Tag Archives: James Starks

Packers are team to beat in NFC North

31 Jul
Packers defeat Bears

Aaron Rodgers’ 48-yard touchdown pass to Randall Cobb, with 46 seconds left on 4th-and-8, gave the Packers their third straight NFC North title. They defeated the Bears, 33-28, at Soldier Field.
Credit: martynneil.files.wordpress.com

It was 4th-and-8 at Soldier Field. The Packers’ playoff hopes were dwindling. They trailed the Bears on the road, 28-27, in the 2013 regular season finale. The next 46 seconds would determine the winner of the NFC North.

We all remember the play.

Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers took the snap. He faced an immediate rush from Bears defensive end Julius Peppers. Fullback John Kuhn arrived in a knick of time, blocking Peppers just enough to prevent him from reaching Rodgers. The former MVP rolled out to his left and heaved a dime to Randall Cobb, who bolted past a flatfooted Chris Conte to haul in a 48-yard game-winning touchdown, propelling the Packers into the playoffs.

The Bears were stunned – an all-too-familiar feeling against their archrival. The Packers went on to win the division for the third straight season, but their playoff campaign was short-lived, as they were bounced from the postseason by the San Francisco 49ers in the Wild Card round.

During the offseason, the gap continued to close in the NFC North.

The Bears improved their defensive line with free agent acquisitions Lamarr Houston (Raiders) and Jared Allen (Vikings). They also boast the best wide receiver duo in the league in Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. There’s hardly a debate about that. The Bears’ offense could be one of the most explosive units in the NFL this season, but it may come down to the play of quarterback Jay Cutler, who Marshall recently declared will be the 2014 NFL MVP. If the league is looking to further investigate substance abuse among its players, Marshall could be their next target after such a ludicrous statement. Confidence clearly isn’t lacking in Chicago, but there’s quite a fine line between confidence and arrogance. Considering the hype in Chi-town, you’d think the Bears were the team with three straight division titles. That’s not the case. However, they remain the Packers’ most prominent threat in the division.

The Lions were perhaps in the best shape to seize their opportunity to win the division last season, but their discipline issues proved costly, as they were their own worst enemy down the stretch. New head coach Jim Caldwell – with his level-headed demeanor – will be a much-needed breath of fresh air for Detroit. Caldwell is more respected than former head coach Jim Schwartz. But let’s be honest, that’s not saying much. On the plus side, you most likely won’t see Caldwell trying to start a fight with an opposing coach after the postgame handshake, which can only be good news for Lions fans. The Lions added tight end Eric Ebron in the draft and former Seahawks receiver Golden Tate in free agency to complement Calvin Johnson in the passing game. Don’t be surprised if the Lions turn things around this season and make a run at the division title.

The Vikings can’t really be considered a serious contender in the division until they figure out their quarterback situation first. They have three quarterbacks competing for first-team reps in training camp, including their 32nd overall pick in this year’s draft, Teddy Bridgewater. The other potential suitors for the position include Matt Cassell and Christian Ponder, whose days as the Vikings’ starter appear to be all but over. If history is any indication, quarterback controversies don’t typically end well. It’s a shame, too. Wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson is waiting for an opportunity to breakout. He’s one of the most explosive playmakers in the league, and he showed flashes of brilliance last season. The Vikings just need to find a way to get the ball in his hands. Of course, Adrian Peterson is always a threat in the Vikings’ backfield, but at 29 years old, he appears to be losing ground on his quest for a Super Bowl ring. Unless the Vikings turn it around, Peterson will be remembered as one of the best players to never win a championship.

Now, the good stuff.

The Packers are the class of the NFC North. That trend will continue until another team steps up and decides it’s had enough. Despite remaining in familiar territory atop the division the past three seasons, the Packers certainly can’t be satisfied with one-and-dones in the playoffs. They’re not far off from another Super Bowl, though.  Here are the four reasons why the Packers will win the NFC North in 2014.

Lack of experience within the division: Entering his ninth season, Packers head coach Mike McCarthy is the longest-tenured head coach in the division by far. Bears head coach Marc Trestman is heading into his second season, and the aforementioned Caldwell – who has three years of previous experience as the head coach of the Indianapolis Colts – and Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer are entering their first season with their respective teams. Don’t underestimate the importance of having the same coaching staff year-in and year-out. It typically takes time for players to adjust to a new coaching style and system.

