Outlook: Arguably the NFL's most storied franchise with the most rabid fan base in the entire league, the microscope is on the Green Bay Packers 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Nothing will change in 2005 as fan angst has grown exponentially with first or second round playoff losses in four straight seasons.
Head coach Mike Sherman is entering the final year of his six-year contract and despite four playoff appearances and three straight NFC North division titles he is definitely on the hot seat. During the offseason, team president Bob Harlan stripped Sherman of his general manager duties and hired former Ron Wolf protégé Ted Thompson to run the football operations. Could this be Sherman's last season at the helm? No one is quite sure how it will all shake out.
Luckily, Sherman has some excellent players at his disposal. He has a Hall-of-Fame quarterback who has rededicated himself to his craft, a stellar wide receiver corps and a top five running back all at his disposal. Where the Pack may struggle is on defense, but the hiring of former Miami Dolphins defensive coordinator Jim Bates may offset some of those problems. It should be an interesting season in "Title Town" and the "Frozen Tundra of Lambeau Field" could heat up if some things fall into place.
Quarterback: Once again the Packers will be led into battle by the mercurial Brett Favre. Favre is one of the best ever and it will take a Herculean effort on his part to lead this team to the playoffs for a fifth straight season.
Last year Favre threw for 30 touchdowns, the eighth time he has eclipsed that mark in his career, and he threw for 4,088 yards, his most in five years. The problem was, he also threw 17 interceptions – plus four more in the playoff loss to the Vikings – and he put way too much pressure on an undermanned defense.
This offseason, Favre has undergone a transformation. He hired a physical trainer and reports from camp are that he is in the best shape of his life, showing improved mobility and elusiveness. He continues to have a canon for an arm, unbelievable toughness and he is the unquestioned leader of the team.
One sign that this might be the beginning of the end for the Favre era in Green Bay was the selection of Aaron Rodgers late in the first round. Rogers was regarded as a possible number one overall draft choice, but when the San Francisco 49ers opted for Utah's Alex Smith, the former Cal quarterback plummeted down the draft board.
Rodger has above-average arm strength, good accuracy and intelligence beyond his years. He is the perfect "caddy" for Favre and will learn from the veteran for a year or two on the bench. Favre has been diplomatic in his response to the rookie signal-caller and it will take a concerted effort on both of their parts to keep the relationship cordial.
Craig Nall and J.T. O'Sullivan will battle it out for the third spot on the roster, but they will probably be the backup to Favre while Rodgers holds a clipboard this season. Nall isn't a good practice player, but he plays well in games. O'Sullivan has better accuracy and knows the offense inside and out.
Running Backs: This position could look markedly different following the 2005 season. The top two running backs on the roster, Ahman Green and Najeh Davenport, are both in contract years and since the Packers will not pay big dollars for both of their runners, one or both could be gone by next season.
As for this season, Green is still the starter and there is no reason to believe he will slow down a bit. He's 28 and still runs very hard. He's produced five straight 1,000-yard seasons – he posted 1,163 yards and seven touchdowns in 2005 – and he is a good receiver out of the backfield (40 catches, 275 yards and one touchdown).
Green struggled with nagging injuries last year and he is known as a bit of a fumbler, but he usually reigns in that problem as the season progresses. He runs very hard between the tackles and has excellent speed to the outside when needed. He is also a very patient runner, preferring to allow the hole to open and then uses his great cutback ability to hit the hole hard.
Davenport is just as punishing of a runner as Green, but he has a much different style. He only has one gear – hard every play and straight at the defense – and he isn't as patient as Green. He filled in nicely for Green in 2005, posting 359 yards and two touchdowns on 71 carries. He is not the receiver that Green is out of the backfield so that might be the deciding factor in who the Packers decide to keep.
Davenport suffered through some injuries last season including a torn labrum and rotator cuff, broken ribs and a hamstring injury. Because he's struggled with his health, Davenport hired a personal trainer this offseason and has revamped his diet in the hopes of keeping his body from breaking down.
While Green and Davenport get the bulk of the carries, the third-down back will be Tony Fisher. Fisher isn't the athlete that either of the other two are, but he is consistent, sure-handed and reliable. He knows his assignments and is a good pass-blocker and the coaches trust him.
At 34, William Henderson continues to defy father time. He is a bruising blocker, a good receiver out of the backfield and a veteran leader. His backup, Nick Luchey is an ornery sort who is a devastating blocker when his weight is down and his endurance is better.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: This unit is full of playmakers and they are deep and talented. The number one wideout, Javon Walker, had a breakout season in 2004 and if his contact situation doesn't distract him this season he could be headed to the Pro Bowl in February.
Walker has excellent size, able to dominate smaller corners and great deep speed allowing him to beat corners down the field. To become an elite receiver, he must continue to improve his run-after-the-catch abilities. Walker finished tied for eighth in the NFL with 89 receptions. He also finished with 1,382 yards and 12 touchdowns.
