The Packers added valuable prospects in the 2011 NFL Draft and re-signed wide receiver James Jones and fullback John Kuhn, but there were a handful of players the team lost last week. Here’s a look at where those players wound up, what it means for those teams and how it will affect the Packers in 2011.
Daryn Colledge: Arizona Cardinals — 5 years, $27.5 million
Why he left the Packers: A common theme with all the Packers who left via free agency is that the Packers simply could not afford them. This is certainly the case with Colledge, who leaves Green Bay after five successful seasons. The money was not there, as seen by the contract Arizona gave him, and the Packers had viable (and cheaper) replacements in Derek Sherrod, T.J. Lang, Nick McDonald and Marshall Newhouse.
Why he joined the Cardinals: Colledge received a big payday as an injury-free starting left guard on a Super Bowl team, replacing long-time veteran Alan Faneca, who retired at season’s end. He will start from day one, protecting new quarterback Kevin Kolb and blocking for Beanie Wells. The Cardinals are starting fresh, in a sense, with Kolb and Colledge is now a piece of that.
What it means for the Packers: Ted Thompson clearly believes in the candidates at left guard, as the money was there for the Packers to bring back Colledge. The rookie Sherrod has seen first team reps during the first week of practice, and Lang, McDonald and Newhouse should make for healthy competition.
Brandon Jackson: Cleveland Browns — 2 years, $4.5 million
Many NFL teams were busy agreeing to free agent deals and dealing players, but (surprise, surprise) it was the Packers who stayed put on the second day of free agency. While teams are not allowed to officially sign free agents until Friday, left guard Daryn Colledge, offensive lineman Jason Spitz and running back Brandon Jackson all agreed to deals that will end their tenures in Green Bay. Here’s how it will affect the team in 2011:
Colledge signs with Cardinals
There will be a new starting left guard for the Packers when they take the field for the first time in August after Daryn Colledge agreed to terms with the Arizona Cardinals. The deal is worth a reported $29.5 million over five years, with $10 million of the that money guaranteed. A five year veteran in Green Bay, Colledge started 76 of 80 games after being drafted in the second round out of Boise State in 2006. It would have been virtually impossible for the Packers to match that contract, so instead they will look elsewhere at left guard.
Early candidates for the starting gig, assuming the Packers do not address it in free agency, are T.J. Lang and Nick McDonald. Lang, a fourth round pick in 2009, has been on the cusp of making the jump to a starter’s role and will now get his first real chance. McDonald hung on as an undrafted rookie in 2010, and it should make for a healthy competition in August. Marshall Newhouse, a fourth round draft pick a year ago, is a darkhorse candidate.
Spitz signs with Jacksonville
Owners of fantasy football teams, look away. Ryan Grant fans, understand where this is coming from. Members of the James Starks fan club, know that your man is going to be an important piece to the Packers’ puzzle in 2011.
But Brandon Jackson is the most valuable running back the Packers have on their roster, and it would be a huge mistake if they let him leave Green Bay when he becomes a free agent as soon as the new CBA is announced.
A second round draft pick out of Nebraska in 2007, the Packers initially had hoped Jackson would be the running back of the future. The 22-year-old Jackson had just one year of being the feature running back under his belt, rushing for 989 yards on 188 carries and eight touchdowns his junior year. He also caught 33 passes out of the backfield and scored twice through the air. Out of college, the scouting report was that consistency was an issue but his shiftiness and strength would serve him well at the next level.
Unfortunately for Jackson, his draft choice coincided with the Packers trade for Ryan Grant, who would go on to start the next three seasons in Green Bay. Jackson saw spot duty from time-to-time, but Grant’s durability (not missing a start in three years) never allowed Jackson to prove his worth running the ball.
Every sports fan in America does it. It’s that exaggerated feeling of falling in love with rookies and expecting nothing but greatness, while proven veterans are suddenly moved to the back burner and become old news.
In Green Bay, this has certainly been the case with Green Bay running backs Ryan Grant and James Starks.
Just 18 carries into the season, an ankle injury in Week 1 knocked Grant out for the remainder of the 2010 season. From there, the Packers’ run game struggled as Brandon Jackson, Dmitri Nance and John Kuhn unsuccessfully attempted to fill the void.