Additionally, we saw the Lions and Bears unravel with an opportunity to take control of the division at the end of last season while the Packers were ailing. Let’s face it; neither team had much experience with a division lead during the past few seasons, and that won’t change until they start winning meaningful games in November and December. The Packers have proven to be the team with the most resilience in the NFC North, and McCarthy’s experience is primarily responsible for their stranglehold on the division.

Julius Peppers and an improved defense: The Packers don’t have the reputation of being an aggressive team in free agency. That altered a bit in March when they scooped up Peppers, who spent the last four seasons with the rival Bears. Those in Chicago hold a firm belief that Peppers has lost a step. They accuse him of taking plays off. Regardless of their beef with Peppers, they most likely aren’t happy about seeing him end up in Green Bay, especially opposite Clay Matthews. Peppers and Matthews have never had the benefit of being paired with another player of their caliber.

They do now.

The Bears misused Peppers as an every-down player, which may have resulted in his declining performance. He’s no spring chicken anymore. The Packers plan to use Peppers in a variety of positions, formations and situations, maximizing his effort when he is on the field. He also has been reunited with Packers defensive line coach Mike Trgovac, who coached Peppers for several seasons in Carolina. The comfort and familiarity will allow Peppers to excel in the Packers’ defensive system. Even at 34 years old and in the twilight of his career, the aging Peppers is a physical specimen and has the ability to make a difference. He has almost everything – size, speed, versatility, athleticism, and now, added motivation from his doubters. If he can put it all together this season, he might end up with the one thing he doesn’t have: a Super Bowl ring. If nothing else, the Packers have acquired a seasoned veteran who will be a mentor to their young crop of defensive players.

The team selected safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix with the 21st overall pick in the draft, and he may not even start due to Micah Hyde’s transition from cornerback to safety. Even so, the Packers have a lot of depth at the position. Paired with Morgan Burnett, either player will be an upgrade over Jerron McMillian or M.D. Jennings, who started for the Packers in 2013. Also in the secondary, cornerback Casey Hayward is fully healthy, after missing a majority of games with hamstring issues last season.

In recent years, the defense has been the Packers’ weakness. It finished 24th overall last season. With the addition of Peppers, as well as returning players, there’s no reason to believe the defense won’t be average, at the very least. It is poised to become a top-10 unit this season. Defensive end Mike Daniels already has expressed his desire for the defense to have a more physical mentality and match the offense’s production. If the offense and defense are clicking at the same time, the Packers will be even more of a threat, which is a scary thought for the rest of the league.

Eddie Lacy: Roll tide, right? The reigning offensive rookie of the year, Eddie Lacy, put the Packers on his back last season when Rodgers was out for seven games with a broken collarbone. He often faced stacked boxes due to the Packers’ lack of reliable quarterback play, but his punishing running style allowed him to grind out 1,178 yards and 11 touchdowns. The Packers plan to increase Lacy’s role in the offense and involve him more in the passing game. His 35 receptions last season are nothing to scoff at, but you can expect that total to increase this season. There are so few three-down running backs in the NFL, but Lacy is a true workhorse in the Packers’ backfield.

With Rodgers’ return, Lacy will undoubtedly face more favorable defensive looks in 2014. It’s no wonder Lacy is always smiling. He knows what lies ahead. Now that the Packers have a formidable rushing attack with Lacy, James Starks and DuJuan Harris, the possibilities are endless for the Packers offense.

Aaron Rodgers: It’s enviable that Brandon Marshall thinks Jay Cutler will be the MVP in 2014, but for that to happen, Cutler would need to be the best quarterback, and player, in the league. He’s not even the best quarterback in the NFC North. Injuries happen to every team during the course of the season, but the Packers had the worst injury bug in the NFL last season. They lost Rodgers for seven games, and that alone is enough to make the argument.

When Rodgers is playing, the Packers are as dangerous as any team in the NFL. He’s that good. Not only that, he has a mutually beneficial relationship with Lacy. In total, Rodgers and Lacy only played in six games together last season, but the pair will make each other better. If teams stack the box to defend against Lacy, Rodgers will beat them through the air. If teams play deep in the secondary to defend against Rodgers, Lacy will run wild. And the last thing opposing defenders want is to face Lacy head on. Ultimately, defenses will have no choice but to respect the running game, leading to a plethora of opportunities for Rodgers. On paper, it would seem the Packers offense will be unstoppable in 2014. The end result will be one of the best seasons of Rodgers’ career.

The pieces are in place for the Packers, but the Bears and Lions won’t back down, either. The NFC North will be one of the most interesting division battles to follow in 2014, but when all is said and done, the Packers will be on top.

