It's July. Thus, training camp is near. Real close. As the anticipation for the 2010 campaign nears peak levels, my Packers addiction is craving answers to 10 critical concerns heading into training camp.
10.) Who can out-battle J-Bush for one of the vital Gunner positions on Special Teams? If J-Bush is going to make it for a 5th year, he will have to prove that he's the elite gunner on the team. Bush can expect steep competition from the likes of P-Lee, the U-HAUL, Josh Bell, Brett Swain, and potentially Anthony Levine. Call it wishful thinking but I am of the opinion that if Bush does not stand out in the preseason games as a special teams gunner, he won't make the team. Could he be trade bait? After all, last year, the Titans signed him to a tender. I wonder if there is still interest.
9.) Is Jordy Nelson, James Jones or Andrew Quarless ready to make an impact? Mike McCarthy has displayed a unique ability to design plays that create mismatches. Ted Thompson has attempted to provide McCarthy with players that would enable McCarthy to construct formations that offer a variety of options. Thompson spent a 3rd round pick on James Jones. After a bright rookie year, Jones has regressed due to injuries, competition and opportunity. This is a make or break year for Jones. Nelson was a 2nd round pick. He's yet to develop as the Packers had hoped. If Jones & Nelson can both show significant progress, it'd be fun to see the Packers have 5 legitimate weapons (Jennings, Driver, Jones, Nelson, and J-Mike), which would allow McCarthy to effectively spread defenses out as he did in 2007.
Andrew Quarless, on the other hand, is kind of an enigma to me. I'm excited he's a Packer, but I can't figure out his role in the offense. Unless the ultimate goal of the Thompson/McCarthy game plan is to use a double-TE set that runs J-Mike & Quarless down the seam against LB's on opposite sides of the field. That'd be wicked, if Quarless is ready to make a remote impact as a rookie.
Presently, I'm imagining Week 11. After the bye. At Mall of America Stadium, what a joke the Viqueens are, playing at Mall of America Stadium. Are you kidding me? (Sorry for the rant, but I had to get that out of my system). But, I'm envisioning Week 11. On the road. McCarthy unleashing a newly manufactured 3-TE set which appears to be a running formation, however the intent is to find either J-Mike or Quarless running one-on-one against a slower LB or a smaller DB. In 2008, remember that it was not until Week 9 at Tennessee - after the bye week - that McCarthy allowed us to see what J-Mike could do as a rookie.
This could get interesting. But, first, Quarless must display that he's available for at least a minimal role as a rookie. It'd be nice to see a glimpse of his ability in the preseason games.
8.) Can the Packers get production out of a back-up RB? Over the last two years, Ryan Grant has quietly averaged 1,228 yards and 8 TD's. He's lost 4 fumbles in 637 touches over that span as well. Meanwhile, he's done this without a consistent complimentary back. Batman provided a good change of pace at the end of last year, but he was not resigned and presently the RB staple consists of B-Jack, James Starks, Kregg Lumpkin, and Quinn Porter. At this stage, those names aren't going to frighten the opposition. B-Jack is what he is. He has become a reliable blocker, who isn't a flashy runner. Normally, he'll adequately get to the 1st down marker (except for the 2007 NFC Championship Game when he had 3 blockers and only Antonio Pierce in his way - no I still have not forgot. It's forgiven, but not forgotten). However, thus far, we have not been able to depend on Jackson as a reliable #2 RB.
No matter how you look at it, James Starks is on a list of the top 10 players to be curious about during the early portions of training camp. In order, for me, that list goes:
1.) Brad Jones
2.) Ryan Pickett
3.) Morgan Burnett
4.) Patrick Lee
5.) James Starks
6.) Mason Crosby
7.) Mike Neal
8.) Justin Harrell
9.) Jordy Nelson
10.) Bryan Bulaga
Of course, my apologies go out to Anthony Levine, I'm pulling for you!!!
I might be feeling dreamy, but Starks could hold a crucial role for the Packers in 2010. I don't know a lot about him, so I'm anxious to witness his flavor.
Kregg Lumpkin is a guy that I've wanted to like. However, another preseason of injuries and/or fumbling will mean the end to his career as a Packer.
For what it's worth, Quinn Porter wore #3 in college. For those of you that know me, you understand both its importance & my fascination.
7.) Are either Morgan Burnett or Ras-A-tari ready to finalize the excellence in our starting secondary? Nintendo Nick = Pro Bowler. Sir Charles = Reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Ras Al = When healthy, Pro Bowler. T-Mon = LEGIT playmaking corner.
