In anticipation of the upcoming NFL season, Head & Heart Sports will feature one division each week until the season begins and preview each team’s 2016 outlook. This week we take a look at the NFC North, concluding with the Green Bay Packers.
Recap of 2015: Last but certainly not least. Lucky you, reader, getting to hear about how great Green Bay will be this year as our last recap before the season starts TOMORROW! As a Packers’ fan, reviewing 2015 means reliving a lot of mixed emotions. It was a year without number one wideout Jordy Nelson because of a preseason injury in a meaningless game, which then turned into Aaron Rodgers’ worst statistical performance since practically the year he became a starter (excluding 2013 when he played only nine games). And even though Green Bay managed to go 10-6 and make the playoffs, they failed to win the NFC North. Then their season ended with an overtime loss to the Cardinals in the second round, a heartbreaker that came immediately after the Packs’ second successful Hail Mary of the season. Highest highs, lowest lows. Although that loss probably is not as painful as 2014’s exit to the freaking Seahawks because Bostick completely forgot how to catch a ball (I may also have DHS’ed* the Pack that year, apologies), it does create a little cause for alarm. Mike McCarthy has trouble managing close games or taking any kind of risks to put the team in a better position to win. He also probably should never be allowed to use the challenge flag without consulting Rodgers first. A third soul-sucking loss would probably mean the end of the McCarthy era, but hopefully it doesn’t come to that. For many teams, a winning record and a playoff win is a successful season. For the Packers, however, losing the division and failing to make it to the Super Bowl is a disappointment that needs correcting.
Significant Additions: TE Jared Cook, WR Jordy Nelson (back from injury)
Significant Subtractions: NT B.J. Raji, QB Scott Tolzien, TE Andrew Quarless, CB Casey Hayward, FB John Kuhn, OT Josh Sitton
Potential Impact Rookies: NT Kenny Clark, OT Jason Spriggs, LB Kyler Fackrell, LB Blake Martinez
Team Strengths: Bias aside, this is a really good team just about everywhere. Aaron Rodgers regularly manages to do things at quarterback that should be impossible (which I assume makes his lil’ bro sad). Jordy Nelson is back to fill out a receiving depth chart that includes Randall Cobb, Davante Adams, Ty Montgomery and Jared Abbrederis. Jared Cook adds back the pass-catching tight end Green Bay has been missing since Jermichael Finley’s injury, with improving Richard Rodgers behind him. Eddie Lacy has spent the summer trying not to eat all of the cheese curds and brats in Wisconsin, living with the P90x guy in California and slimming down. Lacy and James Starks are a great one-two punch out of the backfield. The offensive line is one of the best in the business when healthy, so much so the Packers apparently felt comfortable cutting Pro Bowler Josh Sitton. Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers headline a front seven that has legitimate potential to be one of the better rushing forces in the NFL. And the Packers are consistently deep and talented at corner and safety, where the award winner for best name, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, continues to shine alongside Morgan Burnett and Sam Shields. Obviously, if ranked, Green Bay’s most potent weapon is their offense where they should reassert themselves on top of the league this year.
Team Weaknesses: The main weakness is health, where the Packers have often been unlucky. Beyond missing Nelson last year, Adams took half the season off, the offensive line was banged up and half the defense was out. Thankfully, the coaching staff has taken a very cautious approach to this preseason and, thus far at least, there have been few setbacks. The only major concern at this point is center Corey Linsley’s hamstring, but JC Tretter was originally slated for the starting job anyway and Linsley’s eventual recovery will only add depth. The run defense has always had issues not tripping over each other when facing a good running back (or Matt Forte), but this year may finally get them over that hump. Other than that, I guess Mason Crosby could have another year of psyching himself out on every field goal attempt? The offensive line could end up missing Sitton and/or deal with another injury bug? The inside linebackers could not be up to snuff and force Clay back inside? None of these worst case scenarios seems likely this year and the Packers should have one of the strongest all around teams.
Fantasy Players to Watch: There has been some question as to Nelson’s health, but according to the Packers, he will not even be on a snap count come Week 1. Given that, although he might start the season slow, Nelson is a solid WR1 and worth taking early. Jordy’s return also should pay dividends for both Rodgers and Cobb. Expect the Packers’ QB to bounce back in a big way, returning to MVP candidate levels. Likewise, Cobb will only benefit from lighter coverage, even if Nelson is slow to start the season, and is an excellent WR2 candidate. Lacy (along with handcuff Starks) are good choices as low RB1/high RB2 with Lacy having the potential to be a real workhorse. The best sleeper pick might be Abbrederis, who was turning heads in camp and has a good rapport with Rodgers. If he can break into the being the third receiver, the Pack runs plenty of three wideout sets. Lastly, some people might be lucky enough to grab Cook late/off the waivers. He has looked great in camp, is getting along with Rodgers, and will be a perfect end zone threat.
2016 Outlook: Let’s start with pouring one out for John Kuhn, who moved on this offseason, he will be missed (at least emotionally and for his inevitable one goalline touchdown of the season). Otherwise, this is a team rearmed, recharged, and hopefully carrying a gigantic chip on their collective shoulder after two emotionally scarring playoff exits in a row. Third times the charm. Besides, with perhaps one of the best quarterbacks of all time at the helm, every season in Packerland is Super Bowl or bust. And that is a realistic, achievable goal even with the Panthers, Cardinals, and Seahawks all lurking in the division. The offense can score with anyone and the defense this year may be a legitimate frightening experience for opposing quarterbacks. If Matthews and Peppers are able to rush to their heart’s content and Mike Daniels, Letroy Guion, and Dean Lowry actually stand up to the run, the sack count should stack up. There is no reason Green Bay can’t finish top ten in both offensive and defensive DVOA, Rodgers can’t be in the running for MVP, and Dom Capers can’t finally earn my respect. Lambeau leaps for everybody.
Record Prediction: 16-0. Okay, okay, they may lose to the Seahawks and the Lions might be a tough out this year but boy, has the season broke right for the Packers. In April, they were favored in all but one of their games by the Vegas gambling establishments. Then, Teddy Bridgewater’s injury reverted the Vikings back to the same old, Peterson-dependent team and leaves the NFC North in the Packers’ hands where it rightfully belongs. They also get to play their toughest games at home and are matched up with the always-barely-surviving NFC East teams. If Rodgers has to tell anyone to “R-E-L-A-X” this season, something has gone terribly wrong. By the time the Seahawks come to town on December 11, Green Bay may legitimately have the division wrapped up. The Packers most difficult out of division away game is probably the Falcons and that should tell you everything you need to know. 2016 is an opportunity to be seized and if the Pack can cruise through the regular season they will be able to turn it up for the playoffs. If I were a betting man (and I am), I would say Green Bay goes 13-3 and finds themselves Super Bowl Champs this season.
*DHS = Drive Home Safely, as in, I’m calling this before it’s over and karma immediately bites you. Originated by our own Randy “Dion” Haines.
Photo Credit: Chris Graythen/ Getty Images