Then, when Starks was finally activated on November 9, returning from a hamstring injury that had him sidelined since training camp, many expected him to enter the platoon with Jackson and be used only in short-yardage situations. Starks did not see the field until Week 16 against the San Francisco 49ers, but he made his presence felt by rushing for 73 yards on 18 carries in that contest. He would rush for just 28 yards on 11 carries in the final two regular season games, but burst onto the scene in the playoffs by rushing for 123 yards in the Packers’ Wildcard win over the Philadelphia Eagles.
Starks then became the every-down back for the Packers and finished the 2010 playoffs with 315 yards on 81 carries and a touchdown. His performance was made even more impressive considering the sixth round draft choice was playing for the first time in almost two years. Starks had missed his entire senior season at Buffalo with a shoulder injury.
That skill set combined with fans not having to see Jackson dance in the backfield before diving forward for two yards quickly made Starks a fan favorite in Green Bay. Capping the year off with a Super Bowl victory only further improved Starks’ standing in the eyes of the Packer faithful.
ESPN.com’s NFC North blogger Kevin Seifert ranked the most underrated players on each team in the division last Friday. His selection for the Packers, right guard Josh Sitton, came as no surprise. Staying with that trend, here are the top 10 most underrated Packers.
1. Josh Sitton, right guard: Left tackle Chad Clifton has been given much of the credit for the Packers’ recent successes in the Packers’ passing attack, as the offensive line allowed just 38 sacks in 2010, down from 51 a year ago. But for as good as Clifton was last season, being selected to the Pro Bowl and being voted as the 99th best player in the league by the players, Sitton is the foundation of the offensive line. The fourth year guard was called for just two false starts and one holding penalty in 2010, and unofficially did not allow a sack. He excelled in the ground game as well and was a Pro Bowl alternate. John Clayton ranked him as the most underrated right guard in the NFL.
2. Sam Shields, cornerback: The secret is out Shields after his performance in the NFC Championship Game, including the game-sealing interception late in the fourth quarter, but Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams still shadow the rookie corner. Unofficially, Shields allowed 37 receptions on 63 passes intended on his receiver and committed just one pass interference penalty. He defended seven passes and intercepted four more, and the quarterback rating on passes on him was 80.7, just four points worse than Woodson’s 2010 mark. He is not on the level of Woodson or Williams, but for an undrafted rookie with just one year of defensive skills, Shields was a major success. He also helped on special teams, averaging 21.5 yards on 21 returns. Shields should make Woodson’s inevitable retirement in the next two or three years that much easier.
3. Brandon Chillar, inside linebacker:
When Ryan Grant was lost for the season just two quarters into the 2010 season, many wondered if the Packers could survive with Brandon Jackson and fullback-turned-bulldozer John Kuhn.
For 11 weeks that duo worked, but the return (and debut) of little-known seventh round rookie James Starks threw another wrench into the equation. A wrench that would pay dividends down the stretch in the playoffs.
As the Packers enter the 2011 offseason, Grant is expected to be ready for all activity once summer workouts begin and will battle with Starks for the starting gig. Jackson is not under contract but could be back as an excellent third down back.
Rookie free agent Dmitri Nance was a solid fill-in but projects as nothing more than a practice squad body.
All this begs the question as the NFL Draft gets underway tomorrow night: Is running back a need for the Green Bay Packers?
The Packers will surely address both lines and will look into improving their pass rush on the right side, and may even consider a wide receiver early in the draft, but could an early-round running back provide an answer for the future?
Starting from the ground up, Grant is one of the more under-appreciated yet successful running backs in the league. He finished ninth and seventh in rushing yards the last two seasons, and in 2007 rushed for 956 yards in eight starts. Those numbers say a lot considering Green Bay’s pass-happy offense.
His injury should not be of concern, considering he played 15, 16 and 16 games the last three seasons and a whole season off should have his legs fresh for 2011.
Starks made head turns when the playoffs came around, rushing for 315 yards in four playoff games and coaches like him enough to give him a chance to win the starting job outright. While there’s a chance he doesn’t become the clear-cut starter this year, the 25-year-old Starks was given rave reviews by the coaching staff before the public saw him, so there’s good reason to believe he could be the guy.
