The regular season is far from kicking off when the Packers invade Seattle on Sept. 4 for the NFL opener, but before now and then the Packers need to take care of some things.
The Packers were 8-7-1 last season, mainly due to Aaron Rodgers missing seven full games with a broken collarbone. Nonetheless, the Packers won the NFC North because the Bears and Lions don’t know when to take advantage of a good opportunity.
Family Night on Aug. 2 will be the first time the Packers are showcased in Lambeau Field and that will be a good time to start watching how this team could look in 2014.
The Packers are favored to win the NFC North for a fourth straight season, says me, but in order for them to do that they need to take care of the following 11 concerns in order to make this season a potentially great one.
1. Aaron Rodgers health: No rocket scientist is needed here. In nine starts last season the Packers were 6-3 with Rodgers and 2-4-1 without him, and one of those losses with Rodgers starting was when he was hurt during the offense’s first possession in a loss to the Bears. Rodgers is one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL and with him healthy, the Packers are a threat to go all the way.
2. Center: The Packers think J.C. Tretter is their starter at center despite him never playing in the NFL. The second-year player from Cornell has a lot to prove as center is arguably the second-most important offensive line position behind left tackle. The Packers’ faith in Tretter is interesting but if he slips maybe Ohio State rookie Corey Linsley (fifth-round) could be the starter. He was a key to Ohio State’s explosive offense last season.
3. Eddie Lacy’s health: The 2013 offensive rookie of the year made the Packers different last season. His ability to gobble up yards (1,178 last season and 11 TDs) kept the Packers alive while Rodgers rehabbed. Now, if Lacy continues to run like one of the NFL’s best running backs and Rodgers is upright in the pocket, this has the makings of the NFL’s best offense. What other team can boast a similar Rodgers-Lacy combo?
4. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix’s impact: The rookie safety was picked 21st overall because the Packers’ safety position has been putrid. Last year, the Packers were the only team that didn’t record an interception from a safety. Micah Hyde is moving from cornerback to safety to also bolster the position, but Clinton-Dix will play plenty in passing situations.
5. Clay Matthews’ thumb: The “Claymaker” can be one of the NFL’s fiercest pass rushers in the NFL when healthy, but last season he played just 11 games and missed the playoff loss to the 49ers because he broke his thumb twice. Matthews, who has missed nine games over the last two seasons, is an impact player, but only when he can play. He has 59 sacks in 69 career games and if the Packers get 16 games this season the defense will be much better, maybe helping the safeties get a few interceptions.
6. Bryan Bulaga’s health: Yes, a lot of health questions, but these questions deal with key players. Bulaga is the starting right tackle but is coming off a torn ACL he suffered last year at the Family Night scrimmage. He’s had plenty of time to recover but placing 300-plus pounds on a surgically-repaired knee is never a given. If Bulaga can show he’s fine, that’s one concern in the offensive line they can push aside. Bulaga should show early in camp if his strength and mobility are back.
7. Tight end, who’s starting?: Umm, Andrew Quarless? Maybe. Nonetheless, with Jermichael Finley not likely to return with his neck injury the Packers have a big question mark here. Quarless is serviceable and probably the best option on the roster but he possesses nothing that Finley did with his big-play ability. There’s nothing proven elsewhere with Brandon Bostick, Ryan Taylor, Jake Stoneburner, amongst others. It appears without Finley tight end won’t be a feature of the offense, which could affect the passing game.
8. Jarrett Boykin do it again: The No. 3 receiver had 49 catches for 681 yards and three TDs last season, including 48 for 638 yards and three TDs after Randall Cobb suffered a leg injury during Week 7 at Baltimore. Boykin snuck up on teams last season — he was inactive for the first four games — and is a reason, the Packers hope, they won’t miss James Jones, who fled to Oakland in free agency. It’s important Boykin repeats his success as the losses of Finley and Jones means he has to step up. Furthermore, the other receivers on the team are rookies or unproven.
9. Julius Peppers adds pep: The former Bear and Panther is in the fourth quarter of his career at 34, but the Packers are banking on Peppers to regain some of his flare that has made him one of the best pass rushers in the NFL over the last decade. Peppers has 118.5 sacks in his career but last season he had seven in 16 games. Was that a sign of decline or just a hiccup? If Matthews stays healthy, he’ll have every chance to prove it was a hiccup as Matthews could take some of the attention off him.
10. B.J. Raji rediscovers form: Remember when B.J. Raji wreaked havoc back in, oh, I don’t know, what was the year? Ahh, yes, it was 2010, when the Packers won the Super Bowl. Since then, Raji has done little, recording three sacks over the last three seasons, none since 2011. Defensive tackles aren’t sack masters, but his lack of big plays over the last three seasons was obvious (65 total tackles). If he is to get that big contract he wants (he signed a 1-year deal in the offseason), he needs to find his 2010 form. If he does, the Packers will benefit greatly.
11. Nick Perry sighting: Quick, who was the Packers’ No. 1 pick in 2012? Yeah, you might know, but if not, it’s not a surprise. The 28th overall pick in 2012 has six career sacks, but the biggest reason for his lack of impact is injury. Perry has missed 15 games in two seasons. If Perry can stay healthy and live up to his draft status the Packers’ defense will scare quarterbacks back to the sideline with the likes of Matthews, Peppers, Datone Jones and Perry.
Follow Doug Ritchay on Twitter @dougritchay