After being thoroughly outplayed, beaten down and—hate to say it—embarrassed Sunday evening in their 37-20 loss to the New York Giants in the NFC Divisional Playoffs, the Packers enter the 2012 offseason with a lot of questions.
For a team that finished the regular season 15-1, entering the offseason with a lot of questions is a bit of a surprise. But anyone who watched the Packers in 2011 knows that there’s a lot of fixing up that needs to be done if Green Bay wants to return to the Super Bowl anytime soon.
Today, I’ll take a look at the Packers offense and what may or may not happen in the offseason.
At this point, this is the only real certainty for the Packers.
Reigning Super Bowl MVP and likely 2011 AP NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers will be the starting quarterback. Coming off a season in which he threw for over 4,600 yards, 45 touchdowns and just six interceptions (in 15 games, mind you), No. 12 will be under center for the forseeable future.
The only question here is who his backup will be.
This year’s backup, Matt Flynn, is a free agent this offseason and it’s the assumption he will sign to be the starter for another team. In his only start this season, Flynn threw for SIX touchdowns. After having a quality performance filling in for Rodgers against the Patriots last season, Flynn generated a lot of talk around the league. With his performance against the Lions, it’s basically a lock that he will sign somewhere else. The only possibility that he stays with the Packers is if they place the franchise tag on him—which would mean he’d actually be getting paid more than Rodgers.
So, assuming Flynn parts ways, ex-Texas Tech record-setter Graham Harrell will be promoted to the No. 2 spot.
This is where things get interesting. The Packers have no star running back and with their propensity to throw the ball, they’re not likely to acquire one.
But their inconsistency in the running game was one of their few offensive flaws and it’s likely they’ll have some shake-ups this offseason.
Leading rusher James Starks (578 yards) will likely be back and will probably be the starter. Although a little inconsistent at times, Starks is only 25 years old and proved to be an adequate pass-catcher, hauling in 29 balls this season. He battled through a variety of injuries in 2011 and with a little development could turn into a quality starting running back.
One player not likely to be back is second-leading rusher Ryan Grant. Grant has been a fixture on the Packers offense for the past five years and for the most part, has been a consistent force in the backfield. But he turns 30 next season and with his contract expiring in March, I’d be surprised if the Packers retained him. He had a solid season this year coming off a torn ACL last season, but I just don’t see him in the Packers’ future.
Apart from that, I’d expect last year’s third-round draft pick Alex Green to see more playing time in 2012 as well as possibly Brandon Saine. I also wouldn’t be surprised if the Packers pick up a low-key running back in free agency or a late-round pick in April’s draft.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends:
The biggest decision here will be that of what to do with the Packers’ all-time leading receiver Donald Driver.
Driver will be turning 37 in February and has one year remaining on his current contract. This season, he caught 37 passes—his lowest total since 2001—and is definitely on the decline. And with a couple bonuses combined with his base salary for 2012, he’s scheduled to make about $5 million. I just can’t see him in a Packers uniform next year.
With Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, James Jones and Randall Cobb all under contract for next year, Driver would be seeing even less playing time in 2012 and I’m sure the Packers don’t want to shell out that kind of jack for what would amount to a No. 5 receiver.
Plus, the Packers have a couple receivers on the practice squad—Tori Gurley and Diondre Borel—who they believe have huge upside. The only way they could sign one of them to the active roster would be to release Driver. It’s sad to see one of the greatest receivers in Packers history pushed out the door, but I don’t see any way around it.
As far as tight ends go, Jermichael Finley is the big question. Finley becomes a free agent in March and the assumption is that the Packers will place the franchise tag on him if a new contract isn’t reached in time.
Although inconsistent at best, Finley is still one of the top tight end talents in the league. Coming off a torn ACL in 2010, Finley caught 55 passes and eight touchdowns in 2011 and is a nightmare for opposing defensive backs. If he can overcome his mental block of actually catching the ball, Finley could be a top 5 tight end in the league.
Apart from Finley, backup Andrew Quarless will be recovering from a blown-out knee this offseason and D.J. Williams and Tom Crabtree also figure to be in the mix for next year.
Another big issue this offseason for the Packers. Left tackle Chad Clifton, an anchor for the offensive line for the past decade, struggled with injuries for most of 2011 and will turn 36 this offseason. If the Packers decide to go for a more youthful strategy, Clifton could be released or choose to retire.
Center Scott Wells is a free agent this offseason, but I’d like to think the Packers would try very hard to resign him.
If Clifton isn’t with the team next season, I would guess that right tackle Bryan Bulaga would be the leading candidate to move over to the blind side. Rookie Derek Sherrod may still be recovering from his broken leg, but he would figure to move into the starting lineup sometime next year if he makes adequate recovery and on-field progress.
Other than that, both guards—T.J. Lang and Josh Sitton—both seem like they’ll be returning at their positions in 2012.
Marshall Newhouse proved to be an adequate fill-in in 2011 and would be the top backup among offensive lineman at the very least in 2012.
Next week, I'll take a look at possible changes in the defense this offseason.
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