When you look back at the 2007 Packers, you see a team that really overachieved and we watched a young team grow right in front of our eyes. The expectations weren't very high for the Packers last year and almost everyone had the Bears penciled in to win the division. What happened you ask? One word: Playmakers.
The Packers got an infusion of playmakers last year, we saw some new faces and some players that have been here for a year or two take their game to the next level. Guys like Greg Jennings, Ryan Grant, Donald Lee, James Jones, Ruvell Martin, and Koren Robinson really sparked the Packers offense and gave Favre the playmakers he hasn't had since 2003.
Brett Favre had a resurrection of sorts last season and posted his best numbers in years but why was he so bad the 2 years previous? The problem was two-fold, one, he didn't have any playmakers outside of Donald Driver and had to look his way almost every time he dropped back. Another factor was that the team was just not very good and we all know what Brett Favre shows up when he's forced to come from behind. You get the Brett Favre that had 38 Touchdowns and 47 Interceptions from 2005-2006 and you also get a record of 12-20 over those 2 same seasons.
Their Defense played very well last year and kept them in nearly every game. They finished the season 6th in Defensive Passer Rating, 3rd in Third Down %, 6th in Pts Allowed per Game and 11th in Yards Allowed per Game.
Their Defensive Line was solid overall last year but really had lapses in putting pressure on the QB. Our Jim Bates based Defensive Scheme is very vanilla and most of the time last year we just rushed 4 down lineman and relied on them to get the QB.
Word out of Training Camp is that Mccarthy and Sanders have been playing around with some new looks and will blitz a lot more than we did last year. Now I am going to tell you why the Packers can be better and will be better than last year, even with a new QB at the helm.
I think it's safe to say that Aaron Rodgers is going to be our QB heading into next season and he has the job on lock for now. I keep hearing people say "QB's that follow legends always fail" and it's such a baseless statement and SUCH a copout. I did a little research and the only QB's who had similar situations to Rodgers were Rivers, Tony Romo, Steve Young, Garcia, Garrard, and 2 or 3 others whose names escape me right now. When a QB gets to sit for a year or 2 it gives them an opportunity to sit back and digest the offense, learn from the starter, and make sure that when they are called upon, they're 100% ready as opposed to learning on the job like Alex Smith, Joey Harrington, and so many other QB's(who failed). Mccarthy holds his annual "QB School" every offseason, something which Favre never attended so Rodgers got the majority of the attention and was essentially the #1 QB. Here's a good quote a found on it from Mccarthy...
McCarthy has been conducting NFL quarterback schools since 1993 and has kept the records of all the quarterbacks' performances in the position-specific testing drills.
"Aaron's at the top of every list," McCarthy said, "so that tells you the kind of athletic ability he has. He's a lot more athletic than a lot of people realize. So, physically, there's a lot to work with. Maturity-wise, him not playing the first couple years has helped him, and going through the process of preparing, you can see each year how he's improved in the classroom and his complete understanding of how everything works around here and he can apply it. He's smart. You have no limitations in game-planning volume. He can do everything we ask of him. So, there's a lot to work with. What he doesn't have is the experience."
When you read that and look around at the weapons he's been given, you can't help but be optimistic and excited like I am. I know what kind of QB Rodgers is and I think he's going to be better than Favre(in the 2000's) and really control the offense.
He's not going to give you those jaw dropping darts in between 3 defenders but he's not going to give you those terrible interceptions that left you with nothing to do but scratch your head and wonder what he was looking at.
Here's my optimistic 2008 outlook for Rodgers...25 Touchdowns 2 Rushing Touchdowns, 10 Interceptions, 3600 Yards, QB Rating anywhere from 90-100 and a Comp % above 60. Pretty optimistic for a 1st year QB eh? You might say so, but I think he's more talented than Philip Rivers and has more weapons in a pass first offense. Rodgers is as ready as any QB has ever been to take over as a Franchise QB and he will show why early and often next year.
It's very refreshing going into this season without the uncertainty at the RB position, sure there is some unknowingness but for the most part I feel very confident about our RB's going into next season.
While Ryan Grant is sitting out because of his contract situation, Brandon Jackson has caught the eye of everyone and looks to be much stronger, physically and mentally, than last year. He's been in Green Bay working his butt off all the entire offseason and has added 10-15 lbs of "good weight" or muscle and you can just tell by looking at him he looks stronger. Our strength and conditioning coach said Jackson was one of the 5 most physically improved Packers this offseason, that's high praise from a guy who is considered the best in the business by his peers.
It seemed like the game was going too fast for B-Jack during the beginning of the season and he really seemed uncomfortable out there. He really turned it on at the midpoint of the season and from Week 9 up to the NFC Championship he had 45 carries for 208 yards and showed that potential he possessed coming out of Nebraska. I have really high hopes for B-Jack and if Grant falters, get's injured or is forced to sit out time for whatever reason I have faith that Jackson can be our starting RB.
