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2011 Green Bay Packers preseason preview

by | Special to CBSSports.com
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As good as the Packers were, the Finley-Rodgers reconnection further enhances bright prospects. (AP)  
As good as the Packers were, the Finley-Rodgers reconnection further enhances bright prospects. (AP)  

2010 RECORD: 10-6 (2nd, NFC North)

LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2010, defeated Steelers, 31-25, to win Super Bowl XLV

COACH (RECORD): Mike McCarthy (48-32 regular season, 53-34 including postseason)

OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Joe Philbin

DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Dom Capers

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OFFENSIVE TEAM RANKS, 2010 (NFL): 24th rushing, 5th passing, 10th scoring

DEFENSIVE TEAM RANKS, 2010 (NFL): 18th rushing, 5th passing, 2nd scoring

KEY ADDITIONS: OL Derek Sherrod (first round, Mississippi State), WR Randall Cobb (second round, Kentucky), RB Alex Green (third round, Hawaii), CB Davon House (fourth round, New Mexico State), D.J. Williams (fifth round, Arkansas)

KEY DEPARTURES: DE Cullen Jenkins (to Philadelphia), G Daryn Colledge (to Arizona), RB Brandon Jackson (to Cleveland), FB Korey Hall (to New Orleans), OL Jason Spitz (to Jacksonville)

CAN THEY SHARE? The Packers lost just one offensive starter from last year's Super Bowl team -- LG Daryn Colledge. The position battle at that spot is competitive, between rookie Derek Sherrod and T.J. Lang, and it could carry major significance for a line that must improve and stay healthy. Sherrod, drafted as the franchise's LT of the future, has been getting the first-team reps but he's never played guard, and it's a lot to handle mentally. But the real position to watch is RB. Ryan Grant, the incumbent who suffered a season-ending ankle injury in the 2010 season opener, will try to hold off the hard-charging, helmet-rattling, second-year James Starks, who led all backs with 315 rushing yards in the postseason. Starks, who added eight pounds of muscle in the offseason, has looked fierce, powerful, decisive and purposeful in training camp. He's shown the ability to make an early, effective cut and when he starts straight-line running downhill, watch out. Grant has looked spry and eager, though, and, as a 1,200-yard rusher in 2008 and 2009, it's his starting spot to lose. Coach Mike McCarthy has said the two will share carries, but will one of the two force his hand?

RIGHT TO RUSH: For two seasons, GM Ted Thompson has looked to find a high-end OLB in the draft to pair opposite sack-master Clay Matthews on the right side. For the second year in a row, the Packers elected instead to make do with what they already had. Last year, former seventh-round pick Brad Jones started the season at ROLB, only to struggle with injuries and play six games. To replace Jones, the Packers called upon undrafted FA Frank Zombo (four sacks in 2010 and another in the Super Bowl) and thrice-cut LB Erik Walden (NFC Defensive Player of the Week with 16 tackles and three sacks against the Bears in Week 17), who filled the spot admirably. All three reported to training camp healthy and the Packers have rotated the three equally in camp, giving each a starting opportunity every three practices. Walden looks bigger and stronger and has impressed coaches with his aggressiveness -– after the first week of training camp, he has the edge. But Zombo and Jones are plenty hungry and they'll get their chances to prove they're worthy of playing opposite two-time Pro Bowler Matthews.

HANDS TO FEED: As in, too many. The Packers return their top four wideouts from the Super Bowl team that piled up more than 5,000 yards receiving (including postseason), and then, to further embarrass their riches, the team added WR Randall Cobb and TE D.J. Williams in the draft. Pro Bowler Greg Jennings, ageless veteran Donald Driver and potential stars James Jones (re-signed in the offseason) and Jordy Nelson (140 yards in the Super Bowl) will expect plenty of targets from QB Aaron Rodgers, and Cobb is making a case for inclusion with an outstanding training camp. Further compounding the issue is that, besides appeasing the ever-insatiable cast of wide receivers, the Packers also have six (six!) TEs worthy of making the team. Jermichael Finley is back from a knee injury that ended his breakout 2010 season, and the 6-foot-5 phenom will demand the ball. Behind him are Andrew Quarless and Tom Crabtree, who both proved capable pass-catchers last year, as well as TD-maven Spencer Havner, who could be moved to LB for depth. In April's draft, Green Bay added Mackey Award-winner D.J. Williams, who's looked smooth and fluid and is a natural pass-catcher, and seventh-round special teams ace Ryan Taylor, who has surprised coaches with good hands. Coach Mike McCarthy and Rodgers have reiterated that having too many weapons on offense is a welcome problem, but will they be able to satisfy everyone?

SPECIAL FORCES: Last season, the Packers finished 29th in special teams play, according to the annual ranking compiled by The Dallas Morning News. That followed rankings of 31st in 2009 and 26th in 2008 for coach Shawn Slocum's group. The dismal play on the kicking units did not thwart a championship last year, but it appears Thompson and McCarthy are finally serious about getting special. A deplorable unit in 2010, the Packers have seemingly improved in three crucial areas. First, K Mason Crosby, re-signed in July for five years and $14.75 million, will get to kick off from the 35-yard line in 2011, rather than the 30-yard line. The rule change should help Crosby -- who for years has been commended for his big leg yet consistently failed to kick the ball into the end zone -- finally tally some touchbacks. Second, P Tim Masthay, who was signed off the street last year and struggled early on, really started to come into his own down the stretch last season. Masthay effectively rendered Chicago's dangerous Devin Hester impotent, and coach Mike McCarthy told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "I think we've got a real one there" about his punter. Finally, and most noticeably, the Packers appear to have a return game. After twiddling their thumbs at the position for several years -- their last kickoff return TD was in 2000 -- the selection of the dynamic Cobb could electrify the return game instantly. Cobb has looked aggressive, evasive and fast. The rookie, who's fifth on the depth chart at WR, knows he can immediately contribute as a return man for a team desperately seeking one.

FINAL WORD: The defending Super Bowl winners return starters at 10 positions on offense and 10 on defense. They signed zero free agents that weren't their own, instead retaining the group that brought them a championship, and they added injured playmakers such as TE Jermichael Finley, RB Ryan Grant, DE Mike Neal and S Morgan Burnett. Those players effectively amount to major free agent signings since they played a negligible part in the team's 2010 success. The Super Bowl "hangover" is an oft-reported menace from which this team, according to McCarthy and veterans, has not suffered. Sure, the lockout hurt every team and hindered preparation. But if one team came out better than the others, many Packers players say it was the one that finished last year on top and which has several important players returning to bolster a Super Bowl roster.

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