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Second-year helpings key for Packers

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Dan Arkush

darkush@pfwmedia.com
Executive editor

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Posted Aug. 03, 2011 @ 11:53 a.m. ET
By Dan Arkush

In order for the Packers to become the first team since the 2003-04 Patriots to win two consecutive Super Bowls, at least a handful of the team's players entering Year Two at the pro level must perform at a high level.

Using last year's team as a reference, there's no way the Packers take out the Steelers in SB XLV without big-time efforts from second-year defenders Clay Matthews, who registered 17 sacks (counting the playoffs) last season and is off to one of the best career starts ever of any pass-rushing linebacker, and B.J. Raji, whose exceptional work as the starting nose tackle greatly exceeded everybody's expectations.

In 2011, a slew of green and gold sophomores could hold the key to a successful season. Let's quickly run them down, presented in alphabetical order:    

OT Bryan Bulaga — Green Bay's top pick in the 2010 draft more than held his own as the team's starting right tackle after Mark Tauscher was lost for the season with a shoulder injury four games into the campaign. Steady and even-keeled, Bulaga did have a rocky stretch late in the season, as it appeared he might have run into the proverbial rookie wall. But he rebounded in the playoffs. A more consistent effort with a lot less penalties will be essential.

SS Morgan Burnett — A sensation in training camp, Burnett began last season as the starting strong safety before suffering a season-ending torn ACL in Week Four. The 2010 third-round draft pick showed no fear in coverage and has real good range and outstanding ball skills. But his run support left a lot to be desired. With Charlie Peprah breathing down his neck after performing admirably as his replacement in the starting lineup, Burnett needs to become more of a banger and a lot less tentative.

P Tim Masthay — After prevailing in a spirited training-camp battle with Australian Chris Bryan, Masthay got off to a shaky start and was in genuine danger of losing his job after the Week Three loss to the Bears in which Devin Hester delivered a back-breaking TD return of Masthay's poorly directed punt. But Masthay made a dramatic rebound after that game and just kept getting better and better as the season progressed. That said, Green Bay has been a nightmare for punters for the most part in recent years, and the pressure will be on Masthay to continue thriving in an environment in which tricky weather conditions often come into play.

OL Nick McDonald — Although he has hardly played, McDonald is the top choice of many team observers to be the starting left guard this season in place of the departed Daryn Colledge. He's big and smart, but he's also one player who really has been hurt by the lockout in terms of losing invaluable developmental time.  

DE Mike Neal — Neal is my pick as the Packers' No. 1 X-factor. Strong as a bull, he is expected to get the first crack at replacing DE Cullen Jenkins. Neal appears to have great strength and natural ability. But coming off a season-ending torn rotator cuff suffered in practice, he also appears to have real problems staying healthy. If he ends up following in the injury-prone footsteps of former first-round DE Justin Harrell, who was recently cut, the Packers could have a real problem in the pass-rush department.

CB Sam Shields — Talk about coming on strong! Shields was a revelation late last season in the nickel corner role. A stellar two-pick effort in the NFC title game against the Bears put him on the national map. But Shields also made his share of mistakes and did not play all that well in the Super Bowl. Like Bulaga, he needs to be more consistent.

RB James Starks — One of the best things that could happen to the Packers is for Starks to pick up where he left off in the playoffs and give Ryan Grant, who is returning from a season-ending ankle injury, a major run for his money for the starting RB job. With an upright style reminiscent of Eric Dickerson, the 6-foot-2 Starks picked up positive yardage most of the time and did not have a single fumble, penalty or dropped pass. But his rookie season wasn't all a bowl of cherries, as he landed in head coach Mike McCarthy's doghouse at one point because of poor practice habits. That can't happen again.

DE C.J. Wilson — The team's seventh-round draft pick in 2010 looks like he could develop into a solid inside rusher in nickel packages. He has a quick first step and has good burst out of his hits. If Neal fails to fill the bill, Wilson figures as the next best bet at right end. In any event, he needs to continue performing the way he did as a rookie when called upon, as both Raji and veteran DE Ryan Pickett are probably going to need more downtime moving forward.

OLB Frank Zombo —  An undrafted rookie who was a defensive end at Central Michigan, Zombo became a key cog in the Packers' defense, registering five sacks, six tackles for loss and a pair of forced fumbles after replacing the injured Brad Jones as a starter at right outside linebacker. McCarthy called Zombo the most consistent guy at the position shortly after the season. The game is not too big for him. Like Matthews, he has that walk-on hunger. He is a fast learner who wants to do everything right, and he is very passionate about the game. Early on, he showed a pretty decent bull rush and spin move and good hand usage, and he must be considered the front-runner to start at right outside linebacker. And lest we forget, he also has one of the coolest-sounding names in the NFL.

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