2014 preview: Aaron Rodgers' health is key for Packers
Jul 27, 2014 at 3:50p ET
With football season around the corner, FOXSports.com is providing a thorough analysis of all 32 teams heading into training camp. The offseason may have lacked some hard-hitting action, but franchise-altering moves have been made. Parity is excessive as ever. Every team looks great on paper in July. But it's the development and seasoning of a team that will matter in January and, yes ... even February. Goodbye, offseason!
Today, we continue the series with the Green Bay Packers.
2013: 8-7-1, won NFC North; lost in Wild-Card playoff round to San Francisco
Head coach: Mike McCarthy (ninth season)
Key departures: WR James Jones, C Evan Dietrich-Smith
1. Can the Packers actually beat Seattle and/or San Francisco?
When a team's past four seasons resulted in a Super Bowl victory and three consecutive division titles, expectations are obviously very high. Winning the NFC North is still an accomplishment for Green Bay, but not in the same way that it would be for the Minnesota Vikings or Detroit Lions. Reaching the playoffs and losing early is a disappointment for the Packers, and that's what's happened the past three seasons.
Green Bay's post-Super Bowl XLV season records have dipped from 15-1 in 2011 to 11-5 in 2012 to 8-7-1 last year. And in that time, the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers have passed the Packers in overall talent. Upsets can happen in the NFL at any time, but that's exactly what it would be right now if Green Bay defeated either the Seahawks or 49ers.
Therein lies the issue. While the Packers should feel good heading into the 2014 season, the chances are that it will ultimately come down to a matchup with Seattle or San Francisco in the playoffs. That's been the case the past two years, as the 49ers have ended Green Bay's Super Bowl dreams twice in a row.
Every Packers win and loss during the 2014 regular season should be included with an asterisk to note whether the components of that game have them any more ready to square off with the NFC's two best teams. Because if Green Bay can't beat the 49ers or Seahawks, then it will be another year of Aaron Rodgers' prime being lost.
2. Is Green Bay's defense able to win a game if necessary?
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When Rodgers fractured his left collarbone in the first quarter of the Week 9 game last season, the Packers' record was 5-2. When Rodgers was healthy again, he returned to find the team at 7-7-1. Only because of the Lions and Chicago Bears completely falling apart at the end of the regular season was Green Bay able to remain in playoff contention during Rodgers' absence.
Though having a quality backup quarterback is certainly a critical component of it, the Packers should have been able to count on their defense to help pick them up more than just two wins in an eight-game stretch. Green Bay played five games in November 2013 and didn't win a single one of them. Even with quarterback play that was far from Rodgers-esque, a good defense would've found a way to muster at least one great performance in that span and get a win.
In all, the Packers finished the 2013 season ranked 25th in yards allowed and 24th in points allowed. Green Bay hopes it found the answers to those woes by making a rare, headline-worthy leap into free agency, signing Julius Peppers. At age 34, Peppers isn't what he once was as a three-time first-team All-Pro and an eight-time Pro Bowl selection, but he should definitely help the Packers defense.
Green Bay isn't counting solely on Peppers to make the entire difference. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers is altering his scheme, adding the elephant position (of which Peppers will be a part of). The goal is to make sure the best 11 defensive players are on the field, and if that takes pressure off of Clay Matthews in the process, it's a win-win situation for the Packers.
3. Can Eddie Lacy improve upon his Rookie of the Year season?
It'd be nearly impossible for any rookie to have as big of an impact on a team as what Lacy did with Green Bay last season. Passed over by every NFL team (including the Packers) at least once in the draft, Lacy changed the way that opposing defenses could game plan for Green Bay.
For years (since 2009, at least), the Packers were a one-dimensional offense. As Rodgers became an NFL Most Valuable Player, he was lighting up defenses despite not having any viable threat in the backfield. By the 2012 season, though, Rodgers was seeing the consequences of that as two-deep safety looks began to be a common occurrence.
Lacy went from a rookie who needed to prove himself to defenses in order to gain respect to a rookie who struck fear into defenses. With his body type and running style, Lacy inflicted damage upon oncoming tacklers and often came out ahead in the exchange.
In rushing for 1,178 yards and 11 touchdowns, Lacy was able to put up those numbers despite playing only six full games with Rodgers. If Lacy improves in his second NFL season and has the benefit of being next to Rodgers for 16 games, Green Bay's dual-threat offense could be dominant.
