Pick Six: Taking Packers From Good To Super

Training Camp 2010 begins in less than a week. The Packers are receiving some Super Bowl hype. But to get to the ultimate game, they will need these six players to make a jump to the next level. Matt Tevsh chimes in with his opinion.

For at least the past couple of years, Packers general manager Ted Thompson and head coach Mike McCarthy have taken the "improve from within" approach to building a winner. Shying away from free agency, retooling through the draft and putting an emphasis on offseason work, the plan produced an 11-5 record in 2009 and a trip to the playoffs.

But can it produce more than that?

This year, that approach will be put to the test. With the potential for 21 of 22 starters returning — which has never happened under McCarthy — and the best depth in four years, the Packers face high expectations. The superstars — Aaron Rodgers, Donald Driver, Greg Jennings and Charles Woodson — will no doubt produce. But to take the next step, the Packers will need these six players to take their game to the next level:

6. Mason Crosby: The fourth-year Packers kicker has been solid over his career (78 percent on field goals) but even that might not cut it anymore. Everyone knows Crosby has the ability to be among the league's best and now he needs to realize it. He has to avoid poor stretches, like a streak late last season in which he missed kicks in four consecutive games, to keep his confidence high for when it counts the most. Crosby's nine missed field goals (in 36 attempts) in 2009 were a career high, but with no other kicker expected to compete in training camp, the Packers believe Crosby is the man.

5. Will Blackmon: The Packers have been lacking a consistently dynamic return specialist since Allen Rossum departed via free agency following the 2001 season. Blackmon has shown a knack for the big play (three career punt returns for touchdowns) but has otherwise spent more time injured than on the field over his four-year Packers career. That has given the team little to no punch in the special teams department, where one play can change a game or even a season. The talent this training camp is no better, outside of the potential of undrafted rookie Sam Shields, so Blackmon must stay healthy. And he has to improve on kickoff returns (just a 21.1-yard average on 66 career returns). The Packers were in the bottom half of the league in 2009 in kickoff and punt return average with Blackmon absent for 13 games.

4. B.J. Raji: A first-round pick in 2009, Raji just might be the most impressive athlete on the Packers' roster. At 337 pounds, he possesses a combination of strength and speed that only a few others have at his position. Seeing just limited action in 14 games last season (one start) after a training camp holdout, Raji should be raring to go. The Packers have given him the starting nose tackle position, where he will be playing in the base defense, and they likely will use him again as a pass rusher in their two-down lineman look on passing downs. The combination should give the Packers an impact player in the middle of their 3-4 scheme.

Daryn Colledge
Scott Boehm/Getty Images
3. Daryn Colledge: Even though there is plenty of blame to go around on the offensive line, Colledge seems to be the one guy that everyone likes to pick on. Some of the criticism is fair, some is not. Therein lies the problem. Colledge has been inconsistent over his four years in Green Bay playing mainly at guard, but some at tackle, too. This camp, the Packers appear set to keep him at left guard at almost all costs, which should give him his best chance to succeed. Colledge, a stand-up guy, has been remarkably durable for his position with only four missed games in four years. If he can solidify the left guard spot and give the Packers a stronger interior, the offensive line will have one less worry.

2. Jermichael Finley: Other than Rodgers, Finley just might be the most important part of the Packers' offense. With him in the lineup, the options for McCarthy become limitless and the matchups for opposing defenses a nightmare. Finley's versatility gives the Packers a never-before-seen weapon at tight end. They can split him out and play him as a receiver and not miss a beat. They can keep him tight and use him to move the chains over the middle. They can take advantage of his size (6-5, 247) in the red zone. And they can keep him in to block, an area in which he has improved. The Packers go from a good to a great offense with Finley in the lineup. While his 55-catch season (in just 10 starts) and a fabulous playoff game (six catches, 159 yards) marked his arrival, he is set to join the elite tight ends in the league if he can stay healthy.

1. Brad Jones: Nothing Jones did as a rookie in 2009 would suggest he is not capable of manning the Packers' left outside linebacker spot. But everything he will face this season will tell how good a player he is. Jones figures to get plenty of one-on-one looks with the emergence of Clay Matthews (10 sacks last season), and he needs to take advantage for the Packers' pass rush to thrive. If not, defensive coordinator Dom Capers will have to mix up blitz packages because the depth is weak. Jones (31 tackles, four sacks in seven starts last season) will also have to prove he can hold up for an entire season against the run because his size (242 pounds) could be a liability.

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Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at matttevsh@hotmail.com

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