This offseason has been a very interesting one for the Green Bay Packers. The OTAs and the minicamps are over, and training camp opens in a little over a month (July 26).
The additions to the team via the draft and free agency seems to have filled most of the needs that the Packers had after the 2012 postseason ended with a very loud thud.
The team also gave five-year contract extensions to their two most important players, quarterback Aaron Rodgers and outside linebacker Clay Matthews. Rodgers is now the highest paid player in the NFL, while Matthews is now the highest paid linebacker in the league, according to SI.com.
The team has also lost some core players as well. Both defensive back Charles Woodson and inside linebacker Desmond Bishop were released by the team, while wide receiver Greg Jennings left via free agency. All three of those players had significant roles in the recent success of the Packers and will be difficult to replace.
The Packers also lost tight end Tom Crabtree to free agency, and he was considered the best blocking tight end on the team. Center Jeff Saturday is also gone, but he was replaced late in the season and postseason by Evan Dietrich-Smith due to performance issues anyway.
So, with training camp right around the corner, let's take a look at some of the early winners and losers this offseason.
Mike McCarthy has been head coach of the Green Bay Packers for seven years. The team has had a 74-38 record over those years. In that time, the Packers have won three NFC North titles, have been to the postseason five times and have won a Super Bowl.
In addition to that, only once has one of his teams been out of the top 10 offensively in the NFL in those seven years. That was the 2012 team, which finished 13th in the NFL in total offense.
But thanks to the additions and changes that were made to the roster this offseason, the Packers look to be a much more balanced offense, which should increase the productivity in both the passing game and the running game.
Expect to see another top 10 offense in 2013 under McCarthy, if not a top five.
2012 was both good and bad for defensive coordinator Dom Capers.
First the good. The Packers finished 11th in total defense in the NFL last year, after finishing 32nd the year before.
Now the bad. The Packers gave up a whopping 579 total yards and 45 points to the San Francisco 49ers in the playoffs last year, as the Packers were beaten by two touchdowns.
Some thought that performance might signal the end for Capers in Green Bay, but both general manager Ted Thompson and head coach Mike McCarthy have stood by Capers. The reason? In 2009, the Packers were ranked second in the NFL in total defense under Capers. In 2010, the Packers were ranked fifth in total defense.
Thompson has helped out Capers in the 2013 NFL draft, as he added defensive end Datone Jones in the first round. Jones looks like the type of player who will make an immediate impact on the defense, in both stopping the run and rushing the passer.
Still, there is no question that this is a BIG year for both Capers and the Green Bay defense. If things continue to go south for the defense, especially come playoff time, Capers can well end up as a loser at season's end.
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers has to feel like a kid in a candy store right now. First, he received a five-year contract extension that made him the highest paid player in the NFL.
Then the team added key pieces in the 2013 NFL draft which should help him continue to be one of the best players in the league.
Finally, the team decided to move offense tackle Bryan Bulaga and guard Josh Sitton to the left side of the offensive line. Why is that important? The left side of the line is the blind side for Rodgers as he drops back to pass.
Plus, with the additions of running backs Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin in the draft, the running game should become much more productive in 2013, which in turn will make the passing game become even more dangerous, as the opposing safeties won't be able to play two-deep anymore like they did in 2012.
Expect Rodgers to use play-action much more effectively in 2013, as well as hitting on more deep passes. It's hard to improve on what Rodgers has done the past two seasons, as he has thrown 84 touchdowns compared to just 14 interceptions for 8,938 yards. His average quarterback rating over the past two seasons is a sparkling 115.25.
Even with all that, Rodgers can be better because of the changes that were made this offseason.
After the defensive debacle at Candlestick Park in the playoffs, when the Packers gave up 579 total yards to the San Francisco 49ers in a 45-31 loss, the team was destined to make some changes.
Enter Datone Jones. At UCLA, Jones played in the same 3-4 scheme the Packers use, and he was very effective as a defensive end in that defense. Especially against teams who used the read-option offense, much like the offense the Packers saw in San Francisco last January.