I read a quote from Edgar Bennett saying how improved Jackson is in blitz pickup which was really a huge weakness for him last year. If Jackson can keep improving, keep his head in the playbook and really get the offense down, we could have the best 1-2 punch in the division.
It's really unfortunate that Grant can't be out there practicing with his teammates in what I consider the most important offseason in a long time. I really want Grant and Rodgers to get their cadences down and really get a feel for each other because Grant is going to be a HUGE part of our offense next year.
His contract situation will get worked out sooner rather than later and I think it will be done well before Training Camp, probably within the next 2 weeks during the true "dead season" of the NFL.
Enough about Grant's off the field situation because on the field, he's the most important player on our offense outside of Aaron Rodgers next year. Aside from the NFC Championship, Grant really didn't have a bad game all year and was absolutely brilliant. Aside from LT and Peterson, Grant was the most consistent RB in the NFL last season and really looked like a budding superstar. His feel for the holes is so good and it makes him an absolutely perfect fit for our Zone-Blocking Scheme. He runs as hard as any RB I’ve seen in Green Bay since the 2003 version of Ahman Green and his vision is the best I’ve ever seen in a Packer running back. He knows what he's going to do before he touches the ball and he is a game breaker, he had a 20+ yard run in every game but one from Week 9 until the NFC Championship and his 11 20+ yard runs were good for 3rd in the entire NFL.
The job is Grant's at RB and I don't think he's going to relinquish it anytime soon because he's simply too good. I have no doubt in my mind that if he can stay healthy all season long he is capable of rushing for 1400+ yards and 10+ Touchdowns, all while earning a trip to Hawaii.
So when you consider the situation we were in last year at RB, you can definitely breathe a whole lot easier knowing that we have not 1 but 2 guys who can consistently move the chains when called upon. If we can run the ball consistently like we did during the 2nd half of last season then that would make Rodgers' job so much easier and really take a lot of pressure off of his shoulders.
A consistent running game is a QB's best friend and when you look around at all the weapons we have on offense, our offense should be able to do whatever they want, as long as we keep pounding the rock.
For the 3rd straight year we know who will be suiting up at T and C but we don't fully know who will start at Guard. Jason Spitz seems to be a good bet to start on the right because he played solid, not great, but solid last year. Spitz is a mauler and he gives our offensive line a mean streak that only Scott Wells can copy. He's seems to be a better pass blocker than run blocker but from what I saw, he seemed to improve at the end of the year. The one thing that separated him from the rest of our guards was the fact that he was consistent and that's not something you can say about the play of the left side last year.
Daryn Colledge just isn't strong enough to play guard IMO, he gets blown up too much and Kevin Williams made him look like a rag doll last year, though, he's definitely not the first person William's has done that to. I can't see Colledge playing Guard this year unless there is an injury because he's just too inconsistent to rely on inside. His future is at LT, so I’d like to see him get some snaps there during the preseason.
One of the guys I’m really excited about this year is Allen Barbre, he's not only our best athlete along the offensive line but he's one of the best athletes on our roster. He has unbelievable athletic ability and the coaches love him, I know because they speak so highly of him every time someone mentions his name. I look for him to be named the starter at LG and I think he's going to play very well. I think Spitz and Barbre will give us that consistency inside we've been looking for since Mike Wahle and Marco Rivera were here.
It's such a luxury to have Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher making sure no one gets to Aaron Rodgers. They're the best Tackle tandem in the NFL and when everybody talks about Jared Allen making a huge impact this year, they forget we have Chad Clifton. Our offensive line is, in my opinion, the best pass blocking line in the league. Scott Wells is super solid in the middle and I love the potential of Barbre and Spitz.
Our Offensive Line is going to make Rodger's job a whole lot easier this year and they should give him plenty of time to find our playmakers. You can't say that we're a bad run blocking unit but I think Clifton and Tauscher just had a hard time adjusting to the new Zone-Blocking Scheme. The success we will have this season will have a lot to do with the play of our offensive line, which just so happens to be one of the best units in the league.
Wide Receivers and Tight Ends
I love what Ted Thompson has done with the Wide Receiver group and the potential they possess is crazy. Greg Jennings showed last year that he is as dangerous as any Wide Receiver in the league with the ball in his hands. He reminds me so much in Marvin Harrison with his ability to get open, he makes cornerbacks look silly and a phenomenal route runner with soft hands. The sky is the limit for Jennings and I expect even better things for him this year as he grows as a WR. While our Offense doesn't have a "#1" WR, Jennings is the best one on our roster.
