Healthy Packers look to reclaim NFC North
The Green Bay Packers' four-year rule atop the NFC North ended in 2015, though they still reached the playoffs as a wild-card team.
But that wasn't the only thing that was different in Green Bay last year.
Usually, the Packers' troubles had been their inability on defense to protect leads. Last season, however, quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the offense struggled, racking up the 10th-fewest yards per game. Rodgers couldn't get going largely because his top receiver, Jordy Nelson, tore his right anterior cruciate ligament in preseason. Nelson says he is now fully healthy and ready for 2016.
"You want to be out there and you want to have fun, so it's nice to at least be catching some balls and have the jersey on and cleats on and not 100% in tennis shoes and being a coach," Nelson said.
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Randall Cobb and Davante Adams were asked to compensate for Nelson's absence, but they struggled with their increased roles, and Adams was rarely healthy himself.
Overweight running back Eddie Lacy was unable to duplicate his first two seasons, in which he totaled 20 touchdowns on the ground.
Meanwhile, the defense had its best year since 2012. The secondary allowed the sixth-fewest passing yards and sixth-fewest passing touchdowns.
However this year, Pro Bowl linebacker Clay Matthews will be moving back outside after spending a lot of time in the middle in recent seasons. He's registered double-digit sacks one in the past three years.
"I think they anticipated getting me back on the outside, which I said time and time again not only do I feel most comfortable at but they do as well," Matthews said during organized team activities.
With Nelson returning and the defense firing, the Packers will remain in contention for the NFC North title. But they may now be the underdog with the blossoming Minnesota Vikings ready to defend the division crown.
Rodgers is coming off a poor season by his statistical standards. His 3,821 passing yards were his fewest in a full season since he became the starter in 2008. He threw his most interceptions (8) since 2012, and he had his lowest completion percentage (60.7%) and passer rating (92.7) since replacing Brett Favre. Brett Hundley enters his second season as Rodgers' backup.
Lacy spent the offseason shedding the weight that he gained in 2015, and he tentatively has regained his starting role. He's scheduled to be a free agent in 2017. James Starks moved ahead of Lacy last season and immediately provided another receiving weapon for Rodgers, catching 43 passes and averaging 9.1 yards per catch. Starks could see more snaps on passing downs.
Nelson's return will delight Cobb, who struggled as the No. 1 receiver. He gets to return to where he excels (in the slot) and Adams no longer will have to face top corners and should be able to get open more — assuming he hangs onto the No. 3 role. James Jones came back to Green Bay last year and filled in for Nelson with eight TDs. But Jones is a free agent, and it doesn't look like he'll return in 2016.
The Packers made a rare move in free agency and signed Jared Cook, who replaces Andrew Quarless. Green Bay could employ many two-tight-end sets with Cook and third-year player Richard Rodgers.
Rodgers was sacked 46 times last season, second most in the league and his highest season total since 2012. Many occurred because he didn't have Nelson, so he was left waiting for someone to get open. The pressure also increased when left tackle David Bakhtiari went down with an ankle injury toward the end of the year. The Packers' interior protection is still among the best in the league with Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang at the guard spots.
The only departing lineman is nose tackle B.J. Raji, who retired after seven years. The Packers drafted tackle Kenny Clark in the first round as a potential replacement. Neither starting defensive end (Datone Jones and Mike Daniels) is a star, but the Packers are excited about fourth-round pick Dean Lowry, who excels against the run.
Julius Peppers did not act like a 36-year-old last year, racking up 10½ sacks off the edge. Matthews, on the other hand, had his lowest sack output (6½) since 2011. The interior crew is inexperienced and lacks depth. Neither Sam Barrington nor Jake Ryan, in line to start, has been a full-time starter in the league.
Green Bay has done a great job building here through the draft. Last year's first-round pick, Damarious Randall, intercepted three passes, and 2014 first rounder Ha Ha Clinton-Dix has established himself as one of the best all-around free safeties in the league. He had three sacks, two interceptions, a forced fumble and 99 tackles last year. Solid Morgan Burnett teams with Clinton-Dix, and Sam Shields is the other corner. Micah Hyde will see plenty of snaps.
Fifth-round pick Trevor Davis, a return specialist at California, has elite speed. The Packers selected him because they have not had a kick-return touchdown since 2011, when Cobb handled the role. Kicker Mason Crosby re-signed for four years.
Mike McCarthy has led the Pack to postseason eight times in 10 seasons, including every year since 2009. Offensive coordinator Edgar Bennett was retained, but he will have a different support staff this season. The running backs, tight ends and wide receivers coaches are new.