When healthy, Ras-A-tari has occasionally been the perfect compliment to Nintendo Nick. He's been a hard-hitting, run-stopping S who periodically picks off a pass. Don't overlook that over his last 36 games, he's picked off 10 passes. However, health & consistency have been major issues. While he's still unsigned, his twitter page promises that he'll be in camp.
It might not matter whether Bigby is at camp as Morgan Burnett looks prime to make an impact. He's signed and mentally prepared to participate in a big way. Burnett has the size at 6-1, 209 to play at this level. And in college, he was an elite playmaker with 14 picks over a 3 year career. You also have to admire that Burnett recognizes and appreciates his surroundings. I couldn't be more ecstatic that he's a Packer. He looks the part. It just feels like he's going to have a long career. Props to TT for trading up to get him. Here is an excerpt from an interview with Burnett:
What has been the most exciting part about being a Packer so far?
The tradition and history and knowing you have a chance to be part of something great. Walking in everyday seeing the great legends on the wall and just playing along with veterans and guys in the locker room.
6.) Can the Packers find a KR/PR to switch the field? The Packers have not returned a kickoff for a TD since 2000. Nor has it seemed as though we ever threatened to take one back to the house. The health of Willie B. remains in question. While it sounds as though he'll be available for training camp, he is recovering from a torn ACL. For the better part of the last decade, the Packers have lost the special teams battle in the return game. To a degree, regardless of whether Willie B. returns or not, this remains a concern. In 2008, Willie B. averaged a mere 21 yards per return. Scary. We need improvement. Fast.
I'm not convinced that we have this player on the roster. If Sam Shields performance in college is any evidence, he won't be able to handle it. Dude has trouble catching the ball. Hate say it, but I saw it for years down here in Miami. And it was a consistent topic in both the newspapers and on talk radio. So much so that they changed his position from WR to DB. Great speed. No hands.
It sounds like Starks might be given an opportunity. If Starks is unable, we might be left with Jordy Nelson once again. And while Nelson did average 25.4 yards per return last year, he was far from a game changer. I compare Nelson as a KR to Mike Prior as a PR. You know that he's running straightforward and you like it...but as a fan, you're not even thinking about the possibility of him returning a kick for a TD. Though I should mention that he did return one for a TD that was negated due to a penalty.
5.) Sticking with Special Teams & field position: Have the Packers solved our kicking woes? Simply put, Mason Crosby must perform better from the right hash or the Packers will have a gaping hole in their kicking game. In 2009, Crosby hit 75% of his FG's which was only better than 6 other kickers in the NFL (assuming that they had attempted at least 15 attempts). That's pathetic. In his first three years, Crosby has made 79.5%, 79.4% and 75% of his FG's. To compare, as a Packer, over his first 4 years, Ryan Longwell made 80%, 88%, 83%, and 87% of his kicks.
Further, at Punter, we have struggled for performance since we lost Craig Hentrich. Hopefully, either Chris Bryan or Tim Masthay is the solution to our troubles. Or else, once again, the Packers will struggle for field position.
4.) If Ras-Al is unable to play starting Day 1, are either Josh Bell, P-Lee or the U-HAUL capable of playing at this level. So far, P-Lee has been an absolute disappointment. Hopefully, he can stay healthy and show that he has the ability to meet the expectations that were placed on him as a 2nd round pick. Meanwhile, the U-HAUL not only has to show that he can elevate, but he must also fulfill his obligations of acting responsibly as a member of the Green Bay Packers. Bell got off to a rough start with his performance at Pittsburgh, but he deserves a 2nd chance this preseason. Also, presently, it's tough to rely on Willie B. as a CB with his injury. At a minimum, either Bell, P-Lee or the U-HAUL must be able to step in and perform as an integral part of the Packers dime defense.
3.) How do we replace Johnny Jolly? The loss of Jolly cannot be understated. In many ways, Jolly was a the praying mantis of the Packers defense, as he led all DL in the NFL with 11 passes defensed, 4 more than anyone else in the league. Many times, I've stated that Jolly is the 4th best defender on our roster. The other 3 are all Pro Bowlers.
In an effort to replace Jolly, the Packers have moved Ryan Pickett to DE. They also drafted Mike Neal. The Packers also hold out hope for CJ Wilson & Jarius Wynn, who were both late round draft picks over the last two years. And don't forget about Justin Harrell. I'm still holding out hope for Harrell. This is the last chance for him to salvage anything out of his NFL career. In the 3-4 rotation, it'd be great if he could give us 10-15 plays a game. I'm optimistic that Harrell will finally be able to stay healthy and with that, I believe he'd be able to make the DL rotation.
