5 Unheralded Stars Most Important to the Green Bay Packers Success

Bob FoxContributor IJune 13, 2012

5 Unheralded Stars Most Important to the Green Bay Packers Success

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    The 2012 Green Bay Packers will go into the upcoming season with a lot of talent on their roster. There are still 35 players on the squad who were on the 2010 team that ended up winning Super Bowl XLV. There are 50 members still on the team that went 15-1 in 2011.

    Two players are still available if the Packers want them back as unrestricted free agents. They would be RB Ryan Grant and DL Howard Green. At this point, it appears that neither player will get an opportunity with the Packers in 2012.

    You also added a dynamic draft class in 2012, which included OLB Nick Perry, DE Jerel Worthy and CB Casey Hayward among others. Plus, Ted Thompson has dipped his toes into free agency in 2012, and his haul has brought the team C Jeff Saturday, DL Daniel Muir, DL Anthony Hargrove and DL Phillip Merling.

    The 2012 team will have six players in the NFL's Top 100 Players in 2012, which is determined by the players in the league. So far, the Packers have seen John Kuhn (No. 92), Jordy Nelson (No. 80), Greg Jennings (No. 56) and Charles Woodson (No. 36) named so far.

    It's expected that OLB Clay Matthews will be named to the Top 100 soon, and Aaron Rodgers is the favorite to be named the top player in the entire NFL.

    Bottom line, the Packers have buckets of talent and have added even more talent via the draft and free agency. But the key for a successful 2012 season is for unheralded players to have big years and to make big plays when called upon.

    Based on that, I'm listing five players whom the Packers will need to be productive and successful in 2012, to help the team reach the ultimate goal...winning Super Bowl XLVII.

Marshall Newhouse

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    Marshall Newhouse was thrust into a key role as starting LT in 2011, after Chad Clifton went down with a severe hamstring injury in Week 5. Newhouse also started three games at RT in place of Bryan Bulaga (knee). Overall, Newhouse started 13 games on the offensive line, with the bulk of them on the left side or QB Aaron Rodger's blindside. 

    Overall, Newhouse played adequately in some respects, but his performance against speedy pass-rushers was not very good at all. Overall, Newhouse gave up 11.5 sacks and 41.5 pressures in 2011. That's NOT acceptable, especially when one considers how important the health of Rodgers is to the overall success of the Packers.

    Newhouse...or someone...has to do a much better job at LT in 2012. That is...protecting the gold. The gold is Rodgers.

    Rodgers was the MVP of Super Bowl XLV. Rodgers was also the MVP of the NFL for the 2011 season, when he threw 45 TD passes compared to just six interceptions for 4,643 yards. Rodgers also set a new NFL mark with a 122.5 QB rating.

    Right now, Newhouse will get the first shot at LT, but he has to play better than he did in 2011, especially in pass protection. Second-year OT and former first-round pick Derek Sherrod would be the next man up, provided he's recovered from the broken leg he suffered in 2011.

    The Packers also drafted OT Andrew Datko, who played LT at Florida State, but right now, is getting a look at RT, backing up Bulaga.

    The Packers have seen young players like Newhouse and Sherrod get much better in their second and third year on the team.

    "We're a draft and develop program," head coach Mike McCarthy said recently. "This is essential to our development. I've been real happy with it, particularly with our second- and third-year players. They're here; they're into it. You really see the benefits when you see the third- and fourth-year players."

    A case in point was the play of Bulaga at RT last season. "Really improved from last year," McCarthy said

    The Packers are hoping that McCarthy's words hold true in the case of Newhouse and Sherrod as well.

James Starks

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    In the 2010 postseason, as the Green Bay Packers were marching their way to a Super Bowl XLV championship, James Starks led all NFL RBs with 315 yards rushing. The Packers would like to see production like that on a consistent basis. 

    However, Starks has been injury-prone for the past few seasons, including his senior year at Buffalo, when he missed that season due to a shoulder injury. In 2010, Starks missed most of the 2010 regular season as he battled hamstring issues, before he broke out in the 2010 postseason.

    In 2011, Starks ran for 578 yards (a healthy 4.3 yard rushing average) and a TD, plus had 29 receptions for 216 more yards. Once again, however, some injury issues set back his progress. Starks played in 13 games but was hampered by ankle and knee injuries.

    Starks also fumbled twice and had his fair share of missed assignments.

    It appears that the Packers are moving on without Ryan Grant, who remains an unrestricted free agent. That means that Starks will be backed up by two second-year backs in Alex Green, who missed most of the 2011 season due to an ACL tear in his left knee and Brandon Saine, who looked solid in his limited playing time last season.

