The preseason Super Bowl favorite Green Bay Packers finished a disappointing 11-5 in the regular season. Most teams would be thrilled with a 10-win season and a playoff victory -- but the Packers aren't most teams. Coming off a dominant 2011 season that saw only one regular-season loss, the assumption was that the Packers would build off it, and add the final pieces to their puzzle. Ultimately it was the more skilled San Francisco 49ers who outmuscled Green Bay on their offensive and defensive lines, resulting in a divisional playoff victory.
This is an immensely talented football team that needs to address their few issues right now. Their window won't be open forever, and while Aaron Rodgers is still on the better side of 30, the coaching staff can't keep relying on him to carry the burden alone. They have an excellent stable of wide receivers, but in order to regain Super Bowl glory, Green Bay has to support their quarterback.
Biggest Need: Offensive Line
An inability to protect Aaron Rodgers was the Packers' primary shortcoming on offense. He had an outstanding season given the circumstances, but was sacked a career-high 51 times in 2012 -- up from 36 the prior season. In step with these increased sacks was a predictable drop in yards per attempt, falling to 7.8 yards, the lowest since his first full season starting. Rodgers didn't have enough time to throw, and it showed.
Jordy Nelson was the only Packers receiver with an appreciable amount of receptions, averaging over 13.0 yards per catch. Compare this to the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens, who had three such receivers. Granted, Joe Flacco and the Ravens rely more on the deep ball, but the lack of reliable deep passing hurt the Packers, and is a direct result of their lacking protection.
According to Football Outsiders' offensive line rankings, the Packers were 31st in pass protection in 2012. It's a testament to Rodgers' ability that he still had the season he did -- because he got no help from the OL.
The folks over at Acme Packing Company agree that offensive line is one of the biggest issues:
Long story short, the offensive line was terrible last year. Now the line was not worst in the league -nor was it the worst in the division - but these things are a cold comfort when the line was just generally not good enough in either the running game or the passing game. This cannot continue and upgrades in personnel are clearly needed.
Other needs: Running back, defensive tackle
Every year it seems like Green Bay is in dire need of a running back, and each year they find a way to show they can run an effective offense without one. However, they took the term 'by committee' to new heights in 2012, using three backs to tote the ball over 70 times each on the year.
Despite those number of carries it was a case of quantity, not quality. Averaging 3.5 yards per carry between them, Alex Green, James Starks, and Cedric Benson weren't effective running options. Part of this falls on the Packers' woeful offensive line (25th in run blocking according to Football Outsiders), but there is a dire need to finally find an elite, do-everything running back to stop making the offense so one-dimensional.
With the exception of B.J. Raji, it's hard to find a defensive tackle on the Packers' roster who is a true NFL-caliber starter. They invested draft picks in Jerel Worthy and Mike Daniels, while trying to find answers through free agency, but none of these made a serious impact. With Worthy's season cut short by a knee injury, it remains to be seen how long it will take to rehab and return to the field.
It's of dire importance that the Packers get stronger in their defensive front, because as it stands, leaning so heavily on Raji isn't the answer.
NFL Draft outlook: Packers have all of their picks
As the Packers have been very good over the past few seasons, they're used to having to pick near the back end of the draft. That's not going to change in 2013, since they made it to the playoffs. They'll pick at No. 26 in the first round of the draft.
Fortunately, some of their biggest needs can likely be addressed near the back end of the first round, and it's likely they'll still be able to employ a "best player available" strategy while filling said need. This draft is somewhat weaker on the top end so the Packers are actually in a desirable position, as some top-end teams are talking trade.
They have all of their picks through the seventh round, though due to potential compensatory selections, their exact spot after the third round will change somewhat.
Salary sap situation: Cash strapped
There are roster moves the Packers can make to free up some space, but as it stands they're not set up to be big players in free agency. With salary commitments almost equaling the ceiling, the front office will need to get creative if they hope to net a top player. Without any money to spend, and a premium at the position league-wide, odds are Aaron Rodgers will need to look elsewhere to find that offensive line help he so desperately needs.