Rodgers gives Packers title aspirations

Ryan Wood
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Mike McCarthy thinks the Green Bay Packers are in good position as a new season begins, but there’s no way of really knowing.

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) passes in the first quarter of the pre-seaon NFL football game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Sunday, Aug. 23, 2015 in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Don Wright)

Uncertainty can drive a coach mad this time of year. Until games are played, everything remains up in the air. Will the Packers, as so many have predicted, end their season with a win in Super Bowl 50? Will they miss the playoffs entirely?

Anything is possible.

There are reasons for optimism, and reasons to be pessimistic. Same with 31 other NFL teams. Here are five reasons for hope, and five potential stumbling blocks, for the Packers in 2015.

5 reasons for confidence

1.  An MVP quarterback: So long as Aaron Rodgers is behind center, the Packers will win a fair share of games. The two-time MVP is one of the NFL’s three best quarterbacks, if not the very best. Rodgers had one of the most efficient seasons in NFL history last season, throwing 38 touchdowns with only five interceptions. Four of his picks were passes that deflected off receivers’ hands. Rodgers’ ability to make impact plays while limiting his team’s negative snaps is unparalleled in the NFL.

2. Middle of the pack: Even with deficiencies remaining at inside linebacker, the Packers’ defense is a different beast with Clay Matthews in the middle. His explosive athleticism and sideline-to-sideline range make him one of the best linebackers in the NFL, no matter where he lines up. At inside linebacker, Matthews can affect every snap in a way he never could lining up on the edge. It’s no coincidence the Packers’ defense instantly turned into a championship-caliber unit the moment Matthews moved to inside linebacker last season. With a full offseason to learn his new spot on the field, Matthews – and the Packers’ defense – should be only better in 2015.

3. Lacy in his prime: There’s a reason Eddie Lacy has drawn the attention of fantasy football players this preseason. More than his 1,100-yard seasons in each of his first two years, the Packers running back has the complete package. Lacy became a legitimate receiving threat last year, catching 42 passes for 427 yards. His dual-threat ability complements Rodgers perfectly and could be especially important this season. It’s realistic to think Lacy could surpass 500 receiving yards this fall along with another 1,000-yard season. It will also be interesting what kind of jump Lacy makes in his third season. Jamaal Charles, DeMarco Murray and LeSean McCoy are among the NFL’s elite running backs who saw significant production increases during their third pro season.

4. Offensive line continuity: Finally, the Packers got their entire offensive line back on the practice field when right guard T.J. Lang from a concussion Wednesday. The starting offensive line was battered with injuries during the preseason. Only second-year center Corey Linsley got through training camp unscathed. However, the starting group of left tackle David Bakhtiari, left guard Josh Sitton, Linsley, Lang and right tackle Bryan Bulaga started the final 16 games together last fall, counting playoffs. They finished 2014 as one of the league’s best offensive lines. Finally back together, there’s no reason to think the Packers’ offensive line won’t once again be one of the NFL’s better units in 2015.

5.  A driven Daniels: Spend any amount of time around defensive end Mike Daniels, and his intensity is easily detected. The Packers’ best defensive lineman is fierce on the field, always motivated off it. Now, he has an extra reason to be driven this season. Daniels, a fourth-round pick in 2012, will play out the final year of his rookie contract this fall. Players generally perform better in a contract year, and there’s no reason to expect anything less from Daniels. If he emerges into a Pro Bowl-caliber defensive lineman, it could have a major impact on the Packers’ defense.

5 reasons for concern

1. Jordy Nelson’s right knee: When the All-Pro receiver’s season was ripped away because of a torn ACL in the Packers’ second preseason game, it sparked plenty of justified frustration within the locker room. These things happen in football, but it’s hard to stomach non-contact injuries in exhibition games. Nelson had 98 catches for 1,519 yards and 13 touchdowns last season, but it’s more than production that will be missing from the Packers’ offense. Nelson’s ability to spread the field vertically on go routes, and his inherent chemistry with Rodgers, are two irreplaceable dynamics.

2.  Not-so-special teams: When special teams coordinator Ron Zook was promoted this offseason, he said the Packers’ third unit was only a few plays from being solid last season. Unfortunately, those few plays were enough to derail an entire season. Improvement is mandatory, and the preseason was far from promising. Penalties were in abundance. Punter Tim Masthay struggled until the preseason finale. The return game still seems to be lacking. It’s early, and the Packers certainly could turn around their special teams, but the way they looked in August gave plenty of reason for pause.

3.  Aging Peppers: Great players have a way of limiting the effects of age, and Peppers is a great player. As he’s crept deeper into his 30s, Peppers has remained productive. He was the Packers’ best edge rusher last season. Still, Father Time will eventually win this battle. Will it be age 35? The Packers need Peppers to have the same pass-rushing presence as his first year in Green Bay.

4.  Inexperienced secondary: The trio of rookie cornerbacks looked good in training camp, but that doesn’t change the fact Damarious Randall, Quinten Rollins and LaDarius Gunters have combined for zero regular-season snaps. As promising as they looked in the preseason, cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt Jr.’s tone quickly changed this week. Until the games start to count, there’s no telling how young players will adapt to the speed of the game. If Randall, Rollins and Gunter have significant growing pains – and if first-team perimeter starter Casey Hayward struggles – it could be a long season.

5.  Worth a dime: The Packers have a big question to answer when they go to their dime package. Ideally, Sam Barrington would be their dime linebacker, but he struggled in pass coverage during the preseason – including two touchdown passes allowed against the Philadelphia Eagles. Jake Ryan is a rookie, Nate Palmer is a converted outside linebacker, and Clay Matthews is best served as a pass rusher in third-and-long situations. Someone needs to emerge in this spot.

— and follow him on Twitter @ByRyanWood

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