A 15-1 regular season record in 2011 was a tremendous accomplishment for the Green Bay Packers, but being one-and-done in the playoffs means there is plenty of work to do in order to return the Lombardi Trophy back to Titletown.
Some of the areas that hurt the Packers last season were addressed in the draft, but the acquisition of a player does not instantly fix the problem. That’s why there are several important factors that must be addressed in training camp by coach Mike McCarthy and his staff leading up to a difficult Week 1 regular-season kickoff with the San Francisco 49ers six weeks from now.
1. Get the rookies ready.
With a defense that struggled in pass rush and in coverage last season, it’s imperative that top draft picks like linebacker Nick Perry and defensive end Jerel Worthy are ready to contribute immediately. Without the addition of any proven veterans on defense, it will be on the rookies to help turn things around.
If Perry struggles with the transition to outside linebacker, Clay Matthews could suffer through another season of being the only threat for opposing offensive lines to worry about. If Worthy is unable to make a difference early on, B.J. Raji could be stuck playing too many snaps again and having his production negatively affected as a result.
In the secondary, having cornerback Casey Hayward ready to go would help make the decision about what to do with Charles Woodson that much easier. If Hayward is as good as advertised for being a second-round pick, it will also allow fellow cornerbacks Sam Shields and Jarrett Bush to settle into roles that seem best suited for them in nickel and dime packages.
On the line, even fourth-rounder Mike Daniels, who missed offseason workouts due to a shoulder injury, could make a big difference if he’s able to participate and make plays early on. His availability is made even more crucial due to the suspensions of Mike Neal and Anthony Hargrove, which will limit Packers’ depth up front early in the season.
2. Decide how many wide receivers to keep.
Last season, the Packers kept five wide receivers — Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, Donald Driver, James Jones and Randall Cobb — on the active roster. One of the most intriguing situations heading into training camp is whether that group will be expanded to six or possibly even seven. Practice squade wideouts Diondre Borel and Tori Gurley both have the talent to play on game days, but is there a spot for them ron Green Bay’s roster?
With general manager Ted Thompson somewhat surprisingly deciding to bring back Driver at age 37, Borel and Gurley on the bubble of making it past the final cuts. But if they miss out, both will likely be given opportunities to play elsewhere this season instead of spending another year on Green Bay’s practice squad.
A spot for a wide receiver could also open up if tight end Andrew Quarless begins the season on the physically unable to perform list. McCarthy kept five tight ends last season but would be down to four if Quarless is unavailable to start the year. That extra spot could then go to Borel or Gurley. Strictly from a numbers perspective, it’s unlikely that both can make it. Unless …
3. Find out what Driver has left.
The ultra-popular “Dancing with the Stars” winner is still a Packer, which means Thompson did what he has rarely done before: kept a veteran player around past his prime instead of leaving more opportunities for young players on cheaper contracts.
Driver’s new one-year deal no longer has him being overpaid — especially if his jersey sales are factored into the team’s bottom line — and it doesn’t make him cut-proof. The language on Driver’s contract allows him to get paid a big chunk of his 2012 salary if released, but if his age has finally caught up to him, the Packers could send their all-time leading receiver on his way. If keeping Driver for one more season means losing Gurley or Borel to another team, it is a risky proposition to keep the 37-year-old around.
4. Gauge the health (and talent) of the running backs.
Starter James Starks has been injury-prone in his young career but has shown flashes of being a solid playmaker. Alex Green was good enough to be a third-round pick in 2011 but lost most of his rookie season after tearing his ACL. Green is still recovering from that injury and is nearly ready to participate in camp.
Brandon Saine was not even a featured running back in college at Ohio State, went undrafted in 2011 and didn’t get his chance on the active roster until Green’s season-ending injury. The coaching staff likes Saine’s dependability, but is he talented enough to commit one of the team’s valuable 53 active roster spots to? Also, what are the chances fullback John Kuhn will be given the ball more in the running game this season? But even Kuhn is recovering from a knee injury and may not be a full participant in training camp. There are many questions but few answers right now at running back. If this group struggles or can’t get healthy, perhaps the Packers will begin to reassess the possibility of re-signing free agent Ryan Grant.
5. Make a decision on Charles Woodson’s role.
A 6 to 10 percent change in role for Woodson is all that McCarthy would commit to during minicamp. Woodson, 35, has played some safety in recent years but has been an elite cornerback throughout his career. His role may depend largely on whether defensive coordinator Dom Capers wants to play the nickel primarily, use a lot of dime packages or stick with his traditional 3-4 scheme.
Woodson tied for the NFL lead in interceptions last season, but the majority of those came while playing in the slot. That’s a role Woodson can still excel in at his age, but it would mean the Packers are playing a lot of nickel and dime packages. Woodson has gone back and forth about his feelings on switching to safety on a full-time basis, but with the neck injury to three-time Pro Bowler Nick Collins forcing his release from the Packers, there may not be much of a choice for Woodson. Where Woodson does end up will answer a lot of other questions as well, so figuring this out early on in training camp will be key.