Like the Falcons, the Green Bay Packers are in Super Bowl or bust mode. They want to get back to the championship level with a pair of disappointing losses in the playoffs the past two years to San Francisco and New York since their Super Bowl win in 2010.
The Packers offense is one of the most prolific in the league, but there are ways they can get better. One of the key things will be adding more balance to the offense, by establishing the running game.
The team used a pair of draft picks on Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin to bolster their rushing attack. The Packers are bringing both rookies along slowly, with incumbents Alex Green and James Starks taking most of the first team reps during the off-season. Neither Green nor Starks are locks to make the team, and the team is optimistic that via an open competition this summer that someone can emerge for the gig. Also in the mix is DuJuan Harris, who had his moments down the stretch last season. But he’s probably more of a third down back rather than a lead one. Green dealt with injuries last year, and Starks has been a non-factor since shining in their run to the Super Bowl two years ago. So much so that he was briefly on the trade block this off-season. The Packers would really love the powerful Lacy and Franklin to emerge. Lacy has the size and power to be more of a workhorse, but Franklin is quick and explosive and shined in a zone-blocking scheme during his college days. They might employ a committee system early in the season, hoping that if someone doesn’t emerge in camp that over the course of the year the cream will rise to the top.
Helping the Packers reestablish the ground game will also be some revamping of their offensive line. Or perhaps better put, a shuffling of their offensive line. They are essentially flipping their line, with right guard Josh Sitton and right tackle Bryan Bulaga flipping to the left side. Bulaga is coming off a hip injury, and they hope he does a better job protecting Aaron Rodgers’ blindside than Marshall Newhouse the past two years. Newhouse will move to right tackle and will be pushed by Don Barclay, Derek Sherrod, and rookie David Bakhtiari. Barclay had his moments down the stretch replacing the injured Bulaga on the right side. Sherrod has been a disappointment since being drafted with their top pick in 2011. Right tackle is the only spot up front that will feature competition given that Evan Dietrich-Smith and T.J. Lang are settled in at center and right guard, respectively.
They will need the added protection and boost to the ground game since they lost some weapons at wide receiver. Gone are long-time fixtures in Greg Jennings and Donald Driver. The top three wideouts: Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, and James Jones will return and be expected to step up their produxtion. Cobb, who led the team in receiving last year, is expected to make the next leap forward in the hopes that he might become a dynamic and versatile weapon akin to Percy Harvin. Competing for the wide open fourth spot will be a number of unproven young receivers. Jarrett Boykin and Jeremy Ross are second-year players competing with seventh round rookies in Kevin Dorsey and Charles Johnson. Boykin is big and physical with good hands, but lacks ideal speed and quickness. Ross has those things, but his best shot of making the team might be working on special teams in the return game given that the team expects Cobb to be more of an offensive factor.
Defensively, the focus for the Packers will be improving their pass rush. Clay Matthews is a monster, but when he’s out of the lineup they have nothing. The team is putting a lot of stock in last year’s top pick Nick Perry as they didn’t bring in any real competition for him. They hope that he just naturally takes that step forward to try and complement Matthews. Inside at linebacker, Brad Jones and A.J. Hawk will man the starting spots. Jones is a decent player, but lacks impact playmaking ability. Hawk is a poor man’s Keith Brooking, a fixture as a starter, but someone that has never ever been a top player.
Up front, the Packers hope to get more consistency from their front three. B.J. Raji got more looks at defensive end and started to play well down the stretch. They hope he can pick up where he left off and have the monster season that has been missing since their Super Bowl run. Top pick Datone Jones is being fast-tracked into the starting lineup where he will join Ryan Pickett at the nose. Mike Neal flashed ability in limited duties last year, but he needs to stay healthy since Jerel Worthy is questionable to return at some point this year after tearing his ACL last December. The team is welcoming back Johnny Jolly who hasn’t played since 2009 due to suspensions from off-field issues. If they can get any production from him, it will be a bonus.
The strength of the Packers defense has been their secondary play. They lose Charles Woodson, arguably their best defender since Reggie White. They recently rewarded free safety Morgan Burnett with a contract extension. Competing to replace Woodson at the other safety spot will be M.D. Jennings and Jerron McMillian. Jennings had his moments when replacing an injured Woodson last year, but it’ll be a wide open competition.
Casey Hayward had a standout rookie season in 2012 as their nickel back, and they hope that with more reps as a potential starter can fill some of that void left by Woodson. They also hope that Tramon Williams and Sam Shields can have stronger seasons to help him out some. Williams turned 30 this off-season so age may be catching up to him. Shields finished the year strong, but opted to skip OTAs due to his contract situation.
On special teams, kicker Mason Crosby is coming off his least productive season. He’ll be pushed by street free agent Giorgio Tavecchio in the hopes that he can bounce back.
Like the Falcons, the Packers are expected to be in the mix vying for a Super Bowl. Whether they get there will depend on a lot of the same improvements that the Falcons are hoping to make. They will hope they get more from their running game, and hope that shuffling their offensive line leads to improvements there. They also will be hoping that young players like Jones or Perry can step up and improve the pass rush on defense and hope their secondary can continue to play at a high level.