For the second straight season, the Green Bay Packers stormed through the regular-season NFL slate and into the divisional round of the playoffs for an encounter with an eventual Super Bowl contender.
In 2012, the Packers amassed an 11-win season in a difficult NFC North division, only to fall 45-31 to the San Francisco 49ers in the second round of the playoffs at the hands of a budding superstar signal-caller in Colin Kaepernick, and one of the league’s most dominant defenses.
San Francisco exploited some of Green Bay’s biggest weaknesses in that contest, and while the loss had to sting for Ted Thompson and the entire Packers organization, it also gave the general manager a blueprint for an offseason of retooling and reloading.
Thompson’s offseason began with the decision to let Greg Jennings walk in free agency to sign with the rival Minnesota Vikings. Despite Jennings’ overwhelming production in his seven-year career in Green Bay, durability concerns and the presence of some young, up-and-coming receiving talents made losing the 29-year-old a far less risky decision.
Jennings’ departure opens the door for third-year speedster Randall Cobb to take on an even larger role in the offense after catching 80 balls for nearly 1,000 yards and eight touchdowns last season. Paired with Jordy Nelson and James Jones, the void left by Jennings's departure shouldn’t be all that noticeable.
Rodgers, the recipient of a massive contract extension to make him the highest-paid player in NFL history, has been the cog that has kept the wheels moving since he assumed the starting role in 2008. Green Bay’s success starts and ends with the three-time Pro-Bowler, and with Rodgers under center, the Packers don’t have to worry about falling out of relevancy in the Super Bowl hunt.
Thompson also made it a point to lock up Green Bay’s best defensive player in elite pass-rusher Clay Matthews, who signed a five-year extension with the team this offseason. Given his tremendous production in his four-year career with the Packers (42.5 sacks), the $66 million extension ($20.5 million guaranteed) was a tremendous value for Green Bay.
Future Hall of Fame defensive back Charles Woodson wasn’t so lucky, however. With his career winding down and a contract that far exceeded the 36-year-old’s production, Thompson opted to release Woodson, who later signed with the Oakland Raiders at a bargain-bin rate.
Veteran center Jeff Saturday and wide receiver Donald Driver retired this offseason as well, but neither player represented a huge loss for the Packers. In an offseason full of youthful rebuilding, their departures opened the door for the Packers to bring in more young talent to continue building a stronger foundation.
And part of that foundation includes an explosive defensive end, a couple tremendously talented running backs and a pair of mid-round offensive linemen to shore up an improving offensive line.
With his first pick in the draft, Thompson took advantage of huge value in selecting UCLA defensive end Datone Jones with the 26th pick. At 6’5” and 280 pounds, Jones isn’t a typical 5-technicque defensive end in a two-gap scheme, but his athleticism and high-octane motor will allow Dom Capers to move Jones around the defensive front as an additional pass-rusher capable of sliding inside or even playing a stand-up edge-rushing role on passing downs.
Two of Thompson’s following four selections came at the running back position, along with a pair of offensive tackles versatile enough to add a lot of depth to Green Bay’s line. With those first five picks, the Packers’ draft was an instant success, to say nothing of the six picks that would follow.
The Packers didn’t make any high-impact signings on the free-agent market, but that strategy is typical of Thompson and his offseason dealings. The crafty general manager made his mark in the draft (as he often does), ensuring Green Bay will have the financial flexibility and young talent to sustain its winning ways for the foreseeable future.
We’ll take a closer look at the Packers’ offseason in the following slideshow, highlighting a few key positional battles to keep an eye on as the 2013 season closes in.