Now that we've all had a month to bask in the glory of the Lombardi Trophy being back home, it's time to look ahead to how the Green Bay Packers can continue building a dynasty.
Undoubtedly, there is a very strong nucleus of players on both sides of the ball. The offense, clearly built around Aaron Rodgers, also features stars such as Greg Jennings and Jermichael Finley as well as promising up-and-comers in Jordy Nelson, James Starks, Josh Sitton, and Bryan Bulaga.
On defense, we have two of the most dominant, versatile defenders in the league in Charles Woodson and Clay Matthews III. Tramon Williams is arguably the best cover corner in the NFC. Nick Collins is a perennial Pro Bowler rangy free safety, who might also be the best safety in the NFC. On top of that, the future is promising at ILB where Desmond Bishop and A.J. Hawk will be punishing the opposition together until at least 2014. B.J. Raji was quietly becoming one of the dominant, young 3-4 anchors in the NFC before he had to start making national headlines when he sealed the NFC championship game with his pick-six belly dance--so much for going under the radar! Speaking of making waves, Sam Shields also decided showed us that we need not worry about a replacement at CB if/when Charles Woodson retires.
That being said, let's take a detailed look at every position and identify the areas where the Green Bay Packers need to improve most in order to become the dynasty we haven't had in Green Bay since the Lombardi era.
QB: Aaron Rodgers. Super Bowl MVP. 'Nough said. Matt Flynn isn't going anywhere according to Mike McCarthy and Ted Thompson. Graham Harrell is apparently viewed quite favorably and could be groomed to replace Flynn who only has one year left on his original contract. Draft priority: Low. Unless the Packers get an offer they can't refuse for Matt Flynn, like 2 second-round picks or better, they probably won't be drafting a QB.
RB: Ryan Grant is coming back from Injured Reserve, but will be 29 this season, which puts him ever-closer to the terminal age of 30. James Starks is as big and athletically talented as Adrian Peterson, which is quite exciting if he can stay healthy. Dmitri Nance was picked up from the Atlanta Falcons this year when John Kuhn and Brandon Jackson failed to ignite the running game, but he was not very productive or exciting. Brandon Jackson is scheduled to become a free agent and was our best pass blocking and receiving RB, however, it's no secret that he wants to be a starter. Draft Priority: Low. It is likely that we'll see the Grant-Starks two-headed monster for this season. One of them will need to step up their passing blocking to make up for what Brandon Jackson did so excellently. However, I don't see the Packers finding a stellar pass blocking RB in the draft since college backs are rarely experts there.
WR: Greg Jennings is undoubtedly a perennial Pro Bowl-caliber player, however, with the other weapons that surround him, he will never lead the league in stats. Donald Driver is a tough-as-nails, fearless hometown hero that is, unfortunately, on the other side of the hill in his career. Jordy Nelson has shown a lot of promise, however, he needs to be a bit more consistent before he fully overtakes the WR2 spot. James Jones can make some tough catches look easy but, MAN, he can sure make some easy ones fall to the ground. With the exception of Jones–who was not re-signed before the current CBA expired on March 4 like AJ Hawk and Charlie Peprah–this receiving corps will come back and be expected to rank among the top units in the NFL. Draft Priority: Medium to High. With James Jones poised to test Free Agency, it is likely that the Packers will not return four starting caliber WRs next season unless the position is addressed in the draft. We know that Mike McCarthy loves to pass the ball and Ted Thompson has kept the position loaded over the years. If James Jones walks, expect a WR taken in the first three rounds.
TE: The stats 2010 season showed just how integral Jermichael Finley is to the offense. Before he was injured for the season, he was, by far, the leading receiver on the Packers. Afterwards, Jennings' stock skyrocketed and his stats garnered him a Pro Bowl bid. That being said, the TE unit struggled to fill the gaping void created by Jermichael Finley's absence. Donald Lee was recently released by the team. Andrew Quarless showed some progress and reminded some of us of the promise that Jermichael showed in his rookie year. Tom Crabtree made the team because of his tenacity and run-blocking ability. Draft priority: Low. With Finley coming back and both Quarless and Crabtree having a full season plus another off-season under their belts, expect this group to turn heads next year.
FB: Korey Hall was not offered a tender. John Kuhn was offered "right of first refusal" and is a fan favorite (KUUUUUUUUUUUUHN!). Quinn Johnson has made progress over the last two years and may be expected to be the fullback of the future. Draft priority: Low. There shouldn't be a fullback drafted unless he is a stellar Special Teams player.
