'Bigger and better things' ahead

Speaking loud and rapidly at his season-ending press conference, Mike Sherman set the tone for the Green Bay Packers as they approach the off-season. The Packers coach/general manager seemed as fired up about free agency, trades and the NFL draft as if he was playing in the NFC Championship Game this Sunday.<p>

Though the Packers were eliminated from the NFC playoffs last Sunday when the St. Louis Rams took advantage of eight Packer turnovers in a 45-17 whipping, Sherman is determined to direct his team to the divisional playoffs next season and eventually the Championship Game.

"I think this team will be back next year for bigger and better things,and we look forward to that," Sherman said. "I'm very excited about our team in regard to our character, our team chemistry. It's a group of men. It's a group of men that hung together throughout the course of the season. Obviously the challenge is going to be that we repeat that chemistry and try to re-create the character that our football team had.

"Again, as you know in free agency and the way things unfold, that's not an easy task. But that's one that I'll look forward to."

In his second season, Sherman took the Packers from a 9-7 record in 1999 to 12-4 in the regular season last year, advancing to the playoffs for the first time since 1998. The Packers improved on both sides of the ball, ranking sixth overall on offense and 12th on defense. Green Bay set team records with 52 sacks and 22 sacks allowed.

Brett Favre had his best season since 1998 and Ahman Green emerged as one of the elite running backs in the NFL. The Packers just missed winning the NFC Central Division for the first time since 1997, finishing one game behind the Chicago Bears.

For the Packers to take the next step, Sherman said that he would like to improve the competition this off-season in the defensive front seven (defensive line and linebackers), wide receiver and defensive secondary. Starting middle linebacker Bernardo Harris and defensive tackle Santana Dotson are two of five players on the Packers' list players eligible to be taken by the expansion Houston Texas in the Feb. 18 player access draft. While the Texans probably will pass on both veterans because of their high salary cap numbers, there's a chance that they could be selected.

With wide receivers Bill Schroeder and Corey Bradford scheduled to become free agents on March 1, and a high cap salary ahead for veteran wide receiver Antonio Freeman, Sherman said he will add a receiver either through free agency, the draft or trade.

Veterans safety LeRoy Butler and 1999 first-round pick Antuan Edwards are expected to return in time for the start of training camp. Still, Sherman may seek a safety to bolster the secondary.

Return specialist Allen Rossum also is set to be an unrestricted free agent. The Packers desperately need to re-sign him, and add to depth. Green Bay ranked near the bottom of the league in punt and kickoff returns throughout the season last year when Rossum missed 10 games because of injuries.

"Wherever we can find a player who can upgrade us, that's the position where we need to improve," Sherman said. "Sometimes that happens, you can find that player and sometimes you can't. I believe we have to get some quality depth in our defensive front seven ... our defensive line and linebackers are being examined that way. I'd like to add another receiver. Obviously, because of the loss of two safeties that we have this year and moving (rookie) Bhawoh Jue to free safety, we'd like to improve our safety position as well."

Sherman said the Packers are currently in the midst of evaluating players and possible free agent acquisitions. The Packers reportedly will be at or just below the anticipated salary cap limit of $71.4 million when free agency begins on March 1.

"The next thing I'm doing this week is to address the cap and see where we are as far as the financial part of the organization is concerned. What can we afford to do? What do we need to do? How much money can we create?" Sherman explained.

"Then we have to go re-sign players that we want and want us. That would be the next function that we have to do. Then be aggressive in free agency. Go see who we can afford to get. Just because a guy is a free agent doesn't mean we can afford him or he would come here. It has to be a mutual understanding and financially as well. If we can upgrade our team through free agency we definitely will do that.

"Maybe trade somebody, much like we did with Ahman Green. Maybe get a player of that magnitude here through a trade in the off-season.

"Then we have to discuss our draft needs which are certainly significant. We have to make sure we address those and get light on those issues.

"Last but not least, develop the talent we have. I do think that we've developed talent here in the last year. I look at what our young offensive line has done. (Tight end) Bubba Franks is a better player today than he was a year ago. And on and on. We've developed our talent and we think we're getting better."

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