Unproven Graham Harrell figures to be the backup QB
The Packers have won 29 games, including a Super Bowl, in the past two seasons. They are also one of the youngest and deepest teams in the league. But that doesn’t mean the defending NFC North champs are without flaws. Here are five areas of concern heading into 2012:
Backup quarterback - While it’s true that most teams would be in big trouble if their starting quarterback got seriously injured, it’s also true that most teams have a more proven backup than Graham Harrell. Maybe the former Texas Tech star will develop into the next Matt Flynn, but I could see him just as easily performing like Caleb Hanie. In fact, I think that’s a more likely scenario. Harrell is a smart player, but his arm strength is extremely limited. Could the Packers win with him at quarterback? Well, Houston did OK with T.J. Yates at the end of last season. Then again, the Texans also had one of the NFL’s best rushing attacks and a stout defense that gave up just over 17 points per game.
Pass rush - Outside linebacker Clay Matthews was the defense’s only consistent pass rusher last season, and even the three-time Pro Bowler had stretches of ineffectiveness. GM Ted Thompson drafted Nick Perry, Jerel Worthy and Mike Daniels in an effort to rectify the problem. And while those three young players should help, it remains to be seen just how much. It’s not like the Packers added Mario Williams or even Kamerion Wimbley in the offseason. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers needs at least one of the rookies to step up and become an impact pass rusher. A wild card to keep an eye on is fifth-round pick Terrell Manning. The former North Carolina State star has natural blitz ability.
Safeties - After Nick Collins’ neck injury in week 2, Morgan Burnett and Charlie Peprah spent the next 15 games trading off missed tackles and blown assignments. I’ll cut Burnett some slack. He was coming off ACL surgery and he played with a broken hand for months. The former Georgia Tech star should be much improved in ’12, but that’s only wishful thinking at this point. Peprah regressed last season after holding his own in 2010. He really struggled without Collins opposite him and without a consistent pass rush in front of him. He also struggled because offensive coordinators did a better job of taking advantage of his physical limitations. Capers desperately needs Burnett to blossom in his third season and for a young player like Jerron McMillian or Anthony Levine to step in and replace Peprah. Both things could happen, but if they don’t, the last line of defense will be a major problem once again.
Defensive coordinator - The defense had no business being as bad as it was last season – even with the personnel issues. Capers was painfully slow to adjust on a weekly basis. To be honest, he looked like a guy who spent too much time basking in the glow of the Super Bowl win and not enough time figuring out ways to combat offensive coordinators who spent the entire offseason studying how to beat his schemes. This will be a very pivotal season for Capers. His defenses in Carolina, Houston and Miami peaked early and then regressed. We’ll soon find out whether this is a coincidence or a trend. If it’s the latter, Green Bay may be looking for a new DC a lot sooner than expected.
Left tackle - The Packers will have a new player protecting the quarterback’s blind side for the first time since 2000. Chad Clifton is out and either Marshall Newhouse, Derek Sherrod or Andrew Datko is in. All three young players have potential, but none is a proven commodity. Newhouse survived in 13 starts last season, but he wasn’t very good. The former TCU star gave up 10.5 sacks. Sherrod struggled mightily in training camp, but showed improvement later in the regular season. Unfortunately, his progress was halted by a severely broken leg. Datko is a natural pass protector, but he’s also a rookie with a shaky shoulder. The Packers don’t need a stud left tackle since Rodgers has such a quick release and such terrific mobility, but they can’t have a human turnstile at the position either.