Majkowski: Packers face tough decisions

The questions are many and the answers are elusive at best. With the clock ticking down toward the 2005 NFL Draft, the Green Bay Packers have the right to be equal parts optimistic and apprehensive.<p>

Optimistic because their three-time MVP quarterback is coming back for at least another season and because they have new help in the front office at General Manager. Apprehensive because they have a number of key holes in their roster due to players lost in free agency. As it is every year in this modern era of pro football, rookies are expected to step in and contribute immediately. How successful this rookie class is may dictate just how good the Packers can be this season.

Of course, everything starts with Brett Favre. That has been the most important question answered for the Packers so far this off-season. Obviously, with Brett coming back it gives the Packers their best hope at the quarterback position and it really solidifies their leadership and the nuts and bolts of the offense. Getting Brett back was Green Bay's first choice and I think it gives the team another year to research and decide how they will eventually replace him when he retires. It gives them another year to see who's going to be available and best prepare themselves for life after Number 4.

Naturally, a lot of people feel that, once Brett does call it quits, the Packers will automatically have to look outside the organization to find his replacement. But I don't think Craig Nall gets enough credit for the way he plays. I think Craig is going to be a great backup quarterback this season. I don't know if he's going to be the successor, but he's been learning a lot under Favre and it could pay big dividends. He's a solid player and we saw some of what he can do last year. When he played against the Bears in Chicago he was very impressive. Just because he hasn't had a lot of playing time, some people don't see him as a quality player. But I liked what I saw of him last year. I liked his decision-making ability. When he came in the offense didn't lose a beat. He looked very comfortable and he made the right reads very quickly. He was accurate with his throws and was impressive, especially for a guy who didn't get a lot of playing time. It remains to be seen whether the Packers could win consistently with him at the helm but I think he deserves a solid look.

Offense

OK, let's take a look at some of the holes on this team that the Packers need to plug. On offense, the offensive line is the biggest concern. They lost two key starters to free agency in guards Mike Wahle and Marco Rivera. Obviously, these were two quality guys at the guard position who had been starters for a long time and they were very solid. Wahle arguably could have been a Pro Bowl player this past season and Marco was given that honor. To lose guys of that caliber, you have to be concerned. But on the up side, the team has already begun to address the need by signing 6-4, 315-pound guard Adrian Klemm who spent the first five years of his career with the New England Patriots, winning three Super Bowl rings in the process. He's got solid experience but he also has had some injury problems. If he can stay healthy, he could end up replacing Wahle.

The Packers also re-signed center/guard Grey Ruegamer who was a solid contributor last season when Mike Flanagan went down. Ruegamer proved that he can be a starter in this league, especially in the second half of the season. Adding some veteran insurance to the mix, the Packers picked up guard Matt O'Dwyer who stands 6-foot-5 and tips the scales at 315 pounds. He was a 105-game starter with the Jets and the Bengals from 1996-2003 but he's coming back from a torn pectoral muscle he suffered lifting weights. He sees Green Bay as his chance to resurrect his career and it could be interesting, especially with returning linemen Kevin Barry and Steve Morley also competing at guard. Given all of this, I don't see the Packers selecting an offensive lineman very high in this year's draft.

Elsewhere on the offensive side of the ball, I think the Packers are pretty well set. In their eyes, Bubba Franks is a solid tight end and they've also re-signed David Martin. I'd be surprised if they drafted a tight end, though they might bring in a free agent to compete for a backup position. With their corps of wide receivers in Javon Walker, Donald Driver and Robert Ferguson plus an explosive running attack featuring Ahman Green, the Packers look formidable on offense. Now, I've been asked a number of times whether the Packers might consider trading Green if the right deal came along. While you never say never, I think it would have to be an incredible deal before the Packers would part with Green. He's been such a workhorse and he means so much to the Packer attack. If they are considering trading him, this would definitely be the year while his value is still very high.

Defense

In my opinion, the defense is where the real question marks exist for this team Green Bay's number one need is on the defensive line. If they can get a top defensive lineman early in the first round, I think that would be the area they want to address. They also have a lot of hopes for Donnell Washington who didn't get to play a lot because of injury. Simply put, they need a top flight pass rusher, somebody to take the heat off Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila on the other side. They've also got to find a way to get Cletidus Hunt to play up to his obvious potential much more consistently. With a stud like Grady Jackson plugging the middle and occupying more than one blocker, the Packers could get well in a hurry.

Green Bay also needs serious help in the defensive secondary, specifically at both the strong and free safety positions. Darren Sharper is gone and Mark Roman was inconsistent at best last season. Although Ahmad Carroll took a lot of heat at corner last year, he was a rookie thrust into a starting position. No doubt had his growing pains but this year I think he'll bring more stability and experience to the table. The same goes for Joey Thomas. Al Harris is solid on the other side but the safety positions will likely be addressed in the draft. The linebacker picture is also unsettled. Hannibal Navies didn't pan out and the Packers still need to decide if Nick Barnett is the answer in the middle or if his tremendous speed might be put to better use on the outside. Look for Green Bay to pick a linebacker, possibly in the middle rounds.

A final word for Packer fans as we await the draft: patience! I know a lot of folks have been anxious because general manager Ted Thompson hasn't been very active trying to sign the big name free agents. The truth is, he's been a little hamstrung because of the tight salary cap. If the Packers had a lot more money to be able to spend, it would make his job a lot easier. But he's been limited in what he could do so I don't think it's a fair assessment to criticize him for not being aggressive enough in free agency. We need to give him some time to see how he handles the job of GM in the bigger scheme of things. Ted was in the scouting department when I was a player and I always thought a lot of him. He was a guy that was easy to talk to and was obviously very knowledgeable. I think he'll do a fine job but we just have to give him some time.

In the meantime, the NFL Draft is upon us. How the Packers handle their selections could very well dictate their chances for being a contender once again.

Editor's note: This column appeared in the April issue of Packer Report.


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