Are Packers Super Bowl contenders?

Share on Facebook Comments Comments Print Print
Todd Mishler | July 22, 2015

Green Bay lost its projected starting center (JC Tretter) and top nose tackle (B.J. Raji) in the third preseason game against Oakland last August, it started 1-2 for a third consecutive year and put the NFL's worst run defense on the field through the first eight weeks of the 2014 season.

And then franchise quarterback Aaron Rodgers hobbled around on a bad left calf during the final two regular-season games, including the NFC North-deciding showdown at Lambeau Field against Detroit.

Rodgers left that crucial game in the second quarter with a 14-0 advantage and returned in the third quarter with the contest tied, boosting the hosts to a 30-20 win and their fourth straight division crown.

Green Bay finished 12-4 overall and earned the No. 2 playoff seed. The Packers rallied to knock off visiting Dallas and then dominated host Seattle in the Pacific Northwest until the final minutes of the NFC Championship game.

So, what is the team's mind-set and where does it stack up in the league's hierarchy for 2015? Those key questions will be determined during the next four to five weeks, and here are some things to watch for as the Packers open training camp:

When: Players report on Wednesday, July 29, and the first practice is scheduled for 8:20 a.m. Thursday, July 30

Draft class: General Manager Ted Thompson's draft-and-develop philosophy always means that new recruits are prized possessions and expected to contribute, if not as starters then as key rotational performers.

Green Bay's 2015 picks in order: 1. Cornerback Damarious Randall, 2. Defensive back Quinten Rollins, 3. Receiver Ty Montgomery, 4. Linebacker Jake Ryan, 5. Quarterback Brett Hundley, 6a. Fullback Aaron Ripkowski, 6b. Defensive tackle Christian Ringo, 6c. Tight end Kennard Backman

They may not rival the impact of last year's group of Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Davante Adams, Corey Linsley and Richard Rodgers right away, but fans should expect the team's top four selections to contribute from scrimmage, especially the two young DBs and Ryan at ILB depending how much defensive coordinator Dom Capers moves Clay Matthews around. Montgomery will factor into the return game from the get-go, while Ringo should get plenty of opportunities with the suspensions and question marks upfront (see below).  

Other new arrivals: Thompson also unearths at least a couple of undrafted free agent gems every summer, and this year should be no different. Pro Bowl cornerback Sam Shields made the big jump in 2010 and last year's crop yielded outside 'backer Jayrone Elliott and nose tackle Mike Pennel.

Guys to keep an eye on include running back John Crockett, offensive linemen Matt Rotheram and Andy Phillips, linebackers Tavarus Dantzler and James Vaughters, tight end Mitchell Henry and cornerback LaDarius Gunter.

Departures: Veteran leader Tramon Williams and fellow cornerback Davon House signed with Cleveland and Jacksonville, respectively, as unrestricted free agents, while backup linebacker Jamari Lattimore inked a deal with the New York Jets. Matt Flynn lost the No. 2 quarterback spot to Scott Tolzien and landed with New England. Longtime special teams ace and backup CB Jarrett Bush apparently wasn't in Green Bay's plans after the draft and recently was suspended for four games, so unless injuries pile up it doesn't appear a job awaits him in Titletown.

ILBs A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones also were jettisoned early in the off season, thus creating concerns among many Cheeseheads about who would fill the void.

Off-the-field troubles: Although not signed, Bush's situation isn't the only trouble facing Thompson and head coach Mike McCarthy when it comes to determining roster spots, at least to start the regular season.

Defensive lineman Datone Jones, the Packers' top pick in 2013, needed a big training camp after two uninspiring seasons thus far. He needs it even more now that he was suspended for the opener at Chicago because he couldn't wait more than two hours after getting back on Wisconsin soil after the season ended to get his marijuana fix.

