Have Packers Given Aaron Rodgers Enough for Super Bowl Return in 2014?

Ty Schalter@tyschalterNFL National Lead WriterJune 5, 2014

Aaron Rodgers, in a vacuum, is the best quarterback in the NFL.

Not the greatest. Not the most talented, imposing, electrifying or prolific. He's certainly not the hottest, coming off a 2013 season in which he had his worst statistical year since his first as starter, and missed seven games due to injury.

When it comes to the total package, though? Offensive understanding, field reading, decision-making, velocity, accuracy, pocket awareness and athleticism? Rodgers has it all in a way nobody else does.

He's a historically unprecedented combination of aggressiveness and efficiency. He makes big plays as often as the wildest gunslingers, and he avoids mistakes like the most cautious of game managers. Like his legendary predecessor in Green Bay, Rodgers has made stars out of a parade of good-but-limited receivers.

After Rodgers miraculously returned to deliver the Packers to the playoffs in Week 17, Rodgers and the Packers were sent packing by the San Francisco 49ers for the second straight year. This time, Green Bay let a four-point fourth quarter lead turn into a closing-seconds fourth-quarter tie before letting through the season-ending field goal in the dying seconds.

As good as Rodgers is, the Packers' roster wasn't strong enough or deep enough to help him beat the 49ers; their odds on the road against the Seahawks would have been even bleaker.

Did the Packers put enough around Rodgers this offseason to get them back to the Super Bowl?


A War of Attrition

The NFL is a war of attrition. Every spring, the NFL's best teams are stripped of their starters, role players, backups and assistant coaches by all of the franchises desperate for a piece of that success. In this dog-eat-dog reality, even standing pat with the roster you've got can lead to a disastrous backslide—just ask the Houston Texans.

Though the 8-7-1 Packers weren't one of the NFL's very best teams in 2013, they lost starting center Evan Dietrich-Smith, tackle Marshall Newhouse and receiver James Jones.

Fortunately for the Packers, Newhouse was bumped out by the performances of fourth-round rookie left tackle David Bakhtiari, undrafted sophomore right tackle Don Barclay, the return of 2010 first-round pick Bryan Bulaga. Jones will be missed in the greater, sentimental sense, but wide receiver might be the Packers' deepest position.

Dietrich-Smith is the only true loss the Packers suffered; given the quality pass protection the Packers got from the other four positions, and the return of Bulaga, it's tempting to give them a pass for that—even though his replacement will either be fifth-round rookie Corey Linsley or 2014 fourth-rounder JC Tretter.


Defensive Reinforcements, Round 4

When the Packers won Super Bowl XLV, it was the performance of Rodgers and the offense that got the most attention—yet, the Packers had only the 10th-best scoring offense that year, per Pro-Football Reference.

It was the defensive architecture of new defensive coordinator Dom Capers, along with the brilliance of sophomore outside linebacker Clay Matthews III, that fueled the Packers' playoff drive. With the second-best scoring defense in all of football, the Packers boasted the second-best scoring differential.

Since then, Packers general manager Ted Thompson has spent six first-, second- and third-round draft picks on restocking the defensive front seven (and two more in the secondary). Outside linebacker Mike Neal has been the most productive of these, and he may have just been pushed out of the starting lineup.

Thompson is notoriously gun-shy about spending big money on veteran free agents, but after getting precious little out of premium pass-rushing picks like Nick Perry, Jerel Worthy and Datone Jones, he had to do something.

Enter Julius Peppers, a 6'7", 287-pound 4-3 defensive end. Thirteen years ago, his freakish athleticism had some analysts wondering if he might be a better 3-4 outside linebacker. When the Packers signed Peppers, I wrote he'd fit a seven-technique "elephant" role, or simply make the transition to 3-4 defensive end.

Instead, Peppers has donned No. 56, and played exclusively as an outside linebacker through the Packers' OTAs, per Lori Nickel of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Together with Matthews, Neal and Perry, the Packers will have plenty of depth and flexibility.

Up front, B.J. Raji was one of the surprise re-signings of the offseason; the Packers' need for a nose tackle outstripping question marks about Raji's inconsistencies (and his overestimation of his own marketability). Raji will likely center Jones and a rotation of Neal or Worthy, unless free-agent signing Letroy Guion overtakes him.

If nothing else, the pilfering of Peppers and Guion from NFC North rivals means addition by subtraction.


The Safety Dance

One of the Packers' most visible problems in 2013 was the coverage ability of their safeties. The departure of M.D. Jennings (to the Bears, surprisingly enough) might have been seen by Packers fans as "addition by subtraction" in a snarkier sense.

In his place, the Packers will slot first-round pick Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix (better known to the world as "Ha Ha"). Clinton-Dix's athleticism and coverage ability gives him the tools to match up against the NFC North's explosive slot receivers and tight ends.

Tools plus opportunity doesn't always equal production, though; if Thompson's rookie defenders always made instant impacts, this article wouldn't need to be written.

If Clinton-Dix fixes the problem (allowing big downfield plays), it'll take plenty of pressure off of Rodgers.

How? The more Rodgers feels pressure to score points through the air, the more predictable and one-dimensional the offense will become.

As Bleacher Report Featured Columnist Michelle Noyer-Granacki recently wrote, Rodgers and the Packers were significantly less effective when running out of the shotgun in 2013. When the Packers were trying to play catch-up, and the threat of Eddie Lacy and the Packers' newfound run game weren't there to keep defenses honest, Rodgers had the deck stacked against him.

Peppers, Clinton-Dix and the defense will have to keep Rodgers and the offense out of those positions.


A Coach's Game

With Lacy, James Starks and a returned DuJuan Harris, the Packers should be able to run the ball. With Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, Jarrett Boykin and rookies Davante Adams and Jared Abbrederis, Rodgers should have more than enough weapons to sling it around to. If undrafted free agent tight end Colt Lyerla keeps his head down and produces in line with his talent, Rodgers and the Packers could be truly explosive in 2014.

That said, as I wrote when the Packers signed Peppers, the excuses are over for Capers. He's had an influx of talent, both young and old, since the 2010 Super Bowl season, and the results have been progressively (regressively?) worse.

Rodgers isn't the problem. Head coach Mike McCarthy's offense isn't the problem. The defense (and a talent-laden NFC North division) is the problem.

Will Peppers, Clinton-Dix and Guion be enough to turn the Packers' 24th-ranked Dr. Jekyll to a top-10 Mr. Hyde? It seems unlikely.

There's no doubt the Packers will be a contender in 2014—but unless Capers recovers some of that 2010 brilliance, it's hard to see them leapfrogging the 49ers, let alone the Seahawks.


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