Athlon Sports is counting down its 2012 NFL preseason Power Rankings with in-depth team previews, schedule analysis and more as the start of the NFL season draws near.
The Green Bay Packers check in at No. 1.
In the end, 15–1 meant zero to Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers. All it really did was provide motivation for 2012. While the team took an undefeated record into mid-December, the offense put up more points than all but one outfit in NFL history and the quarterback won the NFL MVP after a spectacular season, 2011 was ultimately a disappointment for Rodgers and his team after winning Super Bowl XLV a year earlier.
“After you win the Super Bowl, I think it kind of changes your perspective,” Rodgers says. “You think you’re going to do this every year, get used to this, and you kind of forget just how special a run like that is, and how difficult it is. It gives you a greater respect for what you did when you made that run, but also a greater resolve to try and repeat that feeling.”
In order to repeat that feeling in 2012, the Rodgers-led offense will have to maintain its score-a-minute pace, and the defense will have to improve — significantly.
The Packers are set at quarterback for the next decade or so with Rodgers, who’s just entering his prime at age 28. While he admits that replicating his 2011 numbers will be difficult, the way he plays — brilliant decision-making, pinpoint accuracy and an absolute aversion to interceptions — gives him every chance to do it again. But with the free agent departure of backup Matt Flynn, who flew to Seattle, the team needs Rodgers to stay healthy.
For the pass-first Packers, running back is almost an afterthought. James Starks, a sixth-round pick in 2010 who was vital down the stretch of the team’s Super Bowl run, simply hasn’t proven durable. He was hampered during the second half of last season by knee and ankle injuries and must stay healthy for the first time since his junior year of college. Alex Green, a third-round pick in 2011, missed most of his rookie season with a torn ACL, but the coaches expect big things from him this year. The team also signed veteran Cedric Benson after the start of training camp so for now it appears that the Packers will utilize some sort of running back by committee approach.
Meanwhile, the team that carried three fullbacks on the 53-man roster once upon a time kept only John Kuhn last year. He’s a fan favorite who can protect against blitzes and run the ball at the goal line or in an emergency.
The Packers’ wide receiving corps is the deepest in the league. Greg Jennings, who is entering the final year of his contract, is a legitimate star. Jordy Nelson is physical, sneaky fast and coming off one of the greatest breakout seasons in recent memory. James Jones makes the most of limited opportunities. Randall Cobb was a revelation as a rookie, both as a returner and as a fast learner at receiver. And ageless Donald Driver still has something left, even more than he showed on “Dancing With the Stars.” Beyond that core, the team liked practice-squad receivers Tori Gurley and Diondre Borel so much last year that they paid them 53-man roster money to stick around on the practice squad despite offers from other teams. Driver’s future isn’t entirely certain because of his $5 million cap number. He’s offered to take a pay cut.
Few teams in the league value tight ends more than Green Bay, which kept a whopping five last year. Jermichael Finley must reduce the number of dropped passes (11) he had last year to be truly elite. Still, he’s a matchup nightmare. The team was hoping that Andrew Quarless, who sustained a horrific knee injury in December, would be ready for the start of this season, but he will begin 2012 on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list, meaning he will miss at minimum the first six games. In place of Quarless, savage blocker Tom Crabtree and second-year pro D.J. Williams appear ready for expanded roles. Also, Ryan Taylor is a favorite of Rodgers and could make a big jump in Year 2.
After letting stalwart center Scott Wells walk, the team is pinning its hopes to 37-year-old center Jeff Saturday, the club’s first significant free agent signing since 2006. Starting left tackle Chad Clifton was cut loose in April, meaning Marshall Newhouse or 2011 first-round pick Derek Sherrod will be protecting Rodgers’ blindside. Newhouse saved the season when Clifton tore his hamstring in Week 5, but he must be more consistent. Sherrod’s horrific December leg injury makes him a question mark. Guards Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang are tough, stout and nasty.
If everything starts up front, no wonder the Packers had the NFL’s worst defense last year. After Cullen Jenkins left as a free agent, the guy who was supposed to step up — 2010 second-round pick Mike Neal — was a disaster, suffering a training-camp knee injury and doing nothing once activated. Now, he’s been suspended for the first four games of 2012 for testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs. The team did sign free agent end Anthony Hargrove, then watched as his role in the New Orleans Saints’ bounty scandal resulted in an eight-game suspension. While draft picks Jerel Worthy and Mike Daniels should help, the key player is B.J. Raji, who failed to replicate his impressive 2010 season. He must generate more interior pass rush and stuff the run better.
At linebacker, Clay Matthews, despite registering only six regular-season sacks last season, remains the defense’s brightest star, but he needs help. The club hopes first-round pick Nick Perry, another USC product, is exactly what Matthews needs on the opposite side. Inside, Desmond Bishop suffered a hamstring injury in the Packers' first preseason game and is lost for the entire season. D.J. Smith will take Bishop's place as the starter, which means the team's linebacker depth takes a hit. A.J. Hawk had a down year and must bounce back at the other inside 'backer spot, especially in light of Bishop's loss.
