The Green Bay Packers had so many injuries last season, they almost failed to make the playoffs, not qualifying until the last day. But then a funny thing happened: They ran the table, winning their first Super Bowl since 1996, and now all those injuries that crippled Green Bay last season make them the favorite to return.
Follow the logic: With 15 players on injured reserve, including six starters, the Packers were forced to press unlikely candidates into starting spots -- people like running back James Starks, safety Charlie Peprah, tight end Andrew Quarless and linebacker Desmond Bishop. So they played, they produced and now they're part of a roster that is so deep it's hard to find cracks in the ground floor.
|Five possibilities: Packers|
Cameron Heyward, DL, Ohio State: Can line up almost anywhere. Not a real outside pass-rusher but is terrific vs. the run and is versatile.
Aaron Williams, CB, Texas: Has great size, making him a prototypical NFL cornerback. Good run defender and solid defending the pass.
Jonathan Baldwin, WR, Pittsburgh: He should go somewhere late in the first round or early in the second. Has great size and is capable of making the circus catch.
Brooks Reed, OLB, Arizona: Three-year starter who is a bit of a tweener. More suited as 3-4 OLB and is a solid special-teams contributor.
Gabe Carimi, OT, Wisconsin: He probably won't last this long, and the odds of Green Bay taking a tackle with the first pick two years in a row are slim. But if he's there, how do you pass on him?
|Team Needs: All 32 teams|
But that's our job, so let's start looking. The Packers don't need to find a starter in this year's draft. They have plenty of quality candidates. But they still have needs, though they're few with all the players they have coming back. Nevertheless, there isn't anyone out there who can't improve, and the Packers qualify. So let's start the search and find what they're missing.
QB: Aaron Rodgers was the Super Bowl MVP, one of the best quarterbacks in the business and is entering his fourth season as a starter. That's good. Matt Flynn is the backup, and while inexperienced, he nearly beat New England in last year's only start. That's even better. Consider the Packers loaded here.
RB: The Packers played nearly all of last season without Ryan Grant, and they were supposed to be handicapped. Turns out they weren't, largely because James Starks got a chance to play -- and he became the postseason's leading rusher. With Starks pushing Grant, the Packers are in better shape at this position than they've been in years, even though Brandon Jackson and John Kuhn are free agents. I could see them drafting a prospect to groom, but not immediately.
WR: Donald Driver turned 36 this month, and while he has been good for a long time, he's bound to crater. So prepare for that day. Yeah, I know, the Packers have James Jones and Jordy Nelson to step in -- which is what they did in Super Bowl XLV -- but neither seems qualified as a No. 2, especially the inconsistent Jones, who drops too many passes. Brett Swain is a guy who may show up, but I wouldn't count on it. What I would count on is drafting another top receiver for one of the game's top quarterbacks. If you build your club around Aaron Rodgers, you better arm him with weapons -- and having Jermichael Finley back at tight end will help. But so would another top wideout.
TE: Finley is back, and he's not only a terrific red zone threat and one of Rodgers' favorite targets; he's one of the best pass-catching tight ends in the game. Yet the Packers won without him, and this is not brain surgery, folks. The Packers are better because of the Finley injury. Why? Because they discovered Quarless, and while he's no Finley, the Packers proved they can win with him.
OL: The club addressed the tackle position last year with the draft of University of Iowa tackle Bryan Bulaga, and he performed better than expected after stepping in for injured Mark Tauscher in Week 5. On the left side, Chad Clifton -- who rebounded surprisingly well from knee problems -- was injury free for the first time in three seasons and played well enough to be chosen to the Pro Bowl. But he turns 35 this season and has durability issues. Plus, Bulaga is best suited for the left side. With Tauscher seemingly out of the picture, this becomes an area the club may have to address again. Granted, the Packers could move Bulaga to left tackle and try third-year pro T.J. Langat right tackle, but he's in the mix at left guard, too. Plus, the team could do nothing, and hope Clifton has a repeat of 2010. Nevertheless, another tackle wouldn't hurt.
DL: Depth was an issue in 2010 when the Packers played without defensive tackle Johnny Jolley (suspended); without defensive end Cullen Jenkins for five games, including the last four of the regular season; without Ryan Pickett for two games; and without Justin Harrell and Mike Neal for most of the season. Yet the club withstood the losses, largely because defensive tackle B.J. Raji was terrific, producing 6.5 sacks and plugging the middle of the league's 18th-best run defense. Expect the Packers to be better against the run because they will have the bodies they did not a year ago. But they could use help on the outside. Pickett was nothing more than ordinary after splitting out to defensive end, and Cullen Jenkins probably will move on -- opening the door for someone like Jarius Wynn.
LB: When Green Bay lost outside linebacker Brad Jones to a season-ending injury, it plugged Frank Zombo and free agent Erik Walden into his position, and both produced results. But they could use a playmaker opposite Clay Matthews, runner-up in the Defensive Player of the Year voting, so they can start in April. I know, Jones is back and he showed some pass-rush ability in 2009. But he has durability issues. Zombo and Jones were decent, but the Packers could upgrade. Understand that we're grasping. Green Bay ranked second in scoring defense last season and fifth overall, so its needs aren't urgent. Nevertheless, it could vault to the top of the charts by improving this position. Oh, and its inside linebackers? With Hawk, Bishop and Nick Barnett inside, the Packers are deep and solid.
DB: There is no better pair of cornerbacks than Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams, but Woodson might be better suited to safety, which leaves nickel-back Sam Shields to step in. OK, fine. But then what? Pat Lee is inexperienced, which means there could be a need for a backup. But there isn't at safety, where Woodson could be in the mix. If he's not -- and I'm not saying he must move -- the Packers have the always dependable Nick Collins, Peprah, Atari Bigby and Morgan Burnett, last year's promising rookie who was lost to a knee injury. Yeah, I'd say they're stronger than most here.