The Game of Thrones/Packers connections are endless. The North vs The South, Aaron is Jon Snow, Clay is pretty much an actual wildling at this point, the list goes on. The 7th season of the show started with a bang and a line that I hope rings true for this coming season. “When people ask what happened here, tell them the north remembers” The line was fitting for young Arya Stark and hopefully will be true for the Green Bay Packers in their week 2 NFC Championship game rematch with the Atlanta Falcons and throughout the entire 2017-18 NFL season. Heading into camp it’s time to preview the season, take a look at the team figure out where they are headed this year.
We start with the strength of the team and that’s the offense. At the helm is the best QB in the league (don’t @ me) Aaron Rodgers. There was stretch from the end of 2015 and the start of 2016 where people asked “What’s wrong with Rodgers?”. Well nothing was wrong. He didn’t have his number 1 target Jordy Nelson, his number 2 and 3 targets were banged up and the leading receiver was James Jones. Once Nelson, Devante Adams and Randall Cobb had their feet under them the team went on a run like we’ve never seen. A 6-game winning streak to finish the regular season and 2 more in the playoffs to get to their 2nd NFC championship game in 3 years. The outcome wasn’t the one they’d hoped for but it showed there is nothing an Aaron Rodgers led team can’t do. At receiver, it’s the same cast lead by Nelson with Adams and Cobb behind him, they are as lethal as any receiving crew in football. Youngsters Geronimo Allison, Jeff Janis and Trevor Davis are behind the starting 3 and all of them have potential to be impact players. By far the biggest addition to the team this year is at Tight End. Martellus Bennett broke out last year as Gronks running mate in New England with 55 catches for 701 yards and 7 TDs. Bennett has always had talent but he put it all together last year and was brought in to replace playoff hero Jared Cook. He along with fellow free agent addition Lance Kendricks should bring an added dimension to the Packers offense. Running back is the biggest question mark on the team. Ty Montgomery transitioned from receiver to running back last season and showed he had a knack for the position picking up the blocking side of it well while carrying the ball 77 times for 457 yards, a 5.9 yard per carry average, and using his receiver skills to bring an added threat to the Packers attack. Rookies Aaron Jones out of The University of Texas at El Paso and Jamaal Williams out of BYU will be fighting for playing time as Montgomery’s backup. The loss of Eddie Lacy to the Seahawks was a tough blow but his injury history and weight issues made him a risk Green Bay wasn’t willing to take. Last but certainly not least is the O-line, probably the strongest unit on this side of the ball. Tackles David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga are two of the best pass blockers in the league and keep Aaron on his feet. Lane Taylor took over for the departed Josh Sitton last year and didn’t skip a beat. This year TJ Lang departed and 6-time pro bowler Jahri Evans was brought in to replace him, that should be a seamless transition. Finally, at center Corey Linsley will return as the starting center anchoring the line. The Offense was 4th in points per game last year and should be top 5 in the league again this year. The issue will be on the other side of the ball.
By far the weaker side of the ball, things on the defense will have to go well in order for the Packers to being playing in January and February. There are question marks in every segment of the defense outside of the safeties so let’s look at them first. HaHa Clinton-Dix and Morgan Burnett are the anchors of the defense. HaHa went to his first pro bowl last year after having 5 INTs and being the center-fielder of the defense. Burnett was a jack of all trades last year playing safety, slot corner and even inside linebacker toward the end of the year. He was ranked as the 14th best safety by Pro Football Focus ranking and is one of the most underrated players in football. Moving from strongest we go to the weakest unit, the corners. Last year injuries killed the corner back position starting with Sam Shields who suffered a concussion week 1 and was never heard from again. The concussion was the 4th of his career and marked the probable end for him as he is still a free agent. Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins had impressive 2015 rookie season but really struggled in 2016 and will need to rebound back to form if this team is going to make a run at a title. Veteran Davon House has returned to the team that drafted him in 4th round of the 2011 draft to be a leader and starting corner. His return fills the hole left by Shields and should bring some leadership to an otherwise very young group. Ladarius Gunter was forced into the number 1 corner spot last year did the best he could but was not equipped to handle the likes of Odell Beckham, Dez Bryant and Julio Jones who he was matched up with in the playoffs. Both Bryant and Jones had 9 catches for over 100 yards and 2 TDs, Jones almost eclipsing the 200-yard mark and would have had the game not been so lopsided. Beckham on the other hand was open multiple times and could’ve had a huge day if it wasn’t for a few untimely drops. Gunter going back to role more suited for him should improve his play. The unquestioned leader of the defense is outside linebacker Clay Matthews. Injures have derailed his season the last 2 years but a healthy Clay as we saw in 2014 is a phenomenal player. On the other side of Clay is Nick Perry who led the team with 11 sacks last year, finally breaking out after being drafted in the 1st round in 2012. After those 2 though, there are some question marks, Julius Peppers returned home to the Panthers and Datone Jones left for the rival Vikings leaving a hole to be filled by youngsters Jayrone Elliot, Kyle Fackrell and rookie Vince Biegel. Fackrell and Elliot had 2 and 1 sack respectively and will be asked to take on a bigger role this year while the rookie out of the University of Wisconsin will try to show he wasn’t just a product of playing opposite of JJ’s younger brother TJ Watt. The middle linebackers will be the same cast of characters led by Jake Ryan, who was third on the team with 56 tackles in the 14 games he played. Blake Martinez and Joe Thomas will join Ryan in the middle to make up a young trio that helped the Packers post the 8th best run defense in the league last year. They will need to improve in their pass coverage in order to help out the weak cornerback group. The D-line lead by Mike Daniels rounds out the defense. Daniels is the best run stopper on the line and chipped in 4 sacks last year. Alongside him will be second year player Kenny Clark, who showed a burst last year that will give opposing offensives fits, and Christian Ringo who will be filling in for Letroy Guion after he was suspended for 4 games for violating the league’s policy on performance enhancing substances. A defense that ranked 21st in points per game will have to improve, specifically in the pass game, in order to get this team to the next level.
The special team unit will be led by Mason Crosby, one of the best kickers in the league. After a terrible 2012 season, Crosby has rebounded to make at least 85% of his kicks 3 out of the last 4 years and is one of the most clutch kickers in the league. Rookie Justin Vogel is the only punter currently on the roster and should get the first crack at the job, something that the packers struggled with last year. A combination of Janis, Cobb, Montgomery and Trevor Davis will handle the hole in the return game left by the departing Micha Hyde. The special teams have improved since the 2014 NFC championship debacle and should be a solid unit.
All in all, this team is primed for another run at the Super Bowl with Mike McCarthy at the helm. McCarthy has lead them to 9 playoff appearances in his 11 years as coach that includes 6 division championship, 4 NFC Championship game appearances and a Super Bowl victory. I expect no less than a 7th division title, which would tie a league record for consecutive playoff appearance with 9, and another deep playoff run.