No defense in NFL history gave up as many yards through the air as the 2011 Packers. The release of three-time Pro Bowl safety Nick Collins after last year’s career-threatening neck injury leavesMorgan Burnett as one of the starting safeties. The other is future Hall of Famer Charles Woodson, who once again was a dynamic playmaker last season, but he was a non-factor in some games and isn’t the cover man he used to be. Tramon Williams must regain his 2010 form after a Week 1 shoulder injury caused nerve damage that robbed him of strength. Second-year nickel back Sam Shields regressed significantly, a devastating blow for a team that played nickel or dime nearly 70 percent of the time and. He’ll be pushed by both veteran Jarrett Bush and rookie Casey Hayward.
The Packers could not be in better shape when it comes to their specialists. Kicker Mason Crosby and punter Tim Masthay are coming off their best seasons. Long snapper Brett Goode hasn’t had an errant snap since he arrived as a free agent in 2008. And Cobb gives the team the electrifying return man it lacked for so long. His 108-yard team-record kickoff return for a touchdown in the opener last year was just the beginning.
Final Analysis: 1st in the NFC North
If Dom Capers’ defense returns to its top-five form and Rodgers stays upright, the Packers will be the Super Bowl favorites in the NFC. If the defense falters or Rodgers goes down for an extended period, there’s no chance of another title in Titletown.
Related: 2012 Green Bay Packers Schedule Analysis
Outside The Huddle
A.J. Hawk had been considering a long-overdue haircut for a while. “I just felt like it was kind of time for me. I was kind of sick of having long hair,” the linebacker said. Now, Hawk is helping sick kids with the hair he no longer wanted. Working in conjunction with Wigs for Kids, a charity that provides wigs for children who lose their hair due to medical treatments and other conditions, Hawk has started Hawk’s Locks for Kids.
While some Packers fans hoped free agent Mario Williams might line up opposite Clay Matthews in 2012, quarterback Aaron Rodgers was thrilled when Williams signed with Buffalo. Williams had been rumored to be headed to the NFC North with the Chicago Bears. “Congrats to Mario Williams signing in Buffalo, far away from the NFC North,” Rodgers wrote on Twitter. “Thanks big guy.”
When ex-New Orleans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams was suspended indefinitely for his role in the team’s bounty scandal, Packers fans thanked their lucky stars that Mike McCarthy had hired Dom Capers as his defensive coordinator in 2009, when Williams claims he turned down McCarthy’s offer. “Like a lot of those questions, that’s a hypothetical,” McCarthy replied when asked what he might have had to deal with if he’d hired Williams. “I didn’t go through the hiring process, the details of it, out of respect for the people involved. Things happen for a reason. We hired Dom Capers, and we’re very happy with the way it’s worked out.”
McCarthy has juggled so many assistants’ responsibilities that even he got confused at the staff’s first meeting of the offseason. In the past two years, McCarthy shifted running backs coach Edgar Bennett to wide receivers, moved assistant offensive line coach Jerry Fontenot first to running backs and now tight ends, promoted quarterbacks coach Tom Clements to offensive coordinator to replace Joe Philbin, and shifted tight ends coach Ben McAdoo to quarterbacks. “We had a staff meeting and for six years, the O-Line coach went first and talked about his players. And Ben McAdoo is standing next to the O-Line coach and I start talking about the tight ends,” McCarthy says. “He looked at me and I had to remember he was coaching the quarterbacks."
No New Threads
With the NFL switching to Nike as its official uniform supplier, many teams made at least minor alterations to their jerseys. Not the Packers, who refused to even try Nike’s technologically advanced materials. The only change to the Packers’ uniforms this year? The Nike Swoosh replaces the Reebok logo.
Rodgers, who is good friends with Milwaukee Brewers outfielder and NL MVP Ryan Braun, filmed five commercials for the team in spring training. The first, entitled “3-Step Drop,” featured Rodgers on the mound with Brewers general manager Doug Melvin and manager Ron Roenicke scouting him from the stands.
2012 Athlon Sports NFL Power Rankings and Team Previews:
No. 32:Jacksonville Jaguars
No. 31:St. Louis Rams
No. 30:Minnesota Vikings
No. 29:Indianapolis Colts
No. 28:Cleveland Browns
No. 27:Miami Dolphins
No. 26:Arizona Cardinals
No. 25:Tampa Bay Buccaneers
No. 24:Kansas City Chiefs
No. 23:Oakland Raiders
No. 22: Washington Redskins
No. 21:Seattle Seahawks
No. 20: Carolina Panthers
No. 19:New York Jets
No. 18:Buffalo Bills
No. 17:Tennessee Titans
No. 16:San Diego Chargers
No. 15:Cincinnati Bengals
No. 14:Philadelphia Eagles
No. 13:New Orleans Saints
No. 12:Dallas Cowboys
No. 11:Denver Broncos
No. 10:Detroit Lions
No. 9:Chicago Bears
No. 8:Atlanta Falcons
No. 7:Baltimore Ravens
No. 6:Pittsburgh Steelers
No. 5:New York Giants
No. 4: New England Patriots
No. 3:Houston Texans
No. 2:San Francisco 49ers
No. 1:Green Bay Packers
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Related: 2012 Green Bay Packers Schedule Analysis