The Green Bay Packers are World Champs! 11 days later and it still sounds as amazing as it did when Ben Roethlisberger threw an incomplete pass on fourth down with under a minute to go. With the season over, it’s time to give out grades to the 53-man roster. Injured players will get their own section later, but for now it’s about the 53 players who suited up in Dallas (OK, only 45 suited up but you know what I mean). Here’s the Packers’ offense year in review.
QB- Aaron Rodgers: Many expected an MVP-type season out of Rodgers, but Packers’ fans will have no problem living with a Super Bowl-type season. The numbers weren’t always there for Rodgers, who missed a game and a half, but he was near impeccable in the playoffs and was named the Super Bowl MVP, a fitting end to a “belt” of a season. GRADE: A
QB- Matt Flynn: Many laughed when an unnamed NFC scout said Flynn was the back-up in football, and Flynn’s pre-season did little to help that case. But an incredible showing against New England on Monday night, 24-of-37, 251 yards, three touchdowns, and one interception, made everyone believers. If the Packers don’t trade him, they have a more than serviceable back-up should Rodgers miss any time in 2011. GRADE: B+
QB- Graham Harrell: Thankfully for Packers’ fans everywhere, we didn’t get to see what Harrell could do this season. He didn’t see any action this season. GRADE: INC
RB- James Starks:
With just six days remaining until Super Bowl XLV, it’s time to start comparing both teams to see where advantage lie on the rosters. The Pittsburgh Steelers come into the Super Bowl after taking down the Baltimore Ravens and New York Jets as the AFC’s No. 2 seed. They used a balanced attack on offense and a swarming defense to get where they are, as they look for their third Super Bowl title in the last six seasons under head coach Mike Tomlin.
Answering for the NFC are the Green Bay Packers, who enter the Super Bowl as the hotter of the two teams. Road wins over the Eagles, Falcons, and Bears as the No. 6 seed has proved they can play with anyone. That’s exactly what Mike McCarthy and the Packers will have to do when they face Pittsburgh. Just two players have Super Bowl experience, Charles Woodson and Ryan Pickett, while John Kuhn holds the lone S.B. ring, when he was a practice squad member with the Steelers back in 2005.
Here’s a comparison breakdown of each offensive position and which team will hold the edge come Super Bowl Sunday. Teams will either have a neutral edge, a slight edge, or a substantial edge.
Quarterback: Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger vs. Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers
One of the biggest themes over the past week has been the experience factor, and how the Steelers blow the Packers out of the water in that department. While that may or may not be the case, it’s surely worth noting at this position. The fact is Roethlisberger has been on this stage, the biggest in all of football, twice in his career, something few quarterbacks can put on their resume. Rodgers, on the other hand, has played just four playoff games.
While nothing can compare to playing in the Super Bowl, the fact that all four of Rodgers’ playoff games have been on the road gives some hope that he won’t miss a beat come Sunday. Rodgers has been surgical this post-season and will have a nice, fast, warm dome to play under in Dallas, so those elements won’t factor into his play. There may be a jitter or two from the Packers’ signal caller to begin the game, but expect Rodgers to come through Sunday like he has all season.
At the same time, experience isn’t the only thing Roethlisberger has going for him. He’s one of the elite quarterbacks in the league, is near-impossible to take down in the pocket, and excels running to his right outside the pocket. A balanced run game and three legitimate receivers (to go with the experience) gives him the slight edge over Rodgers, but this is about as close to neutral without being neutral as possible.
Running Backs: Pittsburgh’s Rashard Mendenhall and Issac Redman vs. Green Bay’s James Starks and Brandon Jackson
Outside of a career ending injury to quarterback Aaron Rodgers, the first and most obvious need for the Packers in 2010 is finding a left tackle to take over for current starter Chad Clifton. Despite showing improvements of late, the offensive line as a whole has been one of the worst in the league this season and changes are inevitable in 2010. However, just because the Packers need to address the offensive line does not mean it is a foregone conclusion that they will select a left tackle in the first round next year.
Rather, the Packers would be wise to snatch up Clemson running back C.J. Spiller if he is on the board when the Packers are on the clock. Before your head explodes for an offensive lineman not being at the top of the list, let’s take a look at arguably the best running back in the nation.
Spiller has been a monster this season and his pre-Music City Bowl stats include 1145 rushing yards, 11 touchdowns. He has also added 33 receptions for 445 yards and four touchdowns through the air for the Tigers and is having a stellar all-around season. Spiller will play his bowl game in Tennessee, the home of the NFL’s leading rusher Chris Johnson. Many have compared Spiller’s running style to that of Johnson’s and their measurements are the same within five pounds of each other.
