When the Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers take the field against the Saints to kick off the NFL season (scheduled to start on Thursday, September 8th) at Lambeau Field, the champions will be in a situation they have never been in under head coach Mike McCarthy and GM Ted Thompson: the hunted.
But I don't think another team in recent memory is as prepared to repeat as champions as the Packers currently are. They won their fourth Super Bowl despite having 16 players on injured reserve, including starters Jermichael Finley, Ryan Grant, Nick Barnett, Mark Tauscher, Morgan Burnett and Brad Jones.
The Packers' depth is a testament to the scouting department led by Thompson and the coaches led by McCarthy. They both did a great job identifying a certain type of player to sign or draft, coaching him up and getting him ready to contribute when his number is called.
Because of the Packers' injuries last season to some of their key members, players like Sam Shields, James Starks, Erik Walden, Frank Zombo, Charlie Peprah, John Kuhn, C.J. Wilson, Howard Green and Tom Crabtree gained valuable experience and now provide them with outstanding depth to go along with the talent returning and one of the best draft classes of 2011 (according to the "experts").
With Grant, Finley (depending on the new CBA, possibly James Jones) and rookies Randall Cobb (receiver), Alex Green (running back) and D.J. Williams (tight end) added to a group that is led by Super Bowl MVP Aaron Rodgers, Greg Jennings, Starks, Donald Driver, Jordy Nelson and Kuhn, the Packers are without a doubt one of the top, if not the top, offensive teams in the NFL.
The Packers also got deeper on the offensive line with the selection of Derek Sherrod in the first round to be the other bookend of the future to go along with 2010 first-round pick Bryan Bulaga. Chad Clifton is returning for another year at left tackle with Scott Wells at center and (arguably) the NFL's best guard, Josh Sitton. The Packers do have to figure out who will take over for Daryn Colledge, who (most likely) will be a free agent.
But the offense goes as Rodgers goes. He is their unquestioned leader and an elite quarterback. He has been everything the Packers and the Packers fans could have hoped for and more since taking over as the starter. He is the complete package on and off the field and has the complete trust of the coaching staff and his teammates.
Rodgers' favorite target is Jennings, who was voted to his first Pro Bowl last season. Jennings is a complete receiver who has a knack for making the big play. Driver finally started to show his age last season when the injury bug bit him and forced Jones and Nelson to get more playing time. As of now it sounds as if Nelson will take over as the starter opposite of Jennings with Driver moving into the third receiver role, even if Jones returns.
Cobb was selected to be the fourth receiver and return man. He has a great feel for the game and on paper looks like a great fit for the Packers offense.
Grant is coming off a broken ankle suffered in Week 1 and says he is 110 percent healthy and ready to go. He is in a contract year and looks to rebound from his injury. When healthy he is a very good back that fits McCarthy's offense.
However, with the emergence of James Starks, who led the NFL in rushing during the playoffs, the Packers may have found their back of the future. He is a complete back that can do it all and seems to get better as the game goes on. He runs with a purpose and always seems to fall forward when he is getting tackled.
Green, the rookie from Hawaii, is a guy that fits well as a third-down back who can pick up the tough yard but has great hands out the backfield.
Kuhn and Quinn Johnson will man the fullback position. Kuhn, who is a free agent, is a fan and coaches favorite and a great short-yardage back with solid hands who always seems to pick up the short yards. I was told that he and the Packers were close to a deal before the lockout, and he will be back in 2011.
The X-factor, though, is Jermichael Finley. He is a matchup problem and was on pace to have a career year before he injured his knee in Washington. He is too fast for a linebacker or safety and too big and strong for a cornerback. Jennings and Finley give the Packers big-play threats on any given pass play. Williams, the rookie out of Arkansas, is a smaller tight end but has exceptional receiving skills and is a hard-working blocker.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Packers will have to decide if they want to re-sign Cullen Jenkins. Jenkins is ultra-talented and a beast, but he has had some injury questions and will command a big payday, maybe too big for Thompson's liking for a player on the other side of 30. The hope is Mike Neal can take over Jenkins' position. If Neal can stay healthy—and that is a huge question mark early in his career—he has flashed enough to have the coaches loving what he could bring to the field every Sunday afternoon.
B.J. Raji and Ryan Pickett anchor the rest of the line. Raji was dominant in the Packers' Super Bowl run and was more than deserving of a Pro Bowl nod. Pickett was as solid as he could be. He moved from nose tackle to end and played great.
Green was signed when the Jets cut him during their bye week, and all he did was provide much-needed depth and girth for the Packers. He can play anywhere along the line and is a force against the run. Wilson is a guy that has the look of a player that can get to the quarterback, but he needs a little more time to develop.
The linebacking corps is led by "The Bloodline," Clay Matthews III. He is a quarterback's nightmare and has to be accounted for on any given play. He can not only rush the passer but can also cover and has a motor that won't quit.
Desmond Bishop and A.J. Hawk's play has made Barnett, who is coming off a wrist injury, expendable. Both Bishop and Hawk signed extensions in the winter and will be the starters. Barnett, who is 10 tackles away from becoming the Packers' all-time leader, has said he is willing to do whatever the Packers ask him to do, even if that means being the third inside backer.
The other outside linebacker spot is less certain. Jones was the starter, but his attitude and injury history make him a question mark, and Brandon Chillar is more of an inside guy. Walden, Zombo and rookie Ricky Elmore will all try to be the guy that can take pressure off Mathews and will battle it out in training camp.
The Packers have a deep secondary led by Charles Woodson, their emotional leader. While he didn't play up to his 2010 NFL Defensive Player of the Year award standards, he had a very good year. But he may not even be the best corner of the team because Tramon Williams has quickly become an elite corner. Williams' play in the postseason showed the nation what Packers fans had seen all year: Williams can cover half of the field against nearly any receiver in the NFL.
The Packers struck gold with undrafted rookie Sam Shields. He not only gave the Packers another corner that has the skill set to be very good for a long time; he also showed poise, instincts and knack for making the big play.
Nick Collins went to another Pro Bowl and kept making plays. He is the best safety in the NFC and is just a tick below Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu as the NFL's best.
At strong safety Morgan Burnett and Peprah will split time. Burnett was starting to turn the corner when he injured his knee and missed the rest of his rookie season. When healthy he is a playmaker who plays instinctively and is a more than willing tackler. Peprah made the most of his opportunity and was rewarded with a new two-year deal. He improved every game and is assignment-sure.
Special teams will get a boost from Cobb returning kicks and punts. He will be an immediate upgrade in those departments. Mason Crosby is set to be a free agent, but I was told that he and the Packers want him to remain in Green Bay. Tim Masthay did a very solid job and got better as the season went on. He was very good in the playoffs and seems to have solidified the Packers' punting issues.
But the Packers do have some questions. Finley is set to be a free agent after the season and will be looking to get a huge payday. He has yet to play a full season, and do the Packers want to invest a ton of money in him with his injury history? Can Neal replace Jenkins if he leaves via free agency? Will Clifton hold up for another year, and if not, can Sherrod protect Rodgers' blind side?
Will there be enough balls to go around between Jennings, Finley, Nelson and Driver? Will Grant come back healthy, and how will he team with Starks and Green? Finally, will Rodgers be concussion-free this season after suffering (at least) two last year?
The future is bright for the Packers and Packers fans, but the question remains: How will they handle being the hunted and not the hunters? If last year and the adversity they faced was any indication of what the future holds, the Packers could be a dynasty in the making.
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