With the Packers’ victory in Super Bowl XLV looking smaller and smaller in the rearview mirror, and with no end in sight to the lockout, most fans are focusing their attention on the upcoming NFL draft.
But I can’t help but think about next season (assuming we have one).
On paper, the Packers look primed to repeat. Their roster is loaded with talent at every position, and Ted Thompson will once again have his crystal ball out to find hidden talent in the draft.
The NFL is a tough business, however, and teams have short memories. With so many injuries last season, a lot of new players got a chance to step up and play. That creates an interesting plot line heading into next season.
Players returning from injury will carry with them a chip on their shoulder, hungry to reassert themselves. The guys who stepped in for them last season are out to show that they are still worthy of a spot on the field.
All of them have something to prove.
Here are the five Packers with the most to prove next season.
I hate that Donald Driver is on this list.
I hate it so much that I debated replacing him with someone else for almost a day. Driver is a legend, one of the all-time great—and most beloved—Packers. How can he need to prove anything?
The answer is time, and it’s no long on Driver’s side.
Driver will be 36 next season, and while he has been remarkably healthy throughout his career, he can’t be an elite receiver forever.
His production dropped off sharply last season, and his ankle injury in the Super Bowl brings his age into sharper focus.
I love Donald, but the Packers will once again be stacked at wide receiver next season, and with Greg Jennings and Jermichael Finley likely gobbling up a lot of receptions, Driver could find himself the odd man out.
There might now be reason to question, but I know better than to count Driver out. I would not be surprised at all if he once again tapped into the fountain of youth and put up another 1,000-yard season.
The Packers sure hope so.
Sam Shields is a classic Ted Thompson diamond-in-the-rough find. Signed as an undrafted free agent in 2010, Shields emerged as a legitimate lockdown corner opposite Tramon Williams.
His emergence was maybe the single most important development for the Packers defense last season, as it allowed Defensive Coordinator Dom Capers the ability to move Charles Woodson around the field and dial up a variety of exotic blitz packages.
He seemed to get stronger as the season wore on, and was brilliant in the playoffs, intercepting two passes in a close NFC Championship game against the Bears.
Heading into next season, expect him to be relied on again in a lot of single-coverage schemes. Capers wants to continue to use Woodson close to the line of scrimmage, and if Shields can’t be a consistent cover corner, the Packers defense becomes much more one-dimensional.
The pressure on Shields to perform will be very high next season, and he needs to prove that he’s not a one-hit wonder.
No player caused more dinner-time division in my family last season than AJ Hawk.
The exchanges between my father and I usually went something like this:
Dad: “AJ Hawk stinks.”
Me: “Dad, no he doesn’t. He’s our field general.”
Dad: “He can’t cover anybody.”
Me: “Well, yeah. But he’s great against the run, and one of our best tacklers.”
Dad: “When he can catch someone.”
Depending on the day, that conversation might go on for another five minutes.
AJ Hawk’s liabilities are easy to identify. His lack of lateral speed makes him a liability in coverage. He’s solid against the run, but his lack of explosiveness will forever make him a disappointment to some. Hawk was, after all, the fifth overall pick in the 2006 draft.
To stop there, however, is to do Hawk a grave disservice. While not flashy, Hawk led the team in tackles (111) and had three interceptions last season. Beyond his statistics, he is the leader of the defensive unit, and does a great job reading formations and calling audibles.
Hawk renegotiated his contract following the season—likely saving his spot on the roster—and will begin the 2011 season as the defensive leader once again.
Hawk has the chance to silence his critics—my dad included—with another strong season. He may never be the dynamic playmaker some expected, but he is quietly a big reason the Packers defense is one of the best in the NFL
Another terrific late-round find, Starks was inactive for much of last season with injuries. In that time, the Packers running game was inconsistent at best, and non-existent at worst. You know it’s bad when John Kuhn (who I love) is being tried out as an every-down back.
Enter James Starks.
While not spectacular, Starks gave the Packers’ offense much needed balance during their run to the Super Bowl. He showed a natural running style, explosiveness through the line of scrimmage and the ability to break arm tackles. Even better, he had zero fumbles. In short, he has that look.
With the expected return of Ryan Grant to the Packers backfield, Starks may be looking at a reduced role next season. But don’t expect to just see him on the sidelines. The running back by committee approach has proven successful for other teams, and having Starks share carries with Grant will help reduce the wear on both.
Starks still has questions to answer, but another solid campaign in 2011 will establish Starks as the Packers' running back of the future.
No one on the Packers’ roster has more to prove than big No. 88. Finley is a player with limitless talent, but with two straight seasons interrupted by injury, he needs to put together the stats to match his incredible skills.
The 2010 season, as Finley so often tweeted, was to be the YOTTO (year of the takeover). Following a breakout 2009 season, he was no longer flying under anyone’s radar. Finley regularly showed up on preseason top-10 fantasy tight end lists all over the Internet, and the Packers coaching staff made no secret that they intended to make him a focal point of the offense.
Through the season’s first four games, Finley delivered. Too big for cornerbacks, and too fast for linebackers, Finley caused havoc for opposing defenses. In those four games he racked up 21 receptions for 301 yards. For those keeping track at home, that’s a season pace of 84 receptions and 1,204 yards.
Then disaster struck.
When Finley went down early in game five with a season-ending knee injury, YOTTO was put on hold, and Finley joined the Packers' growing ranks on injured reserve.
No one denies Finley’s talent. Not only is he a freakish athlete, he has perhaps the best hands on the team. If he can stay healthy for an entire season, Finley has the ability to lead the NFL in receiving yards by a tight end.
How big an if that is remains to be seen.