I'm not convinced that Pickett is the fit as a 3-4 DE, so much of my attention will be on Mike Neal. Neal must be able to play DAY ONE! If not, the Packers defense will have suffered a MAJOR blow. Jolly brought intensity & personality. From all accounts, Neal is a muscle maniac. For whatever reason, wrongfully, he has not garnered much attention from the WI state media. From what I read, Neal has pass-rushing skills. He definitely has the size and strength to play a 3-4 DE. Lets hope he has the talent.
2.) Can anyone other than "the Claymaker" get to the QB? Ted Thompson made two extremely gutsy decisions this offseason: 1.) He did not draft/sign an OLB across from Clay. 2.) He did not sign a proven veteran QB to back-up Rodgers. The first decision might be an immediate need. The second was an insurance policy. For now, I'm not going to focus on the QB spot, rather the spotlight has turned to Brad Jones. Yes, Brad Jones. Brad Jones must be able to get to the QB. The man with a common name is charged with one of the more difficult tasks in football. In 7 starts, he had 4 sacks. In college, he had 9.5 sacks over a 4 year career. Last year, he made a number of fine plays against run at the line of scrimmage and finished with 28 tackles in his 7 starts. Averaging 4 tackles a game as an OLB in the 3-4 is respectable, but what's unacceptable is that he melted down against Arizona. While in no way is he solely responsible for giving up 51 points in the playoff loss, the Cardinals clearly thought that they could attack Jones' side of the field. They did not respect his pass rush and they ran right at him every time that they had the chance. Additionally, he was nowhere to be seen on Pittsburgh's game winning drive. For much of the drive, he was not on the field as Brady Poppinga was in his place. Unacceptable.
At 239 lbs, Jones is light for a 3-4 OLB. Nonetheless, the precedent was set by Greg Lloyd - who weighed 228 lbs - that in the Dom Capers style of 3-4, an undersized OLB can flourish. In Capers 3 seasons coaching Lloyd, Lloyd made the Pro Bowl every year. For the record, during his 12 year career, Lloyd made the Pro Bowl 5 times. It's also worth mentioning that Lloyd was named an All-Pro three times during his career, twice when he was coached by Capers. Lloyd was also named the AFC Defensive Player of the Year under Capers' tutelage. Does Jones have the fiery mentality that is required out of a stallion 3-4 OLB? We'll find out soon enough.
Capers has compared Jones to Chad Brown. Brown is comparable in height & weight at 6-2, 245. It's noteworthy that Brown showed significant improvement from his first to his second year under Capers' direction. Brown started 9 games his first year and grabbed 3 sacks. In year two, he came full bloom to the tune of 90 tackles, 8.5 sacks, 1 interception and 2 forced fumbles. If Jones produces those numbers, the Packers defense will garner great results.
Shine On, Brad Jones.
1.) Do we have the OL depth to protect Aaron Rodgers in case we suffer injuries? Injuries to our OL; it's almost not a matter of "if" but a matter of "when." It's almost unrealistic to expect Clifton & Tauscher to stay healthy for 16 games. In the early portions of last year, our OL was miserable. For a while, it appeared as though the Packers might challenge the NFL record for putridity with regard to the most sacks surrendered in a season. We had two major concerns: Health & Allen Barbre. Clifton's injury forced Colledge to play LT. Barbre proved to be a Barbie Doll and not a starting RT in the NFL. This year, the Packers have 1st round draft pick Bryan Bulaga as a back-up at LT. Hopefully, he's up to speed. In many ways, this will be determined after two preseason games, assuming he does not miss training camp due to a contract dispute. This year, the Barbie Doll is all but eliminated from discussion as TJ Lang will be the back-up RT. Lang performed admirably when forced into duty at Tackle last year. He was playing with limited reps and showed that he has a fighter's personality. He's gritty, tough-minded. He reminded me of a young Tauscher. While, at times, Jared Allen pushed Lang around, Lang did give a working man's effort. Lang is not a LT. He'll feel more at home at RT and his results will also be more prosperous.
Presently, I'd argue that Rodgers is the 2nd best player in the NFC - behind Drew Brees. Protect him. Keep him upright. Get the ball out of his hands. With the weapons he has at the skill positions, Rodgers might be in line for an MVP award. Seriously.
12 days until the troops report and we prepare for combat. I'm amped. Pack in '10!
Power to the Packers,