The Green Bay Packers are 66-30 with five playoff appearances spanning the last six seasons, one of which ended with the team hoisting the Lombardi Trophy.
But the last two seasons have ended with bad playoff losses, including a 2012 debacle in which second-year San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick shredded the Green and Gold both on the ground and through the air.
So, despite being the strongest team in the NFC North over the last several years, there are questions heading into the draft and into offseason training sessions. Can the Packers solve problems with the offensive line, the running game and the leaky defense? Raymond T. Rivard, editor of LombardiAve.Com, says doing so could again make Green Bay one of the top teams in the NFL.
Zoneblitz: The Packers won the NFC North and have been the class of the division the last few years, but have now lost badly in the playoffs the past two seasons. How would you assess 2012 and what do the Packers have to do to get back to the Super Bowl?
Rivard: There are three things the Packers have to address to get back to what I would consider elite status in the league: the offensive line, the defensive line, and the running game. With Aaron Rodgers being sacked 51 times last season, the Packers are playing with fire. It’s only a matter of time before Rodgers gets knocked out of a game or, God forbid, suffers an injury that knocks him out for the season. With Rodgers set to sign his mega-deal, I would be totally surprised if the Packers don’t expend at least one, if not a couple of their draft picks on offensive linemen. They can’t continue to put a patchwork group on the field in front of Rodgers.
That said, the Packers running game has been abysmal. Addressing the offensive line should help the team in that regard, but a mid- to-late-round running back would also help bolster the depth in the offensive backfield – again, taking some of the pressure off Rodgers and the passing game.
Lastly, the Packers’ defensive line and outside linebacking are very thin right now, with second-year defensive lineman Jerel Worthy out probably until mid-season. With the loss of Erik Walden and the questionable availability of second-year linebacker Nick Perry, the Packers must also address those two positions – hopefully in the draft.
If the Packers can shore up those three areas, they will be in good shape. Some say that they should also draft a safety, and they probably will. However, I feel those other areas are the team’s greatest needs to raise the team to the next level.
Zoneblitz: What is your sense on when or if the Aaron Rodgers negotiations will result in an extension?
Rivard: Everyone keeps saying any day now, but they’ve been saying that for nearly a month. I feel it will most likely get done between the end of the draft and the start of training camp, at the latest. I’m sure it’s a complicated negotiation and these things don’t happen overnight. I’m sure it will happen, but like everyone else, we’ll know when we know.
Zoneblitz: Wide receiver depth has been strong on this team and with Jordy Nelson, James Jones and Randall Cobb returning, there are still weapons. But Greg Jennings left for Minnesota and Donald Driver retired. Any concerns about this once ridiculously deep position?
Rivard: No concerns with that group at all. You can also throw in tight end Jermichael Finley and the Packers are solid. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Ted Thompson take a wide receiver or tight end in the draft to add depth for Aaron Rodgers. As long as Rodgers is healthy – and the receivers stay healthy (which has been an issue the past couple of seasons) – this group is as good as it gets and could be the best in the league.
Zoneblitz: The run game has been less than stellar in recent years and Jermichael Finley lacks consistency. What are your thoughts on how the Packers have or will address these spots?
Rivard: I addressed the run game above and would just reiterate that with help along the offensive line I think the run game will be OK. After all, if you’ve got a game with two runners who can combine for 100 or more yards per game, that’s all that the Packers ask for … they are a pass-first team and that won’t change.
As for Finley, he was one of the best pass-catching tight ends in the league in the last half of last season. He’s in the final year of a two-year contract, so look for him to really have a breakout year. Then he will test the free agent waters.
Zoneblitz: After a season that saw Aaron Rodgers take some hits, what are your thoughts on the offensive line?
Rivard: See above. The line needs help and it needs help now … hopefully Ted Thompson feels the same way.
Zoneblitz: Charles Woodson has been released. Erik Walden left as a free agent. The secondary was hurt by the loss of Nick Collins. And the team’s pass rush hasn’t always been consistent. How would you assess the strengths and weaknesses of Green Bay’s defense?
Rivard: I’ll give you one number: 579 yards. That’s how many the team gave up to the San Francisco 49ers in the Packers’ season-ending loss last year. Couple that with the fact that the defense rated dead last in the league in 2011 and clearly the D needs help. The upside to that is the defense did improve overall last year and there were several young players, led by cornerback Casey Hayward, who had outstanding seasons last year. Injuries didn’t help, but that’s no excuse. I feel if the players coming back off injury last year can pick up where they left off, the team will be in a good position to improve their defensive position in the league. Improvements also have to be made through the draft.
The defense is a concern and has been for some time now. We’re hoping defensive coordinator Dom Capers can get things figured out.
Zoneblitz: Mason Crosby had a poor season last year. Will he be back or do you expect the Packers to bring in someone else?
Rivard: The Packers have signed Giorgio Tavecchio to compete against Mason Crosby in training camp, but I expect Crosby to be back. Unless he completely blows it in camp, the Packers have too much money invested in Crosby at this point to kick him off the team – excuse the pun. But who knows? Tavecchio may come in and kick lights out. It will certainly be interesting to watch. My hope is that Tavecchio pushes Crosby enough to get him back on his game. He did convert his final four kicks of the season, including a couple in the playoffs, so Crosby seemed to have his mojo back. One has to remember that of his misses last year, seven of his nine attempts from 50-plus yards were among them.
Zoneblitz: Who on the roster do you see having a breakout season in 2013?
Rivard: Randall Cobb. You might say last year was his breakout year, but I think he’s going to really take off this year. Rodgers and Cobb have had a year together now and will only improve in 2013. Casey Hayward might also show the league that he’s no fluke, while linebacker Dezman Moses might be one to watch. I wouldn’t be surprised to see running back DuJuan Harris also turn some heads this year.
Zoneblitz: The Bears have made some moves to improve and the Vikings are coming off a 10 win season. It’s a little hard to figure out where the Lions are at, but heading into the draft and offseason training programs, how do you think the Packers fit into the NFC North hierarchy at the moment?
Rivard: You’ve still got to put the Packers at the top. If they can figure out how to stop Adrian Peterson and Calvin Johnson of the Lions, they will again dominate the division. The Bears? With the new coach, they will start fast again, but will fade as their year of transition takes hold. I just feel the Packers are too deep to fall beyond second place in the division – that is if Rodgers stays healthy.
Zoneblitz: What are your reactions to the Packers’ approach to free agency thus far and what would you like to see the team do in the draft and the remainder of free agency?
Rivard: Free agency has never been a mode of operation for Ted Thompson, so this year is no different. The fact that he was active at all in pursuing Chris Canty and Steven Jackson, as well as being in the picture right to the end with Greg Jennings was a surprise to me. Thompson will never play the free agency game and yet the Packers are competitive year-in and year-out. I like his draft and develop philosophy. It seems to work.
Zoneblitz: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Rivard: We’re looking forward to another strong draft where Thompson adds to the team’s weaponry. Signing Rodgers and Clay Matthews will be huge and will have everyone looking toward a bright future in Green Bay. The Packers will open their newly-renovated Lambeau Field this year, which will bring in about 8,000 more fans and completely enclose the stadium. The noise level will be wild.
I look for another great season for the Packers.