By now you have probably come across two different posts that deal with asking the Packers fans/writers some questions about their team. Jess decided to steal my thunder, but that's OK, as I am going to post this anyway. While his post dealt a lot with the team, mine will deal more with specific players and will be overall much better than his.
Anyhow, Tex Western over at APC was kind enough to answer a bunch of questions for me as a precursor to tonight's game. Hit the jump to read what he says about Packer expectations, players and positional battles.
Me: Obviously the Packers expect to contend for a title again, but as a fan, do you feel there is something that could keep them from getting there? Will the team be better or worse than last year?
Tex: Normally I'd say staying healthy would be the key, but that didn't happen last season and the Packers still managed to win the Super Bowl. I think that a few keys will be the run defense and finding a pass rush aside from just Clay Matthews. I have complete confidence that the offense won't miss a beat, especially with the returns of Jermichael Finley and Ryan Grant.
Losing Cullen Jenkins to free agency was a substantial loss, and it remains to be seen if Mike Neal or one of the other young DEs on the roster can take his place. But I see no reason that this team should win fewer than 11 games this season.
Me: We have seen Sam Shields in action as an undrafted rookie cornerback, where will he be in the corner rotation this year? Has he looked good in training camp so far?
Tex: Shields will definitely be on the field frequently once again. Dom Capers loves to use a 5-DB set with Charles Woodson in the slot and Shields and Tramon Williams on the outside, and Shields' emergence was what drove that formation to be successful. There are no signs that he's regressed at all during the offseason, so I look forward to seeing that formation frequently once again.
Me: Is Charles Woodson slowing down yet?
Tex: If you mean literally, I'd say yes, he's probably lost a step. But though Chuck's not the most physically gifted player on defense anymore, he is the smartest guy on the field (didn't think you'd ever hear that when he was in Oakland, did you?). His great tackling skills make him effective in the slot, especially against the run, as he's practically another linebacker. He's still a turnover machine too, and is as good as anyone at reading a quarterback and jumping routes.
Me: How do the Packers plan on replacing Cullen Jenkins?
Tex: I jumped the gun on this one a bit. Mike Neal, last year's 2nd round pick from Purdue, will get every opportunity to replace Jenkins in the starting lineup. Neal has good size for a 3-4 end (6'3, 295) and a tremendous work ethic. Unfortunately, his season was cut short last year with a torn rotator cuff. He's nearly back to 100% and we all hope that he'll be the starter at end, with Raji on the other side and Ryan Pickett moving back to nose tackle. Expect to see a lot of that 2-4-5 alignment on passing downs though, with Raji and Pickett or Raji and Neal on the line.
Tex: Flynn showed tremendous poise in the game against New England last year when Rodgers was out with a concussion. Many people (myself included) criticized him for poor clock management down the stretch, but the fact is that the Packers aren't in the game without a great effort from Flynn over the course of the game. This is his fourth season backing up Rodgers, so he's very familiar with the playbook, and Packers fans in general feel comfortable with Flynn as a very solid backup.
Me: Who will see the majority of snaps: James Starks or Ryan Grant? Will losing Brandon Jackson to the Browns hurt in any way?
Tex: Grant is still listed as the starter, and in my estimation, will likely see the most carries of any individual back. But Starks will definitely play a roll, and McCarthy has a tendency to roll with the hot hand (see Starks in the playoffs), so both will get the ball. FB John Kuhn was re-signed, and can do many of the things that Jackson did on third downs - namely pass blocking and receiving. I don't think the Pack will miss Jackson much at all.
Tex: Frankly, Colledge had worn out his welcome in Green Bay, at least in terms of fan support, and most of us weren't sorry to see him go. He's reasonably good at run-blocking in a zone blocking scheme, but he was arguably the worst pass-blocker on the line last season, and we question whether a power run game fits his skill set. T.J. Lang and rookie Derek Sherrod are fighting for the starting LG spot in camp, with Lang having a slight edge so far. Lang has always looked better to me as a guard than a tackle, and he's played well at the LG spot when he's had the opportunity. I'd rather see Sherrod focus on playing LT anyway, as he appears to be the successor to Chad Clifton.
Me: Who will play opposite Clay Matthews at the other OLB spot? Will it be Frank Zombo?
Tex: There will be a rotation of Zombo, Erik Walden, and Brad Jones, all three of which had extended playing time last season. Right now though, it appears to be Zombo's job to lose. Walden's a better pass rusher, Zombo is better against the run and in coverage, while Jones is the most athletic of the three. I expect to see all three get substantial playing time.
Me: How do you feel about losing Nick Barnett?
Tex: Barnett was a great Packer for many years, but his ill-timed injury, combined with the steady play of A.J. Hawk and Desmond Bishop's emergence as a leader brought his time to an end. He's been very professional about the whole situation though, and we wish Barnett the best in Buffalo. The main concern for me now at the ILB spot is depth. If Hawk or Bishop were to be injured, it would be a challenge to replace him. But then again, we said the same about Barnett last year, as well as the other OLB position.
Me: Which Packer is due for a breakout season?
Tex: I think Bishop is really going to prove himself as a game-changing ILB, much like Barnett was a few years ago. He stepped up and played great last year in relief of Barnett, but this is a great chance for him to establish himself as a consistent playmaker and a force in the middle. Some other players to keep your eye on are SS Morgan Burnett and WR/KR Randall Cobb, who really impressed in practice and in the first preseason game on Saturday. It just remains to be seen how much playing time he can get on offense with a strong, deep receiving corps ahead of him.
I want to thank Tex for his time in answering these questions for me. If you want to read the interview that I did about the Cardinals, click this link, or head on over to our brother blog, Acme Packing Company.