With NFL owners set to meet Tuesday in Chicago, a very important week in the sport’s labor situation is about to unfold. Optimism is starting to take hold in this lockout, and while I’d hesitate to say an agreement is imminent, things are finally starting to look like football will be played next season without interruption.
If an agreement is reached—and most of the NFL big-wigs, including Peter King and Adam Schefter, think sometime in July is the best bet—then the Packers and the rest of the NFL will have training camp as scheduled and the 2011 season will be played in its entirety. That also means that we will finally have some answers on the variety of questions about the team that we’ve all pondered over this lockout-striken offseason.
Let’s dive into the biggest questions surrounding the Packers in a post-lockout NFL world, starting with some obvious ones but ending with the most important question of all. And considering I already touched on James Jones in a previous post, I won’t touch that question again in this one.
Might the Packers Keep Five Tight Ends on the Roster?
The Packers are no strangers to having uncommon numbers at certain positions, as they’ve recently carried three fullbacks when most NFL teams only have one or two. Could next season see the Packers repeat this trend, but at the tight end position?
They certainly have the talent on board to pull it off.
Jermichael Finley’s spot is secure, and Andrew Quarless and Tom Crabtree return from 2010. But the Packers added two more tight ends in April’s draft, selecting D.J. Williams and Ryan Taylor in the fifth and seventh rounds, respectively. Williams should be a lock, and Taylor appears on paper like the kind of versatile special teams player the Packers favor.
If the Packers don’t decide to keep all five, training camp should feature some kind of roster battle. But I wouldn’t be surprised if that group forced the Packers to keep all five players.
Where Will Nick Barnett be Playing in September?
There’s been plenty of discussion over Barnett’s future, but the lockout has robbed us of any clear answer on which way it could play out. I’m not positive that once the lockout ends there’ll be a quick resolution of the situation either. It’s a tough call for the Packers, and one that’s loaded with factors.
Money is one, as Barnett is owed more than $12 million the next two seasons, but he also lost his starting spot after he injured his wrist in 2010. Desmond Bishop played well in his absence and was rewarded in January. If he stayed on the roster, Barnett would be the most expensive back-up linebacker in the NFL.
Yet the Packers don’t have much for depth at inside linebacker, and Barnett has been a team leader since 2002 when Green Bay took him in the first round. Still, he’s a good bet to be moved, and I think the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will be aggressive in acquiring Barnett.
Who will Start on the Offensive Line?
With Daryn Colledge’s status as a free agent this summer, it’s likely the Packers will have a somewhat different looking offensive line come Week 1 of 2011. 23-year-old tackle T.J Lang is a candidate to fill Colledge’s spot at left guard if he moves on, but Mike McCarthy and line coach James Campen have always been keen on playing the best five offensive linemen they have on the roster.
That might mean that rookie tackle Derrek Sherrod finds a spot somewhere in the Packers’ front five. 2010 first-round pick Bryan Bulaga could shift to left guard, and Sherrod could take his spot at right tackle. It’s a risk in terms of Bulaga’s development at tackle, but it would give the Packers a solid line on paper.
In the end, it all depends on Colledge’s decision once the lockout ends. If he stays, the Packers’ line should be the same as the one they ended with in 2010.
Which Running Back Will Start in 2011?
The NFL has slowly become a league where most teams feature two starting-quality running backs. With Ryan Grant back in the fold, the Packers fit that description.
Along with the 28-year-old Grant, the Packers also feature playoff star James Starks, and the future of the position looks like it could be Starks’ for the taking. So who starts for the Packers to open 2011? That could be anybody’s guess.
Grant has the pedigree, but he’s returning from an ankle injury that could hamper his chances. Still, he had back-to-back 1,200-yard seasons before he went down in Week 1 last year. Starks is the future and runs hard, but we don’t have a large sample size, and he also has an injury history. Is he ready to hold up over 16 games, and would he out-produce Grant if given enough opportunity?
The most obvious answer here is that the Packers feature both backs. They’ll be afforded the opportunity to go with the hot hand, whomever that may be week-to-week. Either way, this battle will definitely be something to keep your eye on in training camp.
Is this the End of the Fullback Trio?
The Packers have taken criticism for keeping three fullbacks on the roster the past two years, but that could finally be changing next season. Both Korey Hall and John Kuhn are free agents, and the offense appears ready to shift their focus from fullbacks to tight ends. If the Packers keep five tight ends as previously discussed, there’s simply no way they can also have three fullbacks.
Who’s the odd fullback out? Likely either Quinn Johnson or Korey Hall.
Kuhn’s versatility makes him a good bet to be re-signed, but both Johnson and Hall have been underwhelming. The ideal situation for the Packers would have been if Johnson had shown more as a lead blocker the past two seasons, making this an open-and-shut case.
But Johnson hasn’t developed into that thumper in the run game, and Hall’s injury history makes him expendable. When it comes down to it though, I’d bet Kuhn and Johnson make the 2011 roster.
Who Plays the Most Opposite Clay Matthews?
It’s going on three years now that Packers fans have asked this question. And it’s not that the Packers don’t have options, because they have several guys who could fill the role. But who will it be? And for how long?
Brad Jones looked the part late in 2009, but he tore up his shoulder last season and didn’t show much before the injury. He might also shift inside if the Packers need depth there.
Frank Zombo is a high-energy player and had a sack in the Super Bowl, but he has limitations athletically. This lockout has likely hurt his development as a pass rusher, too.
Then there is Erik Walden, who played well over the final six-game stretch and likely has the highest ceiling. I’d like to see what he can accomplish with a full year under his belt in the Packers system.
My guess is this will shake down much like the running back situation. Zombo is likely the odds-on favorite to start initially, but either Jones or Walden could take away snaps if he falters. No matter who’s playing there, the Packers need production from the position to take the focus off Clay Matthews. There’s no reason why that trio shouldn’t produce at least 10 sacks over 16 games with the way offenses double and triple team Matthews.
Are These Packers Ready to Make History?
While winning the Super Bowl is a tremendous achievement, too often great teams are forgotten in NFL history because they were one-and-done’s. The Packers can look back on their 1990’s teams for evidence of that fact. That team was good enough to win three or four Super Bowls during their run, but they only got it done in ’96. As a result, very few people talk about how good those teams really were.
Luckily for the franchise, the Packers have another chance at putting their mark on history. They have an elite quarterback in Aaron Rodgers, whose bond with Mike McCarthy is as solid as any quarterback-coach in the league, and a roster that features stars of all ages at nearly every position.
Everything is in place, but it’s up to this team to stamp their place in NFL lore. This Packers team, with Rodgers and McCarthy in charge, can do it this season. The formula is simple: Hoist that Lombardi Trophy in Indianapolis in February, cement your status as an all-time great team. Anything less, and you take the risk of becoming this trivia question in 40 years:
Which NFL team won Super Bowl XLV?
Years from now, no one (besides Packers fans, of course) will know that answer unless they bring home hardware from Super Bowls XLVI, XLVII or XLVIII. One-and-done’s are forgotten, but dynasties never die.
Can these Packers do it?