The Packers have lacked a true game-breaker in the run game for quite some time and Spiller would fit the bill perfectly. Spiller’s ability to cut back and break into the second level make him a perfect fit for the zone blocking scheme, something Ryan Grant has lacked since his breakout campaign two seasons ago. Spiller would allow the Packers to use the screen game more efficiently and add a potential, “touchdown every time he touches the ball” running back to the offense.
The other caveat with Spiller is his ability as a kick and punt returner. Spiller has returned an NCAA-record eight kicks for touchdowns and is a threat to go to the house every time he goes back for a kick. If Spiller does not take over starting running back duties right away, he will return kicks and punts for a Packers special teams unit that ranks 21st in average kick returns and 24th in punt returns.
The NFL is quickly becoming a two-running back system and the fact is that Grant is not going to last long if he has no one behind him. Brandon Jackson has proved to be a bust outside of his improved blitz pick-up on third down and DeShawn Wynn is nothing more than a nice practice squad player. Spiller would provide the Packers with a change-of-pace running back, similar to what Felix Jones is in Dallas with Marion Barber.
Entering Week Thirteen, the Packers were slotted to pick 22nd in the first round. Obviously that number can and probably will change slightly between now and April, but that range is where most experts have Spiller going. If he has a big bowl game and runs a sub-4.30 forty at the Combine his stock will surely rise into the top 15, but we have now seen that Ted Thompson is not afraid to depart with his later draft picks if it means getting someone he really likes.
In recent years, Thompson has shown a pattern of going with the best player available in round one of the draft, and then drafting for need in round two. The talent in the first round makes it hard to pass on a player you think could be truly special. Unless you are set at the position with a young, elite-level talent (Chris Johnson, Joe Thomas, Aaron Rodgers, Patrick Willis), drafting the best player available is not a waste of a pick.
At some point early on in the draft, the offensive line will need to be addressed. Thompson is (hopefully) starting to see that a line built on mid-round, little known, athletic college linemen is not going to get the job done. With one of the deepest draft classes this decade, Thompson will be able to find good depth in round two if he does not pull the trigger on a tackle in the first round.
The truth is the Packers are set at multiple positions on the field for quite some time and find themselves with a better future than the majority of teams. That means taking risks in the first round on a potential stud running back will not set them back five years if it does not work. Good teams like the Packers put themselves in those positive situations to be able to do that, so taking a flier on Spiller is a risk worth taking.
Running back might not be the Packers’ biggest need next season, but if a future Pro Bowler is on the board when the Packers pick, need might go right out the window.
Last year, Ryan Grant missed a large portion of the off-season and still ran for over 1200 yards, despite a makeshift offensive line and one of the best passing offenses in the league.
He will come into the year as the starter and will look to build on last year’s success and hopefully find the endzone a few more times than he did last year (four). Backup Brandon Jackson became much better and finally showed glimpses of the second round pick he is supposed to be.
He came into camp last year much faster, stronger, and had added a good amount of muscle to his frame. He was an excellent third down running back for the Packers and will likely see an increase in carries this year despite head coach Mike McCarthy not being a fan of the two back system.
There is some question about who will win the third running back spot, but my gut tells me it will be Kregg Lumpkin. DeShawn Wynn and Tyrell Sutton are the other potential candidates for the spot, but Wynn’s time has run out and Sutton is an undrafted rookie that seems like more of a project. Lumpkin is tremendously talented but has never seemed to stay healthy.
If he can make it through the pre-season without any injuries, he will be on the team. If he continues his streak of injuries, Wynn will get the nod as the third running back.
At the fullback position, everything I hear says that fifth round selection Quinn Johnson will get every chance to start.
Standing in his way will be current starter Korey Hall who did an above average job last year at the position. The odd man out looks to be John Kuhn who produced well but is replaceable at the position.
Ryan Grant: 310 rushes, 1251 yards, 3.9 ypc, 6 TD’s
Brandon Jackson: 80 rushes, 320 yards, 4.0 ypc, 2 TD’s
Kregg Lumpkin: 5 rushes, 19 yards, 3.9 ypc, 0 TD’s