Camp Countdown: 15 Days — Previewing the QBs

Our lookahead to training camp begins with five key questions revolving around Aaron Rodgers and the quarterbacks. The big one: Can Rodgers play better than he has against top defenses?

We begin our training camp positional series with the quarterbacks.

Depth chart

Starter: Aaron Rodgers. It was typical Rodgers in 2014, as he led the Packers to a fourth consecutive NFC North title and sixth consecutive playoff berth. He won his second NFL MVP award by completing 65.6 percent of his passes for 4,381 yards with 38 touchdowns, five interceptions and a 112.2 passer rating. That increased his NFL-record rating to 106.0. Tony Romo is barely visible in Rodgers’ rear-view mirror with a second-ranked 97.6. That’s a gap of 8.4 points. There are 11 quarterbacks within 8.4 points of Romo. His touchdown-to-interception ratio of 7.6-to-1 was the fifth-best in NFL history, giving him two of the top six spots, and was twice as good as Romo’s second-ranked 3.8-to-1. Rodgers was off the charts at home, with 24 touchdowns and no interceptions at Lambeau.

Top backup: Scott Tolzien. Tolzien served as the No. 3 quarterback last season, even though he clearly outplayed Matt Flynn during the preseason. Both were free agents during the offseason, and the Packers went with Tolzien, handing him a two-year deal.

Contenders: Brett Hundley and Matt Blanchard. The Packers moved up in the fifth round to get Hundley, the record-setting quarterback at UCLA. In three seasons, he threw for almost 10,000 yards and accounted for 105 total touchdowns. Blanchard spent training camp with Chicago in 2012 and 2013 and Carolina in 2014 but never has made an NFL roster.

Five questions

Can Rodgers prolong his peak?: Conventional wisdom says that when you’re at the top, there’s nowhere to go but down. Rodgers continues to defy that wisdom. Rodgers entered last season as the NFL’s career leader in passer rating at 104.9 and interception rate at 1.76 percent. So Rodgers turned in a 112.2 rating and 0.96 interception percentage to improve his career marks to 106.0 and 1.64 percent. Rodgers will turn 32 late this season. How long can he “prolong his peak,” as he has put it? It’s no surprise that as Rodgers goes, the Packers go. Can he continue to play at the off-the-charts level necessary for the Packers to contend for a second championship?

Yes, believes quarterbacks/receivers coach Alex Van Pelt.

“He’s a competitor, No. 1,” Van Pelt said. “He takes care of himself, he has great physical ability, and he’s playing a position where you can play maybe a little longer than other positions. And as you get older at that position, even though you might still maintain your mobility, because of your experience, you don’t have to move around maybe quite as much. I know that happened with me as I got older. You know the game better, you can see what’s going to happen, so sometimes you don’t have to scramble out, even though you can still do it. He still does it very well and I’m confident he’ll be able to do it for as many years as he wants to do it.”

Can Rodgers rise to occasion?: That second championship is what Rodgers needs on his resume. With the highest passer rating, highest scoring average, best touchdown-to-interception ratio and lowest interception percentage in NFL history, he belongs in the conversation as one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history. Winning, however, is what defines the best quarterbacks. When the Packers won the Super Bowl in 2010, Rodgers threw nine touchdown passes vs. two interceptions for a rating of 109.8. In the last four postseasons, Rodgers has thrown 10 touchdown passes and been picked off four times. That’s hardly bad but he’s the first to admit that’s not to his standards.

It’s not just the playoffs where Rodgers needs to play better. In 12 wins, he completed 67.8 percent of his passes with 35 touchdowns, no interceptions and a 127.1 rating. In four losses, he completed 59.6 percent with three touchdowns, five interceptions and a 72.2 rating. It was the same story in the playoffs – 68.6 percent, three touchdowns, no picks and a 125.4 rating vs. Dallas; 55.9 percent, one touchdown, two interceptions and a 55.8 rating vs. Seattle. To be sure, it’s a team game. And it didn’t help that Rodgers was limited by a bum calf vs. the Seahawks in the title game. Nonetheless, if the Packers intend on getting home-field advantage and using it as a launching point for the Super Bowl, he’ll have to do better vs. the elite defenses fielded by Seattle, Arizona, Denver, Kansas City and St. Louis than he did against the likes of Seattle, Detroit and Buffalo last season.

“You know, it’s obviously disappointing and that’s not a loss that goes away forever, just like the other losses we’ve had in the playoffs and important games,” Rodgers said. “Those are frustrating moments that you live with and you try and build on and take some sort of positive from. We’ll be a different team this year. They will as well. It’s about playing the right way at the right time and making the most of your opportunities.”

Is Tolzien ready?: Clearly, that’s what the Packers are betting on by going with Tolzien over the proven Flynn. It’s probably not fair to judge Tolzien by his 2013 numbers – one touchdown, five interceptions and a rating of 66.8 in place of an injured Rodgers. That was Mission Impossible, considering his limited exposure to the Packers’ playbook at the time he was thrust into action.

There’s no debating Tolzien’s intelligence and work ethic. His skill-set looked pretty darned good, too, during his three games of 2013. However, there have been plenty of quarterbacks who have failed in spite of those assets. Does Tolzien have the ability to stand in the pocket and deliver a strike while getting nailed by an oncoming defender? That’s the great unknown.

“It's a world of difference” since 2013, Tolzien said. “Even just having game action, that helps tremendously. But I think there's so many layers to the offense that back then I was trying to learn the 101 version and now I'm trying to learn a little bit more in depth. But you've got to work in it each day.”

Can Hundley adapt?: Hundley was a star at UCLA but can he adapt his game from the spread scheme run at UCLA to the pro-style system operated by the Packers? That’s the big question, said former NFL quarterback Kurt Warner, who worked with Hundley before the draft. Specifically, it’s whether Hundley has the pocket presence to succeed. At UCLA, if his first read was gone, Hundley had the green light to run. At Green Bay, it’s about going from the first read to the second to the third, all while keeping mechanics with a shrinking and shifting pocket.

“Yeah, you can see it,” Van Pelt said. “You can see it on tape, for sure, and it’s something we work a lot in our fundamental drills, as well. As he feels more comfortable in the system, I think he’ll be more of a natural movement guy in the pocket.”

Can Blanchard beat out Hundley?: Probably not. Blanchard showed some ability during the offseason practices and far and away was the better quarterback. However, while Blanchard is a nice prospect who was on course to make Chicago’s roster in 2013 until sustaining a broken left hand, Hundley is a tremendous prospect. It’s hard to imagine that he’d be ready to lead the Packers to victory in a game this season, but if his game can translate, he’d be an appealing target in trade in a few years. After all, who wouldn’t want an athletic quarterback who’s been trained under Mike McCarthy and learned behind Rodgers?

“I told my wife and I told my family that going into this year, even before the Packers drafted a guy, I was like my goal is just to play really good football,” Blanchard said. “It sounds like a simple thing but you can get caught up in the politics, you can get caught up in things going on. At the end of the day, if you play good football and you do your job, things are going to work out one way or the other. That’s all I can do and that’s all I’m hoping for.”

Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.


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