GREEN BAY, Wis. — Now that Packers general manager Ted Thompson and head coach Mike McCarthy have sorted out their 53-man roster for this season, there are still plenty of strengths from a team that finished 15-1 during the 2011 regular season. However, Green Bay fell short of its goal to become back-to-back Super Bowl champions and have a few areas that could be a concern this season as the team looks to recover from a surprisingly convincing loss in the playoffs.
With the start of the 2012 season a week away, here’s a look at the Packers’ top three concerns and certainties:
1. Backup quarterback: Graham Harrell eased many of the concerns that may have been lingering for Thompson and McCarthy with his nearly flawless performance in the final preseason game. Until that game, Harrell had not gotten much help from a poor second-string offensive line, but all factors considered, the former practice-squad quarterback hardly looked ready to take over if Aaron Rodgers got hurt. Even during Harrell’s struggles, Thompson, McCarthy and Rodgers stood by him. But if Harrell was on the bubble to enter the regular season as Green Bay’s No. 2 quarterback, the 27-year-old justified the patience that was shown by the organization.
However, Harrell has never thrown a pass in an NFL regular season game, so it’s still a gamble on a very inexperienced player who just two years ago was released by the Saskatchewan Roughriders of the Canadian Football League. A year ago, the Packers knew they had a terrific backup ready in Matt Flynn. But with Flynn gone and no veteran added to the group, having to insert Harrell in a regular-season game is a risk for a team that clearly has the talent to be Super Bowl favorites.
2. Offensive line depth: There is still time for Thompson to make a move, but at the moment, having only seven offensive linemen on the 53-man active roster is a problem. The team had hoped that 2011 first-round pick Derek Sherrod would be healthy and recovered in time from the broken leg he suffered late last season. But, with Sherrod still not medically cleared, he had to be placed on the Physically Unable to Perform list. That means he’s out for the first six weeks of the regular season.
In the meantime, the only backups to make the team were interior lineman Evan Dietrich-Smith — who is the top backup at left guard, right guard and center — and undrafted rookie Don Barclay. Not keeping veteran Reggie Wells, who had shown versatility all over the offensive line throughout his nine-year NFL career, was a bit of a surprise.
This is likely an area of the roster that Thompson would like to improve with a trade before the season starts, because, at least until Sherrod can return, the Packers are very, very thin on the offensive line and could not afford an injury. 3. Inexperience in the secondary: Veteran Charles Woodson and 2010 Pro-Bowl cornerback Tramon Williams do not lack experience, but surrounding them is a group of players without much service time who will play significant roles in the defense. At safety, Morgan Burnett, still only 23 years old, completed his first full season in 2011. As a rookie in 2010, he was placed on Injured Reserve after just four games. Even last season, Burnett had to spend many games playing with a cast on his broken right hand. With Nick Collins being released due to a potentially career-threatening neck injury, Burnett will be tasked with more responsibility this season, especially in the nickel and dime defense. When the Packers are in their base 3-4 defense, Woodson is back at safety with Burnett. But in nickel and dime, there’s players competing for playing time with far less experience than Burnett. Rookie Jerron McMillian, who is adjusting to the NFL from small college football at the University of Maine, could be the starter in nickel and dime next to Burnett. If not McMillian, it will be M.D. Jennings, who played sparingly last season as an undrafted rookie.
At cornerback opposite Williams, Jarrett Bush could be the starter for the first time in his seven-year career. Just because Bush is 28 years old doesn’t mean he’s experienced guarding an opposing team’s top-two wide receiver every week. If Bush is passed on the depth chart, it means that either 24-year-old Sam Shields — who began his career as an undrafted free agent signing in 2010 — or rookie Casey Hayward is replacing him. It is also possible that second-year cornerback Davon House becomes a starter eventually this season, but if he does, it will be while playing with a harness on his shoulder.
Woodson and Williams may have to carry this group early in the season while the young, inexperienced players get accustomed to the pressure of improving a Packers defense that allowed more passing yards last season than any team in NFL history.
1. Rodgers: The NFL’s Most Valuable Player should be one of the top quarterbacks in the league for at least six more seasons. Rodgers, still only 28, is seven years younger than Tom Brady and five years younger than Drew Brees. That means, pending injury, the Packers are set for a long time with Rodgers throwing the ball. Rodgers is coming off one of the greatest seasons ever for a quarterback, throwing 45 touchdowns passes and just six interceptions, setting the NFL’s all-time single-season passer rating record. Rodgers doesn’t just have a great arm, he’s also shown repeatedly that he’s elusive in the pocket and capable of scrambling for big yards if a play breaks down. Since becoming the starter four years ago, Rodgers has only missed two games. One was in 2010 due to a concussion and the other was voluntarily sitting out the Week 17 game last season to rest before the playoffs. So, Rodgers has also been very durable. f
2. Wide receivers: It also helps that Rodgers has a terrific group of receivers to throw to. Jordy Nelson had a breakout season in 2011 and has shown throughout training camp that it was far from a fluke. Nelson should easily now be considered an elite receiver, finishing third in the NFL last season in touchdown receptions and ninth in receiving yards. Rodgers also has Greg Jennings, a back-to-back Pro Bowl selection whose numbers last season (67 catches, 949 yards, nine touchdowns) would have been even greater had he not missed three games due to a knee injury. Behind those starters, the Packers have emerging speedster Randall Cobb, who made a name for himself last season as a rookie mostly due to his return skills. Cobb should see more action at receiver this season.
There is also James Jones, a skilled receiver who sometimes gets lost in the shuffle but would be a No. 2 receiving option on many NFL teams. Plus, Donald Driver, at age 37, still has enough left in the tank that Thompson not only restructured his deal to bring him back, but kept him on the active roster for a 14th season. There is a new face in the group this season as well, with undrafted rookie Jarrett Boykin beating out 2011 holdovers Tori Gurley and Diondre Borel.
3. Depth at linebacker: If Desmond Bishop had not suffered the serious hamstring injury that he did in preseason, this would easily have been the best group of linebackers during Thompson’s time in Green Bay. Even without Bishop, this is a very solid area of the roster with plenty of depth. Losing Bishop hurts, especially just one year after he led the Packers in tackles and was second on the team in sacks, but having talented second-year inside linebacker D.J. Smith ready to go is a huge benefit. If the Packers had to overcome a significant injury to one of their defensive starters, they were most ready to lose Bishop, simply because Smith is a very good player who appears ready for a full-time role. Aside from Smith, the Packers will start A.J. Hawk for a seventh consecutive season and have more talent ready behind him. Robert Francois contributed well in his two starts last season, and youngster Jamari Lattimore showed a wide range of skills during preseason.
One year after finishing 27th in the NFL in sacks due to a lack of pass-rushing help surrounding Clay Matthews, Thompson went young and found rookie talent in the first round of the draft with Nick Perry and in the undrafted free-agent market with Dezman Moses. Perry will start at left outside linebacker, and Moses was so good throughout all of training camp that he’s likely the next man up at both outside linebacker positions if Matthews or Perry get hurt. Erik Walden, who lost his starting job to Perry following a lackluster 2011 season, looked hungry and motivated during the preseason and training camp and should have a bounceback season.