Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy didnít hesitate when recently asked if he thinks his 2014 team will be better than last year.
ďI would say so, yes,Ē McCarthy replied. ďOn paper.Ē
The signing of free agent Julius Peppers should give the defense a significant boost, and next monthís draft will produce an influx of young talent. Meanwhile, some Packers free agents departed and others decided to return.
While the process of retooling the roster will continue in the coming months, hereís a position-by-position assessment, for better or worse, on where the Packers stand three months after their 2013 season ended with an NFC wild-card playoff loss to San Francisco.
Aaron Rodgersí broken collarbone is a thing of the past and his expected healthy return to the top of the NFL quarterback food chain will once again make the Packers a dangerous team. Backup Scott Tolzien will enroll in Packers quarterback school and get a thorough grasp of the offense. The only unfinished business is to re-sign free agent Matt Flynn, which would provide a much-needed security blanket.
2014 projection (compared to last year):
Itís been a long time since the Packers were as talented and deep in the backfield. Eddie Lacy and James Starks, who re-signed last month, form a solid one-two punch. But the Packers could go four-deep at halfback if DuJuan Harris and Johnathan Franklin recover from injuries. Throw in the veteran savvy of fullback John Kuhn, who re-signed for a bargain price of around $1 million, and the Packers seem poised to hit the ground running.
As it stands, the Packers are one injury away from using Myles White, who has nine career receptions, as their No. 3 receiver. That is to say they are perilously thin at an important position after losing James Jones in free agency. Randall Cobb should be 100 percent after breaking his leg last season and along with Jordy Nelson will provide Rodgers with lethal weapons. But Jarrett Boykin must prove he can capably fill the No. 3 spot. Can there be any doubt the Packers will draft a receiver relatively high?
If Jermichael Finley gets medical clearance from his neck injury and re-signs with the Packers ó two huge ifs ó things will be fine. If not, there are serious concerns about whether Andrew Quarless, Brandon Bostick, Ryan Taylor and Jake Stoneburner can adequately fill the void. Without Finley, this is another position in need of a talent infusion via the draft.
The Packers will start their fourth different center in the past four seasons. From Scott Wells to Jeff Saturday to Evan Dietrich-Smith to an unknown 2014 starter, the revolving door continues to spin much too quickly at a critical position. The Packers might have more than a one-year stopgap in JC Tretter, but thatís putting a lot of pressure on a player with virtually no NFL experience. Assuming left tackle David Bakhtiari continues to improve, Bryan Bulaga returns to full effectiveness at right tackle and guards Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang hold their own, the Packers still are left with a giant question mark at center.
In his multi-dimensional elephant role, Peppers can play at defensive end, tackle or outside linebacker. The obvious implication is the Packers will generate more pass rush with Peppers, no matter where he lines up. Moving the recently re-signed B.J. Raji back to his natural nose tackle position is a plus, and the signing of free agent Letroy Guion, formerly of Minnesota, provides another big body to the mix. Mike Daniels has the makings of a difference-maker assuming he continues his rapid rise. Datone Jones and Josh Boyd have potential and should improve in Year 2 of their development. Itís possible unsigned veterans Ryan Pickett and Johnny Jolly wonít be back.
Clay Matthews missed six games last season, including the playoffs, with a broken thumb. There is no reason to think he wonít return to 100 percent effectiveness. But can he stay healthy for a full season, something that didnít happen the past two years? With either Peppers, an improving Mike Neal or an unproven Nick Perry manning the outside linebacker position opposite Matthews, there is reason for optimism. The Packers must improve at inside linebacker and itís uncertain whether A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones are up to the task.
Sam Shields struck it rich with his recently signed contract and can cover in a pass-happy league, and so can fellow starter Tramon Williams. There are capable reinforcements behind them. The biggest boost would come if Casey Hayward recovers from a lost season marred by a hamstring injury and returns to his 2012 rookie form. Micah Hyde is a solid option in the nickel or dime role but probably will land at safety. The Packers could do worse than Davon House as a No. 4 or No. 5 corner.
How can the Packers do worse than M.D. Jennings or Jerron McMillian? Neither player was publicly criticized by the team last year. Instead, the Packers let their actions speak when Jennings was essentially shown the door in restricted free agency and McMillian was cut in midseason. Hyde would be an obvious upgrade, and general manager Ted Thompson is expected to add more competition via the draft, something he inexplicably didnít do a year ago. Morgan Burnett didnít play up to expectations after signing a new contract last summer and has something to prove. He should improve simply by having a better safety running mate.
The Packersí injury plague up and down the roster last season led to inconsistent, if not shaky, special teams performances. Maybe the law of injury averages will favor the Packers. If not, maybe new assistant Ron Zook, a long-time veteran, will light a fire.
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