Who do you think will win the NFC North?

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Steven Jackson to the Packers?

11 Mar
Running back Steven Jackson

Steven Jackson is a free-agent running back who could be a great addition to the Packers backfield. Credit: commons.wikimedia.org

A great deal of speculation is taking place about the future of former Rams running back Steven Jackson. The Giants, Falcons and Broncos are considered potential teams to land the 29-year-old when free agency kicks in Tuesday. But what about the Packers? They, too, are a favorite to sign Jackson.

Jackson wants to be signed by a contender. In that case, is there a better destination than Green Bay? Maybe not, but given Packers General Manager Ted Thompson’s history of rarely signing free agents, I’m not too sure the Packers will sign Jackson, although there are many reasons to do so.

Every educated Packers fan knows the team’s current running back by committee system hasn’t been particularly successful.

Cedric Benson

The Packers signed Benson in free agency last year, but he ultimately missed most of the season after suffering a left foot injury in week five against the Colts. He is currently a free agent.

James Starks

Following the Packers’ impressive Super Bowl run in 2010, many people thought Starks would be the Packers’ running back of the future. Those expectations were short-lived. Starks has proven to be unreliable, and injuries have cost him a number of games.

Alex Green

Green, who was drafted by the Packers in the third round of the 2011 NFL Draft, has been given his fair share of opportunities but hasn’t necessarily been the player the Packers were hoping for when they selected him 96th overall.

DuJuan Harris

The Packers signed Harris late last season, and he was perhaps the most successful running back on the roster, considering his first game was in week 14. That’s not too bad for a guy who was working at Chrysler Jeep Dodge Ram Arlington in Jacksonville, Fla., when the Packers signed him. He’s a competitor and runs awfully hard for a back who stands at 5 feet, 7 inches tall. That being said, I’m sure the Packers would prefer to feature a better option in their backfield than a former car salesman. Jackson could provide just that.

Steven Jackson

Jackson turns 30 years old in July, a dreaded age for most running backs, but he said, “I still have a lot left in my tank. I still have a lot left to offer to a team.” He would be an ideal addition to the Packers’ injury prone, unreliable backfield. A two or three-year deal would give the Packers more time to find their future running back. Jackson has rushed for more than 1,000 yards in each of his last eight seasons. The Packers haven’t had a 1,000-yard rusher since Ryan Grant in 2009.

In a pass-first offense featuring one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, Aaron Rodgers, Jackson most likely wouldn’t have 1,000 rushing yards for a ninth straight season, but he would be a formidable runner to close out games for the Packers. They haven’t been able to do that lately. Jackson can run, catch and block effectively, something that characterizes an elite running back. I’m sure Rodgers would be thrilled to have a player with that much versatility in the backfield. After all, the Packers need to do something to keep their franchise quarterback upright. Addressing the running back position is one way to take some pressure off of Rodgers and keep opposing defenses honest. The Packers abandoned the run far too many times last season.

Money Problems

The price must be right if the Packers intend to sign Jackson. With $21 million in salary cap room this year, the Packers have options, but future blockbuster contracts with Rodgers, linebacker Clay Matthews and defensive lineman B.J. Raji could be hurdles for the Packers in free agency. Rodgers’ contract will likely top Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco’s 6-year deal, worth $120.6 million. Matthews might average around $12 million per year, with Raji not too far behind.

Keep or Cut?

The Packers have additional decisions to make regarding a couple of their highest paid players, linebacker A.J. Hawk and tight end Jermichael Finley. Hawk is slated to make $5.45 million this season. Finley’s contract will pay him $8.25 million. Finley made it clear a week ago that he is not open to taking a pay cut to remain with the Packers, but a few days ago, his agent, Blake Baratz, said Finley hasn’t ruled it out completely. With the almost certain departure of wide receiver Greg Jennings looming, the Packers may be reluctant to part ways with Finley, even if he isn’t willing to take less money to remain in Green Bay. If the Packers choose to cut both players or manage to restructure their contracts, that may give the team enough money to make a deal for Jackson, while also securing the future of their core players.

Thompson’s free agent acquisions have come few and far between. His signing of Charles Woodson is the most notable in recent – or not so recent – memory, back in 2006. Thompson is all about building the team through the draft, and it has worked out rather well over the years. The Packers remain a perennial Super Bowl contender, and Jackson might be the missing piece to winning another Lombardi Trophy.

Would you like to see Steven Jackson wearing a Packers uniform next season?