The Green Bay Packers are in a wonderful place in the cycle of sports: they get to be in “win now” mode for the foreseeable future, and can expect to be reaching for the brass ring every year as long as they have Aaron Rodgers and Mike McCarthy at the helm.
That doesn’t mean they don’t have questions to answer in training camp, though.
These are the things the Packers will be trying to figure out before September.
No. 5: Brain drain?
The Packers parted ways with several key veterans this offseason.
Charles Woodson, Desmond Bishop, Donald Driver and Greg Jennings were all huge parts of the team’s run to Super Bowl XLV, and again in their 15-1 season in 2011.
Driver, the team’s all-time leading receiver, is retired and says he will not play for another team.
Woodson won the Defensive Player of the Year award in 2009 and was named to four straight All-Pro teams during his time in Green Bay. He did most of his work as a cornerback, but the last two years played safety. He signed with his original team, Oakland, in May.
Jennings was the undisputed No. 1 wide receiver in Green Bay the last several years, becoming Aaron Rodgers’ favorite target immediately upon Rodgers’ ascension to the starting role. He signed with Minnesota during the offseason.
Bishop started at inside linebacker for the Super Bowl team and the 15-1 squad, but was cut in the middle of June. He missed time last year with a torn tendon. He will join Jennings in Minnesota.
It is likely that the numbers these players bring can be replaced, but collectively that is a ton of football IQ and veteran savvy that just left the team. It remains to be seen if their will be a locker room leadership void.
No. 4: Who will tote the rock?
The running backs in Green Bay haven’t gotten much publicity the last few years, as they have been overshadowed by the greatness of Rodgers.
The position has been a bit of an afterthought in the front office as well.
This year, the Packers are hoping second round pick Eddie Lacy can change that.
Lacy scored 17 rushing touchdowns for undefeated Alabama in 2012, and the Packers envision him as their back of the future.
It is possible that, like the unimpressive Mark Ingram before him, Lacy was a product of a nearly NFL-caliber offensive line. Foreseeing that possibility, GM Ted Thompson scooped UCLA standout Johnathan Franklin in the fourth round.
Lacy and Franklin will compete with incumbent DuJuan Harris for the starting gig in 2013. Harris had an impressive 4.6 yards per carry, but in extremely limited action. He only had 134 carries all year.
The ineffective James Starks seems likely to be cut.
No. 3: Will they wash the butter off their fingers?
Green Bay’s receivers have been known to have the dropsies the last few years. Most famously, they dropped 6 passes (according to ESPN Stats & Info) against the Giants in their divisional round beat down prematurely ended what looked like a great season. That was the most passes any team had dropped in a game all year in 2011.
Last year the problem didn’t get any better, with tight end Jermichael Finley being the biggest offender – last year Finley had six drops against only 61 receptions.
Finley and the rest are paid to catch the ball, but Finley at least recognizes the need for improvement. He has decided to fine himself for drops. The other Green Bay receivers should probably follow suit.No. 2: Will the real B.J. Raji please stand up?
Raji was a first round selection by Green Bay in the 2009 draft, and seemed like a perfect fit for their 3-4 scheme.
At 6’2” and 334 pounds, he seemed destined to be the mammoth space eater that defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ schemes rely on.
For a little while, it seemed like Raji would make good on the Packers' investment, posting a phenomenal year en route to the Super Bowl in 2010.
Raji’s 6.5 sacks, 29 tackles and 3 passes defensed were staggering measurable contributions from a guy whose primary job is to occupy offensive linemen.
In 2011, Raji’s production slipped, and he seemed to be getting wiped out on more plays. The Packers went 15-1, though, and he made the Pro Bowl seemingly on the strength of his 2010.
Last year, Raji fell off a cliff. He failed to register a single sack and was frequently blown backwards off the ball. Since his job is basically to hold that space, it was disruptive to the Packers’ defense as a whole.
For exhibits A and B, just look at the Packers losses in week 17 and 19, when they were absolutely torched for a combined total of 1,023 yards and 82 points.
To win it all again, the Packers need 2010 Raji, not 2012 Raji. The good news for cheeseheads is that he is only 25, so it is possible that he can right the ship. It is also a contract year for him, which is typically good for motivation.
No. 1: How will Aaron Rodgers survive?
Aaron Rodgers is the engine that makes the Packers offense go. In his five seasons as the full-time starter, he has accounted for 30 or more touchdowns (passing and rushing) every year. He has protected the ball at an all-time record pace.
He has won an MVP, a Super Bowl MVP, been the No. 1 seed in the playoffs.
He is currently obliterating Steve Young’s all-time career passer rating record, and he set the single season record as well.
If it seems like Rodgers makes the right decision every single play it’s because, mostly, he does.
That’s what makes the Packers’ personnel decisions so puzzling, particularly in not addressing the offensive line until the fourth round of this year’s draft.
In those five seasons, Rodgers has taken, in order, 34, 50, 31, 36 and 51 sacks.
Those are unacceptable totals.
We are not far removed from David Carr’s career being ruined by too many hits from large defensive linemen. The Packers are overexposing Rodgers, and they need to figure out a way to get him better protection sooner rather than later.
Rodgers has missed time with concussions before, and with recent research showing that people become more susceptible to recurrence with each incident, failing to shore up the offensive line is a potentially fatal mistake in Green Bay.
It might not happen this year, but odds are those chickens will come home to roost. Then, Rodgers can follow in Young’s footsteps again – forced into retirement because of concussions.