Green Bay Packers' Top Breakout Candidates for 2008

Brett CristinoContributor IJuly 6, 2008

With a new season approaching, and training camp just 22 days away, we're going to have some players fade off into the sunset and some players breakout and make a name for themselves.

We saw a ton of guys breakout last year, and that played a huge part in our outstanding 14-win season.

Guys that broke out last year include: Greg Jennings, Donald Lee, Atari Bigby, Ryan Grant, Jason Spitz (Well sort of.), and Johnny Jolly. All of these guys took their games to a different level and were an integral part of our success as a team last year.

All of these guys will be counted on heavily this year, and, once again, be an integral part of our team's future success.

Top Breakout Candidates for 2008

1. WLB A.J. Hawk

When A.J. Hawk came out of Ohio State and became eligible for the 2006 NFL Draft, he was coined, "the safest player in the draft". He was dominant at Ohio State, and he was a mortal lock to be off the board within the first five picks. He was seen as a guy who could single-handedly turn a defense around and could be the building block for a dominant defense.

That same dominant player has shown up from time to time, but we've yet to see him truly take over a game the way we know that he is capable of. Now don't get me wrong, he has been awesome since the day he stepped foot into Green Bay, and he has been rock solid next to Nick Barnett.

With that said, I expect him to take his game to a whole other level this year and become a dominant force in our defense. There has been talk in Green Bay that the coaches are going to do a little more blitzing than previous years, and I expect A.J. to be one of the main guys being asked to attack the quarterback.

Our defensive scheme kind of restricts him from making the big plays that other linebackers get. But he was brilliant in coverage last year, which is where he often wound up. In fact, he was statistically the most successful linebacker in coverage last year.

I think the coaches are going to let him roam a bit more this year and put him in position to really make more plays, which should lead to having a better season statistically.

This will be A.J.'s third year in our Jim-Bates-based defensive scheme, and he should feel completely comfortable with his reads, where he needs to be, and what is expected of him. I expect him to earn his first trip to Hawaii and truly give the defense that dominant player they know they drafted with the fifth-overall pick in 2006.

2. RB Brandon Jackson

Heading into the 2007 draft, everyone knew we needed a running back, and we needed one very badly. 99 percent of mock drafts out there had us taking Marshawn Lynch out of Cal with the 16th-overall pick.

Now, that made a ton of sense, but what if the inevitable happened and somebody snatched him up before us.

Well, that happened when Buffalo took him 12th overall.

We opted to take Brandon Jackson in the second round. He was a guy who really didn't do too much in college, but had experience in the West Coast offense. He certainly showed flashes at Nebraska that he could be a legitimate starter at the next level, but never on a consistent basis.

He came into Green Bay expected to replace another former Cornhusker, Ahman Green, but had to battle with Vernand Morency to earn the starting spot (man, our running-back situation was weak last year).

When Morency went down with an injury on the first day of training camp, Jackson instantly became the starting running back in Green Bay. At first, he really seemed uncomfortable out there. Instead of attacking the holes, he danced around them only to find out that you can't just dance in the NFL. (Example: see Bush, Reggie.)

Now, not all of his struggles can be attributed to the way he ran. The offensive line was inconsistent at run blocking in the beginning of the season, but in addition to that, he didn't do enough to keep the starting gig.

He was replaced by DeShawn Wynn as the starter. After Wynn had a couple of decent games, he went down with an injury.

Enter Ryan Grant.

Grant was handed the starting job, and the rest was history. Jackson seemed to get better and better as the season went on. During Week 17, he showed that he could shoulder the load when he rushed for 113 yards on 20 carries against the Detroit Lions.

With Grant on the sidelines during OTAs and minicamp due to a contract dispute, Jackson has seen the lion's share of the carries with the first-team offense. The coaches couldn't help but rave over his improvement. They also said Jackson improved in the weight room and added "good weight" this offseason, all while not losing his speed.

A mentally and physically improved Jackson should really give the Packers a lethal rushing attack, and Jackson will be a huge part of our offense this year. I expect him to get about five-10 carries a game and be used in a lot of passing situations.

He is our best back out of the backfield and has very soft hands. If Grant falters due to injury, poor play, or whatever it may be, I have faith that Jackson can step in, and we can depend on him having success running the ball.    