Wide receiver Jarrett Boykin
Two years ago, Jarrett Boykin was an undrafted rookie who had just been cut by the Jacksonville Jaguars after only a few days. When he arrived in Green Bay, Boykin was as an extreme longshot to make the active roster. But his large hands, faster-than-expected speed and consistent play won him a spot. Still, Boykin was No. 6 on the wide receiver depth chart and was stuck behind an impressive group of Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, James Jones and Donald Driver. As would be expected given that list of players ahead of him, Boykin contributed just five catches for 27 yards as a rookie.
Last season, however, with Driver retired and Jennings in Minnesota, Boykin had opportunities to show what he could do and made the most of it with 681 receiving yards.
Now, Boykin is No. 3 on the Packers' depth chart after the team let Jones leave in free agency. With the way in which Rodgers spreads the ball around, Boykin could easily surpass his 2013 production. While some believe Rodgers can make any average receiver look good, Boykin can respond to that by pointing to his career-high 112-yard game last season when it was Scott Tolzien and Seneca Wallace throwing him the ball.
Boykin is a relative sleeper who could easily be a 1,000-yard receiver this season.
REASON FOR OPTIMISM
Rodgers' collarbone is fully healed. Seriously. That more than anything else improves Green Bay's chances of winning exponentially.
The experience last season of playing without Rodgers gave the Packers a wake-up call, and that's a good thing for the team's 2014 outlook. They weren't built to win many games without their star quarterback and that's now been proven. A quarterback like Wallace can't be No. 2 on the depth chart. A plethora of rookies, second-year players and undrafted players can't be counted on to perform at a consistently high level.
The front office heeded the advice of cornerback Tramon Williams that there was a need for more veteran players. Signing Peppers and Letroy Guion, giving big money to cornerback Sam Shields (four years, $39 million) and bringing back B.J. Raji and Mike Neal were all moves that will help Green Bay win now.
The major criticism of general manager Ted Thompson throughout his success running the Packers has been his unwillingness to plug a need or two by potentially overpaying another team's free agent. Thompson wanted to apply the draft-and-develop philosophy almost exclusively and sometimes not even extend the budget when his own free agents wanted more than what was being offered.
Most likely, Green Bay won't have to deal with another season in which Rodgers only plays in half the games. But if it took a season like 2013 for the Packers to get a clear picture of how good the roster actually was without Rodgers, it's going to benefit them now going forward.
REASON FOR PANIC
On paper, Green Bay's defense is better than what it was last season. However, there are so many variables with this defensive group that it could quickly fall apart.
Matthews suffered a Bennett's fracture (a significant break) on his thumb twice last season, both of which came on sacks. He'll be wearing a brace to protect that area, but Matthews will have to prove that he trusts himself enough to use his hands without the fear of another break. The way it is already, Matthews' thumb will never be the same again, even after he's long done with football. Add that onto the multiple hamstring injuries he's suffered throughout his career and it demonstrates just how much the Packers' defensive plans rest with a player who's missed nine games the past two seasons.
Peppers could be past the point of being an intimidating defensive force. By name and reputation, Peppers is a big deal in the NFL. But what if an injury finally befalls the durable veteran or the decline he showed last season continues on a steep curve?
Inside linebacker is hardly a settled position in Green Bay with veterans A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones not being the types who are disruptive forces in the backfield. The safety position has to show drastic improvement over last season with the new trio of Morgan Burnett, Micah Hyde and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. Datone Jones or some other defensive end needs to form an effective duo with Mike Daniels, and B.J. Raji needs to get back to the 2010 and 2011 version of himself rather than the 2012 and 2013 version that hasn't done much of note.
With all of those factors in play, there's a wide range of possibilities as to just what this potentially-improved defense can achieve.
ALEX MARVEZ'S 2014 PREDICTION
It's the same old story in Green Bay. Can the defense play well enough to support what should once again be a prolific offense around quarterback extraordinaire Aaron Rodgers? The former appears better and deeper than in recent seasons thanks to the offseason maneuverings of general manager Ted Thompson. Opposing defenses will face a pick-your-poison dilemma with running back Eddie Lacy -- the NFL's 2013 Offensive Rookie of the Year -- complementing the Rodgers-led passing game. Green Bay has the earmarks of a Super Bowl team but must avoid the injuries that crippled the roster last season. Prediction: 10-6.
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