In the lead-up to training camps, USA TODAY Sports will be breaking down the key questions facing each NFL team. Today, we look at the Green Bay Packers:
What’s up with Aaron Rodgers?
It’s been a roller coaster nine months for the face of the franchise.
The star quarterback has long been over the broken collarbone he suffered last October, telling USA TODAY Sports in February that he was back playing golf before coasting through the spring without any apparent setbacks. But unlike 2013, his brief, late-season comeback couldn’t salvage Green Bay’s playoff hopes. That preceded an eventful offseason that saw the departure of longtime GM Ted Thompson and, later, the release of Rodgers’ favorite receiver and good friend, Jordy Nelson — much to the quarterback’s consternation, according to a report from Yahoo!
However a very positive turn for Rodgers seems imminent, with the Packers expected to finalize a deal very soon that will almost surely vault the two-time MVP past Atlanta’s Matt Ryan — he recently signed an extension that will average $30 million annually — as the NFL’s highest-paid player. Should be a nice salve for any hurt feelings Rodgers, 34, might otherwise carry into his 14th training camp in Wisconsin.
How will the offense look different?
The return of Rodgers and loss of Nelson aren’t the only major changes to an attack that sputtered to 26th overall last year with inexperienced Brett Hundley at the controls for the balance of the season.
Joe Philbin, who was previously Green Bay’s offensive coordinator for five seasons (including the 2010 Super Bowl team and the 2011 edition that went 15-1 in the regular season), has reclaimed that role while resuming a strong relationship with Rodgers. Tight end Jimmy Graham, a supreme red zone threat, came aboard in free agency and should truly feast in the end zone with No. 12 throwing to him.
However Nelson’s departure leaves the passing game without a bona fide deep threat who can regularly capitalize on Rodgers’ whip of an arm. Running back Aaron Jones’ two-game suspension doesn’t help, either, but Ty Montgomery and Jamaal Williams return as part of the committee head coach Mike McCarthy plans to deploy. Still, as good as balance sounds, this offense tends to run through Rodgers, who’s only been supported by a top-10 ground game once since he became the starter in 2008. Expect him to wing it, even if he can’t go truly vertical as much as he might like.
How will the defense look different?
For all the focus on Rodgers and Co., the Green Bay defense could be the difference in 2018.
Coordinator Dom Capers was finally fired after the 2017 season, the seventh in a row where his group failed to crack the top 10. In fact, after producing top-five units in his first two years in Green Bay, Capers’ crew, on average, had ranked 20th since 2011.
Enter Mike Pettine, who favors a far more aggressive style — Pro Bowl lineman Mike Daniels described it as “controlled fury” — that’s already resonating with players. “The hounds are loose,” Daniels told NFL Network last month. “Everybody go and ruin everything in front of you.”
A lot of opponents could find their Sundays ruined by Pettine’s scheme and a lineup improved by the arrival of former Jets Pro Bowl defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson as well as corners Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson, new general manager Brian Gutekunst’s first two draft picks.
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