After last season, there is no doubt how important Aaron Rodgers, who is in the prime of his career, is to the Packers.
Aaron Rodgers has set incredibly high standards for his annual performance, and there's little reason to believe (other than the possibility of another injury) that he won't continue at an elite level in 2014.
Benny Sieu / USA TODAY Sports
By Paul Imig
This is the first in a series of 13 previews leading up to the Green Bay Packers' July 26 start of camp.
Perhaps Aaron Rodgers really is only the 11th-best player in the league (even though NFL Network's Top 100 players countdown was widely mocked recently for this ranking), but he is what makes the Green Bay Packers go. This was proven during the 2013 season when the Packers had a 6-2 record in games that Rodgers started and finished but dropped to a 2-5-1 record in games finished by backup quarterbacks.
Rodgers has set incredibly high standards for his annual performance, and there's little reason to believe (other than the possibility of another injury) that he won't continue at an elite level in 2014. However, by those standards, Rodgers had a down season last year, even though it really was only a half-season. His touchdown-to-interception ratio went in the wrong direction (17:6, compared to 39:8 in 2012 and 45:6 in 2011), his completion percentage slightly dipped (66.6 percent compared to 67.2 percent in 2012 and 68.3 percent in 2011) and his passer rating was down a bit (104.9 compared to 108.0 in 2012 and 122.5 in 2011).
Despite his fractured left collarbone injury occurring, Rodgers enjoyed much better pass protection for the games that he was available for last season. In 2012, Rodgers was sacked 51 times, more than any other quarterback in the NFL. Last season, it was 21 times, which meant Rodgers was on pace to be sacked around 40 times. Also, the Packers' pass-blocking was rated much more favorably by ProFootballFocus in 2013 compared to 2012, rising eight spots in the rankings.
At 30 years old, Rodgers is in the prime of his career. Compared with a few of the other top quarterbacks in the NFL, including Peyton Manning (age 38), Tom Brady (36) and Drew Brees (35), the Packers are in the best position to have continued success at the position. Green Bay's front office had better hope that logic holds true because Rodgers still has six years left on a $110 million contract extension that he signed last offseason.
With Rodgers' age and contract status, the Packers are in a better position than Manning's Broncos, Brady's Patriots and Brees' Saints. That's because Green Bay can play for the now while not sacrificing the future for it. The offseason moves by Denver demonstrate just how all-in the Broncos are for the 2014 season, which will likely hurt them in 2016 and beyond. But the expectations on Rodgers and the Packers aren't to win the division and drop out of the playoffs early again. That's happened the past three seasons, and it's been a disappointment by most accounts. This needs to be the season that Rodgers leads an improved (at least on paper) Green Bay team to another Super Bowl appearance.
Best position battle:
Flynn was re-signed this offseason to give the Packers some stability at backup quarterback. Despite failing at his other stops in Seattle, Oakland and Buffalo, Flynn gets the most out of his ability while playing in head coach Mike McCarthy's offense.
But it's not Flynn-or-bust at the No. 2 spot on Green Bay's QB depth chart this season. McCarthy has maintained that he is very fond of Tolzien, stating all the way back in February 2014 during the Scouting Combine that he viewed for the former University of Wisconsin quarterback as a part of the Packers' 2014 team.
Flynn is the leader going into training camp, but there's four preseason games and 20-plus practices for Tolzien to try to show that he's the better option. Either way, both Flynn and Tolzien are likely to make the 53-man active roster this season. But McCarthy and everyone else at Lambeau Field headquarters certainly hopes that the only reason Flynn or Tolzien see the field during regular-season action is because Green Bay is 14-1 (like it was in 2011) and is resting Rodgers heading into the playoffs.
Ranking against the rest of the NFC North:
1. Packers; 2. Bears; 3. Lions; 4. Vikings
Green Bay being ranked No. 1 in the division for quarterbacks is an easy decision. Behind Rodgers, though, it's a fairly close battle between Chicago's Jay Cutler and Detroit's Matthew Stafford. The edge heading into this season goes to Cutler for the No. 2 spot. They both have a tremendous advantage with targets to throw to, with Cutler having the combination of Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, while Stafford gets to work with the league's best wide receiver, Calvin Johnson. Cutler led Stafford last season in passer rating and completion percentage. Minnesota is still in last place here, but the addition of Teddy Bridgewater in the draft could change the Vikings' ranking in the near future. Bridgewater first has to winning the starting quarterback competition against veteran Matt Cassel.