Five Green Bay Packers Who Must Step Up in 2012

Chris PetersonAnalyst IApril 30, 2012

Five Green Bay Packers Who Must Step Up in 2012

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    The 2012 NFL Draft was an exciting time for the Green Bay Packers. General manager Ted Thompson played the role of deal-maker in New York and came away with some talented players who should provide significant upgrades across the board. 

    Thompson, who is known for picking the best player available, claims that drafting six consecutive defensive players to open the draft was a coincidence. Regardless, the team was clearly focused on upgrading their pass-rush, coverage and tackling, which they did.  

    Yet, people forget that it takes most draftees anywhere between one and three years to grow and mature into reliable contributors that can be counted on to consistently produce. 

    Therefore, instead of focusing solely on the drafted players who may or may not make an impact right away, let's see what players currently on the roster are capable of taking that next step in 2012.

Morgan Burnett

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    Morgan Burnett is at a crossroads in his career with the Green Bay Packers as he enters his third-season, one of the most important for the development of any young player in the National Football League. 

    Burnett, a third round pick in 2010 out of Georgia Tech, has produced mixed results in his first two seasons with the Packers. In 2010, his promising rookie season was cut short due to injury and while he did start 16 games 2011, his play was up and down. 

    However, Burnett showed his potential last season by forcing seven turnovers, including three interceptions and totaling 78 tackles.

    Burnett was certainly a victim of not having an offseason last year due to the lockout. Yet, he still made strides and with a full-year in their offseason program, the Packers hope he can develop into the big-time safety they need to help fill the void of Nick Collins. 

Sam Shields

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    Few players have had a bigger impact in their rookie season than Sam Shields did during his in 2010. Not only did he overcome the long odds of making an NFL roster as an undrafted free agent, he made significant contribution to a Super Bowl Champion.

    As a rookie with the Green Bay Packers in 2010, Shields worked his way on the field as the third corner and made a drastic difference in the pass defense, giving the team three legitimate corners for the first time in a long time. 

    However, last season was a learning experience for Shields, as his play, along with that of the entire Green Bay secondary, was a major disappointment. 

    Shields is still fairly new to the cornerback position, playing it first as a senior in college at the University of Miami, then the past two years in Green Bay. He has ideal size for a corner at 5'11 and blazing sub 4.4 speed in the forty-yard dash, so the physical tools are there, he just needs to hone his craft. 

    Basically, Shields needs to learn the nuances of the position and gain experience. However, he still made his fair share of big plays last season, intercepting four passes and breaking up 13. But he gave up his share of big plays too, which is inevitable, but unacceptable at the rate it did last season.

    The third-year corner from the U still has plenty to learn about being a pro's pro and will benefit greatly from a full offseason of work, which the Packers hope will allow him to take the next step in his development. 

Marshall Newhouse

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    Last season, the Packers offensive line was hit with a rash of injuries, at one point knocking out starting tackles Chad Clifton and Bryan Bulaga at the same time. So, Green Bay, relying on it's "next man up" mentality, turned to the young and inexperienced Marshall Newhouse, who held his own against the league's best pass-rushers. 

    Newhouse, a fifth-round pick out of TCU in 2010, did not play a single snap his rookie season, yet eventually started 13 games last season at both tackle spots due to injury and performed admirably. 

    This season however, Newhouse will likely to be asked to assume one of the starting tackle spots full-time, following the release of Clifton. At the very least, he will compete with 2011 First round pick Derrick Sherrod to start opposite Bulaga. So the question is, will he be ready?

    Newhouse meets all the physical requirements for a left tackle. He's a little short at 6'4 but is a lean 319-pounds, has long arms and good feet.

    The former TCU product missed out on the critical offseason between his first and second seasons, hampering his development slightly, yet with a full-offseason under his belt, the Packers believe he can be a solid starting tackle in 2012. 

Graham Harrell

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    One of the most overlooked aspects of an NFL team is often the backup quarterback. In an ideal world, the backup will never play and teams wouldn't need a contingency plan in case their starting quarterback goes down due to injury.

    Yet, the simple reality is that injuries happen everyday in the NFL. Even quarterbacks, who are protected by every rule possible, are not immune, which is why a quality backup is essential. 

    Last season offered great examples of team's tanking, because they did not have a quality backup quarterback. The Colts, Chiefs and Bears were all playoff teams in 2010, yet lost their starters to injury at in 2011 and never recovered. In the end, all three missed the playoffs, two have new head coaches, two have new general managers.

    Injuries happen, its a fact of life in the NFL and it you're not prepared for it, you may find yourself on the unemployment line. 

    Therefore, one Packer player with big shoes to fill in 2012 is Graham Harrell, the anticipated replacement for Matt Flynn, who signed with the Seattle Seahawks earlier this offseason.

    Harrell went undrafted out of Texas Tech in 2009 but eventually got a tryout with Green Bay and finally worked his way onto the roster in 2010. He's 6'2 219 pounds, has an average arm and decent accuracy but has yet to attempt an NFL pass.

    McCarthy, who specializes in developing quarterbacks, has a strong affinity for Harrell, who will enter his second season in the head coaches renowned quarterback school. So even though he is unproven, McCarthy believes in him as a quarterback, which means he should get the benefit of the doubt.  

    For McCarthy's sake though, he'd better be right. Cause if he's not, and something were to happen to all-world quarterback Aaron Rodgers, dreams of a Super Bowl championship in 2012 could come crashing down very quickly. 

James Starks

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    Even casual football observers should know that the Green Bay Packers are a pass-first offense. But when you have a quarterback like Aaron Rodgers and receivers like Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, Jermichael Finley, Randall Cobb, James Jones and Donald Driver, can you blame them?

    Not really. However, as any person with knowledge of the NFL will tell you, running the football is still important. What is particularly paramount is being able to run the ball when you need to, at end of the game or on a fourth and one, when it matters most.

    Generally, Green Bay has been pretty effective in those types of situations, mostly because fullback John Kuhn is a solid short-yardage runner. But overall, the Packer run game has struggled.

    Last season, they ranked 27th in rushing yards and 26th in yards per attempt, the two most important statistical categories, measuring how well a team runs the ball. Though those numbers may be skewed due to Rodger's pass efficiency, there is undoubtedly a large room for improvement. 

    The only thing lacking however, is any kind of effort to improve the position through the draft or free agency. Ryan Grant, the team's leading rusher in 2011 with 559 yards, is still a free agent and it's unclear whether or not he will return. The only other option with any real experience is third-year player James Starks.

    Starks, a former sixth-round pick out of Buffalo, is a big, powerful runner, who is decisive and when at his best, gets yards after contact. The biggest thing holding him back thus far, has been injuries, as he missed three games last season and 13 in 2010. 

    When on the field, Starks has flashed the ability to be a starting running back. During the Packers Super Bowl run, he started all four playoff games, carrying the ball 81 times for 315 yards and a touchdown. Last season, averaged 4.3 yards a carry on 133 attempts in a part-time role. 

    Yet, with the status of Grant unclear and no intent to add another veteran, it appears that whether he is ready or not, Starks is headed for the starting job. Placing their faith in him to stay healthy for 16 games is certainly a big risk by the Packers, considering Alex Green and Brandon Saine, the projected backups, have a combined 21 career rushing attempts between them.