|A.J. Hawk was among an underwhelming Packers linebacker core in 2011 that needs upgrading. (US Presswire)|
The Green Bay Packers appeared on their way to back-to-back titles late last season, with the playoffs going through Lambeau Field last January.
But along the way the New York Giants came in and upset Green Bay, putting an end to a season that was special in a lot of ways, other than the ending.
The Packers, who were the No. 1 seed in the NFC and flirted with an undefeated season, had defensive issues in 2011. So look for razor-sharp general manager Ted Thompson to use the upcoming draft to try and remedy those problems.
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Even with a star passer in Aaron Rodgers and an offense that was tops in the NFL, it's tough to win without a defense. Green Bay was third in total offense and last in the NFL in total defense.
The Packers have to improve that to the low teens at least. That's why this upcoming draft is so important.
QB: In Rodgers, the Packers have one of the NFL's best. He showed in 2011 that his 2010 season was the norm, which is why he was voted the league MVP. Rodgers excels at spreading the ball around and getting everybody involved. Rodgers is a given for the Packers. With Matt Flynn gone to Seattle in free agency, Graham Harrell is the No. 2. I would expect the Packers would try and get a veteran backup before the season.
RB: With Ryan Grant a free agent who might not be back, James Starks will have to do even more. Starks is a power runner who doesn't offer much in terms of the big play. Keep an eye on Brandon Saine. The Packers love his potential. He flashed some last season as a rookie. Alex Green has the quickness and potential to develop into a nice change-of-pace back.
WR: Greg Jennings is the best of a strong group. When Jennings missed time last season, the Packers offense wasn't the same. It is a unit that needs his ability to stretch the field. Jordy Nelson had his breakout season in 2011. He is a big, deceptively quick target who has developed a nice rapport with Rodgers. James Jones and veteran Donald Driver are the top backups, but keep an eye on Randall Cobb this year. He showed quickness last season in limited time and also as a return man. Cobb should be a bigger part of the offense this season.
TE: The Packers did the wise thing and re-signed free agent Jermichael Finley. He has the ability to be the next star tight end to emerge. But he was too inconsistent last season. Finley can run like a receiver and the Packers often split him out wide. Andrew Quarless, Tom Crabtree and D.J. Williams offer one of the deepest tight end groups in the NFL. They all fit the Packers style of offense.
OL: There will be a new center in 2012 since Scott Wells signed with the Rams. The Packers made a wise move and signed veteran Jeff Saturday, who was with the Colts for the past 12 seasons. Saturday is a smart, heady player who fits the Green Bay offense. The guards next to him will be Josh Sitton on the right side and T.J. Lang on the left side. They are a strong combination. Right tackle Bryan Bulaga really came on last season when he was on the field, but he missed time with injuries. The left tackle spot is still up in the air. Will Chad Clifton come back? Or will Marshall Newhouse start there? Clifton could be let go for cap reasons after starting just six games because of back problems. Second-year player Derek Sherrod is also in the mix. The top backup inside is Evan Dietrich-Smith, who can play guard and center.
DL: This is a unit that didn't play as well as expected in 2011. Nose tackle B.J. Raji emerged as a potential star down the stretch in 2010 and in the playoffs, but wasn't the same player last season. He was blocked way too much. Ryan Pickett was solid at his end spot, but the other spot didn't give much. Howard Green, who is a free agent, and Jarius Wynn saw time there. Wynn is penciled in as the starter now, but don't be surprised to see a high pick used on an end who can provide a pass rush. The Packers did agree to terms with Tony Hargrove, who has some pass-rush ability from the end spot. That's something this unit needs. Mike Neal, C.J. Wilson and Daniel Muir are some of the backups. The Packers need help here, but they also need Raji to play better.
LB: This unit really struggled in 2011. The coaches insisted that Clay Matthews was as good as he was in 2010, but I didn't see it that way. He was good, but he wasn't as dominant. He needs to be better rushing the passer. It would be nice if he had some help on the other side. Erik Walden is just OK. They need a better rusher from that spot. Desmond Bishop is nice player inside, but A.J. Hawk didn't play well at all. There is talk that D.J. Smith, who flashed when injuries put him in the lineup, might take over as the starter. Robert Francois and Brad Jones are other top reserves.
DB: The year the Packers won the Super Bowl, the secondary was sensational. But last season, the unit struggled as a whole. An early-season injury to Tramon Williams slowed him and he wasn't the dominant player he was in 2010. Charles Woodson is still a good player, but not like he once was. Sam Shields, who excelled as a nickel corner in 2010, was picked on a lot last season. Those three have to play better. The loss of Nick Collins with a neck injury in the second game really hurt the back end. Charlie Peprah and Morgan Burnett had their problems on the back end. There is a chance Collins can come back, but that's still unknown after the severity of the injury. Jarrett Bush is the top backup.