The team still is waiting to hear the fate of nose guard Letroy Guion, who ran afoul of the law in Florida in early February when he was pulled over for failing to maintain a single lane. Police found 357 grams of weed, a registered gun and more than $190,000 in cash, which Guion said came from football paychecks, in his truck. If Jones must sit for one game, one would think that Guion is looking at a two- or four-game suspension even though his case was closed in March.

And the verdict still is out on tight end Andrew Quarless, who was arrested and charged with a misdemeanor for discharging a firearm in public in Florida over the July 4 weekend.

Offense: McCarthy made quick, decisive moves after the late collapse against the Seahawks, handing over play-calling duties to Tom Clements while shuffling his staff and vowing to be more involved with the defense and special teams.

There should be few issues considering McCarthy will remain heavily involved, he has a veteran staff and A-Rod will be at the controls. It will be interesting to see how the process works in the preseason.

Green Bay finished first in scoring (30.4) — although the other two units played nice complements — sixth in total yards (386.1), tied for second in third-down conversions  (47 percent) and led the league with a plus 14 turnover ratio.

Reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers leads a potent passing game that featured the No. 2 receiving duo in the league in Jordy Nelson, who broke Robert Brooks' 1995 franchise mark in yardage, and Randall Cobb. No. 3 ball catcher Davante Adams should only become more of a force in his second season, and that goes for TE Richard Rodgers.

The question becomes whether 2014 draft picks Jared Abbrederis and Jeff Janis can take a step forward or will they lose ground to Montgomery and/or one of the undrafted rookie receivers.

The ground game appears to be in great shape with Eddie Lacy and James Starks back, although a third player must step up. Meanwhile, Ripkowski will try to take playing time from fan favorite John Kuhn at fullback.

A relatively healthy offensive line was one of the top units in the NFL last fall, but improved depth must be a priority.

Defense: The aforementioned legal issues surrounding Datone Jones and Guion could leave the Packers in dire straights against a tough early schedule, especially if B.J. Raji can't say on the field and become a force versus the run, an ailment that hurt the Packers dearly through the first half of the regular season and again in the playoffs.

That issue improved drastically in the second half after Matthews was moved around and second-year player Sam Barrington took over a starting role from the departed Brad Jones and Hawk.

The front wall rotation will include a lot of young guys along with rush ends/linebackers Mike Neal, Julius Peppers and 2012 top choice Nick Perry. The list includes Mike Daniels, the No. 1 candidate for a new contract, Josh Boyd, Pennel and Khyri Thornton, the latter a disappointing third-round pick last year who missed the season on injured reserve.

Matthews will continue to take one for the team like he did during a superb final half of 2014, where he created havoc at numerous spots instead of strictly from an OLB position rushing the passer.

If second-year player Carl Bradford or Michigan rookie Ryan can prove they belong in the middle, then Matthews could go back outside more or at least give Capers more options.

Green Bay finished 15th in total defense after improving from dead last to No. 23 against the run while ending up 10th versus the pass and tied for 13th in points allowed.

The secondary is another question mark, at least at cornerback, where Casey Hayward looks to take Williams' spot on the left side and Micah Hyde hopes to fill Hayward's role in the slot. However, Randall and Rollins must show they belong, too. Safety should be a strength with Morgan Burnett and Clinton-Dix, who also should take a big step forward in year two.

Special teams: This became a clear emphasis after the second-half meltdown with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line, as Seattle scored on a fake field goal in the third quarter and recovered Brandon Bostick's botched onside kick to set up the tying touchdown in the final two minutes of regulation.

Kicker Mason Crosby delivered an outstanding season, which he capped with five field goals against Seattle, including a 48-yarder to send the contest into overtime.

However, punter Tim Masthay was disappointing down the stretch and will have competition in camp (Cody Mandell). And the blocking units allowed an unacceptable seven blocked kicks while the punt coverage unit gave up a 75-yard TD in the loss at Buffalo that arguably prevented the Packers from gaining home-field advantage in the playoffs.

All of these factors contributed to the Packers ranking last in the Dallas Morning News' annual list.

Share on Facebook Comments Comments Print Print