Column: Offseason moves upgrade nearly every position
On paper, the Green Bay Packers should be an improved team in 2014.
They look to get better at several positions after failing to advance beyond the first round of the playoffs in January.
It's too soon to make any Super Bowl proclamations, but the Packers have the look of a team that must be reckoned with this season.
As the Packers participate in their final minicamp practice Thursday before taking a five-week break in preparation for training camp, here's where they stand at each position:
It would be inaccurate to say the Packers are miles ahead of last year, because it's more like light years. They have replaced inadequate backups Graham Harrell and B.J. Coleman with the much more reliable Matt Flynn and Scott Tolzien. Flynn proved capable of winning games last season, which is all you can ask of a reserve quarterback. Aaron Rodgers is in his prime and as hungry as ever to succeed. Few NFL teams have a better quarterback room than the Packers.
Call me old school, but I loved when the Packers boasted a backfield consisting of Jim Taylor, Paul Hornung, Elijah Pitts, Jim Grabowski and Donny Anderson in 1966. That might go down as the greatest collection of backs during a single season in team history. Then again, this year's crop of Eddie Lacy, James Starks, DuJuan Harris, John Kuhn and Johnathan Franklin is also pretty impressive, assuming Lacy and Starks perform like they did in 2013, and Harris and Franklin are healthy. The Packers feature a pass-heavy attack, but defenses can't sleep on the ground game with this group of backs.
Before the draft, the Packers were one injury away from being forced to use Myles White, with nine career catches, as their No. 3 receiver. After the draft, White will be hard-pressed to make the team. The Packers loaded up at an important position by drafting three receivers. Davante Adams (second round), Jared Abbrederis (fifth round) and Jeff Janis (seventh round) don't have to make big splashes as rookies, but they might prove effective in spot duty and take some pressure off big guns Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb. Rodgers is secretly grinning from ear to ear with the weapons at his disposal.
The more I see rookie third-round pick Richard Rodgers in practice, the more I think the Packers might be just fine at a supposed position of weakness. The expected loss of Jermichael Finley hurt, but let's face it, Finley rarely lived up to his lofty expectations. With Rodgers and Andrew Quarless, the Packers could have a serviceable duo. If either Brandon Bostick or Colt Lyerla realize their potential, this could emerge as a talent-laden group and Finley might be forgotten quickly.
Take this with a grain of salt because it's June, but I'm going out on a limb and predicting that JC Tretter wins the starting center job and winds up being an upgrade over Evan Dietrich-Smith. I like Tretter's temperament. I like how coaches try but fail to hold back praise for Tretter. If not for a freak ankle injury last season as a rookie, Tretter might very well have beaten out Dietrich-Smith for the starting job. Adding a healthy Bryan Bulaga to a group that includes Pro Bowl-caliber guard Josh Sitton, up-and-coming left tackle David Bakhtiari and old standby guard T.J. Lang could make for a rock-solid line.
Mike Daniels talks a good game in the locker room, but better yet for the Packers, he goes out on the field and backs it up. After an impressive 2013 season, Daniels promises to be meaner and tougher this year. Perhaps the same will be said about the entire unit. Likely gone for good are veterans Ryan Pickett and Johnny Jolly, but helping to fill the void on the roster are Julius Peppers, who also will play linebacker, and Letroy Guion, signed away from the Minnesota Vikings. There's also a strong likelihood B.J. Raji and Datone Jones will improve after less-than-stellar seasons, while Josh Boyd should continue his upward arc.
Peppers, Clay Matthews and Mike Neal form a solid nucleus on the outside, and Nick Perry could add something if he ever gets healthy. The potential exists for a strong pass rush to emerge. On the inside, things don't look nearly as rosy. The Packers stood pat and likely will take their lumps. A.J. Hawk, Brad Jones and Jamari Lattimore aren't close to Pro Bowl status and could be the weak link on an otherwise improved defensive unit.
You could do a lot worse than Sam Shields, Tramon Williams and Casey Hayward as your top three cornerbacks. They have just one Pro Bowl appearance among them (Williams in 2010), but they are more than capable. Micah Hyde will provide depth, although he could just as easily wind up at safety, and Davon House can be effective in spot duty. At safety, it would be disappointing if first-round draft pick Ha Ha Clinton-Dix doesn't win the starting job opposite Morgan Burnett. Whether it's Hyde or Clinton-Dix in the starting lineup, the Packers will be significantly better than a year ago, when M.D. Jennings and Jerron McMillian played badly enough to not get invited back. Burnett didn't live up to his new contract and has something to prove, even if he was dragged down by poor safety play around him last season.
Kicker Mason Crosby, punter Tim Masthay and long snapper Brett Goode give the Packers experience and peace of mind.
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