May 22, 2012; Green Bay, WI, USA; Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews (52) talks to fellow linebacker Nick Perry (53) during organized team activities at Ray Nitschke Field. Mandatory Credit: Mary Langenfeld-US PRESSWIRE
The Packers are the NFL's best team. Do they have a chance to return to the Super Bowl for the second time in three years?
Until some team proves otherwise, the NFL's best team is still the Green Bay Packers. That sounds like a bold statement for a team that lost to the eventual Super Bowl champs in its only playoff game last season. But Green Bay showed who they were last year by winning 15 of 16 regular season games.
These are truly the salad days in Green Bay, the high tide of empire. Aaron Rodgers, the reigning MVP, is arguably the best quarterback in the league. Unlike Tom Brady or Drew Brees, Rodgers has yet to turn 30; he's just 28. The brains of the operation is general manager Ted Thompson, who started his run of draft success by stealing Rodgers with the 24th pick of the first round in 2005, his first season at the helm in Green Bay.
Transition comes easy. The team has had four head coaches, three general managers and two franchise quarterbacks over that same span. Through it all, Green Bay has been one of the most consistent teams in the league. It's recent run of success owes much to that ability to adapt and thrive. This is now an organization at its peak. There can only be one goal, one acceptable outcome for a team riding as high as the Packers.
Inevitability described Green Bay's 2011 season. They rolled through the first 14 weeks of the season, until finally being stunned by the Chiefs in Week 15.
Rodgers did not top the list in any of the counting stats for quarterbacks, except for QB rating, though he was near the top of them all. Efficiency was the story behind Rodgers' season. No quarterback gained more yards per passing attempt (9.2), and no quarterback threw a higher percentage of touchdown passes (9 percent).
Weaknesses on the defense were largely masked by Rodgers' play. If the quarterback was too far off his game, as was the case against Kansas City when he completed a season-low 48 percent of his passes, it spelled trouble for the team. Offensive line injuries also hurt the Packers, particularly at tackle where Bryan Bulaga, Chad Clifton and Derek Sherrod all missed a significant amount of time.
On defense, the Packers registered just 29 sacks, down from 47 the previous season. Pressure from their three-man front was lacking, which limited the damage Clay Matthews could do as the team's only consistent pass rusher.
Related: Lions Offseason Report
Best Free Agent Pickup
Green Bay rarely makes a big splash with outside players in free agency, mostly taking care to hang onto their own players. That's why it was such a surprise to see Pro Bowl center Scott Wells slip away this year. They replaced him with veteran Jeff Saturday. Whether or not they have adequate depth behind the 14-year center is another question.
They did manage to keep Jermichael Finley, who needs to cut down on his dropped passes -- he had 12 last season and two more in the playoffs -- to be considered among the better tight ends in the game.
2012 NFL Draft
I wonder sometimes if we might not look back at this draft class and consider it Thompson's best effort. His first two picks were exactly what the team needed. Outside linebacker Nick Perry joins fellow USC product Matthews to add another pass rushing threat. Jerel Worthy, a five-technique defensive end from Michigan State, could have been a first-round pick, but Green Bay traded a fourth-round pick to move up and draft him at No. 51.
They traded into the second-round again for Vanderbilt cornerback Casey Hayward, a physical player who adds depth to the position as Charles Woodson enters his mid-30s. Florida State offensive tackle Andrew Datko would have gone sooner than the final round had it not been for a shoulder injury the year before. Maine safety Jerron McMillan is another raw talent who could stick around as a special teams contributor this year.
Related: Packers NFL Draft Grade
From SB Nation's Acme Packing Company:
All of the Green Bay Packers' NFC North rivals look improved from last season -- they've been stagnant at worst -- and they're likely to have more competition for the NFC North title in 2012. The good news for the Packers is that they haven't dropped off at all either. The only key player from last season's team to depart during the offseason was center Scott Wells, and he was promptly replaced by veteran Pro Bowl center Jeff Saturday. The biggest question marks are at safety and left tackle, where injuries have forced the Packers into a position where they had to release Chad Clifton and Nick Collins.
A lot has to go right for a team to go 15-1 in the regular season, so there's an excellent chance that the Packers could improve as a team and look like the best team in the NFL all season, but finish 2012 with an inferior record. If rookies and reserve players from last year step up at left tackle and safety, as well as outside linebacker and defensive end, the Packers should win another division title. If the team fails to find an answer at any of those spots, the Detroit Lions can keep things interesting.
They Make The Playoffs If ...
Playoffs should be no problem for the Packers. Barring some unforeseen, unlikely happening, it's Super Bowl or bust. We know Aaron Rodgers can put points on the board. To get back to the Super Bowl, they have to have a defense similar to the one that ranked among the 10 best units in 2009 and 2010.