Green Bay Packers 2011 Training Camp: Previewing the Offense
Let’s take a quick look at how the Green Bay Packers offense stacks up heading into training camp by breaking down each position individually. Packers training camp starts Saturday, July 30th in De Pere, Wisconsin.
Quarterback: Aaron Rodgers, Matt Flynn, Graham Harrell
The Packers head into the 2011 season with likely the best 1-2 combination at quarterback in the NFL. Starter Aaron Rodgers put up fantastic numbers for the third consecutive year, throwing for 28 touchdowns and 11 interceptions while narrowly missing out on becoming the first quarterback in NFL history to throw for 4,000 yards in his first three seasons under center.
He didn’t let up once the playoffs started, as he threw for three scores in a win over Philadelphia then thrashed the Falcons in the NFC Divisional round with one of the more impressive playoff performances in Packers playoff history. He completed 86.1 percent of his passes that night (31-for-36) for 366 yards and three touchdowns. In the Super Bowl, Rodgers took home MVP honors for his 304-yard, 3-touchdown masterpiece against the NFL’s No. 1 rated defense. He’s a bonafide regular season MVP candidate heading into the season.
Concussions were Rodgers’ kryptonite, however, as he suffered two (at Washington, at Detroit) during the regular season. The latter kept him out of a huge matchup with the New England Patriots, but that allowed backup Matt Flynn to showcase his ever-improving skill set in primetime. Flynn put up Rodgers-like numbers, throwing for 251 yards and three touchdowns in a 31-27 loss that turned out to be a jumping-off point for the Packers playoff run.
There was talk that Flynn, who will be a free agent after the ’11 season, might be traded to a quarterback-needy team this offseason, but the Packers seem intent on holding onto him as a valuable backup. With Rodgers’ injury history, that could turn out to be an important non-move. Even he if does leave after the season, he’s worth more to the Packers this year as a backup than a mid-to-low draft choice.
If they would have dealt him, any injury to Rodgers might have thrown Graham Harrell into the starting mix. While he put up huge numbers and was fourth in the Heisman voting his senior year at Texas Tech, Harrell is obviously raw in many areas. He went undrafted in ’09 and spent sometime in the CFL before latching on in Green Bay. The league’s lockout also cost him valuable time in Mike McCarthy’s quarterback school. The Packers chose not to draft or sign any quarterback this offseason, so his No. 3 spot on the depth chart seems somewhat secure.
Running Back: Ryan Grant, James Starks, Alex Green, Brandon Jackson (FA), Dimitri Nance, Brandon Saine
What turned out to be a major position of weakness for the Packers in 2010 looks like it could be a strength this season. Three-year starter Ryan Grant returns from a Week 1 ankle injury that cost him all but eight carries of his 2010 season. He says the ankle is 100% and he’s going to be hungry to prove he still belongs on a team that won the Super Bowl without him.
As the NFL’s second-leading rusher from 2007-09, he deserves the opportunity to reclaim his starting spot. Keep an eye on how his surgically-repaired ankle handles the early stresses of camp, however, as Grant made his living on tremendous foot agility near the line of scrimmage. Any handcuffing of that skill-set by by the ankle could severely hamper his effectiveness.
With Grant out, the Packers initially turned to Brandon Jackson but he was overmatched in the No. 1 role. Jackson’s strengths lie on third down, where his abilities in pass protection and catching the ball out of the backfield are best utilized. He’ll test the free agent market but it’s unclear if any team will give him an expanded role or paycheck. His best bet might be returning to Green Bay, but the Packers did draft his potential replacement in Hawaii running back Alex Green. Green was an explosive runner across the Pacific pond and has no problem catching the ball out of the backfield.
2010 sixth-rounder James Starks was anointed the savior once it was painfully obvious that Jackson wasn’t the answer. But there was a pause, as a hamstring injury suffered early in camp put him on the PUP list to start the season. He made his NFL debut in Week 13 against the San Francisco 49ers, rushing for 73 yards on 18 carries and displaying the type of aggressive and angry running style that the Packers running game had lacked.
Starks then disappeared for the rest of regular season before bursting onto the national scene in the postseason. His 123 yards against the Eagles set a new Packers rookie playoff record, and the 315 total yards rushing he accumulated in four games led the NFL postseason. Injuries are still an issue, however, as Starks missed his entire senior season at Buffalo and has yet to make it through a full NFL training camp. He’ll fight Grant in camp for carries.
