Bar for 2015 Packers set as high as it gets
For all the angst and hand-wringing after the Green Bay Packers' staggering loss to Seattle in the NFC championship game last January and a quintessential, free-agent-less Ted Thompson offseason, here's where we are at the start of training camp:
The Green Bay Packers probably are the team to beat in the NFL this season.
Las Vegas thinks so. Bovada.lv gives the Packers the best odds (6-to-1) to win Super Bowl 50, just ahead of Seattle (13-to-2) and Indianapolis (8-to-1).
It's hard not to agree.
The Packers return all their starters from the NFL's leading scoring offense last season. Only one of their key players on that side of the ball has potential age issues, receiver Jordy Nelson, who turned 30 in May and is coming off offseason hip surgery to repair what he termed an "impingement." While that's worth keeping an eye on, it bears noting that 53 receivers have caught at least 70 passes in the season they turned 30 years old. So Nelson isn't yet at the age where top receivers start falling off the table.
On defense, the Packers lost two good cornerbacks (Tramon Williams and Davon House) in free agency who helped provide exceptional depth at that critical position last year. Thompson drafted cornerbacks (Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins) in the first two rounds to help replace them.
More importantly, defensive coordinator Dom Capers is planning to use Clay Matthews like he did the second half of last season, which changed the Packers' defense.
After eight games, when Matthews played strictly outside linebacker, the Packers ranked No. 19 in the NFL in points allowed and No. 25 in yards allowed. But counting only the final eight games, after Matthews started lining up regularly at inside linebacker, they ranked Nos. 9 and 6. That's plenty good enough to win a title.
In fact, the start of camp Thursday had the feel of 2011, when the Packers were coming off a Super Bowl win with a mostly young team and went on to a 15-1 regular season. Then again, those Packers bombed out of the playoffs against the New York Giants' dominant defensive line.
Regardless, the bar for this team — as it was in '11 — is as high as it gets, and it should be. Thompson and coach Mike McCarthy have built their team the way they like to build it, with draft picks and from within, and their quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, is at the top of his game at age 31.
"It doesn't feel like there needs to be a lot of change," Rodgers said after the first day of camp Thursday. "We've got the team that we want."
Of course, plenty could go wrong or not pan out for Thompson and McCarthy, starting with health. The one prerequisite, as if it even needs saying, is Rodgers' well being. If his season ends early, so does it for the Packers.
Also, Matthews is 29 and has a long history of pulled hamstrings. A serious injury to him would be a huge blow, maybe even catastrophic. And much is riding on Julius Peppers playing similarly at age 35 as he did with his impact season at outside linebacker last year. You can't blame the Packers for betting on his freakish talent, but Father Time might prevail there.
Plenty of other areas warrant watching as well. Can second-year pro Richard Rodgers, who has skill and size but not speed, upgrade the tight end position, which is the offense's weak link heading into camp?
Will the Packers get good enough play at the Nos. 2 and 3 cornerbacks from the group of Casey Hayward, Micah Hyde, and rookies Randall and Rollins? Will a seemingly re-invigorated B.J. Raji add some punch to the defensive line after missing last season with a torn biceps?
And will any new or young player add unexpected playmaking on either side of the ball?
That's what the next weeks and months are for. What we know now is that Thompson's success in signing Peppers and Letroy Guion in free agency last season didn't change an iota of his thinking for how to build a team. He now famously is the NFL's only general manager who didn't sign a free agent from another team this year.
This offseason we learned instead how Thompson views today's NFL. Drafting Randall and Rollins with his first two picks, and waiting until the fourth round to select an inside linebacker (Jake Ryan), shows the degree to which the NFL has become a passing game. If you have someone who can't cover, the top quarterbacks will exploit him, like Rodgers did in torching New England's weak spot at the No. 3 cornerback in a 26-21 win at Lambeau Field last season. Thompson put major resources into trying to prevent that from happening to his team.
Thompson also seems to have decided it's not worth drafting an inside linebacker with a high pick unless that player can run almost like a defensive back. Though Matthews, Seattle's Bobby Wagner, Carolina's Luke Kuechly and Detroit's DeAndre Levy are proof that an exceptional player there still can make a huge difference at that position of diminishing value in the NFL.
Regardless, the broad brush strokes say the Packers are the team to beat.
Seattle added playmaking tight end Jimmy Graham, but it has contract issues with quarterback Russell Wilson and two of its better defensive players, Michael Bennett and Kam Chancellor. Those things can take an edge off a team. You also wonder if Marshawn Lynch's punishing running style will start catching up with him at age 29. There was no sign of it last year, and he's a special back, but one offseason can matter with players that age.
Indianapolis has quarterback Andrew Luck, who already is elite and one day will dominate the league. But he might not have enough around him to win a title yet.
And New England is more reliant on Tom Brady than probably any team in the league is on one player. He can carry a franchise, but can he do it all the way to yet another Super Bowl title at age 38, which he'll turn next week?
Yes, the Packers are the favorites for good reason. The big things (quarterback, offensive talent) are in their favor. And while the little things matter, in the end it probably will come down to what it almost always does: Can Rodgers outplay his counterpart in the games that matter most?
— email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.