    The Packers also signed two undrafted rookies after the 2012 NFL draft when they added Marc Tyler and Duane Bennett. 

    But Starks will be given the chance to get most of the work at RB, although the coaching staff is very high on what they have seen of both Green and Saine.

    "Brandon (Saine) is so consistent, probably the most consistent guy we have back there," said head coach Mike McCarthy during a recent OTA done by the Packers.

    Green is still rehabbing from his knee-reconstruction surgery, and he believes he will get a shot at quality playing time once he is fully healthy.

    “Not drafting a running back showed they have some faith in me,” Green said. “We’ll see how things turn out when training camp comes around.”

    Starks showed the Packers what he could do in the 2010 postseason at RB. His performance over those four postseason games would add up to 1,260 yards rushing if he played in all 16 games in the regular season.

    The Packers want Starks to stay healthy, productive and consistent. They saw those attributes in the postseason in 2010. It added up to making the offense of the Packers very multidimensional vs. their opponents. The Packers were dangerous throwing and running the football.

    It led to winning a Vince Lombardi Trophy at Super Bowl XLV. 

Randall Cobb

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    Randall Cobb had a very nice rookie year in Green Bay in 2011, especially returning kicks. Expect to see Cobb's role to get bigger offensively as a WR for the Packers in 2012.

    The Packers would be happy to see Cobb duplicate what he did in the return game last season. In kickoff returns, Cobb returned kicks for 941 yards (27.7 average) and one TD. In punt returns, Cobb had 295 return yards (11.3 average) and one more TD.

    Cobb was used as the fifth WR option in the Green Bay offense last year, and he showed flashes of what can be expected of him. Cobb finished with 25 receptions for 375 yards (15.0 average) and one TD. Cobb also had three 20-plus-yard receptions last season, as he was used often as a slot receiver.

    Cobb looks to move up the depth chart, even with the recent renegotiated contract of Donald Driver, which guarantees the recent winner of Dancing with the Stars $1.2 million this season.

    There's a LOT of talent at the WR position fighting for jobs with the Packers, even if the team keeps six WRs on the roster. Right now, it's almost certain that the Packers will keep Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, James Jones, Driver and Cobb on the roster. That's five spots right there.

    That means a spirited battle will be ongoing between the likes of Tori Gurley, Diondre Borel, Shaky Smithson and rookie Dale Moss among others for the sixth spot on the team, as well as spots on the practice squad.

    There's also the possibility of a trade. Jones would be the obvious choice if that happened. Maybe to a place like Seattle where Jones could join former Packer QB Matt Flynn. Even Jones thinks a trade is possible.

    I don’t know how good my trade value is. (But) I haven’t heard anything about trades or anything like that. I’m just here to play football, man, Jones said. My main thing is, I’m blessed to have the kind of job I’ve got. Whether the Lord leads me to a different team, and I’m the No. 1, No. 2 dude, he does. If he keeps me here, he wants me here for a reason. I’m just here to play football. Whatever happens, happens.

    I don’t worry about all that stuff up top. If they came to me at my locker and said, James, you’re going to the Cincinnati Bengals, I’d cry a little bit and then move on. You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do. It’s a business. But I’m a Packer, man. And that’s why I came back here—because I want to win a championship. Let’s get it done.

    Bottom line, however, if all this turns out, expect to see a lot more of Cobb in the Packer offense. He showed how dangerous he can be on special teams last year, and he looks to be just as dynamic as the slot WR on offense.

Desmond Bishop

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    I know a lot of people are talking about whether or not A.J. Hawk will be able to keep his starting job at left inside linebacker, due to the talents of players like second-year LB D.J. Smith.

    The Packers have also expanded the roles of a couple of outside linebackers (Brad Jones and Jamari Lattimore) and will give them an opportunity to play inside as well for the 2012 season. Besides Smith, who played pretty well as a rookie last season, the Packers also have Robert Francois as a backup ILB.

    In addition to that, the Packers drafted Terrell Manning, who will also get an opportunity inside.

    Bottom line, there will be lots of competition at the linebacker position, especially inside. Then, you have Desmond Bishop, who starts at right inside linebacker for the Packers. Both Bishop and Hawk had calf injuries in 2011 that caused them to miss a couple games, but overall, Bishop played much better than Hawk.

    Hawk needs to play like he did in 2010, if he expects to keep his starting job. Hawk saw his tackle total drop by 27 tackles in 2011 compared to 2010, plus had no interceptions last year, while he had three picks in 2010.