The depth of this unit is dependant on the emergence of fourth-year wide receiver Robert Ferguson. Ferguson is the team's strongest wideout, but he has the speed to go deep and the open-field running abilities to make teams pay when and if they double-team Walker. The problem for Ferguson has been his inability to stay healthy. His work on the coverage units on special teams has been one of the reasons he hasn't been able to stay healthy.
If Ferguson is injured or doesn't step up, the Pack has an excellent candidate to fill-in with Donald Driver. Driver was the number one wideout on the roster heading into the regular season and until Walker blew up, he was the biggest threat to opposing secondaries. He finished second on the team with 84 catches, 1,208 yards and nine touchdowns. If Ferguson can stay healthy Driver would be an ideal third wideout and that would make this unit very dangerous.
Second-round selection Terrence Murphy has good size and great speed and reports are he has shown well during camp. Antonio Chatman is a solid slot receiver when called upon and Craig Bragg is a good receiver but he doesn't possess great speed.
At tight end, the Packers have Bubba Franks who is a good blocker and a nice, big target in the red zone. The problem is he doesn't stretch the field and can't challenge the deep seam. He is currently unsigned and it appears he could be in for a long holdout.
Backups David Martin and Ben Steele are both solid role players, but if they have to start the team could take a hit. Martin is a good blocker, while Steele is a player who can really move for a man of his dimensions, but he has struggled with drops.
Offensive Line: This unit lost two starters during the offseason and while they still intend to run the same blocking scheme, the offensive line is a real work in progress.
Injury-plagued Adrian Klemm, signed in the offseason as a free agent, is the key to the entire unit. Klemm is expected to take over departed Mike Wahle's left guard position and if he can't the Packers could be in trouble. The running scheme is dependant on the left guard being able to pull on power plays on the right side. Klemm has very quick feet and is an excellent pass-blocker, but he has mainly played tackle so the team is taking a chance that he can make the switch.
The other guard spot will be a battle all throughout the preseason as veteran Matt O'Dwyer and Grey Ruegamer are both vying for the position. Reports are that O'Dwyer is having problems picking up the offensive scheme and Ruegamer has looked good in camp. Ruegamer is a mauler who excels as a run-blocker. O'Dwyer, like Klemm, has struggled with injuries and he may be on the outside looking in if he doesn't pick up the scheme like the team hopes he will.
Seventh-round selection Will Whitticker may have impressed the coaches enough to get a shot at one of the guard spots as well.
C Mike Flanagan is a versatile pivot man, able to play any of the three inside spots in a pinch. He is solid, technically sound and smart. He's on the smaller side, but he uses his good strength and smarts to get the best of even the biggest defensive tackles.
At tackle the Packers appear to be set with left tackle Chad Clifton and right tackle Mark Tauscher. They form one of the better tackle tandems in the league and both are good athletes that are good pass-blockers and tough when asked to block for the run.
The depth along the line will include impressive second-year C Scott Wells, a slimmed-down Kevin Barry and the mammoth Brennan Curtin (6'9", 340) who should be recovered from a knee injury suffered last year. Wells may get a look at one of the guard spots if no one steps in.
Defensive Line: The search continues for a compliment to pass-rusher extraordinaire Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila. During the draft the Packers selected Texas A&M's Mike Montgomery in the sixth round and he has done nothing but impress so far during camp.
Bates loves to line his ends out wide and gives them a lot of freedom to get upfield. KGB will benefit greatly from this scheme and should be able to post his fifth straight season with 10 or more sacks. He isn't strong against the run, but he is a threat whenever the passer drops back and his 13.5 sacks were good for third in the league last year.
Montgomery will battle Aaron Kampman who was a restricted free agent this offseason. The team matched an offer for him, so you know they are intrigued by his skills. Kampman is good against the run, posting 68 tackles and 4.5 sacks. He isn't the best pass-rusher so he may play the first two downs and Montgomery would then be the designated third down guy.
Kenny Peterson, a slimmed-down tackle, Cullen Jenkins and R-Kal Truluck are also in the mix at defensive end.
The middle of the defensive line could be a strength, but the Packers are relying on several young players to step in and play well. Second-year players Donnell Washington and Corey Williams impressed the coaches so much last year that the staff is ready to give them every chance to beat out the disappointing Cletidus Hunt.
Hunt takes too many plays off and doesn't stay in shape. With a big contract he could find himself out of Green Bay after the season.
The defense is always better when NT Grady Jackson is in the game, but age, injuries and weight are always concerns with the eight-year veteran. Williams, James Lee and Colin Cole will be used to rotate at the position with Jackson to keep them all fresh. Lee could really be ready to bust out this season as he is an excellent athlete with outstanding size and strength. He just needs to be more consistent.
