The 2016 NFL season is just around the corner. As such, Sportsnaut will be previewing all 32 teams before the games begin in September. Continuing the series, we stay in the NFC North to provide a Green Bay Packers 2016 preview.
Here, we’ll be discussing how the Packers can regain their standing atop the division after losing out to the Minnesota Vikings last season.
Before we look ahead, let’s take a glance at some key developments.
Green Bay Packers 2016 preview
Head coach: Mike McCarthy (11th season)
Key arrivals: TE Jared Cook
Key departures: CB Casey Hayward, WR James Jones
1. Can the Packers overtake Minnesota?
Most experts had Green Bay running away with the NFC North this time last year. It obviously didn’t turn out that way with the Vikings absolutely stunning skeptics en route to the division title.
Things went from bad to worse throughout the season. Jordy Nelson was lost for the entire year after suffering a knee injury during the preseason. Eddie Lacy couldn’t stay in shape, leading him to struggle with consistency (more on that later).
Meanwhile, the remaining receivers struggled connecting with Aaron Rodgers at all. In fact, the team’s three top pass catchers combined to put up a 56 percent catch rate with an 18 percent drop rate.
All this is going to have to change if the Packers are going to be able to unseat an up-and-coming Vikings team. The good news here is that Green Bay has the talent to do just that.
2. How will the team’s linebackers perform?
With Clay Matthews sliding outside to his more natural EDGE position, the Packers finally made the right call. However, this leaves a major hole at inside linebacker.
The likes of Jake Ryan, Sam Barrington, Blake Martinez, Carl Bradford and Joe Thomas are competing for the two starting inside linebacker jobs. They have a combined 13 career NFL starts to them.
This is extremely important for a couple reasons. First off, the Packers simply can’t afford to move Matthews back inside. He’s been a dominant All Pro pass rusher throughout his career. Taking that away from this defense wouldn’t be too smart.
Secondly, the Packers do have solid safety play in Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Morgan Burnett. But in no way does that mean they should be forced with jumping coverage between the hashes. Clinton-Dix needs to be that center fielder. Meanwhile, Burnett has to continue helping against the run.
All this is an indication the Packers’ defense will struggle unless at least one of these players steps up and proves to be starter-worthy.
3. Can Eddie Lacy find consistency?
Whether it’s being overweight and out of shape or putting the ball on the turf, Lacy simply hasn’t been the same player since stellar rookie campaign.
Last season saw Lacy put up less than 30 rushing yards in six of his 15 games. All said, 43 percent of his rushing yards came in just three games. That’s not sustainable moving forward, especially if Aaron Rodgers wants to have balance on offense.
Short of Lacy finding a way to be more consistent, opposing defenses are going to be able to go with nickel/dime packages a ton. This will force the Packers into a situation where their offense is limited to short/intermediate passes.
Richard Rodgers, tight end
Rodgers might have been the Packers’ most-consistent pass catcher a season ago. He caught 68 percent of the 85 balls thrown in his direction, dropping just three in the process.
That’s a high level of success for someone that wasn’t targeted nearly as much as lesser wide receivers.
We don’t necessarily know if Rodgers’ targets will increase with Nelson returning to the field, but that’s something his quarterback by the same namesake should seriously consider.
Finding success in the middle of the field will open it up for Nelson, Cobb and Adams on the outside. Surely one of the greatest quarterbacks of the modern era knows this.
If Rodgers sees a bump of maybe two targets per game, there’s no reason to believe he can’t put up 80-plus catches for 900-plus yards on the season.
REASON FOR OPTIMISM
Jordy Nelson’s return is going to be absolutely huge for this team. It pushes Cobb down a tad on the pecking order, enables Adams to take over as the team’s No. 3 and allows Rodgers to target his favorite receiver once again.
Simply put, Cobb isn’t a No. 1 receiver. He proved this more often than not last season with Nelson out. He’s that slot guy you will see have success against the lesser corners and safeties other teams throw Green Bay’s way.
If Nelson returns at 100 percent, this also forces a ton of mismatches. With Cobb in the slot, who is actually going to cover Rodgers down the seam? Is Nelson going to be doubled, leaving Cobb in single against a nickel back or safety?
That’s where one player can make all the difference in the world. This is also why Nelson is so darn valuable.
REASON TO DOUBT
The Packers are not exactly a well-balanced squad. Most of the talent is at quarterback, wide receiver and in the secondary. The rest of the unit is well below average. This lends a pretty major question heading into the 2016 season. How good is Aaron Rodgers and his passing game?
Is it good enough to make up for issues at running back, along the offensive line and at linebacker?
That most definitely wasn’t the case last season. Though, Nelson’s injury surely did have a major impact on that aspect of the team.
Should Rodgers fail to put up a near historical season once again, the onus will be on other fledgling parts to pick up the slack. If that doesn’t happen, Minnesota will earn its second consecutive NFC North title.
Prediction: 10-6, first place in the NFC North