With the preseason in full swing and the opening weekend less than a calendar month away, now is the perfect time to glance in at all 32 NFL franchises and get a scoop on what to expect this season. I will be grading every team on all three phases of the game: offense, defense, and special teams. I will also take a look at the coaching staffs of all 32 teams, including the 10 new Head Coaches and evaluate the impact they might have on their team’s success. Then I will outline some key position battles and some names you may or may not know about to watch for the upcoming season.
Green Bay enters teh 2006 season with a new coach but an old vet at the quarterback position. NFL Legend Brett Favre decided that he was ready to play this upcoming season, his 16th season in the NFL. With Mike McCarthy in as the new Head Coach, fresh from a one-year stint as the Offensive Coordinator in San Francisco, the Packers look to rebound from a dismal 4-12 season and be contenders in the NFC North once again. There will be a ton of questions to answer for them, though, as they will have a lot of problems in 2005 that need to be turned around for the 2006 season. The offense has holes at several key positions and it just might be a little superlative to expect such a fast turnaround from a team, but the Packers and especially Favre are hopeful that the team can answer the tough questions right away. 2006 will be a pivotal year for the Pack.
Head Coach Mike McCarthy comes from the dismal San Francisco offense, where they struggled through most of the 2005 season and was ranked last in the entire NFL. To be fair, the 49ers had personnel issues and had to deal with injuries and never had the offense that they wanted on the field. McCarthy is known as an offensive mind with proficiency in the ever-popular West Coast system, something that Brett Favre and Co. know a lot about themselves. He isn’t new to Green Bay, having spent a season with the Pack as the Quarterbacks Coach. His reputation is for quarterback development, so they may expect him to work a bit with 2005 first-round pick Aaron Rodgers in grooming him to eventually take over the starting quarterback position when Brett Favre retires. Offensive Coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski, who came over after being the tight end and offensive line coach in Atlanta, will be the man to facilitate the offense for McCarthy. Jagodzinski is responsible to designing and molding the Atlanta Falcon running attack to being on of the best in the league and also worked with Alge Crumpler to help him to becoming one of the better TEs in the league.
QB: It’s hard to argue when someone says that Brett Favre is one of the best quarterbacks to ever play the game. 3rd on the all-time wins list for quarterbacks (139), only behind legends John Elway (148) and Dan Marino (147). He’s also the only three-time MVP in NFL history, and has started 221 consecutive regular season contests, 241 if you include postseason appearances. What Favre brings is a cannon for an arm and accuracy that rivels some of the all-time greats. He’s a leader on and off the field and commands respect everywhere that he turns. The problem with Favre, especially lately, is his tendency to take too much on his own shoulders and trying to make every single play for himself. This has cost him a lot of interceptions over the years, including a career-high 29 last season and 255 for his career. THey are looking for a comeback season in 2006, but his weapons are continually depleted, and the Packers haven’t been able to reload as in years past. Favre might be depended on to make a lot more plays, something that he can do but as a Packer fan you would prefer he didn’t have to do. He’s been having a little difficulty adjusting to McCarthy’s West Coast offense and has thrown an alarming rate of interceptions in camp, so we’ll have to wait and see how that translates on the field.
RB/FB: The running game’s return to its effectiveness will be integral for the Pack if they are to have any shot at returning to the top of their division. Ahman Green and Najeh Davenport were lost for the season in 2005 with various injuries. Some believe that Green might be a few weeks away from being fully recovered from a torn quadriceps muscle that he suffered last season, while Davenport is practicing after breaking his right ankle last year. That would leave the Packers with Sam Gado as the Packers healthiest runnning back, although Davenport has been seeing a lot of time with the first team offense. Ahman Green is vital to the Packers succss, he’s a workhorse who averaged more than 1,000 yards in each of his first 5 seasons in Green Bay before last season. Davenport is a strong runner as well, but not of the caliber that Green has been in the NFL. Gado is a back who filled in nicely last season with both Green and Davenport out, but he also had an knee injury at the end of last season and missed the final 2 games. William Henderson, one of the most durable and dependable FBs in the NFL will still be there for the Packers, and should be a force in blocking and in the passing game under McCarthy’s version of the West Coast.