    Bishop, meanwhile, started 13 games in 2011 and ended up with 115 total tackles, five sacks and two forced fumbles. Bishop did have issues in pass coverage at times, but pass coverage is not his strong suit.

    The Packers won the Vince Lombardi Trophy with their win in Super Bowl XLV, but the Packers probably wouldn't have gotten to the big dance if not for the touchdown-saving tackle by Bishop against DeSean Jackson, with under two minutes to go in the Wild Card Game against the Philadelphia Eagles.

    Jackson caught a short pass over the middle from Michael Vick and went 28 yards and was on his way to the end zone before Bishop made a shoestring tackle, as the Packers hung on to win 21-16.

    Bishop was also part of the key defensive play of Super Bowl XLV. The Packers were leading the Pittsburgh Steelers 21-17, when on the first play of the fourth quarter and the Steelers driving in Green Bay territory, Clay Matthews and Ryan Picket forced a Rashard Mendenhall fumble.

    It was Bishop who recovered the fumble, and the Packers went on to score another TD in the ensuing drive after Bishop's recovery. The Pack went on to win the game 31-25 and were able to bring home their fourth Super Bowl trophy.

    Bishop needs to stay healthy in 2012 and to play his role in the Packer defense, which is playing on early downs and causing havoc. Neither Hawk or Bishop should be on the field on passing downs. That's one of the reasons the Packers drafted Manning, who plays the pass very effectively.

    Bishop has a knack for making a big play or making a key tackle. That has to continue in 2012 as the Green Bay defense tries to prove that the 2011 season was an aberration.

Morgan Burnett

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    Morgan Burnett had a decent season in 2011, after missing most of his rookie season in 2010 due to a knee injury. Burnett had 107 total tackles, one sack, three interceptions and two forced fumbles. Burnett also had an interception in the divisional playoff game against the New York Giants.

    Still, the secondary was a mess because of the season-ending neck injury to S Nick Collins and the lack of a pass rush by the Green Bay front seven. The Packers ended up finishing 32nd (dead last) in the NFL in pass defense.

    There was another reason for the issues in the secondary as well. There were obvious communication problems among the players in the secondary at times. Burnett has to make sure that situation does not arise again in 2012, especially after the Packers decided to release Collins due to his neck injury.

    Burnett has to become a leader in the secondary. The defensive backfield of the Packers will see a number of new faces competing for jobs, thanks to the draft and the signing of a couple of undrafted rookies.

    The Packers drafted CB Casey Hayward (15 career picks at Vanderbilt) in the second round, and he will push players like CB Sam Shields, who saw his play fall off in 2011. Another player who will push for playing time is CB Davon House, who looks much better this year compared to last year.

    "Davon House has done an excellent job in the weight room," said head coach Mike McCarthy. "He's a different young man today than he was last year."

    Jarrett Bush will also be given an opportunity to play in the nickel and dime packages of the Packers, but his best attribute is being a top-notch special teams player.

    The starting CBs look to be Tramon Williams, who saw his play go down in 2011 after suffering a shoulder injury in Week 1, and veteran Charles Woodson, who had seven interceptions in 2011, including one for a TD. Some expected Woodson to be moved to S this year, after the release of Collins before the NFL draft.

    That still hasn't happened, although we are just in the month of June. It might happen eventually.

    "You lose a guy like Nick Collins and his big-play ability is now gone," safeties coach Darren Perry said. "Someone has to step up. So we're going to do some different things and mix in some combinations. If that means we have to put Woodson back there some, that's what we want to do."

    Woodson knows the task of what he and his defensive backfield compadres have to do in 2012.

    "For us in the secondary," Woodson said, "it stings a great deal to be attached to the worst passing defense in the league."

    Woodson is correct, but the Packers also led the NFL with 31 interceptions in 2011. So it's not all bad news in the secondary.

    Speaking of the safety position, the Packers drafted Jerron McMillian in the fourth round, and signed undrafted rookie Sean Richardson. They recently added rookie Micah Pellerin (who can play CB), and have holdovers like Charlie Peprah, M.D. Jennings and Anthony Levine.

    As you can see, there will be a lot of competition in the defensive backfield. Actually, there will be a lot of competition everywhere on the defense this year for the Packers. That's what happens when a defense is ranked 32nd in the NFL in 2011.

    The Packers need players like Burnett to step up their game and become leaders. Leaders not only with their play on the field, but also by making sure everyone is in the right position to help create a turnover or make a big play. They need to be sort of a QB on defense.

    Morgan Burnett will have that opportunity in 2012.