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Strategy And Personnel

The Sports Xchange
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Tight end Jermichael Finley isn't bashful about saying his piece and making predictions, but Nostradamus, he is not.

Finley claimed in the aftermath of the 37-20 upset loss to the New York Giants in the divisional round of the NFC playoffs Jan. 15 that he has no insight on whether he will be back as a Packer next season.

"If I was a psychic, I could tell you that," Finley said. "But, I don't know what's going on (with the team's decision-makers). If I did, I'd tell you."

Finley tops a list of only a handful of veteran players on the team who are due to become unrestricted free agents in March. Other notables are halfback Ryan Grant, Pro Bowl center Scott Wells and ascending backup quarterback Matt Flynn.

Some have tossed around the possibility of the Packers' designating Flynn as their franchise player in February as a means to get something in return for him by dangling him as trade bait. Yet, the more likely scenario is general manager Ted Thompson slaps the tag on Finley, ensuring Green Bay gets at least one more season out of its playmaker for who it doesn't have a worthy successor at tight end if he were to get to free agency.

"If it happens, it's the business decision they made around here," Finley said of the tag. "I would love to be back in Green Bay. It's all a business decision. I'm going to do my best with wherever I get put."

Finley played a full season for the first time in his four-year career, a year after he suffered a season-ending knee injury five games into Green Bay's Super Bowl-winning 2010 campaign. Finley ranked third on the team with a career-high-tying 55 catches for a personal bests of 767 yards and eight touchdowns in the 2011 regular season, but Thompson held off on giving him a contract extension. It's possible Thompson and head coach Mike McCarthy have reservations about Finley, who admittedly wasn't always on the same page with quarterback Aaron Rodgers this season and led the team with more than a dozen dropped passes.

McCarthy, however, hinted in his season-ending news conference Wednesday the team would be bringing Finley back.

"Jermichael and I talked about his year," McCarthy said. "He didn't feel great about the way it went. He knows he has a lot of good, better football in front of him. I think Jermichael's a very talented young man, and I would emphasize young. He needs an offseason program, like a lot of guys, and I think he'll continue to grow and be an outstanding football player for us."

McCarthy also endorsed the return of Wells, who has been a starter since 2005.

"Make no bones about it, I told Scott I hope we're working together again next year," McCarthy said. "He's going into free agency, and we'll see what happens. Scott Wells has been a very valuable member of our football team. I think he's done an excellent job the last couple of years. I would say he's clearly the best lineman we've had this year, as far as performance. It's nice to see him being recognized as a Pro Bowl center. I hope we can get it worked out."

UNIT-BY-UNIT ANALYSIS

QUARTERBACK
Starter - Aaron Rodgers. Backups - Matt Flynn, Graham Harrell.

A sluggish performance in the stunning divisional-round loss to the New York Giants was the anomaly for Rodgers in an otherwise unforgettable season that should end with him still in Indianapolis in early February to receive his first league MVP award on the eve of Super Bowl XLVI. Rodgers didn't play the final regular-season game, but his staggering body of work the first 15 games gave him the team records for completion percentage (68.3), passing yards (4,643) and touchdown throws (45) with ease and also the new NFL standard for efficiency with a 122.5 passer rating. All the while, Rodgers made more inroads as a savvy quarterback in Green Bay's pass-happy offense who isn't reckless with the football, throwing a career-low six interceptions in his fourth season as a starter while registering a personal-high average of 9.3 yards per pass attempt. Rodgers absorbed 36 sacks (his second-highest total), but he has few peers who can break the pocket and pick up sizable yards with his feet - he ranked third on the team with 257 rushing yards and scrambled for a career-best 66 yards in the postseason loss. Flynn, Rodgers' patient understudy the last four seasons, is poised to get a hefty pay raise in free agency and contend for a starting spot somewhere else after his team-record-setting 480-yard, six-touchdown performance in only his second pro start in the regular-season finale against the Detroit Lions. Harrell has yet to play in a game in his two-year run with the Packers, but general manager Ted Thompson thought highly enough of the young prospect to promote him from the practice squad the last month of the season when the Buffalo Bills tried to sign him.

RUNNING BACKS
Starters - Ryan Grant, FB John Kuhn. Backups - James Starks, Brandon Saine. Injured reserve: Alex Green.