WR/TE: Donald Driver takes over as the unquestioned top receiver with Javon Walker being traded to Denver on draft weekend. Walker’s presence will be sorely missed. He was a legitimate elite receiver for the Packers, someone who culd do it all and would be consistent. Driver will have to be that receiver now, and has shown flashes of understanding his role this offseason and during minicamps. He stepped up in Walker’s absence last season with 86 receptions and 5 touchdowns. The second receiver position is up for grabs between Rod Gardner and Robert Ferguson. Ferguson missed five games in 2005 with knee problems, but looks to return healthy and ready to contribute. Gardner was acquired off waivers late last season and comes into this season with an entire offseason of work with the Packers to help his transition. Don’t count out rookie Greg Jennings, who has been the talk of camp and is considered to be having the best performances out of all the receivers. He runs great routes and rarely drops passes. They still have one of the better TEs in the league with Bubba Franks, who they expect will have a much bigger impact after missing some time due to injuries in 2005.
OL: Chad Clifton is the leader of the line and will be key for their running and passing attacks as the rest of the line looks to mature and grow. Clifton was able to play most of the Packers offensive snaps in 2005 despite playing with a ankle injury and he is vital to protecting Favre’s blindside. Rookie Daryn Colledge from Boise State is written in as the starter. A highly durable lineman who stays in shape and is very agile at the guard position, Colledge will have his trial by fire as teams will most likely target him and fellow rookie Jason Spitz, at the right guard position. Spitz has been playing decently for the Pack, and he adds a grit and toughness needed to play on the inside. He will have to get better at pass protection though. Scott Wells will finally have a position for the Packers on the line at center after playing two games there last season while starting eight more at left guard. Wells is a smart lineman who is able to pick up blitzes and make decent calls, earning him the center position. Right tackle Mark Tauscher rounds out the line. He has started every game for the Packers in the past three seasons and remains a solid option to run behind, as his agility and quickness allows him to attack the second tier of defenses Of note, Tauscher has only been flagged once for holding in six NFL seasons.
Overall Grade: C-
Bob Sanders was retained after Mike McCarthy took over as coach, and even promoted from Defensive Ends Coach to Defensive Coordinator of the Green Bay Packers. After 22 years in the college ranks with defensive experience, he came to the NFL in 2000 and went to Miami until joining the Packers in 2005 as the DE coach. The Packers led the NFL in passing defense, and a lot of that is attributed to the effect that Sanders’ work with the DEs and their ability to apply consistent pressure on the opposing quarterbacks. He will be a familiar face for the Packer defenders in adjusting to a new Head Coach, and Sanders expects big things from this young unit. Look for them to continue to emphasize pressure as they assess exactly how good they can be in coverage.
DL: Sanders’ speciality got a little boost this offseason with the addition of Ryan Pickett at DT from the Rams. Pickett is big but very quick and is an incredible run-stopper. He led the NFL with 115 tackles for defensive linemen and will do well paired with Aaron Kampman, who was second in the NFL with 105 tackles. A good run-stopper in his own right who has the quickness and motor to get upfield and attack the quarterback on passing downs. Kabeer Gjaba-Biamila is still on the other end, and he has been one of the better ends in the NFL for the better part of 6 NFL seasons. KGB, as he is referred to, is just so quick and full of different moves, making it difficult for the opposing linemen to figure out how to play him every down. Colin Cole and Kendrick Allen will work for the final spot on the line, the DT opposite Pickett.
