The end of July on the NFL calendar generally means two things: the start of training camps across the league (the Green Bay Packers report Friday), and the overwhelming presence of unbounded optimism coming from all 32 NFL cities.
With the slate wiped clean and records reset, every team feels like it has a chance to make this season special. The Packers, winners of three straight division titles, are no different.
Here are 10 reasons for the Packers to be especially optimistic as training camp in 2014 opens:
1. Aaron Rodgers is Healthy
As long as Rodgers is under center in Green Bay, the Packers will lead the conversation to win the NFC North and punch their automatic ticket to the postseason. Now 30 years old, Rodgers remains an unquestioned member of the NFL's elite at the game's most important position. He still ranks second in the NFL in passing touchdowns (102) and wins (31) since 2011, despite missing seven games last season with a broken collarbone. He also sits atop the league in passer rating (112.7) and yards per attempt (8.54) over the last three seasons. If Rodgers plays all 16 games, the Packers are a near lock for at least 10 wins.
2. Offensive Balance
The Packers were as balanced in 2013 as any season in the Mike McCarthy era. Green Bay attempted 570 passes and finished sixth in passing yards, while rushing 459 times for 2,136 yards (seventh most) and 17 touchdowns (fifth most). It marked the first time since McCarthy took over in 2006 that the Packers ran more than 450 times in a season. The undeniable talent of Eddie Lacy and emergence of James Starks as a top No. 2 back gave McCarthy the confidence needed to pound the football, even when Rodgers was healthy. And though Rodgers missed seven games and the majority of an eighth, the Packers still finished third in yards and eighth in points in 2013. That's a testament to the running game the Packers have finally built. The sky is the limit for one of the NFL's most balanced offenses in 2014, especially considering McCarthy's desire to up the tempo and number of plays per game.
3. So Many Receivers
Rodgers has been blessed with ample receiving weapons throughout his starting career, and 2014 should be no different. In fact, this might be Green Bay's deepest group of receivers coming to camp in some time. Jordy Nelson (legitimate No. 1), Randall Cobb (one of the game's best slot receivers), Jarrett Boykin (638 receiving yards from Week 7 on in 2013) and rookie Davante Adams could be one of the most productive receiving foursomes in football next season. Jared Abbrederis has the versatility to contribute right away, and Jeff Janis opened eyes early this summer. We haven't even mentioned Chris Harper, Myles White or Kevin Dorsey yet, but all three have a legitimate chance to make the final 53-man roster with a strong August. I don't envy the decisions Ted Thompson will eventually have to make at the receiver position late next month, but it's still a good problem to have. The one worry may be the adjustment period needed for Rodgers and the new faces, but the talent is certainly there.
4. Edge Pass Rush Potential
The Packers finished 2013 with 44 sacks and a 7.5 sack percentage, which ranked tied for eighth and alone for seventh, respectively. Those numbers actually have a real chance of climbing this season. Clay Matthews, who missed five games, and Nick Perry, who had three sacks in his first five games before another injury, will both be healthy. Mike Neal returns after leading the team in disruptions last season. The Packers took Carl Bradford in the fourth round. And make no mistake about it; Julius Peppers was added to this defense to give the pass rush another boost. He's 34, and not many his age have registered double digit sacks in a season. But playing opposite Matthews, and with the Packers' depth now capable of keeping him fresh, Peppers should be a legitimate candidate for 10 or more sacks. It's even possible Andy Mulumba or Nate Palmer will make a second-year jump, and undrafted free agent Adrian Hubbard has tantalizing potential despite an underwhelming college career. Pass rush is never guaranteed in the NFL, but the Packers have clearly positioned themselves to be better rushing the quarterback off the edges in 2014.
5. Cornerback Depth
Green Bay should feel confident about its depth at cornerback, a premium defensive position. Sam Shields re-signed for big money, Tramon Williams is 31 but entering a contract year and Casey Hayward (six interceptions in 2012) has healthy hamstrings. Throw in Davon House, Micah Hyde, Jarrett Bush and rookie Demetri Goodson, and the Packers have a lot of quality at the position. If Shields continues his ascent, Williams remains steady and Hayward reemerges as a turnover machine, the Packers are going to be very good at the top. A defense could do a lot worse than House or Hyde as the No. 4 cornerback, too. There's no reason this group of corners can't intercept as many or more passes in 2014 as in 2012, when the Packers received 11 picks from the position. The battles between the receivers and cornerbacks should provide must-see material seemingly every day at camp.