Driver's birth certificate may tell you he's 33 but he has the physique and fit level of a 23 year old. He's a WR that will be able to stick around for a while because of the unbelievable shape keeps himself in and his immense passion for the game of football. Driver is still super reliable and should be in line for his 5th straight 1,000 yard season.
James Jones is a guy who I have loved since Day 1 and I feel like an idiot for ever booing this pick. I love James Jones and I think he's going to be a fantastic receiver for us now and in the future. He's such a reliable WR and he's stronger than any DB in the NFL, I don't want this to sound like a broken record but he reminds me so much of Sterling Sharpe. The fact that he got visibly stronger and made major strides in the weight room this year(according to the coaches) is bad news for the rest of the NFL because he was already strong as an Ox. I expect Jones to wreak havoc in the slot and I think he's really going to break out this year.
The fact that our WR group should be better than last year is a tribute to how good Ted Thompson has been at drafting Wide Receivers. Jordy Nelson is the newest addition and the kid just reeks of potential, especially when you consider the fact that he's only been playing Wide Receiver for 3 years. He's got great size at 6-3 220 lbs and will be a matchup nightmare for opposing corners; I mean what #4 Cornerback is out there that can match up with this kid? I think Mccarthy is going to be very creative in the way he uses Jordy this year and we'll see him involved in a lot of trick plays like reverses, WR options, and he'll probably be our return man this year as well.
Donald Lee was a pleasant surprise last year and has a breakout season in our pass heavy offense. He's a very solid Tight End and should give A-Rod a nice mid-range option out of the backfield. He doesn't have great speed but he can stretch the field when asked to and he's hard to bring down after the ball is in his hands.
Tory Humphrey is definitely an intriguing player because he has big time athletic ability and should be able to make an impact as our #2 Tight End. You know the coaches think highly of him if they have kept him around this long. As long as Humphrey can stay healthy, he should provide another threat for Rodgers.
We knew going into the Draft that we needed to address the Tight End position and we did with Jermichael Finley. Finley is another one dimensional Tight End that is basically a Wide Receiver in a Tight End's body. As a former Basketball star, he's super athletic and will be a phenomenal Tight End. He's very young at 21 years old and he has big time potential, I feel like he can be one of the better Tight Ends to ever play for the Pack. The Packers possess enormous potential on Offense and the Packers have, in my opinion, the deepest set of playmakers in the NFL.
The Packers Defensive Line is an unknown right now because KGB, Justin Harrell, Colin Cole, and Johnny Jolly are all injured. They should all be ready to go at some point during Training Camp but you can't help but worry a little bit about the availability of our guys.
I was disappointed that Cullen Jenkins only had 1.5 Sacks last year because I had high expectations for him in that area but he was still great in run support, which is why we put him in there instead of KGB. Jenkins battled through injuries for most of last season which is why I think he struggled at times getting to the QB and I think a healthy Jenkins will post 5-10 Sacks this year and be very solid across from Aaron Kampman.
Kampman and KGB should provide most of the pressure this year, I expect them to once again post a combined 20+ Sacks. I think the Packers need to add another body along the Defensive Line and I think that guy should be Jason Taylor.
Taylor said he wasn't really interested in playing for Green Bay but I think his former Defensive Line Coach Bob Sanders could convince him to come here, I think Mccarthy and Thompson could convince him as well. Taylor and Aaron Rodgers are both going to attend the American Century Championship Golf Tournament in July and I think Rodgers should try and talk him into coming here. The asking price may be a bit too high right now but I think an offer of a 3rd Round Draft Pick plus Junius Coston or Tony Moll could get it done.
If Justin Harrell can stay healthy this year he's going to have a huge impact on our Defense and he should really improve the Run Defense. Johnny Jolly was a very nice surprise for our Defense last year and showed a knack for knocking the ball down at the line of scrimmage, not to mention he was excellent at stuffing the run. We're going to need both Jolly and Harrell to not only get healthy but stay healthy this year because our depth at DT is not as great as it was last year with the loss of Corey Williams.
Ryan Pickett is rock solid in the middle of our Defensive Line and is as consistent of a player we have on our Defense. He's super underrated and you rarely hear his name mentioned when people talk about our Defense. He's fantastic in Run Support and while Harrell and Jolly do indeed need to stay healthy, we really need Pickett to stay healthy because losing him would be a big blow to our Defense.
I really liked the addition of Jeremy Thompson during the Draft and I think he will one day become an every down Defensive End for us. Mike Montgomery seems to finally be healthy heading into Training Camp and I think he could really push Cullen Jenkins for the spot opposite Aaron Kampman and move Jenkins back inside.
Our Linebackers are very young, very talented and have the potential to be a dominant unit. Nick Barnett is one of the best MIKE LB's in the NFL and was snubbed of his 1st Pro Bowl berth last year, to tell you the truth; I thought he should have gotten some votes for Defensive Player of the Year.
