NFC North Issues/Answers-Green Bay Packers

Aaron Rodgers (Getty Images)

Can Aaron Rodgers improve on his solid performance during the 2008 season? How will the change in defensive schemes help improve the Packer defense in 2009? We're taking a look at these issues and a lot more, inside.

Issue No. 1: Can Aaron Rodgers repeat his success from last season?

Answer: In just his first full season as a starting quarterback, Rodgers threw for over 4,000 yards and posted 32 combined touchdowns (28 passing/4 rushing). And to think he achieved such lofty numbers while playing with a sprained right shoulder, which he suffered during their Week Four game at Tampa Bay, and the injury lingered for several more weeks. While Rodgers had has practice time limited most weeks until very late in the season, he started all 16 games, a feat that didn't seem possible after he first suffered the injury.

Rodgers already has shown in just one season that he can play with a nagging injury and still play at a high level. The other surprising facet about his success from last season was his ability to throw the ball down field with a bad throwing shoulder. His 7.5 yards per pass attempt and over 250 yards passing/game were pretty impressive. Rodgers was thought to have an average arm coming into last season, but from his numbers and from watching him, I'd say that couldn't be further from the truth.

Why shouldn't he continue his success? The one area which is a concern is the with the offensive line. RT Mark Tauscher is coming off of ACL surgery and remains unsigned. His return to the team is considered a real long-shot, and because of that, second-year OT Allen Barbre has been penciled in at that spot. However, Barbre didn't start a single game last season and projected starting RG Josh Sitton only started two games last year (his rookie season). While LG Daryn Colledge has started 44 games in his three years of play and shown decent versatility, some would question if he's a solid player.

The good news is that while the offensive line looks to be questionable, Rodgers may have the NFL's deepest group of receivers to work with. Led by emerging star Greg Jennings, Green Bay has speed and size at this position. While Jennings and veteran Donald Driver are considered to be smaller than average for the position, Green Bay uses taller receivers such as second-year pro Jordy Nelson and veteran Ruvell Martin as a part of their passing down and red zone packages. And don't forget about James Jones, who was a pleasant surprise for the team as a rookie, but his second season was marred by knee problems.

Taking everything into account, there really isn't a strong reason to think Rodgers won't do just as well if not better if he stays healthy.


Issue No. 2: Will the change from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defensive scheme prove to be fruitful?

Answer: New defensive coordinator Dom Capers has had his share of success over the years with some of the seven teams he coached for. Now with his eighth team, Capers will be charged with moving the Packer defense from a 4-3 to a 3-4 zone blitz scheme.

Capers' best seasons were his first two as the head coach of the Carolina Panthers and during his tenure as the defensive coordinator with the Pittsburgh Steelers for three seasons.

One thing stood out over that time, he found quality pass rushers at OLB--Kevin Greene (in Pittsburgh and Carolina), Greg Lloyd, and Lamar Lathon to name just a few.

Other than Aaron Kampman, who be making the switch from being a 4-3 end to a 3-4 outside linebacker, the rest of the other outside linebackers on roster have a grand total of three sacks--for their careers. First-round pick Clay Matthews is might be better off as a 4-3 SLB than playing OLB in a 3-4--time will tell. Keep in mind depth isn't about numbers, it's about talent and productivity. A team can go three to four deep at any one position, but if those players are unproven, the depth isn't really what you might think it is. A player to keep an eye on as camps get underway is Marcus Washington, formerly of the Washington Redskins. The veteran outside linebacker can offer a solid role as a situational pass rusher.

Another issue is going to be depth up front. Can former first-round pick DL Justin Harrell contribute? Harrell will be playing end in the revamped scheme, but he's done absolutely nothing in his first two years as a professional. The only backups who've had meaningful playing experience are Mike Montgomery and Johnny Jolly. Unfortunately, Jolly could be suspended by the NFL for alleged illegal possession of codeine. His trial has been rescheduled for July 17. If I was executive vice president, general manager & director of football operations Ted Thompson, I'd take a hard look at signing veteran DLs Vonnie Holliday or Kevin Carter. Both have a decent amount of experience in playing in a 3-4, and both can rush the passer. They could also look at veteran DE Anthony Weaver, who had playing experience in the 3-4 with the Baltimore Ravens. He's not much of a pass rusher, but is decent against the run.

The secondary is in decent shape, especially at cornerback. And they are going to be pretty strong at inside linebacker, but depth could be an issue.

The bottom line is Capers will have his hands full converting the defense this season. Expectations shouldn't be very high, but there's a decent base of talent in the front-seven.

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