LB: The linebackers will be anchored by Nick Barnett, the Packers best defensive player in 2005 going into his fourth NFL season. Barnett recorded 194 tackles last season, 128 solo, to set a team record. Barnett will be there, anywhere on the field, where the play is headed. He will make the tackle, or deflect the pass, or hit the receiver, because he’s everywhere. It’s almost as if there are two of him on the field. A.J. Hawk, the top draft pick in 2006, will start alongside him. A throwback linebacker, he’s another in the mold of Barnett in the fact that he’s always there to make the play. He played especially big during the biggest games in college. The other side is hotly contested, but third-round pick Abdul Hodge looks to have that spot nearly locked down with his explosiveness and better linebacker instincts.
DB: Hello, Heisman. That’s what the Packers were saying when they announced the signing of Charles Woodson from the Oakland Raiders. One of the best cover corners in the league, when healthy, Woodson is a bit of a risky pickup but can provide high dividends for the Pack. Made the Pro-Bowl in each of his first four NFL season and was an All-Pro for three of those seasons. He has to stay healthy, something that has bothered him in the past couple of seasons, to have an effect for the defense. He will have help on the opposite side with veteran Al Harris, a Pro-Bowl alternate last season who in his own right has been an effective shut down corner. Nick Collins started 16 games as a rookie at the FS position and asserted himself in that position. Meanwhile, they will have free-agent pickup Marquand Manuel at the strong safety. Manuel played well in taking over for Seattle’s starting FS Ken Hamlin after Hamlin suffered injuries during the season and played well during the Seahawks’ Super Bowl run.
Overall Grade: B-
K: Gone is longtime Packer kicker Ryan Longwell, off to division rival Minnesota, and the Packers are looking to replace him with an open competition in camp. Veteran Billy Cundiff and Dave Rayner are there and will be competing. Cundiff spent last season in Tampa Bay before losing out to Matt Bryant, and Rayner was the kickoff specialist for the Colts last season. He could fill that role again for the Packers this season with Cundiff placekicking.
P: B.J. Sander had a good season in 2005, but will have a challenge from CFL veteran Jon Ryan. Sander is one of the best directional kickers in the NFL, and tied for the low in the NFL with only 2 touchbacks last year. Ryan is one of the best kickers from the CFL and definitely provide the Packers with some competition.
Overall Grade: C+
Some people questioned the hiring of Mike McCarthy based on the dismal offense that he was the coordinator for in San Francisco in 2005. They were last in the NFL in total offense and had trouble all season long moving the football down the field, something that the Packers themselves need to improve on this season. He has a successful brand on the West Coast offense that he ran in New Orleans and never really had the personnel in San Francisco to exact a change. Here he will be counted on to turn around the Packers quickly because with the Green Bay job comes the inevitable short leash. Offensive Coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski will be charged with implementing that offense, while Bob Sanders must get improved results in overall defense for the Packers.
Overall Grade: C
Position Battles to Watch
SLB: The strongside linebacker position is one of intrigue. The Packers have Ben Taylor penciled in, but rookie Abdul Hodge might be better suited for the position. They want to get Hodge on the field, but he played middle LB in college and Nick Barnett is holding that spot down.The only other spot he could play would be on the strongside, with A.J. Hawk on the weakside. Hodge is more instinctive on the field and is a much better athlete than Taylor, so he would make the most sense for the Packers.
RB: Only because of the injuries to all the backs does this become a “battle.” It’s a battle to see which back can satay healthy. They want Ahman Green, who was a Pro-Bowler when healthy, but Davenport and Gado have played well in their stints at back. Keep an eye on the injury report, because that could sway who we see as the starting RB for the Packers in the season opener.
Player to Watch
Daryn Colledge/Jason Spitz, G: These two rookies will be thrust into starting positions in protecting one of the NFL Legends at the quarterback position. They will be key to whether or not Brett Favre can come back and be successful in leading the Packers once again, of if the 2005 season was just a precursor of things to come. Colledge and Spitz were excellent college linemen who will need that to translate in the NFL… very quickly.
Offensive MVP: Donald Driver
Defensive MVP: Ryan Pickett