Running the football took more of a backseat in the offense with Rodgers' pulling the trigger. The 395 rushing attempts is the team's fewest since Rodgers replaced Brett Favre as the starter in 2008. What's more, the carry-by-committee approach implemented by head coach Mike McCarthy resulted in the Packers' lowest yardage output by their leading rusher in 13 years. Starks, the de facto No. 2 back most of the season, claimed this season's dubious honor with 578 yards despite being hampered down the stretch of the season by an assortment of ankle and knee injuries. The explosive runs between Starks and veteran Grant (559 yards) were few and far between. Neither had a 100-yard game, and Grant had the team's longest gain - a 47-yard touchdown late in the season. Grant, who didn't seem to be fully back after missing all but the first game of the 2010 season because of a ruptured ankle, is set to be an unrestricted free agent and iffy to return to the team. The succession plan with Starks as a featured back is on shaky ground because he's spent too much time in the training room his first two years in the league. The team has high hopes for the powerful Green, a third-round draft pick last year who suffered a torn ACL at midseason. Saine, an undrafted rookie, has potential as a versatile contributor out of the backfield after being promoted from the practice squad to replace Green. The blue-collar Kuhn, selected to the Pro Bowl for the first time, will need recovery time in the offseason after suffering a knee injury in the last game.

TIGHT ENDS
Starter - Jermichael Finley. Backups - Tom Crabtree, Ryan Taylor, D.J. Williams. Injured reserve: Andrew Quarless.

Thompson has a critical decision to make in the coming weeks: whether to use the franchise tag on Finley or let the ultra-talented, but maddeningly inconsistent performer reach the open market as an unrestricted free agent for the first time. The on-field chemistry, or lack thereof, between Rodgers and Finley continued to be detrimental this season. As much as Finley was dependable in playing a full season for the first time and producing career-high numbers with 55 catches for 767 yards and eight touchdowns, he led the team with more than a dozen dropped passes. Losing Finley would create a major void given the importance of the position in the passing game. The Packers kept an unprecedented five tight ends on the roster at the start of the season, but the four young backups combined for only 12 catches for 91 yards and two touchdowns. Quarless, a capable pass catcher, is on the comeback trail after suffering a torn ACL in the first meeting with the Giants in early December. Crabtree excels as a blocker. Taylor and Williams had little playing time on offense as rookies, though Taylor stood out for his coverage skills on special teams.

WIDE RECEIVERS
Starters - Greg Jennings, Donald Driver. Backups - Jordy Nelson, James Jones, Randall Cobb. Injured reserve: Shaky Smithson.

Rodgers' embarrassment of riches on the receiving end of his throws was exemplified by the production of the deepest collection of playmakers in the league. Each of the five wideouts had at least 25 receptions - a first in team history. Jennings earned a Pro Bowl nod for the second straight year with 67 receptions for 949 yards and nine touchdowns, but a fourth straight 1,000-yard season fell by the wayside because of a torn MCL that kept him out of the final three regular-season games before he returned for the playoffs. Jennings' absence allowed Nelson to become the team's most productive receiver with breakout numbers of 68 catches for 1,263 yards (18.6 yards per catch) and 15 touchdowns. Nelson still was no better than No. 3 on the depth chart. Driver, the team's most-tenured player who completed his 13th season, was a starter in name only as his playing time and production (37 catches, 445 yards, six touchdowns) plummeted greatly. He turns 37 on Feb. 2 and may be bidding adieu to Green Bay, though he has a year left on his contract. Jones made the most of his limited contributions with 38 catches for an average of 16.7 yards and seven TDs. Cobb split time with Driver in the slot, and the speedy rookie is adept at creating yards after the catch (average of 15 per reception). Undrafted rookies Tori Gurley and Diondre Borel spent all season on the practice squad and will push to make the 53-man roster next season.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN
Starters - LT Chad Clifton, LG T.J. Lang, C Scott Wells, RG Josh Sitton, RT Bryan Bulaga. Backups - T Marshall Newhouse, G/C Evan Dietrich-Smith, G Ray Dominguez, T Herb Taylor. Injured reserve: T Derek Sherrod.

A rash of injuries prevented the Packers from having continuity on the line for most of the season. The preferred starting five finally ended the season together for the playoffs game after they had been broken up since Week 4. The rock-solid Wells, who is Pro Bowl bound for the first time, is the only starter who manned his position every game. Lang, who beat out 2011 first-round draft pick Sherrod in a camp battle at left guard, had to play some at right tackle late in the season when Bulaga went out with a knee injury. Sitton also was felled by knee problems for a brief stretch in December and didn't perform up to his high standards of 2010. A torn hamstring sustained by Clifton, 35, in Week 5 opened the door for second-year Newhouse to have an extensive stint as Rodgers' blind-side protector. The results were hit-and-miss, but Newhouse may have the inside track to be the opening-day starter next season if Clifton is let go. Sherrod was supposed to be Clifton's heir, but Sherrod might not be ready for the start of camp because of a broken leg he sustained in mid-December. Dietrich-Smith made a total of four starts at both guard spots as an injury replacement late in the season. Dominguez, an undrafted rookie, and Taylor, a late-season pickup off the street, never played.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN
Starters - DLE Ryan Pickett, NT B.J. Raji, DRE Howard Green. Backups - DE C.J. Wilson, DE Jarius Wynn, DE Mike Neal. Injured reserve: DE Lawrence Guy.

