Closing in on the final preseason game and many of the similar themes keep coming up: The health of Al Harris; Rodgers to Finley becoming very dangerous; the impact of rookies Burnett and Neal on defense; the TE conundrum; can the special teams improve?, etc.
However, there are plenty of storylines, good and bad, that are being buried. And they all could play large role in how the 2010 season plays out.
Can Clay Matthews avoid a “Sophomore Slump?” – One of the biggest areas of need on this team is the pass rush, but that is not anything new. However, almost everyone (myself included) are expecting great things from Matthews this season, building on his dominating rookie campaign. But I have to play devil’s advocate for a second and throw around the old sports cliche – “sophomore slump.” You hear it all the time in every sport when a rookie has success, like Matthews did. The unfortunate thing is that this does hold true sometimes. If it does and Matthews slumps, where does the pass rush come from? Brad Jones? Brandon Chillar? Brady Poppinga? Frank Zombo? Those names strike fear into not one offensive coordinator in the league. This question has to be asked since Matthews has missed almost all of camp to this point. I don’t think he will suffer a slump with his work ethic and football acumen, but I also thought A.J. Hawk was on the cusp of greatness after a solid rookie season.
The one major downfall of TGIF – Jermichael Finley is a freak. We all know that. The rest of the league knows that. Even my mom who can probably only name a handful of current Packers knows that. He will have a monster season and be a major cog in the Packers pursuit for the Lombardi Trophy. No one is questioning that and Finley has not given any doubt that he will hold up to his end of the deal. Pencil him in as Pro Bowler right now and maybe even an All-Pro. Remember when Antonio Gates exploded onto the scene a few years back? This may be bigger. However, the more success Finley has will create one major problem: What will happen after the 2010 season? Finley is under contract through 2011, but his scheduled to only make $470,000 this year and $550,000 next season. I’m sure that there a few incentives that he will meet, but that still will NOT sit well with Finley. Can’t blame him either, but what kind of situation are we looking at? Mark it down, I guarantee Finley will NOT take the field in any form without a new deal in place after this season. Gates signed a five-year extension this summer worth just over $36 million with $20 million in guarantees. It’s hard to see Finley requesting those numbers, but before last season did you imagine Revis holding out for more money than Asomugha’s ridiculous contract? This will not have much of an affect of this season, as Finley will want to put up the biggest numbers possible. However, he will want to be one of the highest in the league, maybe second only to Gates, so it comes down to whether Thompson pays the man or will TGIF will take his show somewhere else. Enjoy the ride Packer fans.
What will Donald Driver realistically bring to the table? – This is the storyline I hate to bring up, but Driver is 35 years old. Simple as that. He also has been one of the toughest Packers in the decade or two and plays a physical style of football. He’ll also hold every major receiving record in franchise history by the end of the season and will retire as Packer after signing his new deal. But you can’t run from age and Driver’s brand of football may have even accelerated the aging process. There is no doubt Driver will be one of the hardest working players on the team until he hangs up the pads, but can we really expect another 1,000 yard season in him? Probably not, but he may not need to with guys like Jennings and Finley pick up his slack and James Jones and Jordy Nelson continue to emerge. Just don’t be surprised to see a season in the range of 65 receptions for 750 yards and six TD’s instead of the 85-catch, 1,000+ years we are used to. Hate to say it.
Is this the year James Jones breaks out? - After depressing all of you way too much, let’s focus on something positive that hasn’t gotten a whole of coverage so far and that is the play of James Jones. As just mentioned with the aging of Driver, Jones’ play this year could help curb the decline of Double D. Besides Finley and Rodgers, Jones was the other offensive player that really stood out to me during the Colts game. Nelson has gotten a lot of pub during training camp and many have him as the #3 WR, but I still think it is Jones’ job. That is not a knock on Nelson, who has a great training camp, but a praise for Jones, who is holding onto the ball and becoming more consistent. Can you imagine if he can carry this over into the regular season with Driver going over the middle, Jennings doing his thing, Finley causing nightmares and Jones running fly and post routes all game? That is scary.
Speaking of players not getting enough coverage – Quick, name me the best offensive lineman the Packers have right now? Clifton? Maybe, but he is getting older and has health issues. Tauscher? Perhaps, as he was the savior in the second-half of last season, but like Clifton, he isn’t getting any younger. Maybe you say Bulaga? If you go by talent, then yes, but still too young and inexperienced. What about Josh Sitton? Winner, winner chicken dinner. Seriously what does Sitton have to do to get some coverage? I am not suggesting he is an All-Pro or anything like that, but like last year, he has gone about his business, makes plays and continues to get better. I remember when he first appeared in the starting lineup a few years ago I was pretty skeptical and while he struggled at first, but Sitton has developed in perhaps the team’s best and most reliable lineman heading into the 2010 season. Much praise for the former Central Florida product.
The absence of Al Harris will be felt in the first six weeks, but what about Atari Bigby? - We have done our fair share of ripping Bigby this training camp and rightfully so. He went about everything the wrong way and thought he was invaluable to the Packers. I am now throwing Bigby a bone, albeit a very small one (like one of those milkbone dog treats). Morgan Burnett has taken Bigby’s starting job and will do well, but there isn’t much behind him with Will Blackmon sidelined. The reality is that a healthy Bigby could go a long way for this secondary’s depth, especially in blitzing schemes. If there is one thing Bigby can do well is knocking the piss out of opposing players (when he doesn’t get out of position). This team lacks a pass rush outside of Matthews, so Capers will have to think outside of the box again with creative fronts and blitz schemes. When used the right way, having a battering ram like a healthy Bigby could give ol’ Dom another toy to play with. As for depth, Thompson will more than likely make a move in the coming week to bring in another cornerback, safety, or both, so you are not totally vindicated Atari.
Nick Barnett’s potential banner year – The last storyline surrounds the elder statesmen of the Packers defense. Barnett is motivated more than ever this year (i.e. comments about Favre and ‘Super Bowl or Die’ shirts), but will this translate into his breakthrough year that it has seemed to knocking on the door for years now? Barnett has started from Day 1 as a rookie and put together some impressive seasons. He has been a great leader, consistent performer and has earned every dollar of his contract. So, has he had his breakthrough as an NFL linebacker? Absolutely. But I am waiting for him to take his game to the next level of the elite. Not talking about on par with say Patrick Willis, but to a Pro-Bowl level, something hes has not achieved yet in his first seven seasons. If Barnett plays like he did last year, the defense will not take a step back. However, if he puts together a monster season it will help mask some of the other deficiencies and could take the defense to another level. Super Bowl teams are always filled with good players that have career years and Barnett is no different.