On that night, quarterback Colin Kaepernick had 444 total yards by himself. Ironically, the Packers start their 2013 season in San Francisco against Kaepernick and the 49ers.
Based on his production his senior year at UCLA (62 tackles, 19 tackles for a loss and 6.5 sacks) and how he has shown himself in Green Bay thus far, I see the Packers playing much better defensively, not only against the 49ers, but for the entire season. A player like Jones will make the entire defense play better.
Eddie Lacy will have an opportunity to become the main force at running back in 2013. Lacy, along with fellow rookie Johnathan Franklin, will be given every chance to shine in the running game.
The Packers would like to see vast improvement in running the football. The last time the Packers were in the top 10 in rushing in the NFL was 2004 (finished 10th). Since then, the team has finished 30th, 23rd, 21st, 17th, 14th, 24th, 27th and 20th.
I'm not saying the Packers will be in the top 10 in rushing in 2013, but they should definitely be in the top 15, and one can surely expect to see the streak of 43 consecutive games without a 100-yard rusher come to end in 2013.
Lacy's production at Alabama (1,322 yards rushing and 17 touchdowns in 2012), and his ability to come up big in crucial games (had 321 yards rushing and three rushing touchdowns in the SEC and BCS title games combined) is part of the reason the Packers drafted him. Lacy can also be a three-down back (as can Franklin), as he can catch and block well, too.
The Packers drafted Bryan Bulaga in the the first round of the 2010 NFL draft. The Packers selected Bulaga mostly to become the heir apparent to veteran left tackle Chad Clifton. Clifton was getting up there in years and was becoming injury prone.
Bulaga was an All-American left tackle at Iowa, so it seemed like a natural move. But then right tackle Mark Tauscher suffered a season-ending shoulder injury early in the 2010 season, so Bulaga moved in at right tackle.
He's been there ever since, even though he missed some time of his own due to knee woes in 2011 and then a season-ending hip injury in 2012.
But in 2013, Bulaga is healthy and back at left tackle. He's ready for the challenge, too, as he explained on Packers.com.
I was excited when I heard from coach McCarthy that a switch was going to be made and I'm grateful for the opportunity.
Bulaga will surely perform better at left tackle than Marshall Newhouse has the past two seasons, when Newhouse allowed 24.5 sacks. Meanwhile, Bulaga has allowed just 5.5 sacks the past two years at right tackle (in 11 fewer games).
Things are going pretty well for Clay Matthews as of late. He recently became the highest paid linebacker in the NFL.
One can see why with his production on the field. In four years, Matthews has 42.5 sacks, has four interceptions (with two returned for touchdowns), has recovered three fumbles (one for a touchdown) and has forced seven fumbles.
Matthews was named to the Pro Bowl in each of his four seasons in the NFL.
In 2013, Matthews will be getting some help in rushing the passer, as the Packers drafted Datone Jones in the first round. Jones, along with last year's first-round selection, outside linebacker Nick Perry, will provide quite a push on opposing quarterbacks in terms of pass pressure, as will Mike Neal, who really came on in 2012.
Matthews had 13 sacks in just 12 games in 2012, and if he stays healthy in 2013, has a chance to break the all-time Packers season sack record of 19.5 by Tim Harris in 1989. The double-teams in blocking that Matthews has been accustomed to over his career will not be as apparent if his teammates can help out in the pass rush.
I believe they will.
In 2012, Mike Neal finally showed the Packers what they were looking for when the team drafted him in the second round of the 2010 NFL draft.
After two injury-riddled seasons, in which Neal appeared in just nine games, the former Purdue Boilermaker had 4.5 sacks last season and applied good pressure to opposing quarterbacks. That pressure helped Clay Matthews to get 13 sacks in just 12 games.
As a team, the Packers went from 27th in sacks in the NFL in 2011 (29 sacks), to fourth in sacks last season (47 sacks).
This offseason in OTAs and in minicamps, the Packers are looking at Neal both on the defensive line and at outside linebacker. Neal discussed why the Packers are doing this on Packers.com.