6. Offensive Line Solidarity
The Packers offensive line hasn't felt this settled in late July in a long time. A starting center still needs to be found, but Mike McCarthy couldn't say enough good things about JC Tretter this offseason, and rookie Corey Linsley brings to the next level his 26 starts at center in the Big 10 Conference. The other four positions are set in stone. David Bakhtiari enters his second season at left tackle, Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang are rock solid at guard and Bryan Bulaga returns after missing the 2013 season to once again start at right tackle. That's a strong four, even if Bakhtiari had some rookie moments last season and Bulaga is coming off a major injury. The Packers offensive line finally established an edge in the running game last season, and the progression from Bakhtiari and return of Bulaga should naturally improve the pass protection. Behind the starters, Don Barclay provides quality depth at several positions, and Derek Sherrod could finally emerge as contributing member of the club. As long as the center position doesn't flop, the Packers should be strong up front.
7. Improved Safety Talent
Next to Morgan Burnett, the Packers have essentially replaced M.D. Jennings and Jerron McMillian with Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Micah Hyde. The changes must be considered an improvement, even if Clinton-Dix is a rookie and Hyde has no professional experience at safety. Jennings was overmatched as a starter and had no business starting 17 games for a team with title aspirations. McMillian was shown the door in early December of just his second NFL season. Rookie safeties typically aren't instant impact players, but Clinton-Dix will be given every chance to grow into the position, much like Nick Collins. And Hyde, a smart, instinctive player, could thrive when given the opportunity to play with everything in front of him. The added talent could also help Morgan Burnett, who is a better player than his disastrous 2013 season suggests. Bold prediction: the Packers safeties will intercept a pass next season.
8. New Look Defensive Line
Johnny Jolly and Ryan Pickett and their almost 700 pounds of total weight remain unsigned, and C.J. Wilson bolted in free agency for Oakland. B.J. Raji is back on a one-year deal, but 2014 represents a new era for the Packers on the defensive line. Second-year players Datone Jones and Josh Boyd are expected to play major roles. Jones especially will need to take a big step forward next season. Mike Daniels isn't a prototypical 3-4 lineman, but he's Green Bay's best player up front. Raji, whose career has floundered at defensive end, will return to manning the nose, where he was his most disruptive. The Packers are no longer a slow, wide-bodied first-level defense. A smaller but quicker line in 2014 looks better prepared to attack instead of react.
9. A Healthy Roster, For Now
Injuries are an impossible factor to predict in professional football, so the relative health of a team in July should hardly be considered a reason for optimism. But the Packers' luck on the injury front is bound to turn, right? Not many teams could have survived the gauntlet of injuries faced by the Packers over the last four or five years and remained as consistently successful. The one season Green Bay maintained some semblance of health, in 2011, the team won 15 games. The 2013 Packers won eight games and tied another despite losing their starting quarterback, best pass rusher, second-best receiver, field-stretching tight end, top turnover creator and starting left tackle for significant stretches. The offense shuffled through quarterbacks and the defense was mostly decimated. It's probably a minor miracle the Packers were even postseason relevant by Week 17. There's no way Dr. McKenzie can be that busy again in 2014, is there? A healthy Packers team should certainly be a legitimate contender in the NFC.
10. Defensive Tweaks
Valuable time and resources have been spent fixing a defense that simply wasn't good enough last season. The Packers now want more variety and less volume, and they added talent this offseason to help accomplish the goal. The pieces are there; it's now on Dom Capers and the players to produce results. In so many ways, 2014 feels like a make-or-break year for the Packers defense. Too many high picks have been used and Capers is too experienced a coordinator for Green Bay to get such poor outcomes. At its best under Capers, the Packers defense can consistently harass quarterbacks with pressure and create takeaways. Turnovers can be difficult to predict year-to-year, but Green Bay's pass rush could be very good. There is serious rebound potential for the Packers defense in 2014, both in terms of takeaways and points allowed. No other single factor, save for maybe the health of Aaron Rodgers, will play a bigger role in determining the fate of the Packers season.
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