September 10, 2016

Packers’ youth and veteran motivation at an all-time high

Sunday afternoon in Jacksonville, the Packers will field their youngest 53-man roster in the last 30 years and open as 8-1 odds to win Super Bowl LI.

They would be the youngest team ever to win it all. To have a shot, inexperienced players will need to outperform expectations and veteran motivation will need to burn hotter than ever.

Ted Thompson is betting heavily on both, but will they pay off? Let’s examine both rookies and players with less than two years of NFL experience, followed by veterans who have the most to prove.

Packers' Defensive Middle Lacks Depth, Experience 
Green Bay will start rookies in two of their weakest position groups on the roster – Blake Martinez, a rookie fourth-round pick from Stanford, will wear the defensive coach helmet from starting ILB and call the shots for a unit that ranked 15th in total defense last year.
Rookie Blake Martinez will be the on-field signal-caller

Reviews on Martinez have been strong, but can he really be expected to play with both NFL-starter physicality and sharp on-field awareness for a Super Bowl contending team and this quickly? The coaches think so and they better be right, with only three total ILBs on the 53-man roster.

Next up is Dean Lowry, the other fourth-round rookie (Northwestern), who will start at DE in place of suspended Mike Pennel (eligible to return week five). The Packers 2016 first-round pick Kenny Clark (UCLA) will back up both Lowry and Mike Daniels, but has health concerns after missing the last two preseason games due to a back injury. He has virtually zero game experience and is 20 years old.

The only silver that lines this paper-thin group of big boys is defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ preference to play lots of nickel and dime packages. Capers will need to be as creative as ever, especially the first four weeks or if injuries hit thereafter. And if injuries hit in the first four weeks, it will get ugly. It might get ugly anyway for teams committed to the run who have star RBs (see Minnesota Vikings).

The second-year DB duo of Quinten Rollins and Damarious Randall will need to continue improving in a strong defensive secondary that looked dominant at times this preseason. Don’t be surprised to see either make eye-popping plays and finish with 4-plus INTs. The key is limiting big plays from opposing offenses.
Green Bay Packers Defensive Depth Chart
Green Bay Packers defensive depth chart features two rookie starters

The offensive line is young too, and Thompson is gambling by relying on rookies as two of his three core backups – Jason Spriggs, a second-round pick, and Kyle Murphy, a sixth-rounder. If the last few years are any indication, both will be thrown into action and expected to protect the best QB in the NFL at some point. Not ideal.

Packer Veterans Each Have Unique, Motivating 'Shoulder Chips'
While the youth of Green Bay brings up more questions than answers, the veteran core may be among the most motivated group in the NFL – here’s what’s at stake for the familiar names.

Aaron Rodgers is coming off his worst year as a starter when many questioned his ability to play at a high level without key WRs. The chip on his shoulder is bigger than ever – he came to camp in the best shape of his career and with Nelson back, he’s the popular choice for NFL MVP.

As mentioned, Rodgers will throw to WR Jordy Nelson in a regular season game for the first time in more than 12 months, whose return created the most conversation among NFL writers of any player outside of Colin Kaepernick and Tom Brady this offseason. Nelson is under immense pressure to return from his ACL injury and confirm that he was the missing weapon on a Green Bay offense than grossly underachieved in 2015.

Upfront, three starting offensive lineman are in contract years, i.e., playing for a big paycheck – historically nothing motivates a player more. Green Bay is expected to lock up at least two of those during the season, starting with LT David Bakhtiari, who will command big money. T.J. Lang and JC Tretter round out the starting trio whose contracts expire after 2016-17.

Sam Shields out to prove he's an elite shut-down corner
Sam Shields is out to prove he's an elite shut-down cornerback
Number one corner Sam Shields is entering his seventh year and has never been selected to a Pro Bowl. Cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt Jr. has said time and again, Shields has the potential to be among the NFL’s top CBs, but stops short of saying he's made it there. You can bet Shields thinks he’s there and will be out to prove it.

Eddie Lacy’s story has been told ad nauseam – after being overweight and experiencing declining production in 2015, he hopes his offseason P90X-shape-up will return him to the previously nimble, tackling-breaking, 1,200-yard back he’s proven to be.

Clay Matthews returns to his ideal OLB position and will want to prove his drop in sack production and QB pressures/hits was simply a product of playing out of position in 2015.

Randall Cobb has been labeled a WR2 at best, after playing through injuries most of 2015. Many called him “exposed” but this preseason he’s looked stronger, faster and ready to prove he’s one of the best slot receivers in the NFL.

Free agent TE Jared Cook signed a one-year deal and is playing for his last NFL contract, finally with a competent quarterback. His 6’5’ frame and athleticism is what TE dreams are made of, but he’s been known for drops and isn’t a young player, plus is coming off a foot operation. It’s possible for him to catch 70 balls and eclipse 1,000 yards in this offense and that’s almost the (lofty) expectation.

Lots of potential exists among young players and with motivated, veteran talent to anchor the core of this team, Green Bay may just have the secret sauce it needs to make another Super Bowl run. Ted Thompson thinks so, do you?

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