Why the Packers could be even better in 2015

Pete Dougherty
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As far as devastating defeats go, it's hard to do much worse than the Green Bay Packers blowing a 12-point lead in the final 4 minutes of the NFC championship game.

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) gives a thumbs-up to the crowd after the Packers scored against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the fourth quarter during the Week 16 game at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla.

But despite the gloom that comes with the frittered chance at a second Super Bowl in the Mike McCarthy era, here's the truth: The Packers are in just as good a position to get to the Super Bowl next year as they were last year at this time. Maybe even better.

The oddsmakers definitely think so. The Packers' 7-to-1 odds to win the Super Bowl in 2016 are third-best, according to Westgate LV SuperBook, behind only Seattle (5-to-1) and New England (6-to-1).

But more to the point, the Packers will be a Super Bowl contender as long as Aaron Rodgers is their quarterback, just as they were with Brett Favre. And if you're the Packers, once you've recovered from the shock of losing to the Seattle Seahawks, you have to like your chances in 2015.

Of course, part of that depends on the offseason. Who stays, who goes, who's new. We'll get into that shortly.

But Rodgers is in his position's prime, which is what matters most. Assuming general manager Ted Thompson re-signs receiver Randall Cobb, the Packers should be about as good on offense as they were this season, when they led the league in scoring. And with a decent draft and some improvement from within, they could get a little better on defense.

McCarthy clearly was trying to set that tone at his season-closing news conference Wednesday, which was delayed a week because of the death of his brother Joe. He no doubt has to consider the possibility of a hangover from the loss to the Seahawks, but he dismissed it Wednesday in what surely was a message more to his players and coaches than the public at large.

"The 2015 football team will not bear the burden of what happened in 2014 or before that," McCarthy said. "That's not the way we operate. We won't internalize the things that go on outside our building. We're going to create another opportunity to build the best football team that we can in 2015, and we're going to go for it."

The Packers' roster always will skew young as long as Thompson is GM, and rightly so. Most players in the NFL are replaceable, and younger players often bring hunger and upside. This season again showed Thompson was right in letting veterans such as receiver James Jones and center Evan Dietrich-Smith walk in free agency. The Packers basically had a foot in the Super Bowl door without them.

Thompson has the usual long list of free agents (11) this offseason, though only a couple will be hard decisions. Those calls in turn will help determine his priorities in the draft and possible free-agent signings.

The player with the greatest potential for drop-off is outside linebacker Julius Peppers, who turned 35 earlier this month. There's significant risk in assuming he can remain a difference maker for another season, but the guess here is he's a freakish enough athlete to do it one more time.

The cornerback play could slip too if Tramon Williams and Davon House leave in free agency.

On the other side, the best chances for improved playmaking come from first-round draft pick Ha Ha Clinton-Dix at safety and whoever Thompson drafts at inside linebacker.

But really, the Packers have a roster full of young players, any one or two of whom could be much better players in 2015. That's not a given, but it wouldn't be a stunner if, say, Richard Rodgers at tight end, or Casey Hayward at cornerback, made a much greater impact than this season.

Green Bay Packers receiver Randall Cobb (18) stiff arms defender Ron Brooks (33) against the Buffalo Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park, N.Y., December 14, 2014.

Of Thompson's 11 free agents, Cobb has to be the highest priority, and it's hard to see Thompson letting his No. 2 receiver hit the open market in March. This has the makings of Sam Shields all over again, where the sides reach a deal just as the deadline of free agency hits.

Bryan Bulaga, the starting right tackle, might be the hardest call, because he could be expensive. Anyone with access to the Internet can quickly find that Bulaga probably will be the top right tackle on the market.

If I'm the Packers, I make a hard push to re-sign him, which would leave the starting offensive line under contract for two more seasons, an eternity in the NFL. Generally, if you want to save money, offensive line is the place to do it. But with two starters on their rookie contracts (left tackle David Bakhtiari and center Corey Linsley), Thompson can justify the expense.

Despite Bulaga's durability issues in the past, that could mean paying him in the range of the game's highest-paid right tackle, Indianapolis' Gosder Cherilus, who averages $7 million a year. But I'd be inclined to do it.

It's a given that the Packers will lose one of Williams and House. Paying Bulaga could mean losing both.

House probably will get starter's money on the open market — $4 million a year or so — and at that price I'd let him walk. As much as he helped them this season, he's not worth that kind of money to the Packers.

Williams' age (32 next season) will be the limiting factor in his next contract, though he's still a springy athlete and might cost in the $3.5 million or $4 million range a year on a shorter-term deal. If Bulaga's deal jeopardizes re-signing him, I'd consider not re-signing defensive lineman B.J. Raji if it would help bring back Williams for another season as a starter.

Raji likely will cost around half that on another prove-it deal after missing this season because of a torn biceps. The Packers had started talks with defensive lineman Letroy Guion late in the season, so it appears likely he'll re-sign before the start of free agency. He'll probably end up in the range of $1.5 million to $2 million a year as well.

Keep in mind that these decisions usually are fluid. You never know what might happen when the dominoes start falling in February and March. Plans change on the fly. But whatever Thompson does will determine draft priorities.

If Bulaga leaves, then right tackle moves way up the list. Same if both cornerbacks are gone.

Packers linebacker A.J. Hawk calls defensive signals against the Minnesota Vikings on Oct. 2.

The highest priority remains inside linebacker, where it's a given A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones won't be back. Clay Matthews has to move back to outside linebacker, but the Packers need a good player to replace him as the starter next to Sam Barrington. And just because it's a priority doesn't mean an inside linebacker will be worth taking late in the first round. But it's hard to see Thompson waiting much past the second round to add one.

I'd probably name tight end as the second priority, though right tackle or cornerback would supersede if Bulaga or both cornerbacks leave. Outside linebackers always are valuable in a 3-4 defense. And cornerback is relatively high on the list either way. Decent cover men are hard to find, and the Nos. 2, 3 and even 4 cornerbacks in this league can win games. The Packers strong cornerback play this year proved how valuable quality depth at that position can be.

— and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty

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