Dimitri Nance is under contract but faces an uphill battle to make the roster. He isn’t above average in any one area and now has some serious talent to compete with. Undrafted free agent pickup Brandon Saine will be a guy to watch in camp. He’s got an NFL body with plenty of speed and above average hands. If he doesn’t crack the 53-man roster, he’d be a solid addition to the Packers practice squad.
UPDATE: Brandon Jackson signed with the Cleveland Browns on Thursday.
Fullback: John Kuhn (FA), Korey Hall (FA), Quinn Johnson, Jon Hoese
It’s been said year-after-year, but 2011 has to be the season where the three fullback experiment finally dies. Both John Kuhn and Korey Hall are free agents, and Quinn Johnson hasn’t developed into the every down battering ram that many thought he’d be.
Kuhn will likely be re-signed, as he’s the most versatile of the bunch and a crowd favorite. Even if he wants more carries, it’s unlikely he’ll find a better situation than the one he could have in Green Bay. Hall is a core special teamer, but injuries have cost him chunks of the past few seasons. He might be the odd man out.
Johnson needs to show some improvement in camp to warrant a roster spot. He’s been spotty on special teams and hasn’t been an impact blocker in the run game. But at just 24 years old, the Packers may not be ready to give up on him just yet.
Green Bay also added undrafted free agent Jon Hoese, a 6-2, 240-pounder who was a special teams standout in college at Minnesota.
UPDATE: Korey Hall signed with the New Orleans Saints on Thursday.
Receiver: Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, Jordy Nelson, James Jones (FA), Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, Brett Swain, Antonio Robinson, Chastin West, Tori Gurley, Shaky Smithson, Diondre Borel (QB t0 WR), Kerry Taylor
The Packers receiving corps is a talented group with a wide array of abilities.
Heading into his sixth professional season, No. 1 receiver Greg Jennings has established himself as one of the top 5-10 receivers in the NFL. After Jermichael Finley went down in Week 5 last season, Jennings took over the heavy lifting of the offense and put together the best season of his career (97 catches for 1,568 yards and 14 touchdowns in 20 games). He’s in the discussion for being the league’s best route runner (see double move vs. Minnesota) and is the team’s best deep threat despite standing just 5-11.
The starter opposite Jennings is unclear heading into camp. Everyone assumes 36-year-old Donald Driver is on the decline, but let’s see what he can do with a healthy body and full offseason of rest before he’s written off. He could come back with the energy to take hold of a bigger chunk of the offense after posting his lowest numbers since the 2001 season. Driver will attempt to hold off Jordy Nelson, and free agent James Jones for the No. 2 receiver role.
Nelson is entering his fourth NFL season and should be poised for a breakout season after posting career best numbers in 2010. He figures to factor into the offense more heavily, and after his playoff numbers, including a 9-catch, 140-yard performance in the Super Bowl, it’d be hard to blame McCarthy and offensive coordinator Joe Philbin for finding ways to get him more targets.
Jones has all the talent you’d want in a No. 1 or 2 receiver, but he’s never been able to put it all together on a consistent basis. As an unrestricted free agent, he’s likely going to find a better offer someplace other than Green Bay. But Rodgers has publicly stated he wants Jones back, telling ESPN Milwaukee’s Steve “Homer” True and Mitch Nelles that the Packers “have to bring him back” and that “he should be priority No. 1.” To me, Jones still looks like a good bet to leave.
Taking Jones spot would likely be Randall Cobb, who was drafted in the second round and could provide a physical threat to the slot. He may still be raw as a receiver, but the Packers could use Cobb in a variety of different ways. While not as fast as Percy Harvin, think of Cobb in a similar type role in Green Bay.
The No. 5 receiver spot could be an interesting battle. Brett Swain is the incumbent, but he’s going to face plenty of competition. Chastin West and Antonio Robinson both spent time on the Packers practice squad last season, and there seems to be some talent between Tori Gurley, Shaky Smithson, Diondre Borel and Kerry Taylor. The man with the best blend of offensive firepower and special teams ability will make the cut.
Tight End: Jermichael Finley, Andrew Quarless, Tom Crabtree, D.J. Williams, Ryan Taylor, Spencer Havner
The Packers are loaded at tight end, with six players who are talented enough to make the Packers roster. Jermichael Finley, despite playing in just five games, is the clear cut No. 1 and a candidate to have a monster season. Just look over some of these stats from his limited playing time: seven catches over 20 yards, zero drops and he was on pace for over 80 catches and 1,200 receiving yards. There’s no telling the kind of numbers he could put up with an injury-free season.