3. DE Cullen Jenkins  

I had high hopes for Cullen Jenkins heading into the 2007 season, and he didn't fully live up to them. I knew he was going to vastly improve our run defense, which he did. But I thought he was going to get to the quarterback a whole lot more than one-and-a-half times. I'll attribute that more to injuries than bad play.

He battled through injury the entire season, and when he finally got healthy, he showed what he could do in the playoffs. He equaled his season sack total in one game against Seattle. When healthy, he gives the Packers a lethal one-two punch at defensive end with Pro Bowler Aaron Kampman opposite him.

He should continue to be one of the anchors of our run defense, but I expect him to get to the quarterback a whole lot more this year than last year. I think he will get anywhere from 6-10 sacks this year, and combine with Kampman and Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila for close to 30 sacks.

His health will be very key this year because of the loss of Corey Williams. He'll see a lot more time at defensive tackle to bring that interior pass-rush on third down and certain passing situations.

His versatility makes him one of the most important players on our defense, and losing him would be a gigantic blow. He will continue to see a lot of single coverage with Kampman opposite him, and should he stay healthy, he will wreak havoc on opposing quarterbacks.

I expect him to breakout and make a name for himself in NFL circles this year, thus giving the Packers one of the most feared duos at end in the entire league. 

4. CB Tramon Williams

Tramon Williams has quickly become one of my favorite players on the team. I love the fire and passion he brings to our defense. Not much was expected of him heading into last year. He was mainly used on special teams, or sometimes as our fifth corner or seventh defensive back.

Jarrett Bush was our nickleback for most of last year, and it wasn't until his play really took a turn for the worse that Williams was given a chance to showcase his skills. He had a great showing against the Detroit Lions on Thanksgiving when he showed the fans, the players, and the coaches that he could play.

He showed that he could be consistently counted on, and his play permanently earned him the nickleback role.

Heading into the 2008 NFL Draft, we were all clamoring for GM Ted Thompson to take a corner with one of our top picks. We did when we selected Patrick Lee of Auburn in the second-round. There were some people who already had him penciled in to be our nickleback next year.

Not so fast.

Not if Williams had something to say about it. He went on to have an outstanding offseason and was continuously applauded for his stellar play during OTAs and minicamps. Now it seems that, barring a major setback, he will be our nickleback this year, and he will be one of the key components on our defense.

He has gotten stronger this offseason, which will really help him jam wide receivers at the line. I expect him to give us that consistent nickleback our defense has been looking for for quite some time now.

The future is bright for him. After Al Harris and Charles Woodson hang them up, he should be ready to step up and be the starter next to Patrick Lee.    

5. FS Nick Collins

I know, I know. How many years are we going to predict that this guy is going to break out? Seeing as this just might be his last chance due to the fact that Aaron Rouse is dripping with potential and waiting in the wings, it better be this year.

Collins has seemed to regress each year since his rookie season, and he needs to make more plays. I mean, there were times last year where I had to be reminded that he was even on the field. That's not something you want from your free safety.

He has all the talent in the world, and we gave him the honor of donning the No. 36 because we thought he could be just as good as that other guy who wore it throughout the '90s (see Butler, LeRoy).

He definitely can be, but it's safe to say that so far he hasn't shown, aside from a few glimpses here and there, that he can be a great safety. He is still solid though, and he certainly hasn't been a bust up to this point. But we should get more out of him then we are.

His production hasn't even come close to matching his talent. He has been in position to make many plays throughout the last two years, but he's let them slip right through his hands, literally (cue the rimshot).

He needs to hit the JUGS machine, because I can remember about four or five situations where he dropped a sure interception.

If Atari Bigby can continue to develop and give him a reliable counterpart at strong safety, then he has no excuse not to make more plays. I expect him to really feel the pressure that Rouse is putting on him and really play up to the level we've expected him to play at since his standout rookie season.

If he can hold onto those easy interceptions he's dropped over the last couple of years, he could be line for a trip to Hawaii. For the sake of my sanity, please finally break out, Nick!   

6. G Allen Barbre

As good as our offensive line was last year (and has been for quite some time now), we really haven't had a stable situation at guard since Mike Wahle and Marco Rivera left via free agency. Jason Spitz solidified right guard last year and played solid enough to keep his starting job. While some people think his future is at center, but for now he's penciled in at guard.

