed in shootout losses late last season to the Steelers and Cardinals. Tramon Williams is an OK replacement, but he's a much better third corner.

"They have huge issues at corner because who knows where Al Harris will be at the start of the season," one pro scout said. "Their secondary needs a lot of help."

Bigby was being seriously challenged by third-round draft pick Morgan Burnett even before undergoing surgery. Burnett has been almost as impressive as Bulaga on the other side of the ball, but he had noticeable problems holding his own against the Browns in the preseason opener.


The offensive line

This unit really struggled last season until veteran ORT Tauscher was healthy enough to return to the starting lineup the second half of the season. Both Clifton (at left tackle) and Tauscher must stay healthy, which we've already indicated could be asking for a lot.

The loss of Jolly

No doubt about it, Jolly did a great job last season at left end. He was a key cog in the league's top-rated run defense, and he excelled at batting down passes.

Nevertheless, Capers has indicated that the insertion of 2009 No. 1 pick B.J. Raji at nose tackle, with Ryan Pickett shifting from the NT spot to Jolly's DLE position, might be an upgrade from last season.

But while both Pickett and Jenkins looked good during PFW's camp visit, Raji did nothing but take up space, which daily camp observers told us has been par for the course for Raji up to now.

One pro evaluator also has his share of concerns about Jenkins, who was the team's second-best pass rusher behind Matthews last season.

"He can rush the passer, and he is good at it," the evaluator said. "But when Jenkins tires, he is not the same player. When Jenkins is playing over the guard in nickel situations, he can be tough to block, but the problem is that he is not as good when he is playing every down. He wears down."

Not-so-special teams

"It's where the biggest question as a football team lies," McCarthy said of a unit overflowing with uncertainty at punter, where a pair of unproven commodities, Chris Bryan and Tim Masthay, are engaged in a down-to-the-wire battle, and at both kick-return spots.

With an additional 10 minutes spent solely on special teams in every practice, special-teams coordinator Shawn Slocum is working overtime to improve a unit that was one of the weakest in the league last season.

Matched up in the preseason opener against the Browns, who had one of the league's better special-teams units in '09, the Packers' special teams looked overmatched, particularly undrafted rookie Sam Shields, who mishandled a kickoff and muffed a punt in a crowd.

In addition, first-year pro Tom Crabtree, who has impressed enough to have some close to the team thinking he could become the Packers' best special-teams performer since Tracy White, left the preseason opener with a hand injury.

An over-reliance on youngsters

Is it realistic to expect both Bulaga and Burnett, as well as Raji, who never got his act together last year due to injury and contract concerns, to all come up big this season, which is what most observers agree must happen for the Packers to be a true powerhouse?   

You make the call, provided your mind isn't already fogged up to the max.


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