OT: Chad Clifton may have been elected to the Pro Bowl, but anyone who watched him closely saw that he is beatable (giving up the most sacks in any single season he's had) and is growing older, obviously. Mark Tauscher was unable to maintain the miraculous comeback he made to solidify the O-Line in the second half 2009 and fell into IR yet again. While Bryan Bulaga stepped up quite well and demonstrated his versatility and worth as a first-round selection, offensive leader in penalties notwithstanding, he cannot play both RT and LT in the event that Clifton goes down too. Marshall Newhouse is said to have potential to become a starter but McCarthy probably needs to see the 1st-to-2nd year jump," which won't be evident until after the draft. T.J. Lang has spelled both the RT and the LT positions in the last two years and has made some strides, but doesn't seem like a lock to fill a starting role. Draft priority: High. While it is possible that Clifton could make it through another entire year without a major injury, his age sets the odds against him. Newhouse and Lang are not guaranteed starting caliber yet, in fact it seems Newhouse is thought of more of a guard than a tackle. Tauscher may not even make the final cut this season if he doesn't heal very well. If I'm Ted Thompson and Mike McCarthy, I understand the gravity of protecting the Champion's blind side and take a talented tackle when the board says the value is there on Day 1 (first round) or Day 2 (second and third round).
OG: Josh Sitton will be an All Pro this coming season barring any major setbacks now that he has a championship ring–he hardly got beat in the run or pass game this season and tended to maul opponents who dared to cross his path. Daryn Colledge wishes that he could say the same. While he wasn't atrocious, he surely wasn't spectacular. Behind these two, there is Jason Spitz, who was not offered a tender, and Nick McDonald, who McCarthy seems to like and could also have a future at center. As mentioned above, Newhouse is also playing as a guard. Evan Dietrich-Smith, dunno enough about him. Draft priority: Medium to high. If you look back at Ted Thompson's drafts, he almost always has a big man on either side of the ball. He knows that the game is won in the trenches and I wouldn't put it past him to pick up a guard and a tackle this year.
C: Scott Wells won the battle for center two years back and has performed quite well since. The only thing is that he is starting to get up there in years, now 30, but maybe that's why they have their eye on Nick McDonald. Draft priority: Low. I don't see them drafting a center. Perhaps if a good one is still floating around after the draft, they'd sign him for competition.
NT: B.J. Raji, if he can stay healthy, will be a fixture and perennial Pro Bowler for the foreseeable future. Howard Green, as we saw in the Super Bowl, can rush the passer as well as plug the running lanes. Plus, if worse came to worst, Ryan Pickett could slide back over. Draft priority: Low. We have a wealth of riches in one of the most important positions in the 3-4 defense.
DE: As Brandon pointed out, the Packers did not get a deal done with Cullen Jenkins before the CBA deadline on Friday, March 4. That likely means that a desperate team will offer him more money than the Packers can, or are willing to, afford. That said, Ryan Pickett was quite solid on the other side. Mike Neal, while gone for most of the season on IR, impressed in limited action, as did C.J. Wilson who finished the year healthy. Jarius Wynn also played decently. Not to mention, the base defense for the Packers, totaling over half of the defensive snaps last season, is the 2-4-5 Nickel package. This means that we really only need two NT/DE/DT on the field for over half of every game. Nonetheless, Cullen Jenkins pass rushing presence will be missed and must be replaced. Draft priority: Medium. While it is not imperative to pick up another big-bodied pass rusher, don't be surprised if the Packers' brass nabs one in the early rounds. The defensive line is deep in this year's draft and the relative lack of gaping holes in the roster may allow us to grab a stud 5-technique DE that slips through the cracks in the early rounds.
ILB: We all know now that A.J. Hawk and Desmond Bishop are the playmaking ILB tandem of the future. Hopefully Brandon Chillar can make a full recovery and serve as a very reliable back-up. Nick Barnett could be the odd man out in Green Bay ILB corps. Draft priority: Medium. Pending the expected, upcoming decision on Barnett, we will likely have just three players at ILB and, given that LB is a great crossover for ST units, we can pretty much expect TT to add another ILB in the draft, if the price is right, or sign yet another street free agent with the potential to breakout.