The other spot will be up for grabs, and Barbre, along with Daryn Colledge and maybe Junius Coston, appear to be the main candidates to win the job. While Colledge has shown flashes of being a solid guard, he simply isn't strong enough to hang with the big, athletic, defensive tackles in the NFL, and his future is at left tackle.

Coston has loads of potential, but he's way too inconsistent, and unless he takes a huge leap forward, he will be a versatile backup along the offensive line. That leaves Barbre to be the starter at left guard, and I hope I didn't make it sound like he'll win the job by default. The coaches love him and his crazy athleticism.

He has supposedly made big strides in the weight room during the offseason. We haven't seen much of him, but he seemed to hold his own during his limited action. The fact that we didn't add any guards to the equation outside of selecting one in the fifth-round of the draft should tell you that the coaches are confident that he can step up and solidify the interior of the offensive line.

I expect him to be named our starter at left guard from day one, and I think he will really give our rushing attack a shot in the arm. Whether Spitz stays at right guard or moves to center, I think Barbre will be the starter at guard for a long, long time.    

7. WR James Jones

Sure he's not Randy Moss, but James Jones sure made people forget about the disappointment they experienced after they watched Moss head to New England for a measly fourth-round pick. He just kept getting better and better through OTAs, minicamps, training camp, preseason, and into the regular season.

He reminded many Packer fans, including myself, of the former Packer great Sterling Sharpe, with his muscular build, great hands, and will to run over, instead of around, every defensive back that tried to tackle him. It wasn't until Koren Robinson came on board that his impact started to digress a little.

I blame that more on Brett Favre trying to get Robinson involved in the offense than anything. With Aaron Rodgers now the starting quarterback in Green Bay, I expect he and Jones to build up the type of chemistry that we saw Favre and Driver have the past five or so years.

If he can improve his route running, he could become one of the better wide receivers in the NFL, and Rodger's most reliable target.

With the loss of Favre, I expect Driver's numbers to regress and for Jones to benefit the most from the drop in Driver's numbers. He has spent a lot of time with Rodgers, on and off the field, and is going to head out to California to visit him and better the chemistry they have together.

That's great news for us and bad news for the rest of the NFL, because a better Jones means more looks for Driver and Jennings, which is what makes our wide receivers so good.

The fact that he has made huge strides in the weight room this offseason, now weighing a chiseled 217 pounds, is also bad news for the rest of the NFL because he was already one of the stronger wide receivers in the NFL.

I expect him to be Rodgers' safety valve, and he should be an absolute terror in the slot this year. His numbers should really jump this year. Don't be surprised if he's the most improved player on our offense next year.    

8. DT Justin Harrell

Many people already have Justin Harrell labeled as a bust. If they looked deeper, they would see that most defensive lineman take a year or two to develop. We saw Broderick Bunkley stink it up during his first year with the Philadelphia Eagles. He then took a huge step forward in his sophomore campaign.

Harrell definitely had an uphill climb; recovering from the major bicep injury he suffered while at Tennessee. We knew that when we took him. He has the tools to be an elite, run-stuffing defensive tackle, and he showed flashes of brilliance towards the end of the season.

As his reps increased, he even led all of our defensive lineman in tackles per snap. He hasn't gotten off to a good start this year, missing all of the OTAs and all of the minicamps. But he should be ready to go when training camp rolls around.

He will be relied upon a whole lot more than last year with the loss of Corey Williams. He really needs to stay healthy because we need him in our rotation. He should spell Jolly on third downs, and line up next to either Cullen Jenkins or Ryan Pickett, and with Jolly slated to return sometime during training camp, he can grab the starting spot if he shows what he can do on a consistent level.

Starter or not, he's going to see a lot of snaps this year. A healthy Harrell makes our run defense that much stronger, which is vital when you face Adrian Peterson twice a year.

Harrell's impact may not show up on the statline, but his presence will definitely be felt, and I expect him to show why he's not a bust, and why Ted Thompson shocked the world when he took him 16th overall in the 2007 NFL Draft.

Other breakout candidates: TE Tory Humphrey, DE Mike Montgomery, S Aaron Rouse


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