So the long summer is here, that barren period where to the casual fan of the NFL, nothing much happens. The staff in Green Bay appear reluctant to add any more pieces to the jigsaw either through undrafted rookies, or experienced veterans like Adalius Thomas or Brian Westbrook. So the next stage is to reduce the numbers of playing staff from around 80 to the final 53. Here are my top battles to watch over the next few months...
1. Cornerback - Al Harris vs. Tramon Williams
To me this is the most crucial contest in terms of the long-term state of the Packers. Harris is 35 years old and coming off a season-ending injury, questions remain as to whether he can return to full fitness but a look at his videos detailing his progress in rehab is encouraging.
Williams came in as the starter opposite Charles Woodson when Harris went down and did not look out of place, ending the season with very respectable figures of 55 tackles, 15 pass defensed, a sack and four interceptions.
Both are physical, aggressive and good in man coverage particularly in press-coverage and with a habit of giving away pass-interference penalties. If Harris can come back at anything like his former strength, then having either himself or Williams at nickel would be a huge upgrade for the Pack in their drive to make it to Super Bowl XLV. If Harris can't return to form then Green Bay look thin at corner in terms of proven experience and Pat Lee and Will Blackmon are both injury concerns.
From a long-term perspective you'd want Williams to win out, if you're looking for a Lombardi this year then a fit Harris might be a better chance with his nous and experience against elite receivers.
2. 3rd-down-back - Brandon Jackson vs. James Starks
When Ted Thompson drafted James Starks in the sixth round, the initial reaction of a lot of observers was that Brandon Jackson's days at Lambeau were numbered, however there are a couple of reasons as to why Jackson in my view remains the more ideal compliment to Ryan Grant:
- Starks is very similar to Grant, he's a tall, upright, power runner who can certainly be elusive but not make a play out of nothing.
- Starks lacks elite speed and will not compliment Grant in terms of being the 'change of pace' guy the Pack may find more useful, add that to missing all of last season with a shoulder injury and can he really be relied upon at this stage?
- Jackson is a better blocker, in the Pack's offense this is crucial - Aaron Rodgers' 3rd down rating is truly obscene thanks in no small part to Jackson providing him with extra time. On a team that likes to pass on 3rd down, he's ultimately more useful.
- Jackson's own stats I feel are undervalued. He averaged 3 YPC last year but as mentioned was mainly asked to block and caught the ball 21 times for 187 yards at 8.9 yards average. In 2008 he also averaged 5.5 YPC on the ground, so clearly the guy is not without running ability and I think there's a case to say that McCarthy doesn't trust him enough.
All in all, Jackson should stay as a 'change of pace'/blocking option. Should Ryan Grant go down though, you have to think that Starks' skill-set is more adept to taking the majority of the workload.
3. Strong Safety - Atari Bigby vs. Morgan Burnett
The Packers' secondary was torched by elite QBs last year, some put the blame at Cornerback and others at Safety - I personally subscribe to the latter theory, particularly with the depth at CB if Lee, Harris and Blackmon are fit. Atari Bigby is not a bad player, he's a good hard-hitting tackler who makes INTs and there are a lot worse safeties out there. However he is consistently injured and outside of a golden period in 2007 is something of a liability in coverage. He's not quite Roy E. Williams but he's no Ed Reed either. Burnett projects as a guy who'll be better in coverage to be used in obvious passing downs and had 14 interceptions in college. Burnett starts as favourite here but if Bigby raises his game it'll be dead close going into week 1.
4. Wide Receiver - James Jones vs. Jordy Nelson
It's not so much a comparison of the players here, they are on a very similar level and have potential to go further. What makes this interesting however, is that Donald Driver showed slight signs of wear and tear last season and although he'll remain reliable over the middle and an invaluable asset his days are surely numbered at his age. The competition to supplant him as the starter opposite Greg Jennings starts here.
5. Third Tight-End - Donald Lee vs. Spencer Havner
With the drafting of Andrew Quarless to be another receiving threat alongside Jermichael Finley, whom he resembles in terms of being a catcher but not much of a blocker, it's clear that with his talent level he'll likely be the second-stringer. Where does that leave Lee and Havner? To me Lee, although having been a solid pro is no more than that and wasn't great blocking last year. Havner is raw and a converted linebacker who isn't much of a blocker either but probably has more ability on special teams. This one is close to call although I think Havner at this point has the edge due to his levels of production in the red zone.
There are other areas of considerable debate it's worth noting here, but at outside linebacker Brad Jones is odds-on to start opposite Clay Matthews and it would seem likely that Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher will take the starting Tackle spots assuming they're fit with Bryan Bulaga and T.J. Lang as the back-ups.
It would of course be nice to see Cyril Obiozor or Tim Knickey or any of the other UDFAs provide some depth at rush-linebacker, but they went undrafted for a reason.
Feel free to add your own thoughts on which battles you'll be watching this off-season.