I think they're just trying to realize what I do best. I've always looked at myself as a defensive lineman, but I've always felt that I was athletic enough that I could move like a linebacker. I just look at myself as a question mark right now. Where are they going to use me? But it's a compliment and a positive thing and that's how I look at it.
The Packers want to have their best pass rushers on the field in passing situations for the opposing team. Using Neal as a stand-up outside linebacker at times is definitely out of the box thinking by defensive coordinator Dom Capers.
Bottom line, I see the Packers being in the top five in sacks again in 2013, and the team has a real chance of breaking their season-best sack record of 52 which was set in 2001.
Evan Dietrich-Smith became the starter at center for the Packers in the second-to-last game of the 2012 season. Dietrich-Smith replaced veteran Jeff Saturday, who was becoming ineffective, especially in the running game.
The offense of the Packers showed marked improvement both in the regular season and the postseason with Dietrich-Smith as the starting center.
The Packers showed that they trust the former Idaho State star by not drafting a center in the 2013 NFL draft.
The starting center job is Dietrich-Smith's to lose, and the Packers are a much better running team with him manning the position.
Count Aaron Rodgers as a believer, as he talked highly of Dietrich-Smith in a phone interview with 102.9 FM in Milwaukee recently.
I think having Dietrich-Smith starting the year out at center is going to be a big improvement for us, and he’s going to do a good job. I like his future.
Marshall Newhouse lost his starting left tackle job this offseason, after giving up 24.5 sacks the past two seasons.
That just won't get it done. Especially when your quarterback is named Aaron Rodgers.
Newhouse will be given a chance to become the starting right tackle, but the competition will be fierce. Former first-round pick Derek Sherrod will get a look there when he's ready to practice, plus you will have players like Andrew Datko, rookie David Bakhtiari and Don Barclay competing for the job, as well.
If Sherrod shows himself to be healthy, then he is probably the favorite to win the job. Otherwise, I like either Datko or Bahktiari to also beat out Newhouse for the job when it's all said and done.
Barclay might end up moving inside, as he has been getting time at center this offseason, after playing guard much of last training camp for the Packers. Barclay is a nice run-blocker, but has trouble with edge-rushers. That's why he may be more effective inside.
Newhouse was definitely given a wake-up call by the Packers this offseason. Time will tell how he answers it. If he responds like he performed in 2011 and 2012, then he will be lucky to even get a roster spot in Green Bay this season.
Speaking of wake-up calls, James Starks definitely received one during the 2013 NFL draft. As did Alex Green, for that matter.
You know you are in trouble when the team you play for selects not one, but two players at your position in the draft. The two players were Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin. Both were very productive backs in college, plus both have the ability to play all three downs.
The Packers might keep four running backs on their roster in 2013, or maybe even just three. Lacy and Franklin are a given, and DuJuan Harris has to be a favorite to make the team based on how he performed late in the 2012 season and the postseason.
That puts both Starks and Green on red alert. Starks was running with the starters at a recent OTA, but he has to really prove himself in training camp when the pads come on and the real hitting starts. Unlike the first three injury-prone years of his NFL career, Starks has to prove he can stay healthy and look like the back who led the entire NFL in rushing (315 yards) in the 2010 postseason.
Bottom line, the odds don't look good for Starks to remain a Packer in 2013.
Alex Green led the Packers in rushing in 2012, as he gained 464 yards. But Green wore down as the season wore on, due to scar tissue problems stemming from his ACL tear in 2011.
Even though Green led the team in rushing, he never scored a touchdown and only had 3.4 rushing average. The most rushing yards Green had in a game was 69 yards against Detroit.
That puts Green into the same category as James Starks. With the Packers drafting both Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin, plus with the emergence of DuJuan Harris late in 2012, the future looks ominous for both Green and Starks.
Green is younger than Starks, and he showed his toughness last season by playing hard after suffering the ACL tear just the year before. If the Packers keep four running backs, I would think Green has a better chance of sticking around compared to Starks.
Green also catches the ball better than Starks.
But it all will come down to training camp and who performs better when the hitting is for real.