The Packers never overcame the loss of versatile and effective pass-rushing end Cullen Jenkins, who signed with the Philadelphia Eagles in free agency after the lockout ended last summer. Neal, the heir apparent at right end, was at the heart of the problem. The 2010 second-round draft pick suffered a knee injury in training camp and didn't make his season debut until Nov. 20. Thereafter, he was next to invisible on the field with nary a sack and only five tackles in the last seven regular-season games. Green Bay's seasonlong struggles to generate a pass rush included a dropoff by Raji, who had only three sacks after having 6 1/2 in 2010. Raji still received a first-time nod for the Pro Bowl, although his contributions in other areas (just 43 tackles after 66 in 2010) went down despite being a more rested player this season. Pickett, an 11th-year pro, was productive against the run when he was healthy - he missed two games late in the season because of a concussion but led the linemen with 54 tackles. Green provided little more than being a big body on early downs. Young ends Wilson and Wynn played a lot in a rotation but mustered just three sacks between them.

LINEBACKERS
Starters - LOLB Clay Matthews, MLB Desmond Bishop, MLB A.J. Hawk, ROLB Erik Walden. Backups - OLB Brad Jones, OLB Frank Zombo, MLB D.J. Smith, MLB Robert Francois, OLB Vic So'oto, OLB Jamari Lattimore.

Green Bay's pass-rush deficiencies (a grand total of 30 sacks in 17 games, including the playoffs) fell greatly on not having a capable starter opposite Matthews. Walden held the role for all but the final two games of the season and came up with just three sacks - none after Nov. 20. That allowed opponents to liberally double-team Matthews, who had a solid season in being selected to the Pro Bowl for the third time in as many seasons but saw his sacks total dip from 10 and 13 1/2 his first two years to a team-leading six this season. Zombo, who emerged as a starter as an undrafted rookie in 2010, played only six games because of a variety of injuries. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers turned to onetime starter Jones in the playoffs, but it was too little, too late. So'oto, who made the team as an undrafted rookie with a stellar preseason, never kept the momentum going in the regular season after suffering a back injury days before the season opener. The inside tandem of Bishop (team-high 142 tackles, five sacks) and Hawk (104 tackles) succumbed to calf injuries in the Thanksgiving game at Detroit, which allowed the young duo of rookie Smith and Francois to do some good things for a few games.

DEFENSIVE BACKS
Starters - LCB Charles Woodson, RCB Tramon Williams, SS Charlie Peprah, FS Morgan Burnett. Backups - CB Sam Shields, CB Jarrett Bush, CB Pat Lee, CB Davon House, S M.D. Jennings. Injured reserve: S Nick Collins.

All in all, a miserable season for the Packers' secondary, which was a group of strength for the Super Bowl champions the previous season. The loss of Collins, a three-time Pro Bowl honoree and the "quarterback" of the secondary, to a career-threatening neck injury in Week 2 was immense. Peprah (five interceptions) is a nice veteran to have on the team, but he's not full-time-starter material, as evidenced by his multitude of breakdowns in coverage and missed tackles. Collins' absence also affected Burnett, who had to assume different responsibilities on the back end and wasn't nearly as effective as a playmaker after getting all three of his interceptions in the first three games. Still, Burnett produced 107 tackles and has a high ceiling after playing his first full season following an injury-shortened pro debut in 2010. Woodson isn't slowing down at age 35, tying for the league lead with seven interceptions, but he can't be excused from the Packers' allowing the most passing yards (4,988) in NFL history. Williams and nickel back Shields each had four interceptions, but their downfield coverage skills regressed from last season and made them whipping boys for opposing quarterbacks to exploit. Bush also was a liability when periodically deployed as the dime back, though he and Lee were coverage aces on special teams. House, a fourth-round draft pick, had a lot of hype going into training camp as an accomplished cornerback in college, but the Al Harris lookalike (dreadlocks included) never appeared on defense during the season. Jennings, who made the team as an undrafted rookie, was a special-teams contributor.

SPECIAL TEAMS
K Mason Crosby, P Tim Masthay, KOR Randall Cobb, PR Cobb, LS Brett Goode.

An Achilles' heel for Green Bay in previous years, the special-teams units made remarkable gains this season under previously embattled coordinator Shawn Slocum. Counting the playoffs, Crosby made 26 of 30 field-goal attempts for a career-best 86.7 percent. He also broke his own team record with a 58-yard field goal in Week 7 at Minnesota and came within one point in the regular season of equaling his franchise-best 141 points set as a rookie in 2007. Masthay also had a record-setting season in his second year with the club, establishing team marks for gross (45.6 yards) and net (38.6) averages with solid directional punting. Cobb quickly gave the Packers a dynamic kick returner they haven't had in several years with a league-record-tying 108-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the season opener. The second-round draft pick also scored on an 80-yard punt return in another prime-time game. Goode has been dependable with the long-snapping duties for four years.

Copyright (C) 2012 The Sports Xchange. All Rights Reserved.

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