A second-half meltdown and miraculous overtime cost the Green Bay Packers a shot at the Super Bowl last year, but quarterback Aaron Rodgers and head coach Mike McCarthy are still considered the class of the NFC.
After racking up a 12-4 record and securing a fourth-straight NFC North title, the Packers held a 16-point lead over the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC Championship last season but watched it wither away. Seattle would score three touchdowns on its final three possessions and the Packers promising season went down in flames.
But thanks to general manager Ted Thompson, the Packers have largely kept the core of last season’s squad intact while perhaps finding a few gems to boost the defensive frontline and secondary. Mike McCarthy's squad should once again be in the Super Bowl conversation, and could reach the title game for the first time since 2010.
Here’s a breakdown of the Packers depth at every position, along with grades for each spot and an overall conclusion to how 2015 could play out.
Two-time MVP Aaron Rodgers remains one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, after tossing 38 touchdowns to a career-low five interceptions last season. Blessed with quick feet and an even faster football mind, he’s healthy after a left calf injury in 2014. Rodgers should be inspired to have another big season after the Packers' painful exit from the playoffs. Backup Scott Tolzien, and rookie Brett Hundley provide a decent amount of depth, though neither is expected to see meaningful playing time with Rodgers healthy.
Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb could be the best one-two receiver combos in the league. With Rodgers' superior accuracy, both should again post 1,000-yard seasons with at least five touchdowns apiece. But behind that tandem the Packers do have some questions. Davante Adams, who torched the New England Patriots in Week 13, had a fine rookie season but still has room for growth. Jeff Janis caught just two passes in 2014, but may see an increased role as the probable No. 4 receiver. Rookie Ty Montgomery showed flashes of brilliance while at Stanford, but isn't expected to be a crucial part of the passing game. Tight end remains a weak spot in the passing game, but Andrew Quarless will likely be on his best behavior following his arrest for firing shots into the air in Miami. It will be interesting to see if sixth-round pick Kennard Backman can contribute.
The running game is anchored by hulking back Eddie Lacy, who should post a third-straight 1,000-yard season and continue to expand his dual-threat game after totaling 42 receptions for 427 yards and four scores last year. The Packers have a reliable veteran reserve in James Starks to work in spells, but there's a drop off in production after Lacy. The battle for the third running back spot could be interesting once camp opens, with rookies John Crockett and Alonzo Harris battling Rajion Neal. At fullback, John Kuhn and rookie Aaron Ripkowski should do a more than serviceable job.
Rodgers and Lacy are obviously talented players, but the work of Green Bay’s offensive line tends to be unheralded. The Packers kept one of the league’s top frontlines intact by re-signing right tackle Bryan Bulaga in the offseason, and second-year center Corey Linsley received a hefty bonus from the team after playing every single snap last season. Barring injuries, the Packers can also turn to third-year left tackle David Bakhtiari, veteran Josh Sitton, and the man Linsley replaced in the starting lineup last year, JC Tretter. There’s also three undrafted rookies who could move up the depth chart, including 6-foot-8, 316-pound behemoth tackle Fabbians Ebbele. Overall, this is a very strong unit that could be even better than in 2014, and that's a scary thought.
With the offense intact and primed to be one of the NFL’s best, it’s on defense where Green Bay may have some question marks, particularly at inside linebacker. Last year, the Packers were tied for ninth in sacks, but had a difficult time against the run, ranking No. 23 in rushing yards allowed per game. Much of the defensive front seven is back with the exception of linebacker A.J. Hawk. Superstar Clay Matthews, along with outside linebacker Julius Peppers, should anchor the pass rush, and provide support against the run for nose tackle B.J. Raji, defensive tackle Mike Daniels, and outside linebacker Mike Neal, with veteran defensive tackle Letroy Guion another solid run stopper. Raji’s return after missing all of last season with a torn bicep should make a difference against the run, but Guion could usurp his role.
Hawk was third on the team with 90 tackles last season, leaving an opportunity for Carl Bradford, Sam Barrington, Joe Thomas and fourth-round draft choice Jake Ryan to step in. Barrington and Ryan have a good chance to exceed expectations.
How the Packers account for the losses of defensive backs Tramon Williams and Davon House will be a major storyline throughout the season. They led a unit that was 10th in the NFL in passing yards allowed and was tied for seventh with 18 interceptions. Green Bay already has a solid starting foundation with Morgan Burnett and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix at safety, and corners Casey Hayward and Sam Shields working the sidelines. Mistakes due to inexperience might be an issue, as the Packers develop top rookies Quinten Rollins and Damarious Randall. The ceiling is reportedly high for Rollins, who only played one season of college football. Meanwhile, don't be surprised if Demetri Goodson gets an increased role in 2015.
The Packers lost kick returner DuJuan Harris to Minnesota, which could mean an expanded role for Micah Hyde and perhaps Janis and Montgomery. After inking a new deal with Cobb, the Packers might want to protect their investment and avoid the dual role for their explosive star. Green Bay was actually the second worst team in the league on kickoffs last year, with 19.1 yards per attempt, but on punts the Packers were one of the better squads in the league, ranking fifth with 11.5 yards per punt. However, there’s clearly room to grow in this aspect of the game, and promoted special teams coordinator Ron Zook could make some effective changes.
Mason Crosby is a solid placekicker and could be poised to improve off his 81.8 field-goal percentage. Punter Tim Mashtay had his struggles late in the season and will likely compete with 23-year-old Cody Mandell.
McCarthy reshuffled his hierarchy after the disastrous overtime loss to Seattle, in particular naming Tom Clements associate head coach and relinquishing play-calling duties to him. Clements has helped Rodgers grow into one of the best quarterbacks in the league, and the thinking is McCarthy can focus more on the overall game rather than be burdened with calling plays. Many questioned McCarthy’s calls late in the NFC title game, and promoting Clements keeps Rodgers happy and probably simplifies things.
Calling Green Bay home since 2005, Edgar Bennett is now offensive coordinator and has the personnel necessary to excel, but a hiccup early in the season could put his status in jeopardy.
Dom Capers is still the man in charge of a defense that will be under the microscope. He remains a highly respected strategist, and should get the most out of some new players. Capers added new assistant Jerry Montgomery, who’s considered a rising star after his work with Oklahoma’s defensive front. He is just 35 years old, and has only held coaching jobs in college football.
The Packers are on the short list of NFC contenders, but not significantly ahead of Seattle and the Dallas Cowboys. Green Bay boasts one of the league's best offenses, led by Rodgers and three of the best skill-position players in the league. The high-flying attack should carry the Packers throughout the season, even against opponents with a combined .529 winning percentage from last season. But how the defense develops, and whether Peppers and Matthews can pressure opposing quarterbacks, may determine Green Bay’s fate. Anything less than a Super Bowl appearance would be considered a disappointment, and the Packers seem to have the right components to win a title.