Remember the beginning of the free agency period? Every Green Bay Packers fan was full of optimism and hope that we would be seeing the likes of Chris Canty and Albert Haynesworth in a Packers uniform next season.
However, the free agent period has seemingly come and gone, and all we have to show for it is the signing of a backup safety that has shown more potential then actual ability.
Packers fans have to come to this reality: General Manager Ted Thompson is content with his current roster and confident that he can add the right pieces via the draft. While there are arguments for and against that strategy, there's no argument that the most pivotal part of that system is the individual progression of players from year to year.
With that in mind, which Packers need to show that progression from 2008 to 2009? For Green Bay to get back into the playoffs, these players are the ones you should look for to make their respective progressions.
Bigby looked like he had a bright future after a promising 2007 campaign—five interceptions and three forced fumbles—but took a step back in 2008. However, it's safe to say that injuries put a huge damper on any progression that Bigby could have had last season.
Assuming Bigby is healthy next season, Green Bay should expect him to take the next step in 2009.
The switch to the 3-4 could benefit Bigby as well. The flowing dreads out Bigby's helmet may remind you of Pittsburgh's Troy Polamulu, but he also may play a similar role as the Steelers' All-Pro safety next season.
Bigby is best when he roams near the line of scrimmage, and in the 3-4, he should have more freedom to do just that. In addition, his physical presence in the defensive box could help the Packers' struggling run defense next season.
Don't expect Bigby to become a replica of Polamulu next season, but the Packers need him to revert to a more aggressive 2007 form to help shore up the Green Bay defense.
This one is a no-brainer. We all saw what Grant is capable of—near 1,000 yards and eight touchdowns in 10 games in 2007—but we didn't see that same runner in 2008. You can spread around the blame—offensive line woes, hamstring injury, etc.—but Grant also took a step back last season.
You could say that 1,203 yards is hardly a "step back," but when you look at touchdowns (four), and yards per carry (3.9), you see that Grant was wildly ineffective last season.
However, there are reasons for optimism. Grant held out last offseason in a contract dispute, and upon returning to practice, hurt his hamstring. It was obvious that Grant never really got over his injury, lacking the burst on cuts that made him so dangerous in 2007.
That shouldn't be an issue next season. Teams may start switching their focus to stop quarterback Aaron Rodgers, and with a healthy set of legs, Grant should get his yards per carry back around the 4.3-4.6 range.
Which means that if Grant logs the same amount of carries in 2009 as he did in 2008 (313), with a 4.5 average, Grant would finish with over 1,400 yards. I'll guarantee right now: if Grant finishes 2009 with over 1,400 yards, Green Bay is playoff bound.
Maybe I'm in the minority on this assumption, but Hawk had a miserable 2008. Last season marked Hawk's first professional season finishing under 100 tackles (86), and he also failed to register an interception for the first time. To be fair, however, one could make the same injury argument for Hawk (groin) as with Grant and Bigby.
Many feel, including me, that the switch to the 3-4 will benefit Hawk immensely. Hawk appeared to play considerably better as an inside linebacker last season, so it's reasonable to expect Hawk to have a much better 2009 season playing that position full time.
One knock on Hawk is his lack of big defensive plays in his three years in Green Bay, and the numbers support that theory—three interceptions and 7.5 sacks. However, we've seen the flashes of blitzing ability, and I don't think it's out of Hawk's potential to get close to matching his career total next season.
With the attacking 3-4 defense in place with Dom Capers, I'd expect to see Hawk wrecking havoc in backfields in 2009. We'll see a different player—the type you'd expect from a No. 5 overall selection—as soon as next year.
With that said, possibly no other player on the Packers' defense excites me more than Hawk with the switch to the 3-4, but I'm probably in the minority with that assumption as well.
Green Bay arguably has the best No. 1-4 receivers in the NFL, but it was Jones who suffered through a rough 2008. In his sophomore season, Jones seemingly couldn't get over a lingering knee problem, and his numbers plumeted—20 receptions for 274 yards from 47 for 676 yards in 2007.
Jones has a full offseason to get his knee right, so there should be no excuses next season. In the brief flashes we did see Jones last season, he was an explosive threat: four catches for 132 yards vs. Jacksonville, and four catches for 29 yards and a touchdown vs. Detroit. I didn't even mention the force he was in the preseason, and no one will forget his ridiculous touchdown he had vs. Cincinnati.
A lot of Packers fans still don't trust his hands (the fumbles vs. Chicago in 2007), but I think he has some of the strongest hands on the Green Bay roster. His physical presence is something the Packers didn't possess last season, but, assuming his health, he'll add that this year.
I'll get a lot of flack for this, but I also think this is the year Jones pushes Donald Driver for the Packers No. 2 receiver. He won't do it this season, but by 2010, he'll be our second receiver.
A lot was made of Finley's "lack of maturity" after several mincing postgame comments last season, but we also saw the raw talent that Finley possesses. He has a perfect tight end body (6'5", 250 lbs), and has rare athleticism (4.42 speed, and that's not a typo) to go along with the frame.
Starting tight end Donald Lee had a down year after a stellar 2007, so it's a prime time for Finley to make his move. With more consistency, and a bit of maturity, it's only a matter of time before Finley is our starting tight end.
Let's hope we get that next season. Lee is clearly the more polished blocker of the two, but Finley gives Rodgers another weapon from the tight end position, as he can stretch the field. With his large frame, he'll be almost impossible to cover.
Lansanah may be relatively unknown to most Packers fans, but he has impressed the Packers' brass. In fact, Miami Dolphins Executive Vice President of Football Operations Bill Parcells tried to claim Lansanah off the practice squad a year ago. Green Bay had to release special teams ace Tracy White to make room for Lansanah on the active roster.
However, with high expectations must come results. Packers fans didn't get to see much of him last season, but I'd think that might change next season. Thompson is obviously confident in the 23-year-old, so I'm sure he wants to see him on the field.
Lansanah may be able to play inside, and with his size (6'1", 255 lbs), he'd be a good fit there. Besides, the Packers could have question marks there if Nick Barnett doesn't fully come back from his knee injury last season.
He may not make an immediate impact next season, but don't be surprised if you see No. 58 making plays for the Packers in 2009.
The Packers' second round pick last season was invisible for most of the season, only appearing in five games and registering two tackles. His role was mostly on special teams, and that will most likely continue next season.
However, with the pending departure of special teamer Jarrett Bush, it will be expected of Lee to fill that role. In addition, Packers fans will want to see what Lee can do from a coverage standpoint as well.
Charles Woodson and Al Harris are both elders in terms of cornerbacks, so the progression of Lee is an absolute necessity. If either one of those two go down, Lee would likely assume the third cornerback spot—then and only then can we get a true gauge on his progression so far.
From what I've read from Packers camp, they love Lee and his potential. Hopefully in 2009 we see some of that potential first hand.
And last but not least...
Here's a player who could play the injury card til he's blue in the face. Yet, when you're a first round pick, fans could care less about it. In the eyes of nearly every Packers fan, he's a bust. Until he shows us something, anything, he's a bust in my book, too.
However, could this be the year he puts it all together? The kicker in the end is the injuries. If he can be healthy for a full season, what is he capable of? Can he be a force in the 3-4? He can play multiple positions in the 3-4, so he has value. But can he stay healthy?
So many questions, and until 2009, we won't have an answer. But my final plea: give him a chance. One last one. He has this year to win me over, and if he doesn't, I don't care if he's in a Packer uniform come 2010.