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Sunday, June 26, 2005

Team Overview: Green Bay Packers



by Adam Lasik of XpertSports.com
For PackerChatters

The Green Bay Packers endured a roller-coaster season in 2004, seeing one of the better offenses in the league tempered by one of the worst defenses. Factors such as injuries, poor defensive coaching, and questionable offensive decisions contributed to a year that saw the Packers win a third-straight NFC North championship despite several truly ugly losses, including one to the Minnesota Vikings in the wildcard round of the playoffs.

The Packers have made some changes to their administrative structure and coaching staff. Two major changes stand out. Coach Mike Sherman is no longer wearing two hats, with Ted Thompson joining the team as the Packers’ new general manager. Also, the Bob Slowik experiment failed and former Dolphins' defensive coordinator and interim coach, Jim Bates, was brought in to replace him. The defense promises to be a different animal under Bates.

Talent-wise, the Packers saw two of the better guards in the league move on, which has raised some questions about the stability and effectiveness of the offensive line. They also let safety Darren Sharper go, who made a beeline for division rival Minnesota. In addition, several other players, including defensive back Bhawoh Jue, have gone into free agency. Jue was signed by the San Diego Chargers.

On the addition side, the Packers have added several free agents, including linebacker Raynoch Thompson, offensive linemen Matt O’Dwyer and Adrian Klemm, and safeties Arturo Freeman and Earl Little.

The Packers have some serious questions to answer, and quite a few critics have declared that this is the year Green Bay will finally see the decline that has been predicted for the last five seasons. However, many Packer fans feel that the 2005 team will be an improved unit over 2004 and that reports of the demise of the Packers are a bit premature.

Quarterbacks


Quarterback Brett Favre is a perennial top-ten QB with a competitive fire that few can match and a toughness rarely encountered. For 12 straight seasons Favre has started all 16 games. He has compiled stats that most younger QBs can only dream of. Only three of his 13 seasons as a starter have seen his QB rating slip below 85, and his completion percentages have been well over 60% for the last four years. It has been 12 seasons since he last threw fewer than 20 touchdown passes, throwing 30 in 2004. While some believe he is merely a shadow of his former self, they find it very difficult to support such a claim using observable facts. The one knock on Favre is that he takes too many risks, and these have a tendency to result in turnovers. He has been intercepted 15 or more times every season since 1997, and he has a tendency to throw multiple interceptions in playoff games. Favre seriously considered retirement this year due to the health of his wife, who is battling breast cancer. But he has decided to return for the 2005 season, and is still capable at playing on par with some of the best quarterbacks in the game.

There is a great deal of discussion among Green Bay fans regarding Craig Nall. Nall has displayed some impressive abilities and decision-making in game situations, but his preseason performances have not been stellar. What game time he has seen was mostly “garbage time,” so it is difficult to determine whether he can be the future of the franchise, or a career backup. Selected in the fifth round of the 2002 draft, Nall is a strong-armed young quarterback with very limited experience. He has struggled with consistency in the past, and many observers believe he will not have the opportunity to prove himself, now that the Packers have drafted Aaron Rodgers. Nevertheless, he has improved each year and is under contract for one more season before he becomes a free agent. Nall will likely go through this season as the team’s number two quarterback, and will have to shine at every opportunity.

In April, the Packers used their first round draft pick on quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers was projected by many as a top-5 selection, but slid down the board to Green Bay at #24. Rodgers carries the ball extremely high, and the team will likely work to get the ball down to a somewhat safer level. He has struggled with learning the Packers’ version of the West Coast Offense, and what was one of his strengths in college, accuracy, has been conspicuously absent through the team’s minicamps. The prevailing theory is that the two are related. The zip and accuracy that Rodgers has displayed in the past has been missing because the rookie has been thinking about too much to relax and let his natural ability take over. The team hopes that Rodgers will be able to make his way to number two, but Nall enters training camp as the primary backup.

Last season, the Packers acquired J.T. O’Sullivan from the New Orleans Saints. O’Sullivan is a raw but promising young talent who has been mentioned as a possible starter in the future, but he has not developed to the point of challenging for a larger role on the Packers’ depth chart. He has a quick release and good footwork, and will likely get a good, hard look this summer. O’Sullivan is a restricted free agent, but did not receive any offer sheets from other teams. Headed into training camp, O’Sullivan is the clear #4 quarterback, and will likely find himself on the practice squad or waiver wire without help from either an amazing camp performance, or an injury to one of the quarterbacks ahead of him.

