GREEN BAY PACKERS PREVIEW
Clearly, the PACKERS have been the class of the NFC North for the past decade with a couple of brief exceptions. But when analyzing their roster heading into the 2015 NFL season I have to view their off-season a bit differently than most teams around the League. Under the guidance of VP/GM TED THOMPSON the yearly roster has to be analyzed more like a college team than pro football entity. This is one of the few teams where the nearly exclusive considerations become factors like the number returning starters and projected improvement from their young players, more so than VFA signings. The Rookie group is almost like an incoming class of 4 & 5 Star recruits. Despite solid success by THOMPSON when he takes an occasional foray into Free Agency (WOODSON/PICKETT/PEPPERS/GUION), just about the time you envision him taking another plunge in that direction he pulls in his horns and goes back to Rookies as his almost sole source of new blood added to his roster. Then there is the annual confidence that several Rookies will step up and assume roles as major contributors. Just look at last year, when 5th Rounder COREY LINSLEY/OC was forced into a starting role by injuries and made most All-Rookie teams for his efforts. This is one of those standard years, and yet I still don’t see any of their divisional rivals having caught up with the Green and Gold this past off-season.
Many football pundits have ranked the 2015 off-season for the PACKERS as very successful, not because of who they brought in, but rather who they kept. The team hung on to important big name VFA BRYAN BULAGA/RB, B.J.RAJI/DT, LETROY GUION/DT & RANDALL COBB/WR/RS. Their only serious loss in VFA because of dollar value was CB/TRAMON WILLIAMS, who was offered too much money for a CB on the wrong side of 30 for THOMPSON’s taste. As THOMPSON has done on several other occasions he also purged several position groups including last September’s two starting ILB in A.J.HAWK & GREG JONES. Also leaving town was ILB JAMARI LATTIMORE, who was more of a Special Teamer than a legit ILB. Another long standing Special Team player, JARRETT BUSH, was also let go as the team cleaned house on arguably the worst unit in the NFL, which also cost ST Coordinator SHAWN SLOCUM his job. Despite proclamations that CLAY MATTHEWS will play some ILB again this year get used to the following new names who will battle for most of the time as ILB: CARL BRADFORD, SAM BARRINGTON, JAKE RYAN/R, JAMES VAUGHTERS/R, JOE THOMAS. None of these 5 have started an NFL game, but the coaching staff, in particular WINSTON MOSS, will be charged with developing a solid ILB unit from within their ranks, with a little help from MATTHEWS on early downs. MATTHEWS has too much edge-rush ability to waste inside in the big scheme of things. To replace WILLIAMS & BUSH on the secondary depth chart the team has 4 new DB candidates from the 2015 Draft. Draftees DAMARIOUS RANDALL/R1 (who might move from S to CB), QUENTIN ROLLINS/R2, LaDARIUS GUNTER/URFA, BERNARD BLAKE/URFA could all be in the mix in Camp along with vets HAYWARD & HYDE, to replace not only WILLIAMS but also DAVON HOUSE, who spent way too much time nursing nagging injuries in his early pro career for THOMPSON to over-pay him to stay in Green Bay. Three names, not helping the DL in 2014 are vet B.J. RAJI, 2014 draftee KHYRI THORNTON and Rookie draftee CHRISTIAN RINGO.
ON Offense let’s just mark down AARON RODGERS as the best all-around QB in the League. And some think he could thrive without McCARTHY looking over his shoulder and calling plays for him. The new brain trust on the sidelines for the Offense in 2015 will be TOM CLEMENTS & A-RODGE. 32-year old JOHN KUHN is back for probably one last hurrah at FB and on Special Teams given that the team drafted a FB in AARON RIPKOWSKI. In reality, if RIP shows enough in Training Camp/Pre-season it would not be a shock to see KUHN be a veteran cut in August. One of the most interesting Draft Picks may turn out to be 3rd rounder TY MONTGOMERY listed as a WR coming out of Stanford. However, the WR group is rather crowded already with NELSON, COBB, ADAMS, JANIS and others. So look for MONTGOMERY to get his first chances for playing time in the Returner’s role on Special Teams. He might also spend time actually lined up as a RB on passing downs as COBB was used so successfully late last season. Once again the coaching staff will be challenged to groom a raw rookie for new tasks as a pro, sooner rather than later. Happens a lot in Green Bay under TED THOMPSON and MIKE McCARTHY.
Despite all the experiments and mandatory versatility for back-ups in Green Bay it is possible that a healthy roster could return 19 of 22 starters from last January. Make that 22 of 25 if you include Kicker, Punter and snapper. In this team’s world having starters back is a good thing, unless or until someone younger is deemed ready to take over a job by the coaching staff. Ask BRETT FAVRE how that part of the THOMPSON equation works. On second thought don’t do that as the team tries to mend fences with their departed hero right now.
Just as an aside, look for the team to carry 3 QB this season after trading up to draft BRETT HUNDLEY/UCLA early in Round 5. SCOTT TOLZIEN will back up RODGERS for the immediate future. HUNDLEY won’t be expected to be ready to play, but won’t be able to hide on their Practice Squad.
There are not a lot of holes on this roster, unless injuries take a big bite. Some young guys should improve and step up their game. There are currently 27 Rookies on the roster, and no VFA. Of the 89 on the present roster 73 have never know an organization other than the PACKERS. And lest you don’t think they are loyal, but perfectly willing to turn things over, consider that only 6 players are 30 or older, and that number includes their K and LS where that age mark means next to nothing.
I don’t see that the team has slipped in overall quality, nor do I see anyone else in their division closing fast in that rear view mirror this year. Pencil in the PACK as the NFC North champion with a solid chance to play the COLTS in the next Super Bowl.