To become more like the 2009 unit — which scored at least 20 points in all but one game — the Packers are going to have to fill the shoes of some key players.
A day after starting left guard Daryn Colledge decided to sign with the Arizona Cardinals, the Packers lost third-down back Brandon Jackson to the Cleveland Browns. Plus, receiver James Jones could join them at the airport as soon as today, when free agents are allowed to sign contracts.
"New journey, fresh start," Jackson said on Twitter.
New and fresh problems for the Packers.
Jackson's departure leaves a huge void on the offense. Simply put, he was taken for granted by outside observers, who only saw a second-round pick unable to become a 1,000-yard rusher or a real dynamic open-field threat. Never mind that the 18-man running back class of 2007 is a train wreck beyond No. 7 overall pick Adrian Peterson. Even the other first-rounder that year, Marshawn Lynch, has been something of a disappointment. The only other productive back from that draft has been seventh-rounder Ahmad Bradshaw. Bradshaw is a much better runner than Jackson, but a lot of good that does considering he's a fumble machine who is as responsible as anyone for the talented Giants falling short of the playoffs.
Still, the numbers and performance don't lie. Jackson might not have won games, but he certainly never lost one.
Unlike Bradshaw, with his six lost fumbles on 323 touches last season, Jackson has fumbled just three times in 457 career touches and lost none of them. He's never been penalized, either. Just as importantly, Jackson built himself into one of the best running backs in the league in spotting and picking up blitzes. He didn't allow a sack over the last two seasons, by our count. He also ranked among the league leaders last season in catch percentage (fourth, 86.0 percent) and yards after the catch (29th, 377). So, while he failed in his chance to be the Packers' featured back last season, Jackson proved himself invaluable in other areas.
Jackson signed for the modest price of two years and $4.5 million, according to reports. That's chump change, relatively speaking, for a player who had proven himself ready, willing and able to protect the franchise's most valuable asset, Aaron Rodgers.
With Jackson now protecting and catching passes for Colt McCoy, it's absolutely vital that the Packers work out a deal with fullback/halfback John Kuhn. Kuhn saw plenty of action on third down last season, seeing 107 snaps in which his sole duty was pass protection compared to 121 for Jackson, according to Pro Football Focus. Like Jackson, Kuhn didn't allow a sack. In terms of yards after the catch per catch, though he's less explosive with the ball in the passing game (7.47 YAC per catch compared to Jackson's 8.77).
Like Jackson, Jones has his share of critics. His maddeningly inconsistent hands led to career highs of 50 receptions, 679 yards and five touchdowns last season. He also finished seventh among receivers with 6.07 yards after the catch per reception, according to a STATS breakdown by Cold Hard Football Facts. Still, it's the missed opportunities — five dropped touchdown catches in the regular season and playoffs — that have kept Jones from becoming a true standout.
The problem is, if Jones signs with the Vikings or some other team, the Packers' depth at receiver becomes a major issues. Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson are the sure things. But what does Donald Driver have left in the tank after injuries led to his worst season since a sprained neck took the wind out of his sails in 2003. At 36, can he really be expected to bounce back and get in the ballpark in 1,000 yards? And can second-round pick Randall Cobb, cheated out of learning the offense because of the lockout and the veterans' decision to not hold informal workouts, really make an immediate impact at a position in which rookies generally don't contribute much?
Certainly, a healthy return by tight end Jermichael Finley calms many of those fears. But just like Cobb needs to prove he's ready to handle the load, Finley needs to prove his surgically repaired knee can keep him on the field for a full season.
The lesser of the problems is at left guard, where the Packers have so many players in the mix that one of them surely will emerge from the pack. Philbin hinted that the team would prefer to keep Bryan Bulaga at right tackle, so that leaves first-round pick Derek Sherrod and holdovers T.J. Lang and Nick McDonald as the front-runners.
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport.