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2015 Most Important Packers No. 2: Clay Matthews, LB

Jul 28, 2015 -- 11:59pm
 
 
Photo/Getty Images 
The Packers defense experienced a remarkable metamorphosis after Clay Matthews started working at inside linebacker at midseason.
 

GREEN BAY – As fluid an athlete as Clay Matthews is on the field – wherever he’s lining up – the Green Bay Packers linebacker is even smoother when it comes to talking about his job description.

Folks that have been hoping for Matthews to go off on a rant about how he doesn’t really like playing inside – something he did at least to some extent to his younger brother Casey after making the move midway through last season – have come away disappointed. He’s taking one for the team, plain and simple.

The move came after the Packers’ bye midway through last season and two weeks before Matthews was set to face his brother and the Philadelphia Eagles. After registering a sack in his inside-outside debut against Chicago, Matthews vented to his little brother, who relayed his big bro’s feelings to Philly.com’s Les Bowen, saying, “I don't think he liked too much about it. … He likes getting after the passer, taking on the linemen. I told him to look at it this way: He's the highest-paid inside linebacker in the league. He got a laugh out of that.”

The improvement the Packers defense made after the move, though, is no joke.

At the time of the move, the Packers’ defense was ranked 25th in the 32-team NFL, including dead last against the run. By season’s end, the Packers defense was 15th in overall defense and No. 23 against the run. In a stunning turnaround, the Packers went from giving up an average of 153.5 yards per game on the ground during the first eight games to 86.4 yards per game in the final eight. Matthews, meanwhile, earned his fifth Pro Bowl nod.

“Am I happy about it? Yeah, of course. I think you saw our team and our defense, how well we did the second half of the season and how well we improved -- run, pass, win column, everything down the board, as well as my personal statistics,” Matthews said during OTAs. “It’s definitely going to provide a good challenge – and I’m up for it as far as learning a different position.”

Why he’s important:  The Packers clearly didn’t feel a pressing need to add other inside linebacker options this offseason – despite cutting their two opening-day starters at inside linebacker from last season (A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones) and letting a third part-time starter (Jamari Lattimore) depart as a free agent – because they planned all along on using Matthews there again this season. Only the drafting of fourth-round pick Jake Ryan and the outside-inside conversions of returnees Carl Bradford and Nate Palmer, neither of whom played a regular-season snap last year, bolstered the position. So it’s clear that the Packers expect Matthews to play inside while also getting outside on the edge on obvious passing downs. That’ll mean plenty of playing time for their $66 million man, making him indispensable.

“[Matthews] is a great pass rusher, and he’s going to continue to play as many different positions as we could possibly get out of him,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “We need to utilize Clay as much as we can. He’s a great player and we need to give him as many opportunities as we can to make plays.”

If he delivers:  Matthews finished last season with 11 sacks and 69 tackles, but his own numbers were starkly different before and after the move, too: He had 26 tackles and 2.5 sacks before it, 43 tackles and 8.5 sacks after it. According to Pro Football Focus, Matthews had five QB hits and 18 hurries before the move and six hits and 13 hurries after it.

If Matthews’ produces at the rate he did after the move, he’s looking at a 17-sack season, which would be a career best.

If he disappoints:  Matthews has seldom disappointed when healthy. It’s when his balky hamstring acts up or he breaks his thumb that he ends up not being productive because he’s not on the field. That means keeping him healthy, even though the Packers managed to go 4-2 in the six games Matthews missed with the broken thumb in 2013 – and one of those losses was the game in which Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone against Chicago.

The Packers’ outside linebacker depth last season – with so-called “elephants” Julius Peppers, Nick Perry and Mike Neal – certainly helped Capers and McCarthy make the decision to move Matthews. And if something befalls him this year, those three – along with youngsters Andy Mulumba, Jayrone Elliott and Adrian Hubbard will have to pitch in.

Quote, unquote:  “Mentally I'm ready. They're going to rush me from all over the field, they're going to drop me from all over the field. And I expect to do a multitude of things this year.” – Matthews, on playing inside and outside in 2015.

The Most Important Packers of 2015 series presented by Orthopaedic Associates of Wisconsin
     The Most Important Packers of 2015 list is not a list of the best players on the team’s roster. Rather, the primary factors are the individual player’s talent, the inherent importance of the position he plays and the team’s depth at the position. Think of it as a list of the players the team can least afford to lose if it wants to return to the Super Bowl. The list was formulated through offseason conversations with players and coaches, as well as statistical reviews and player evaluations by ProFootballFocus.com and others.
     Agree? Disagree? Chime in via social media at the ESPNMilwaukee Facebook page  or on Twitter to @jasonjwilde@ESPNMilwaukee  or @ESPNMadison.

Packers plan Super Bowl I celebration at Sept. 28 game

Jul 28, 2015 -- 11:52pm
 
Photo/WireImage  
The Packers and Chiefs, who battled in Super Bowl I, face each other on Sept. 28 at Lambeau Field.
 

GREEN BAY – Although Mark Murphy can’t guarantee the Green Bay Packers will win Super Bowl 50 – despite the appealing symmetry, having won Super Bowl I – the Packers president/CEO did promise that the 1966 team that won the inaugural game will be feted this season at Lambeau Field.

Murphy said the team has a variety of events planned involving the Super Bowl I team, starting with the club’s annual Alumni Weekend for the Sept. 20 home opener against the Seattle Seahawks at Lambeau Field. The plan, Murphy said, is for all of the members of the Super Bowl I team who are still able to travel, and all of the team’s living Packers Hall of Famers who can still make the trip, to be in attendance along with alumni from other eras.

The Super Bowl I players will then stay in Wisconsin the following week, with events planned with them in both Green Bay and Milwaukee, before they are honored on Sept. 28 during the Packers’ Monday Night Football game against the Kansas City Chiefs, the Packers’ opponent in that first Super Bowl.

“There’ll be events throughout the week, but the main, main celebration will be at halftime, bringing out as many of those players as possible,” Murphy said.

Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Bart Starr, who has been recovering from multiple strokes and a heart attack suffered last fall, has made significant progress through stem-cell treatments in recent weeks, but it’s unclear whether he will be able to attend either game. Starr’s son, Bart Jr., said earlier this month that his father is hoping to walk out onto Lambeau Field with Brett Favre on Thanksgiving night, when Favre’s No. 4 is unveiled on the stadium’s north end zone façade. 

The Super Bowl I team's return, Favre's return and honoring soon-to-be Pro Football Hall of Fame GM Ron Wolf at their Nov. 15 game mean the Packers will have three significant celebratory events at their eight home games this season.

Murphy: Packers will 'never' sell Lambeau Field naming rights

Jul 28, 2015 -- 3:20pm
 
Photo/Getty Images 
Mark Murphy says the Packers will “never” sell naming rights to Lambeau Field.
 

GREEN BAY – If there was an applause line in Mark Murphy’s podium spiel during Tuesday’s annual shareholders meeting – since there were no bold pronouncements or guarantees that the Green Bay Packers will win Super Bowl 50 – it was when the team’s president/CEO said this about the idea of selling the naming rights to Lambeau Field:

“We will never do that,” Murphy told the crowd of roughly 12,000. “We will always be Lambeau Field.”

Of course, Murphy, who turned 60 earlier this month, can only remain the Packers’ president/CEO for another 10 years before reaching the team’s mandatory retirement age, just as his predecessor, Bob Harlan, did. So in truth, he can only guarantee the Lambeau Field name for another decade.

But given that Harlan said basically the same thing as the team worked to have the venerable stadium renovated in the early 2000s, it’s clear the club has no interest in selling the name of the stadium itself, a la the Minnesota Vikings’ new stadium, U.S. Bank Stadium. Many, many professional and college teams play at stadiums or in arenas named for companies, as it is a valuable revenue stream for clubs.

“Now I should say, I'm tying the hands of future leaders of the Packers when I say it will ‘never’ happen, but I don't think it makes any sense," Murphy said during a press conference following the meeting. "We have a number of benefits as an organization, but Lambeau Field is right near the top. It would really be a shame if the name was ever changed."

The topic came up when Murphy was praising the team’s marketing and sales staff for selling the naming rights to the stadium’s eight entrances. Those gates are sponsored by Shopko, Mills’ Fleet Farm, American Family Insurance, the Oneida Nation, Miller Lite, Bellin Health, Associated Bank and Verizon Wireless.