Fantasy Twist

A healthy Favre with, arguably, the best receiving corps he has ever had is a solid fantasy prospect. He may be only a year or two from retirement, but he will continue to be a viable fantasy starter until the day he announces that he is done. With the support around him, a solid offensive line, and a fresh start free from significant injuries, Brett Favre should be considered one of the better, and more underrated quarterbacks available.

Nall is not a bad handcuff in redraft leagues, and may have some value down the road for a dynasty league. Should he be pressed into service, he can be expected to do an adequate job of leading the team. However, as with virtually any Favre backup of the last 12 years, he has a better chance of not throwing a single pass all season than he does of starting any games.

For the Packers, though, Aaron Rodgers appears to be the heir apparent. Rodgers holds little to no value for 2005, but to a dynasty team that starts Favre, Rodgers is nearly a must-have.

Running Backs


Led by Ahman Green, the Green Bay rushing attack looks to regain its 2003 form this year. A few nagging injuries to Ahman Green, Najeh Davenport, and the offensive line contributed to a “down” year for the Packers rushing offense, falling from third best in 2003 to tenth in 2004.

The Packers rushed for 1,903 yards last season, with an average of 4.3 yards per carry. Green took the majority of carries and receptions among the running backs. He carried 259 times for 1,163 yards in 15 games. In 2003, Green carried nearly 100 times more, and for 720 more yards. His touchdown production also saw a significant drop, as he went from 15 rushing and five receiving touchdowns in 2003 to only seven rushing and one receiving touchdown in 2004. He caught fewer passes than he has caught in his entire career since becoming a starter, hauling in only 40 balls for 275 yards.

Green can be expected to bounce back this year in terms of yards and touchdowns, but he appears to be trending toward a lesser role as a receiver out of the backfield. He has caught fewer passes every season since 2000, while third string running back Tony Fisher has seen a marked increase. Fisher caught 38 passes for 277 yards and two touchdowns last season.

At this point last season, the prevailing opinion was that the Packers had transitioned to a run-first offense. That does not appear to be the case, considering Brett Favre’s performance last year, and it does not appear to be the direction the team is heading in for 2005. However, make no mistake: the Packers’ offense requires, and will have a strong run game.

In addition to Green, the Packers' three-headed monster includes fourth-year pros Najeh Davenport and Tony Fisher. Davenport led the pair with 71 rushes for 359 yards, an average of 5.1 yards/carry. His numbers approached his 2003 statistics, except he only played in eleven games last season.

Fisher took the bulk of the remaining carries with 65 for 224 yards, an average of 3.4. A change-of-pace player in the running game, and third-down back, Fisher’s biggest impact is as a receiver out of the backfield on third downs. He accounted for 30 first downs in 2004.

While Davenport is recovering from off-season shoulder surgery, all three are expected to be healthy going into training camp. The team will most likely give Davenport and Fisher some more work in an effort to keep Green healthy and fresh for the end of the season.

Fantasy Twist

Ahman Green is an excellent fantasy option whose production in both rushing and receiving makes him a first-round value. He has had some durability concerns in the past with respect to various nagging injuries, but has played through them. Green has only missed three games since becoming a full-time starter. Of bigger concern are some fairly serious fumbling problems. Every year, Green reportedly works hard at reducing his fumbles, yet he still dropped the ball seven times during the season.

Najeh Davenport is the only other Packer RB with any fantasy value whatsoever. He has shown a combination of power, speed, and shiftiness to break some long runs. He is Green’s primary backup, but is not as effective in the passing game, where Fisher tends to take over. Davenport’s value, however, is based almost entirely as a handcuff to Green. He will not get enough touches to be a consistent performer, but he will get the nod if Green misses any time.

Fisher will get some work, especially as a receiver out of the backfield, but will not be a viable fantasy player unless both Green and Davenport are forced to miss time.

Wide Receivers


The Packers fielded one of the best receiving tandems in the league last season, with both Javon Walker and Donald Driver posting more than 1200 receiving yards. Walker's 1382 yards and 12 touchdowns made him one of the premier fantasy receivers in the league, while Driver cracked the top-10 with 1208 yards and 9 touchdowns.