OLB: Claymaker. Check. ... ... ... Yeah, the Packers' Defense would be mighty scary if we had someone reliable and fearsome opposite Clay Matthews (much like James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley of the Pittsburgh Steelers). That being said, because of the imposing presence of pass rushers like Bloodline, Jenkins, Woodson, Hawk, and Raji, the ROLB has drawn the benefit of one-on-one match-ups–a pass rusher's dream! That said, the likes of Brad Jones, Frank Zombo, and Erik Walden have respectably risen to the occasion when the opportunity presented itself. Ugh, Brady Poppinga is still on the team? Draft priority: Medium. Again, like the DE position, it is not imperative that we get a playmaker at ROLB, however, given the lack of needs, we can safely wager a pick on a player that has game-changing potential.
CB: If I see/hear another person saying that we should pick up Nnamdi Asomugha, I am going to be sick. With arguably the best starting tandem of CBs in the league in Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams, and a nickel back that actually plays the outside CB in nickel and dime packages in Sam Shields, whom is likely to replace Woodson one day, there simply isn't space (or, likely, salary cap room) for a player that will demand as much as Asomugha assuredly will. That being said, Pat Lee, Brandon Underwood, and Jarrett Bush need to start stepping up their game to make dime packages and injuries less worrisome for fans and, conversely, mouth-watering for opposing offenses. Draft priority: Medium to low. You can never have enough talent and depth at CB in the modern-era, pass-happy NFL!
S: Nick Collins is a great asset to have behind such a talented CB corps. Although a bit soft against the run, Morgan Burnett definitely showed some ball-hawking ability before he bowed out for the season. In relief, Charlie Peprah earned every dollar and snap in his recent two-year contract. Anthony Smith, who was surprisingly cut in 2009, was acquired for a conditional pick from the Jacksonville Jaguars and played well in relief. Derrick Martin also made some plays, but was actually cut and not re-signed (unlike Hawk), which came as a surprise given his reliability both as a backup and special teamer. Atari Bigby may also have seen his last days as a Packer after not receiving a tender offer. Apparently Anthony Levine, who's on the practice squad is thought to be a potential FS, is thought of favorably by the coaching staff. It's hard to imagine the Packers not having more than 3 safeties going into next season. Draft priority: Medium to low. Honestly, it'd be nice to see Derrick Martin and Anthony Smith come back, but we all know how Ted likes his team. That being said, the safety class is weak this year, as Rahim Moore is thought to be the top safety and several teams don't think of him anymore than a third-rounder. Thus, it may make sense to take the system veterans back in. This excludes Atari Bigby, who can't run fast enough to play in the NFL.
K: It's good to hear that Mason Crosby was given a 2nd round tender. However, it wouldn't be bad to make him compete again. He hardly forced touchbacks on his kickoffs this year, especially for having the reputation of a big-legged kicker. He's not exactly clutch, and whiffs on a lot of tackles taboot. Draft priority: Low. Most times only a couple/handful of kickers are selected so there could be one that might fall through the cracks into free agency. With Crosby's less-than-stellar year, I wouldn't bet against TT to give him some competition!
P: Hooray for Masthay! How long has it been since our punter wasn't terrible!?! Timmy the Red may well have been the X factor in the NFC Championship game against Devin Hester and the Bears. He was hitting and sticking punt after punt inside the twenty, ten, and five quite consistently as the Packers ran the Championship Gauntlet. Draft priority: None. There is absolutely no way that a punter is drafted. Masthay wasn't even drafted!
KR/PR: I am not going to put any names down here because I truly believe that Tramon Williams is way too valuable to be returning punts and Pat Lee, Sam Shields, Jordy Nelson, Brandon Jackson, James Starks, and everyone else are not good at returning kickoffs. (Oops. Names...) Draft priority: HIGH! I know that I've stated that there aren't any gaping holes on our roster, but this is the one. We NEED a dynamic returner. McCarthy's even taken the blame for not getting one, saying, "If a guy can be a good returner, we've got to have packages for him on offense, too." This sounds like they could actually take a WR/KR/PR with a pick. Perhaps Torrey Smith of Maryland or the 4.3 blazer, and arguably the best slot receiver prospect, Jerrel Jernigan of Troy (my preference) at the end of the second round could ignite the lackluster return game.
I would love to hear your feedback. I know that I am just one man, who–even with all the ambition to see the Packers through an objective lens–knows that bias is inevitable when I love a team this much!
Thanks for reading!