John Crist: There is no question that Aaron Rodgers is an elite quarterback, and in the FOX NFL Preview magazine, he was my choice for MVP this season. That being said, his blocking up front was incredibly shaky last year and he took a ridiculous amount of punishment. Iowa offensive tackle Bryan Bulaga fell to Green Bay in the first round of the draft. Was that the first step to rebuilding Rodgers' protection?
Bill Huber: Bulaga is a key addition, even though it's practically a certainty he won't play a meaningful snap this season, barring exceptions for injuries. Down the stretch last year, it was the return to health of the veteran duo of Chad Clifton at left tackle and Mark Tauscher at right tackle that solidified the offensive line. In the last seven regular-season games, Rodgers was sacked nine times, compared to 41 times in the first nine games.
Of course, Clifton's age and history suggest he won't make it through the full 16-game slate. That's where Bulaga comes in, because the Packers finally have a competent replacement that will spare the coaches from having to shift guys here, there and everywhere. Now, Bulaga steps in and everyone else stays in place. That's huge. And same story at right tackle, where second-year player T.J. Lang looks like the heir for Tauscher. So for a unit that allowed a ridiculous 51 sacks last season, that group looks to be vastly improved on paper. I might not go so far as to call it a strength, but center Scott Wells is coming off of a good year, right guard Josh Sitton has Pro Bowl potential and Daryn Colledge and Jason Spitz will clash at left guard.
JC: Ryan Grant is coming off back-to-back 1,200-yard years and averages 4.4 yards per carry for his career, plus he always seems to run the ball well against the Bears. But the NFL doesn't have very many backs getting 20-25 carries each and every Sunday anymore, preferring a tandem approach to the ground game. If not Brandon Jackson, who is going to take some of the burden off Grant?
BH: Nobody. It's Grant. It was Grant in 2008 and Grant in 2009, so I see no reason to believe it won't be Grant in 2010. Of all the rushes (minus quarterback scrambles and sneaks) last season, Grant got 75 percent of them. Same story in 2008.
Jackson is a nice player, though he's not what you want for a second-round pick. He's an OK receiver but tremendous in pass protection – with coach Mike McCarthy saying that he hadn't seen a back so proficient in seeing and stopping blitzes since Hall of Famer Marcus Allen. That's high praise. But his combined 58 touches (37 rushes, 21 receptions) is a steep drop-off since 91 as a rookie in 2008 and 75 in 2009. The other possibility is sixth-round pick James Starks, who was arguably the best pass-catching back in this draft, but can he stay healthy – he sat out last season after shoulder surgery – and earn the trust of keeping Rodgers upright?
JC: Aaron Kampman was a big-time pass rusher in Green Bay for quite some time, but once Dom Capers and his 3-4 came to town, Kampman appeared to be a square peg being banged into a round hole. Now he's playing the 4-3 again in Jacksonville. The Packers probably won't miss Kampman much. All that aside, were there any offseason defections that could come back to haunt them?
BH: No, the Packers kept everybody they needed to keep. Clifton was an unrestricted free agent who got a new deal with the Packers while visiting the Redskins. Nose tackle-turned-defensive end Ryan Pickett was made the franchise player and signed to an extension. Two-time Pro Bowl safety Nick Collins, who would have been a coveted restricted free agent, was given a lucrative long-term deal. Other than Kampman and punter Jeremy Kapinos, who wasn't brought back, every other starter returns.
Still, don't underemphasize Kampman's departure. Sure, like you said, he wasn't an ideal fit for the scheme. And sure, the defense actually improved with Brad Jones in the lineup in place of Kampman. But can the Packers make up for his pass rush? Never mind his paltry 3.5 sacks. His 28 quarterback hits ranked second on the team despite playing only nine games.
JC: Since Bulaga was a top-10 pick in many mock drafts, Green Bay seems to have gotten a bargain with him at No. 23 overall. However, the second-round selection of Purdue defensive tackle Mike Neal wasn't greeted with as much enthusiasm. Then the Packers stole Georgia Tech safety Morgan Burnett from the Bears in Round 3. Which draftees are doing well and look ready to play?
BH: As you know, it's hard to say much about the linemen in non-contact drills. The Packers drafted four of them (Bulaga and fifth rounder Marshall Newhouse on offense, Neal and seventh rounder C.J. Wilson on defense), so I wouldn't hazard a guess on any of those guys.
I will say Burnett is the obvious choice as the most-likely impact rookie. For one, it didn't take a professional scout to see how Burnett picked off 14 passes in three seasons at Georgia Tech. He's athletic and just has a feel for the game. Throw in that incumbent starter Atari Bigby elected to skip all of the offseason work rather than sign his restricted free agent tender, and it appears Burnett will enter training camp with a decent shot at unseating Bigby.
As for the others, Neal had a reputation for being a tower of power coming out of Purdue, but it's his quicks that impress me. Given Johnny Jolly's uncertain future – trial for felony possession of codeine begins July 30 – and Justin Harrell's unending health problems, it's a pretty safe bet that Neal will get in the rotation immediately. Barring a change of heart from the coaches, Bulaga is being locked in at left tackle and won't get a chance to compete for the up-for-grabs spot at left guard.
JC: We know Green Bay can score points as well as any team in the league, and the defense was unexpectedly ahead of schedule in 2009, but special teams have been a weakness more often than not the last few seasons. Mason Crosby missed nine field goals a season ago. Kapinos failed to hold on to the punting job. What measures have been taken to correct these glaring problems?
BH: That's almost comical. Among the Packers press corps, I'm one of general manager Ted Thompson's staunchest defenders. I think Thompson and McCarthy form a winning tandem. That said, it's almost as if special teams are an afterthought.
In this league, a kicker has to make 85 percent of his field goals. Crosby has never made 80 percent in his three seasons. Yet, he'll enter camp without competition. Again. The punting situation is a joke, with Tim Masthay (undrafted in 2009) and Chris Bryan (former Aussie Rules player) having never even punted in a preseason game, much less handled big-game pressure. Neither has held for kicks, either, and that job generally falls upon the punter. Will Blackmon is a good kickoff and punt returner but coming off a torn ACL. I have no idea what Plan B is, other than crossing their fingers.
Beyond that, though, the Packers simply have to block better – and hold less – and make more stops. A lot of the abbreviated two-day minicamp was dedicated to that sort of stuff, and it must continue in training camp.
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Behind Enemy Lines: Packers, Pt. I
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