With a healthy Brett Favre, it should seem an easy conclusion that the pair would again rank among the league elite. However, Javon Walker has been a holdout all offseason, seeking a new contract two years before his current deal is set to expire. The Packers have refused to discuss the issue during Walker's holdout, and speculation swirls that Walker may continue it well into the season.

Nobody, including Walker and agent Drew Rosenhaus, want the holdout to continue into the season. Rosenhaus is known as a dealmaker, and it appears likely that Walker will relent and rejoin the team during training camp as a step of good faith. Expect Walker to be on the field for the season opener, and likely most of training camp.

When he is on the field, Walker is dominant. At 6'3", he is tall, fast, has excellent leaping ability, superb physical control, and soft hands. Walker was one of the most reliable targets in the league last season, dropping only a few passes and catching nearly 63% of everything thrown in his direction. He is a proven playmaker who is still growing and learning the position. The Packers expect great things from Javon Walker.

Donald Driver is entering his seventh season, and has been one of Brett Favre's favorite targets for the last three. Driver is an excellent route runner with good hands and seems to have a connection with Favre. He has shown incredible passion for the game and heart on the field, and he has played through a few injuries in recent years.

Behind Walker and Driver, the Packers have a few promising prospects. At the top of the heap is veteran Robert Ferguson. Ferguson came into the league young, and did not immediately live up to his potential. As he has matured, he has demonstrated better route running and physical skills. More importantly, he has begun to show some mental maturity, particularly in his reaction to a hit he took last season that resulted in a loss of feeling below the neck. The result of his maturity and work to recover won him quite a few fans, and many believe that he is primed for a solid season. Ferguson will almost certainly be the number three receiver, but could prove to be one of the better number threes in the league.

The Packers also drafted a pair of receivers with impressive college numbers. Terrance Murphy may been the most impressive among all Packer rookies in off-season workouts. He has picked up the offense quickly and is a hard worker who rarely drops anything. In addition, he has made a number of big plays downfield, and some excellent sideline catches. Of course, all of this is without pads, but the Packers are expecting Murphy to contribute this year, and hope he can win the job as a kick returner, as well.

Craig Bragg, a sixth-round pick, has been injured and the team simply does not know what they have in him. Due to the injury, Bragg is not currently expected to compete for one of the top-4 receiver spots, but he may get a chance to go after the job of punt returner. Bragg has only average height and speed, but he has good hands with excellent burst and acceleration. He may end up a possession receiver, but his chance to make the team this year appears to be as a punt return man.

Antonio Chatman may end up the odd man out in the Packers' receiving corps. Chatman has been the team's primary kick returner and number four receiver, but he is short and has not been able to create big plays as a return man. He has been solid, with a good return average and nice routes across the middle of the field as a receiver, but lacks the dynamic ability to help turn a game, or put it away.

Fantasy Twist

Javon Walker, assuming he plays the full season, is virtually a lock to be in the top tier of fantasy receivers. His holdout has him slipping a bit in many drafts, and he should prove an excellent value pick. Donald Driver seems underrated every year, and should be able to post another season of solid fantasy numbers. Driver will be available in most drafts as an outstanding second or even third fantasy receiver.

The remaining receivers have some interesting dynasty potential, but limited value for 2005. In a deep dynasty league that rewards kick returners, Terrence Murphy may have some value this year, and has the potential to be an excellent receiver down the road. Bragg's value, like Chatman's, is minimal at best.

Tight End


At tight end, the Packers have a huge question mark in front of them. Bubba Franks has been labeled the team's transition player, and he has not made an appearance all summer. Behind Franks is, to put it gently, not much. David Martin has displayed some promise in the past, but is coming off an injury and has often had trouble with his attitude. Ben Steele is a player the Packers wanted to be a receiving tight end, but he has proven to have stone hands. Steele is considered third behind Franks and Martin, but may end up a long shot to make the final roster.

Franks hauled in 34 passes for 361 yards and seven touchdowns last season, and can be expected to approach the same numbers in 2005. In nine games, David Martin caught only five passes, and Steele caught four balls in fifteen games. The Packers will likely work to solidify the tight end position, but in summer workouts the tight ends have been a noticeably weak area.

