Here's a couple of the most pressing questions about the Green Bay Packers as they enter training camp.
Can the offense maintain its high level of play?
The Packers obviously had a poor defense last season that gave up the most passing yards in the history of the NFL. As a result, the offense had to carry the team on its back. It was a burden the offense was more than capable of bearing. Despite the poor defense, the Packers put up a 15-1 record. Led by league MVP Aaron Rodgers, the Packers had the third-ranked offense in the NFL putting up 405.1 yards per game. They also ranked first in the NFL with 35.0 points per game.
All the key pieces are back from last season, so there's no reason the Packers can't continue their high level of production. The question is, how high? Can they maintain their position as a top three offense in NFL or will they regress back toward the mean?
Can the defense get back to its Super Bowl form?
During the Packers' 2010 Super Bowl season, they had one of the best defenses in the entire NFL, ranking second by giving up only 15.0 points per game. It was a steep drop for the Packers in 2011. They were in the middle of the pack in terms of points allowed, but they ranked dead last in yards allowed by allowing 411.6 per game.
Two key pieces of the Packers' 2010 defense were gone in 2011: defensive linemen Cullen Jenkins to free agency and safety Nick Collins to injury. The Packers are still looking for capable replacements. Will they be able to find them, and will they be good enough to improve the entire Packers defense?
Can the special teams continue its upward trend?
The Packers haven't had very good special teams units under coordinator Shawn Slocum. Only a Super Bowl victory might have saved his job in 2010, but in 2011, the Packers reversed course. They got a shot in the arm from rookie return specialist Randall Cobb as well as solid performances from kicker Mason Crosby and punter Tim Masthay.
There's still room for improvement, particularly on the coverage units, but the Packers are headed in the right direction. Can they continue to improve and can players like Cobb, Crosby and Masthay continue to play at a high level?
How do the Packers utilize all the talent at wide receiver in the passing game?
Without question, the Packers' top two receivers are Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson, but there might be a changing of the guard further down the depth chart. Donald Driver has been a productive receiver in Green Bay for years, but time may have passed him by. It could be time to give Randall Cobb a larger role on offense, and perhaps even James Jones surpasses Driver in the wide receiver pecking order as well. Jermichael Finley, who is frequently split out wide, figures to factor heavily into the Packers plans as well.
Will the running game be good enough to take pressure off the passing game?
The Packers' bread and butter under head coach Mike McCarthy has and probably will continue to be the passing game. But there's a line of thinking that if the Packers could muster a better running attack, it would at least take some pressure off Aaron Rodgers and the aerial display. Last year the Packers ranked near the bottom of the NFL with less than 100 rushing yards per game. Without Ryan Grant, the Packers will be relying on a young and experienced stable of running backs led by James Starks.
Can the pass rush be more effective than last season?
The blame for the poor pass defense lies primarily with the pass rush, or lack thereof. The Packers had 29 sacks last season, only two NFL teams had fewer. And considering how often teams dropped back to pass after falling behind to the Packers, the sack efficiency was particularly atrocious. After losing Jenkins to free agency, the Packers never could find anyone else to take pressure off Clay Matthews. They tried to rectify that problem in the offseason by signing Anthony Hargrove in free agency and then selecting Nick Perry and Jerel Worthy in the NFL draft.
Will all the young defensive players be able to stop the run?
The pass rush might get the majority of the attention, but it's only part of the equation. Considering the Packers spent their first six draft choices on defense, it remains to be seen how they'll play the run as well. Nick Perry is expected to be a three-down player, so he'll need to play the run effectively, and it helps that he has a 270 lbs frame. Jerel Worthy, Casey Hayward, Mike Daniels, Jerron McMillian, Terrell Manning and the rest of the Packers defensive rookies will all be expected to do their part in stopping the run as well.
Will the players on injured reserve come back healthy?
Derek Sherrod, Alex Green and Andrew Quarless all ended last season on injured reserve, and will look to rebound in 2012. At the very least, Sherrod will be a swing, backup tackle and perhaps a starter if Marshall Newhouse falters. Green is being counted upon to take on a bigger role after the departure of Ryan Grant. And Quarless was showing big time signs of improvement, especially as a blocker, before a knee injury cut short his 2011 season. Fullback John Kuhn can be added to the list as he probably would have went on injured reserve with a knee injury had the Packers' season not ended in the playoff loss to the New York Giants.
Do the Packers keep six wide receivers?
There's so much good, young talent at wide receiver that it's becoming increasingly likely that the Packers will keep six wide receivers this year. In addition to Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, Donald Driver and James Jones, a pair of practice squad players from last season will be fighting for roster spot. Tori Gurley and Diondre Borel both have bright futures, but there might only be one roster spot available between the two of them. Could the Packers trade one of them?
How do the Packers replace Nick Collins in the secondary?
Charlie Peprah will get first crack at replacing Collins, but he'll have competition. M.D. Jennings had a positive offseason and got a lot of playing time with the starters as Peprah recovered from offseason knee surgery. The Packers drafted Jerron McMillian in the fourth round, and he adds to the mix. The possibility that Charles Woodson plays more at safety this season looms as well.