Linebackers: Bates covets speed in his linebackers and he will have plenty of it with middle linebacker Nick Barnett. Barnett is a hitter who can get to the passer when necessary and he is a sure tackler. He led the Packers with 121 tackles, three sacks, one interception and six passes defensed. Problems arise for Barnett when he's asked to drop into coverage. He doesn't understand coverage schemes very well and tends to get lost in zones. He will need to improve in this aspect or Bates' system could break down.
The acquisition of Raynoch Thompson during free agency will probably necessitate the move of Na'il Diggs back to the strong side spot. Thompson's play dropped off last season in Arizona and the Packers are hopeful it was because of his tiff with Cardinals head coach Dennis Green and not because of deteriorating skills. Thompson has the athleticism Bates likes in his weakside linebacker and he plays very well in space. He doesn't shed blockers well, but when he can run and chase, he is one of the better linebackers in the league.
Diggs is the most consistent player the Packers have. He knows his assignments and he's an excellent tackler. He's a little light for a strongside linebacker, but he uses his hands well and he is cat-quick.
Two players who the coaches are looking forward to seeing on the field are rookies Brady Poppinga and Kurt Campbell. Poppinga is a DE/LB ‘tweener, but Bates thinks he can play well on the strongside. He will back up Diggs and be a terror on special teams. Campbell can cover a lot of ground and his quickness and relentless style are a good match for the weakside behind Thompson.
Also in the mix is Hannibal Navies who was re-signed during the offseason to backup the two outside spots.
Defensive Backs: This unit is the biggest question mark on the stop unit and it will be a while before all four starters are named.
The one sure bet is Al Harris at one of the corner spots. Harris will thrive in Bates' system because he loves to play bump-and-run coverage. Harris is solid against the run, posting 68 tackles and good against the pass – one interception and 20 passes defensed.
On the other side is a battle between 2004 first-round selection Ahmad Carroll and 2004 second-rounder Joey Thomas. Thomas has the size and skills to be an excellent compliment to Harris, but he doesn't have the speed that Carroll does. Carroll started the final 11 games of his rookie season and while he played decent for a rookie, he didn't make many big plays. Whoever loses the battle will be the third corner.
Another player to keep an eye on is oft-injured third-year CB Chris Johnson. Johnson has been on the roster for two years, but hasn't seen any action because of a knee injury his rookie season and a fracture to the same leg the following year. Johnson has good size and nice speed. He would be an excellent fourth corner if he is fully recovered.
The release of Darren Sharper during the offseason took a lot of leadership out of the deep third and the team is still struggling to find a replacement. Arturo Freeman was signed in free agency but was then released after the first ten days of camp.
Right now the most likely candidates to start are Earl Little at strong safety and Mark Roman at free safety. Roman is a sure tackler finishing fourth on the team with 71 tackles. He isn't a ball-hawk and he doesn't have great speed, but he's smart and will be able to get players in the right positions. Little has a nasty-streak and likes to hit. He isn't great in coverage, but Bates doesn't rely on his strong safety to cover as much some other coordinators.
Two players the team really likes are rookie safeties Nick Collins and Marviel Underwood. Both have 4.4 speed and both are playmakers who can be good if they learn the system. The release of Freeman frees up time in camp for both to see lots of reps in preparation for the season.
Special Teams: K Ryan Longwell continues to shine. He hit 24 of 28 kicks including 8 of 11 beyond 40 yards – two of three beyond 50. He has a strong and accurate leg and he has mastered kicking off the tricky turf in Lambeau.
At punter there are concerns. B.J. Sander was drafted in the third round in 2004, but was so inconsistent the team had to sign veteran Bryan Barker to instill some stability to the position. Barker was allowed to leave in free agency and Sander was retained after a good season in NFL Europe. Sander has a strong leg and in college he was good at dropping kicks inside the 20-yard line. He's looked good in camp and the hope is he's solved some of his issues.
The return and coverage units should be vastly improved with the team's renewed dedication to speed and with the drafting of Murphy and Bragg, two players with return skills, the hope is they can replace Chatman as the main return man.
Final Prediction: Offensively, with the components they have in place, the Packers should be one of the most explosive teams in the league. Favre must become less turnover prone and the receivers must step up. Green and Davenport are a nice one-two punch and if the line comes together, they could average 27 points a game.
Defensively, this team is a different story. The questions at the defensive end position opposite KGB and the turnover in the secondary could mean big problems for the Packers. Bates is an excellent defensive coach, but many think he is a year or two away from having the types of players who will thrive in his system.
The "Cheesheads" are the most knowledgeable fans in the league and they will not settle for a loser in Green Bay. This season may test their patience, but the Green and Gold should be exciting win or lose. They will probably end up somewhere around .500 with the off chance they may sneak into the playoffs. No matter what happens, this team will look vastly different in the next few years.
Scott Eklund writes and reports for Seahawks.NET and Dawgman.com. Feel free to contact him at email@example.com.
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