Fantasy Twist

Bubba Franks is a solid fantasy selection and has a chance to improve on his seven touchdown receptions in 2004, but should not be taken with the expectation that he will exceed last season's numbers. No other Packer tight ends should be considered viable fantasy options.

Place Kicker and Special Teams


Entering his ninth season, place kicker Ryan Longwell continues as one of the top kickers in the league. Last season, Longwell hit nearly 86% of his field goal attempts, including two out of three from beyond 50 yards. On his career, Longwell has an average of 82.4%, and has not missed an extra point attempt in three years. One area of note with respect to Longwell is that he is picky about his holder, and he has expressed concern about the job. His favorite among the available players appears to be Craig Nall, who has not held for a kick since a low snap resulted in a broken thumb in college.

The Packers have had little success in the return game for several years. Antonio Chatman has been a serviceable return man, but just barely. The Packers have not returned a kickoff for a touchdown since 2001, and ranked only 21st in the league on punt return average and 16th on kickoff return average last season. Craig Bragg and Terrence Murphy were both drafted to compete for the return jobs. Bragg appears set to compete as a punt returner once he is healthy, but is unlikely to be considered for the kickoff return job. Murphy will be given a chance to compete for the kickoff return job, and the team will take a look at him as a punt returner, too. Here, too, Chatman’s days may be numbered.

Fantasy Twist

Longwell is the beneficiary of both his own accuracy and a high-powered offense that can consistently move the ball within his range. As a result, Longwell remains one of the better fantasy prospects, despite the inclement weather in Green Bay at the end of the season.

The kick return job is up for grabs, but there is no favorite for the job or much reason to suggest the winner will have any significant fantasy value.

Offensive Line


The Green Bay Packers' success arguably lies in the strength of their offensive line. They allowed only 14 sacks last season, the best in the league. However, both starting guards, Mike Wahle and Marco Rivera, have left the team, creating a great deal of concern about the viability of the line.

To address the loss of the guards, the Packers have signed guards Adrian Klemm from the Patriots, and Matt O’Dwyer from Tampa Bay. Both players are considered exceptionally talented, but have had injury issues. In addition, the Packers have a secret weapon in Larry Beightol, who is considered among the best offensive line coaches in the league. The Packers have depth along the line with players like Kevin Barry, Brad Bedell, and Grey Ruegamer, all of whom have performed well when called upon in games or practice sessions. The combination of these three factors give the team reason to believe the line will maintain its strength, allowing the rest of the offense to click.

Fantasy Twist

Last season, center Mike Flanagan missed the entire year, while Marco Rivera was limited by a knee injury. The line held together despite the injuries, but the impact was noticeable in the run game. The Packers expect the same level of protection, if not better, for quarterback Brett Favre and a return to the dominance as run blockers that they enjoyed two years ago. The Packers’ offensive line includes a lot of pulling by the guards, and the athleticism of the current group has been praised by coach Beightol.

Expect a well-balanced offensive attack behind a solid offensive line that surprises quite a few of the pundits.

Team Defense


There is no other way to put it: the Packer defense has been abysmal the last two seasons. Under Ed Donatell two years ago, the Packers had good schemes, but poor individual play. The individual players lacked cohesiveness and a strong teacher, and the result was a lot of individual players, rather than the feel of eleven guys playing as a team. Whether or not it was due to the infamous 4th and 26 play in Philadelphia, the end result was that Donatell was fired, and replaced by Bob Slowik.

Slowik was supposed to bring an aggressiveness to the defense. They were supposed to go after the quarterback and swarm to whoever had the ball. They didn’t.

The Bob Slowik defense was literally anemic. He came in with poor gameplans, players who didn’t know what was going on, and a lack of leadership on the field. By mid-season, Slowik had all but lost the defensive unit and many of his proposals and decisions were reportedly overruled by Mike Sherman before the team went into a game.

By the end of the season, the Packers had allowed more passing touchdowns than any other team in the league. They were the worst in the league at creating turnovers, an area the team had excelled at just one year previously. The Packers went on to a 10-6 record in spite of Bob Slowik’s defense, and he left the team after the season.

