This is surely going to be a very intriguing off-season for the reigning world champion Green Bay Packers.
They've got two great players in Charles Woodson and Donald Driver getting closer to retirement. A logjam at inside linebacker, and must decide whether to keep Nick Barnett or AJ Hawk. They've got 12 unrestricted free agents to consider, among them players like James Jones and Cullen Jenkins, who may have played their last game in Green and Gold.
And not to mention a huge CBA that still has yet to be established, putting the 2011 season in jeopardy for all 32 NFL teams.
But, as always, the show must go on, even in the off-season. And if the Packers wish to continue their success, they must continue their success in the off-season, which turned out to become a crucial asset during their Super Bowl run. Their ability to maintain depth despite injuries at key position was what truly made them dangerous.
The Packers needs this off-season aren't dire needs for the 2011 NFL season, but rather for the 2012 season and beyond. This draft will serve as a type of developmental class, and, barring any injuries, not many of them will be given any sort of starting role. Because of this, the Packers have fortunate ability to go in a myriad of directions at pick thirty two, from trading down for more picks to drafting for a spot at a key position that may not need an immediate starter in 2011.
The Packers biggest needs could begin at the outside linebacker position opposite Matthews.
The Packers have one of the NFL's best pass rushing specialists in Clay Matthews, and he has had two great years in the NFL. However, opposite him in Capers' defense is a different story.
For the 2010 season, Brad Jones was the starter, but struggled with injuries and overall consistency, including in rushing the passer. The Packers had two others start in Jones' place in Frank Zombo, an undrafted rookie free agent, and Erik Walden, a street free agent the Packers picked up. Both showed flashes of ability, but both also struggled with injuries and aren't long term starters. Green Bay could do with an outside linebacker in the first, second, or even third round to compete and eventually become the long term starter.
The benefit of a long term, reliable starter at the other spot allows more pressure to be taken off of Matthews, and allows for an even bigger pass rushing threat. One of the reasons that teams like the Pittsburgh Steelers have had such a great defense is the fact that they have not one, but two great outside linebackers, which makes their defense even more unpredictable and dangerous.
At offensive tackle, Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher are on their last legs. Both in their mid-thirties, Green Bay needs to find some long-term starters. They have one of them in Bryan Bulaga, who started for Tauscher at right tackle after he went down for the season, though he was drafted for the left tackle position. Now, with Clifton nearing his end, the Packers need to find a right tackle to slide Bulaga back over to left tackle. But, while they could draft a tackle high in the first two rounds, they have a developmental prospect in Marshall Newhouse, who was inactive all season, but has had a year to develop on the roster.
The Packers also have starter material in T.J Lang, who has taken some time at right tackle, but may be suited for the guard position, which may be open if current starter Daryn Colledge isn't retained.
Green Bay could also go in the direction of obtaining a corner-back. Veteran Charles Woodson, who has enjoyed a long, stellar career, is 34, and is still playing at a high level. But, before he declines, the Packers would be wise to grab a corner around the third or fourth round of the draft.
The Packers have their two likely starters of the future in emerging stars Tramon Williams and Sam Shields, both of whom made the Packers secondary and its defense more versatile. The corner would fill Shields role as the nickel corner, which allows Capers to do more in his defense, allowing for a wider array of packages at his disposal.
While Green Bay has Pat Lee and Jarret Bush on the roster, it's unsure if either have the ability to maintain the position. Pat Lee has an uneasy injury history, and Jarrett Bush is not suited for the role, used primarily for special teams. The Packers could certainly use more depth here.
The position on defensive took the injury hit the hardest, next to the outside linebacker position, was the defensive line. And with only six to seven defensive linemen kept on the roster in a 3-4 defense, this could have made life difficult,as the defensive line is an important component of any 3-4 defense.
The main starters on the defensive line were Cullen Jenkins and Ryan Pickett at defense end, with BJ Raji manning the nose tackle position. Raji especially exceeded expectations, becoming a dominating force inside, providing opportunities for the linebackers as well as himself, collecting 7.5 sacks on the season. Pickett was consistently in the rotation; Jenkins struggled early on with injuries, but eventually became a force on the line as well.
The main problem here was when second round pick Mike Neal went down for the season. Neal showed a lot of promise, but when he got injured, the Packers had to re-sign Jarius Wynn, and rookie seventh round pick CJ Wilson had to be brought into the regular rotation. Both proved serviceable, and had their moments during the season. Nose tackle Howard Green, who was signed midway through the season, also did well, managing to eat up the blockers and allow the linebackers to make the play.
Where this position becomes a need is due to the uncertain status of Cullen Jenkins. His contract has run out, and it's not a given he will be re-signed. He is nearing the age of thirty, and struggled to stay healthy throughout the season. If Jenkins isn't retained, this still isn't a dire need. The Packers, depending on how many picks they have in the middle rounds, can pick up a quality linemen in the fourth or fifth rounds.
Last but not least, is the wide receiver position.
This is a position of strength for the Packers? Why is it a need now?
Simple. Because of two of the Packers primary receivers: James Jones and Donald Driver.
James Jones had his highs and lows during the season. One minute, he'd make the hard, low catch for the touchdown, and the next, he'd drop a wide open, 60 yard touchdown pass. Jones has been an inconsistent target for the Packers as one of their receivers, but has shown flashes that he is capable of being a starter down the road.
Now, Jones is an unrestricted free agent. Now that he has a Super Bowl ring, he is likely to shop his services elsewhere for more money and a starting job. The Packers likely aren't willing to pay him starting money to sit on the bench, and with the emergence of Jordy Nelson, who is looking more and more like he can be capable of replacing Driver, Jones is sure to be one of the more intriguing prospects at wide receiver in free agency.
Meanwhile, Donald Driver, who has his place as one of the best receivers in Packers history, is 36. He has shown decline over the last couple of seasons, evidenced by his accumulating injuries, especially in the Super Bowl, where he wasn't able to return to action. Driver has one, maybe two, more seasons left in him, and the longtime Packer may soon decide to take off the helmet.
Due to both of their uncertain statuses, the team would be wise to draft a receiver in this draft to go along with Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson. Brett Swain hasn't proven himself a capable enough receiver in the offense, despite his good special teams play. This was shown in the Super Bowl when he had to come into the rotation and struggled to catch passes after coming in relief of Driver.
The Packers could certainly use a receiver in the middle rounds, around the fourth or fifth, to develop under the other receivers. The Packers also have a possible contributor in Chastin West, who showed enough potential to be kept on the practice squad all season, and eventually re-signed with the Pack.