AJ Hawk had a down season as far as making impact plays but he was, statistically, the most successful LB in coverage last year. I expect Sanders to blitz Hawk a lot more than the 2 previous years and I think he'll be on his way to Hawaii this season. Look for Hawk to have a standout 2008 season as it marks his 3rd year in the system and as he becomes more and more comfortable with the players around him.
We added Brandon Chillar this offseason as our only FA acquisition and he brings a different set of skills to the table than Poppinga does. Chillar is younger, at only 25 years old, he's more athletic, and he makes more impact plays than Brady does. Chillar's athletic ability allows makes him better in pass coverage, which is an area that Poppinga is not very good in. I expect Chillar to be named the starter just based on potential and I think he's going to be real solid for our Defense.
While Poppinga doesn't have elite physical tools, he plays the game with an enormous amount of passion and really sparks this Defense. Poppinga is great at blowing up opposing backs, allowing Hawk and Barnett to make plays. He is also very good in run support and even though he's not the starter, I expect him to be used in certain running situations. I'd love to see Poppinga used in the pass rush specialist role, a role he played in college at BYU. Our Linebacker's have tons of potential and I think one day they can be a dominant unit, especially with Hawk and Barnett.
Our secondary was very good last season and the emergence of Chuck Cecil, excuse me, Atari Bigby was a pleasant surprise. Bigby had 2 different seasons last year, during the first half of the season he allowed a lot of big plays and made a lot of boneheaded mistakes. On the other hand, during the second half of the season he played like a Pro Bowler and started making plays, without giving them up. He really solidified the SS position for us last year and barring a setback, he should once again be the starter.
Nick Collins has regressed every year of his 3 year career. He had a great rookie season, a pretty good sophomore season, and really played just average last year. Packer fans have been waiting 3 years for Collins to break out and I think this is his last chance because the guy waiting in the wings, Aaron Rouse, is immensely talented and made more plays in 2 games than Collins did all year. Collins is an elite talent who's very good in coverage but he disappears in games and sometimes you have to be reminded he's actually in the game. That's not something you want from your FS and Collins needs to hit the jugs machine this offseason because if he had better hands, he could have had about 5 or 6 Interceptions last year.
I truly believe that Aaron Rouse is our future at safety and I think he has the ability to be an All-Pro. The one thing I love about Rouse is his hunger to succeed; he wants it more than anybody else on the field.
Charles Woodson has played at a Pro Bowl level every year he's been in Green Bay and he's one of the 3 best CB's in the NFL. He is a complete corner who is a technician in the middle of the field and has resurrected his career in Green Bay. Paired with Al Harris, they are one of the best CB duos in the entire NFL and I see another great season from them.
I hear a lot of people say Al Harris' play has regressed, and maybe it has, but it doesn't help his cause that 2 of the worst games he's had in a Packer uniform were nationally televised. He's still one of the best sideline technicians in the game and shuts down half the field more often than not.
One of the guys who I'm most excited about this upcoming season is Tramon Williams. Williams seemed to just get better and better last year and really solidified the Nickle Back position after he won the job. Every time I read a report from the OTA's or Mini-Camp they raved about Tramon Williams. Tramon is very strong(he can bench press double his body weight), which should allow him to get a strong jam at the line once he gets his technique down. I expect Tramon to win the Nickel Back spot with ease and he is going to be one of the most improved players for the Packers this year, giving them the consistent Nickel Back they've been looking for.
Patrick Lee is definitely an intriguing player because his style of play fits our Defense to a T. He excels at jamming Wide Receivers at the line and he is extremely physical. At 24 years old, he's very mature and brings a ton of experience at a high level program to the table. The future at CB will be Tramon Williams and Patrick Lee and as of right now, the future looks bright.
So to answer the question posed at the beginning of this article, yes the Packers can do better in 2008. They probably won't match the 13-3 record they posted last year but I expect them to be a much improved 11-5.
There is a lot of hype surrounding the Minnesota Vikings right now but how many times have the Vikings won the "Offseason Hype Award"? Until they show they can beat the defending NFC North Champs, the hype is only that, hype. If they went out and acquired a better QB than Tarvaris Jackson, a guy like Sage Rosenfels, then I would be worried but since they didn't and since I don't think T-Jack is any good, they'll still struggle to move the ball through the air.
The Packers are one of the most underrated teams heading into next season and you can quote me on this, they will be back in the NFC Championship this year. They will not skip a beat with Rodgers at the helm and they should be one of the better teams in the NFL this year.
In 73 days the Packers get to show why they are still the best team in the division and why no matter how many big time players you go out and sign, team chemistry and good coaching will win out every time. So let them sleep on us Packer fans because it will taste that much sweeter when we're once again one of the last teams standing at the end of the year. GO PACK GO!