The rest of the depth chart is up for grabs. Andrew Quarless played the most snaps of any tight end last season, but as a 21-year-old rookie, he was overwhelmed at times. If he continues to mature, Quarless could be another dangerous pass-catching option.
Tom Crabtree steadily improved over the course of last season and his blocking will give him a solid chance at sticking in Green Bay. Rookies D.J. Williams and Ryan Taylor are wildcards, as Williams could be a versatile underneath passing threat and Taylor looks like he could be in the mold of Spencer Havner. Speaking of Havner, it sounds like the Packers will give him another shot at cracking the roster after being both cut and brought back during the course of last season.
Tackle: Chad Clifton, Bryan Bulaga, Mark Tauscher, Derek Sherrod, Marshall Newhouse, Chris Campbell
As expected, both Chad Clifton and Bryan Bulaga will come to camp as the Packers two starting tackles. Clifton had some early struggles but had maybe the best stretch of his career to end the 2010 season. He faced a murder’s row of Justin Tuck (11.5 sacks), Julius Peppers (twice, 8), Trent Cole (10) John Abraham (13) and James Harrison (10) in the final six weeks and only surrendered two total sacks. That’s impressive no matter how you slice it up.
Bulaga also had his up-and-downs but was a steady presence on the right side once he settled in. As a former first rounder, he should be expected to take another forwards jump in 2011.
Mark Tauscher, who turned 34 in June and hasn’t finished an entire season since ’07, is a likely cap casualty. He’s owed nearly $6 million in base salary and bonuses next season, a price Green Bay can’t even think about paying him. The Packers have plenty of young blood to replace him, however, as first round pick Derek Sherrod is the likely left tackle of the future and 22-year-old Marshall Newhouse has gained confidence in the eyes of Packers coaches. Chris Campbell spent the year on the practice squad and has the kind of big body (6-5, 325) that the position warrants.
Guard: Josh Sitton, Daryn Colledge (FA), T.J. Lang, Nick McDonald, Caleb Schlauderaff, Adrian Battles, Jason Spitz (FA), Ray Dominguez
Left guard figures to be the one potential position on the offensive line that could see a new starter in 2011. Five-year starter Daryn Colledge is a free agent, and while it’s still 50-50 that he comes back, the Packers have planned for his departure. T.J. Lang will likely get the first crack, but he struggled mightily in his limited playing time in 2010. He’ll need to look considerably better in camp to hold off Nick McDonald. The coaches love McDonald, and his size and demeanor give him a real shot at being the starter.
No matter who plays on the left side, the right guard position is reserved for third-year starter Josh Sitton. He played at an All-Pro caliber level last season and deserved more individual accolades. With another season like ’10, those will surely come. Put simply, Sitton is one the premier young interior lineman in the NFL and it’s time for him to get the appropriate looks.
Rounding out the guards are 2011 sixth-round pick Caleb Schlauderaff, 2010 practice squad signee Adrian Battles, and 2011 undrafted free agent signee Ray Dominguez. All three will have the chance to replace Jason Spitz on the roster, as the Packers seem intent on letting the former starter find better opportunities on the free agent market.
UPDATE: Daryn Colledge signed with the Arizona Cardinals and Jason Spitz signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Center: Scott Wells, Evan Dietrich-Smith, Sampson Genus
30-year-old Scott Wells will be penciled in at starting center for the seventh straight season. He’s consistent, smart and always seems to be on the same page with Rodgers. I thought Wells played at a Pro Bowl level at times during 2010. Evan Dietrich-Smith got beat out by McDonald during camp but was brought back in late December. There’s nothing special about him and the Packers would potentially still go to McDonald if Wells were to suffer an injury.
The Packers also brought in Sampson Genus, who was a team captain at South Florida and a two-time All-Big East honoree. He’ll help his chances by showing a capacity to play both center and at either guard position.——————
Zach Kruse is a 23-year-old sports journalist with a passion for the Green Bay Packers. He currently lives in Wisconsin and is working on his journalism degree, while also covering prep sports for The Dunn Co. News.
You can read more of Zach's Packers articles on AllGreenBayPackers.com.Follow @zachkruse2