Will the Green Bay Packers be forever young? Or is this the year they start filling out their uniforms and eating at the grownups' table?
After four consecutive seasons of being the NFL's youngest team, it's time to find out.
General manager Ted Thompson's build-through-the-draft philosophy has served the organization well, but since the "Greybearded One" left two years ago this team has wandered aimlessly looking for father figures to guide it. Last year, there was evidence of the team standing on its own two legs, as Green Bay narrowly missed a shot at the NFL's Elite Eight in a 51-45 overtime loss to Arizona.
Thompson hasn't added any veteran free agents but did re-sign four key ones of his own—nose tackle Ryan Pickett, safety Nick Collins and offensive tackles Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher—when in previous years he might have let them go. It might be that Thompson sees the light about constantly turning over his roster because he clearly wants to give this group another shot together.
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers earned some spurs last year and will be among the many who will shed the "youngster" label in '10. The success of this team will rest on their shoulders.
Offense: Under coach Mike McCarthy, the offensive line never has been settled, but the return of Clifton and Tauscher and the addition of first-round pick Bryan Bulaga provides stability that the team didn't have last year.
Clifton will be 34 and Tauscher 33 by the time the season starts, so the Packers know they have to start grooming some of their young tackles to take over. As a result, Bulaga likely will get a chance to see time early. Clifton played through nagging injuries last year, and when he couldn't play it devastated the line. This time around, virtually every position on the line has two-deep options, which means players will be able to focus on no more than two positions during training camp and the season.
Defense: The linebackers must improve. There's plenty of talent with Nick Barnett, Clay Matthews, Brandon Chillar, A.J. Hawk, Brady Poppinga, Brad Jones and Desmond Bishop. Capers liked this group so much he used a "psycho" package that featured five linebackers when injury struck his defensive line. This year though, he needs to sort out who deserves more playing time than others.
Chillar is built like an outside linebacker and is a solid blitzer, so he could see the bulk of the time on third downs. Barnett also might get more chances at outside linebacker.
B.J. Raji, NT. Raji is healthy after playing through a sprained ankle most of his rookie season and has forced Ryan Pickett to move to end. Raji is a powerful man with the ability to drive opposing linemen back and then use his quickness to get by them. He'll be called upon to rush the passer as much as he will be called upon to counter double-teams.
"It's good to see B.J. healthy. He was hurt there in training camp, and you could really see the foot quickness. He is rare. Both him and Ryan Pickett, for big guys, have outstanding feet. B.J. now has a better understanding of the defense, and we look for a lot more production out of him this year." — coach Mike McCarthy
"They pose a lot of challenges. Very talented group. Aaron Rodgers, all he's done is gotten better and better and better. He's got a very strong arm, a very quick release, he can throw the ball a country mile; when he leaves the pocket he has great speed, and they do things that he's comfortable doing. They do things that he likes to do. I think the receiving corps is outstanding, Ryan Grant's a great back, they've got great blockers at fullback, they've got some athletic, big, talented tight ends. So they're really talented."
QB Aaron Rodgers, Matt Flynn
FB John Kuhn, Quinn Johnson
RB Ryan Grant, Brandon Jackson
WR Donald Driver, James Jones
WR Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson
TE Jermichael Finley, Spencer Havner
LT Chad Clifton, Bryan Bulaga
LG Jason Spitz, Daryn Colledge
C Scott Wells, Jason Spitz
RG Josh Sitton, Evan Dietrich-Smith
RT Mark Tauscher, T.J.Lang
DE Ryan Pickett, Mike Neal
NT B.J. Raji, Ryan Pickett
DE Cullen Jenkins, C.J.Wilson
OLB Brad Jones, Cyril Obiozor
ILB A.J. Hawk, Desmond Bishop
ILB Nick Barnett, Brandon Chillar
OLB Clay Matthews, Brady Poppinga
CB Charles Woodson, Pat Lee
CB Al Harris, Tramon Williams
SS Atari Bigby, Morgan Burnett
FS Nick Collins, Will Blackmon
K Mason Crosby
P Tim Masthay, Chris Bryan
KR Will Blackmon
PR Will Blackmon
LS Brett Goode
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