The Packers then went out and acquired former Dolphins’ defensive coordinator and interim head coach, Jim Bates. Under Bates, the defensive players say they feel that they have an identity again, and report after report out of Green Bay indicates that Bates is a teacher that is making significant strides. The Packers believe that the addition of Jim Bates will have an immediate positive impact.

Bates is implementing a defense very similar to what Miami ran under him. Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila will be split out down the line to have as much room as possible before engaging the tackle. The defensive tackles are expected to swallow up offensive linemen and allow the linebackers to use their speed to make plays. Bates’ defense is also known for having a very solid defensive backfield, which was one of the primary areas of weakness last year.

The Packers have some talent and size along the interior defensive line, including Grady Jackson, Cullen Jenkins, and Donnell Washington. Gbaja-Biamila is one of the more capable defensive ends in the league, and Aaron Kampman is a hard worker who is expected to be solid opposite of Gbaja-Biamila. At linebacker, Nick Barnett will start in the middle, with Na’il Diggs on the strong side. Newly-acquired Raynoch Thompson is slated to start on the weakside, rounding out a decent linebacking corps that has some speed and tackling ability. The weakness, however, still appears to be the defensive backfield.

Second-year cornerback Ahmad Carroll, nicknamed Highway 28 for the way receivers seemed able to run right through him last season, has displayed a great deal of immaturity and appears virtually uncoachable. He is very talented, but does not take instruction well and has been dressed down repeatedly for putting his hands on the receiver. Carroll was penalized 13 times in 2004.

Both safety positions are up in the air, with free agent acquisition Arturo Freeman the favorite to play one of the spots. The other safety position - both are interchangeable in Bates’ defense - is up for grabs among Earl Little, Mark Roman, rookie Nick Collins, and rookie Marviel Underwood. Roman has played corner in his career, and it is possible he will play both as needed. Little is a proven veteran, and both Collins and Underwood have looked relatively good in camp. Collins is a fairly raw player with a lot of talent, and may have the edge over the slightly more polished Underwood.

Fantasy Twist

The Packers’ defense could be one of the surprises of the 2005 season, but there are a lot of questions about the defensive backfield. The only player that seems to actually have a job is cornerback Al Harris, with the rest of the backfield set to be determined during training camp. The run defense should be adequate, but the Packers’ fantasy team defense is starting to look like a significant risk/reward type of pick.

If it’s a sure thing defensive unit you’re looking for, the Packers are not going to be it. However, if Bates turns out to be the teacher, motivator, and strategist that he appears to be so far this summer, the Packers could turn out to be a pleasant surprise to those who take them as a late flyer.

Individual Defensive Players


While the Packers’ defense was quite porous in 2004, the team still managed to produce a few solid individual performances that look to carry over to 2005. Middle linebacker Nick Barnett enters his third season as the undisputed leader of the defense. He is expected to play sideline-to-sideline and should see a marked increase in solo tackles. He had 92 last season. Barnett looks to be a solid fantasy linebacker and a reliable weekly performer.

Na’il Diggsmay be one of the more underrated defensive players in the league, as he is a good tackle with solid instincts and rarely makes a huge mistake. On the other side, Ray Thompson looks to get back to the form that got him selected in the first round of the 2000 draft. Of the two, Thompson appears to have more value on the weak side.

Al Harris at cornerback and Arturo Freeman at safety appear to be the only reliable picks to start in the defensive backfield. Joey Thomas will likely challenge Ahmad Carroll for the starting cornerback spot opposite Harris. From a fantasy perspective, it is best to stay away from the Packer defensive backfield, at least until it sorts itself out and somebody makes some noise.

Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila is the most reliable individual performer on the defense. He has had double-digit sacks in each of the last four seasons, and has been one of the most vocal Packers about the impact felt by the addition of defensive coordinator Jim Bates. Gbaja-Biamila uses a quick burst and excellent speed to get around the offensive tackle, and appears to be well-suited to the scheme that Bates is implementing.

Aside from Barnett and Gbaja-Biamila, most of the Packers’ fantasy-worthy defensive players will likely be found on the waiver wire after the start of the season. There are simply too many questions to recommend drafting them, but an aware owner will keep an eye on Nick Collins and whichever cornerback starts opposite Al Harris, either Joey Thomas or Ahmad Carroll.

Adam Lasik is an Associate Editor for XpertSports.com
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