An Early Look at the 2011 Green Bay Packers Lineup
We can all agree that some positions aren't open to competition this offseason. Mr. Rodgers will continue to lead the offense, and The Claymaker is sure to ignite the defense. While the defending Super Bowl Champions will return numerous familiar faces, what newcomers can we expect to see in the starting lineup for the Pack?
Returning Offensive Starters
QB - Aaron Rodgers
No. 1 WR - Greg Jennings
FB - John Kuhn
LT - Chad Clifton
C - Scott Wells
RG - Josh Sitton
RT - Bryan Bulaga
Seven offensive starters figure to return to their spot in the starting lineup. For various reasons, there are four holes open among our starters... let's take a look.
No. 2 WR: Jordy Nelson
Obviously, the Packers' starting wide receivers are somewhat subjective. All of the wide receivers in the rotation are expected to be able to play inside and outside, flanker or in the slot.
Looking back at the Packers' Super Bowl run, Jordy Nelson's role consistently increased down the stretch and throughout the playoffs. While Donald Driver was hampered by injuries for much of the season, he's clearly lost a step in his game whether he's injured or completely healthy.
I expect Jordy Nelson to get more snaps in 2011 than Donald Driver. Other than the obvious advantage Nelson has over Driver, age, Nelson is more physical at this stage of his career and can take the constant beating of an every-down NFL wide receiver.
While most football fans view Jordy Nelson as an Ed McCaffrey-esque, possession wide receiver, he's proved that he has much more burst than just an average possession receiver. Nelson has the ability to make plays after the catch, and has enough initial quickness to create separation (see Giants game 12-26-10).
While Nelson's role should increase, Driver should remain a key factor in our offense, along with rookie Randall Cobb, who figures to be the No. 4 WR as James Jones seems to have finished his Packer career.
TE: Jermichael Finley
It's (finally) official: Donald Lee has played his last game as a Packer.
Having drafted the 2010 Mackey Award Winner, D.J. Williams, in the 5th round out of Arkansas, the Packers seem to be sitting in a nice situation at tight end. Williams joins Tom Crabtree and Andrew Quarless as the backups to budding NFL Superstar Jermichael Finley.
Personally, I would prefer to keep Tom Crabtree on the roster over Andrew Quarless. I felt that Rodgers was visibly upset with Quarless way too often last year; Quarless often appeared out of position before the snap which caused Rodgers to burn a timeout.
The Packers started the 2010 season with an emphasis on getting Jermichael Finley the ball. Through four games, Finley amassed 21 receptions for 301 yards. Had he stayed healthy for 16 games, Finley was on pace for 82 catches and 1,204 yards.
During the NFL Draft, Jon Gruden publicly proclaimed Finley "the best tight end in the NFL." Well, if that's the case, then the Super Bowl Champs just got a hell of a lot better. Look out, NFL.
RB: Ryan Grant
While Jermichael Finley is sure to spark a wave of excitement through Packer Nation, the RB corps may be the most improved area of the 2011 Packers.
When the Pack lost Ryan Grant to injury in the first game of the year, the team was left with a rotation of Brandon Jackson, James Starks, John Kuhn, and Dimitri Nance to finish the season. Starks showed promise in the San Francisco game, yet didn't see much time until the playoff run.
In 2011, the Packers get a healthy Ryan Grant back from injury. While certainly not an elite NFL back, Grant has been the Pack's steady horse since he joined the team as the feature back.
A training camp battle to keep your eye on is Grant fighting James Starks for the team's starting running back position. I expect Grant to formally be named the starter, but the team is in a promising situation with Starks and Rookie Alex Green as Grant's top two backups.
Scouts raved about Alex Green's ability to catch the football prior to the draft. You can bet that's one of the attributes that made Green appealing to Packers GM Ted Thompson. Green should fill the role as our 3rd down running back; he'll help out immediately in the passing game. Perhaps, this season we'll see a bit of a 3-Headed Monster with Grant, Green, and Starks.
LG: T.J. Lang
Daryn Colledge is an impending free agent and has been on shaky grounds with Packers' management for some time because of their reluctance to extend his contract. I expect Colledge to leave the team, and for the Packers to open up competition at left guard between former backup T.J. Lang and rookie Derek Sherrod.
While I think Sherrod is versatile enough to kick inside to guard, I would assume the Packers will keep Sherrod at left tackle and groom him behind Clifton for the future. Sherrod would likely be the top backup at both tackle positions. If Clifton or Bulaga miss time to injury, Sherrod would step in for either player without too much difficulty.
T.J. Lang is stout; he has more of a guard's build than Sherrod's longer frame. If you recall, a couple years ago Lang had to step in for the injured Chad Clifton and line up across from Vikings DE Jared Allen. Lang will have every opportunity to win the competition at left guard, and I fully expect him to do so.
Returning Defensive Starters
CB: Charles Woodson
FS: Nick Collins
CB: Tramon Williams
OLB: Clay Matthews
ILB: Desmond Bishop
ILB: A.J. Hawk
OLB: Frank Zombo
DE: Ryan Pickett
NT: B.J. Raji
The Packers defense in 2011 will suffer losses, but figures to see several familiar faces return to the squad. Cullen Jenkins is an impending free agent, and I don't expect the Packers to meet his financial needs. Safety Morgan Burnett returns to the team from a season-ending injury. Nick Barnett will finally be healthy from a serious injury. Johnny Jolly...got arrested again.
There's an open hole at DE opposite of Ryan Pickett, as well as Strong Safety... let's take a look.
DE: C.J. Wilson
Defensive end is a position that figures to see a great deal of competition in training camp. Returnees Howard Green and C.J. Wilson will battle it out along with 2010 second-round pick, Mike Neal. Neal missed most of last season due to injury, which allowed C.J. Wilson to get serious game experience.
Howard Green was an unsung hero for the Packers last year. Most people recognize Nick Collins for his pick-six in the Super Bowl, but it was Howard Green who caused the interception of Ben Roethlisberger. Green joined the Packers and played a key role on the defensive line down the stretch.
While Neal was higher than Wilson on the depth chart prior to his injury, I think the game experience that C.J. Wilson got during his rookie year will push him into the Starting Lineup. Green is more of a situational player, whereas Wilson and Neal are in the mold of every-down Defensive Linemen.
SS: Morgan Burnett
Charlie Peprah is vastly underrated; I would not be surprised if Peprah beat out Morgan Burnett and Atari Bigby for the starting job at strong safety. However, Burnett has an extremely high ceiling for his NFL career, while Peprah will likely always be a solid, serviceable NFL safety.
Burnett won the starting strong safety job last year before he got hurt and proceeded to miss the entirety of the 2010 season. In training camp, Burnett studied the playbook tirelessly with fellow rookie defensive back Sam Shields. Shields went on to become one of the biggest steals of the 2010 rookie class, while Burnett had to watch from the training room.
Burnett is a great athlete with a promising work ethic. I expect him to hit the ground running hard during training camp; Burnett beats out Bigby and Peprah as the team's starter.
PR/KR: Randall Cobb
(Photoshopped Photo - Marques Eversoll)
Get excited, Packer fans. A legitimate home run threat at returner can take a team to the next level. Randall Cobb can do a little bit of everything; he can run, jump, catch and even throw.
I'd call Cobb "a poor man's Percy Harvin." The Super Bowl Champion Packers addition of a wide receiver and returner with Cobb's ability should send chills down the spine of everyone around the NFL.
XLV, done. XLVI, here we come.