However, Murphy did say that a company inquired about buying the stadium’s naming rights a few years ago, something that he said does not happen very often.

“I don't know if it was a consultant or [what], [but] somebody approached me from a large corporation that would be interested in naming rights,” Murphy said. “I said, ‘Thanks, but no thanks. We have no interest.’"

Packers will wear throwback uniforms Oct. 18 against Chargers

Jul 28, 2015 -- 12:49pm
 
Photo/ESPNWisconsin.com 
Packers president Mark Murphy unveils the Packers’ throwback uniforms at Tuesday’s team shareholders meetings.
 

GREEN BAY – They were on Nike.com and in the pro shop before he even stepped to the podium at Lambeau Field Tuesday morning, but president/CEO Mark Murphy made it official at the annual shareholders meeting: The Green Bay Packers will wear throwback uniforms from their 1937-'49 era for the team’s Oct. 18 game against the San Diego Chargers.

Director of public affairs Aaron Popkey wheeled out a mannequin wearing Aaron Rodgers’ No. 12 – and tan pants much like the Acme Packers pants the quarterback found to be so comfortable with the previous throwbacks – and Murphy unveiled the uniforms to stockholders.

“And as luck would have it, these are available in the Pro Shop,” Murphy said with a chuckle.

Images of the uniforms leaked on Monday night when Nike put several jerseys on their website.

The Packers had worn their 1929-’30 throwback uniforms the previous five seasons – and went 5-0 in the games in which they wore them, Murphy pointed out –  before retiring that look after last season. NFL rules allow teams to change their alternate third jersey – which is not required to be a throwback – every five years, so the Packers are now committed to this look through the 2019 season.

The Packers wore similar jerseys during the 1994 season for the league’s celebration of its 75th anniversary. 

In addition, Murphy told shareholders that the NFL will ask teams to wear color-on-color uniforms for Thursday night games, but in a press conference afterward, Murphy said it is voluntary this year and the Packers will not participate in it with green jerseys and green pants.

The Packers play two Thursday night games this season: On Thanksgiving night, No. 26, for the unveiling of Brett Favre’s No. 4 on Lambeau Field’s north end zone façade against the Chicago Bears; and Dec. 3 at Detroit. But the Thanksgiving game is on NBC, so it is not subject to the new concept, which is reserved for NFL Network/CBS games. 

The Detroit game is on NFL Network and CBS but the Packers won't take part, Murphy said. The team will take part in 2016 whenever it plays on Thursday night on CBS and NFLN, Murphy said.

Murphy said the NFL is following college football’s lead on using color-on-color uniforms, saying that they have been “very popular” in the NCAA.

 
Photo/@12Wagner52 on Twitter 
The Packers' new throwback uniforms were in the team's pro shop before being officially unveiled Tuesday at the shareholders meeting.

 

2015 Most Important Packers No. 3: Eddie Lacy, RB

Jul 27, 2015 -- 11:59pm
 
 
Screen capture/NFL.com 
Eddie Lacy has put together back-to-back 1,100-yard rushing seasons and is hungry for more.
 

GREEN BAY – This week, the NFL debuted a promo for their fantasy football leagues that stars Randall Cobb and Eddie Lacy.

The premise: The two Green Bay Packers teammates – and fantasy football point machines – are sitting on neighboring stationary bicycles in what is supposed to be the Packers’ weight room (it looks more like the Kress Center on the UW-Green Bay campus). The gist of the lighthearted ad is that the two wouldn’t have anything to talk about if they didn’t have fantasy to discuss.

In truth, anyone who knows Lacy knows he would rather be talking about cartoons or superhero movies than anything football related, since the third-year running back openly admits he doesn’t watch football in his free time (including when his alma mater, Alabama, plays).

Including playoffs last year, Lacy carried 305 times for 1,259 yards and 11 touchdowns in essentially 15 games. (He suffered a concussion on his first carry of a Week 2 victory over Washington and then missed the following week’s game at Cincinnati.) He also caught 37 passes for 264 yards in regular- and post-season play.

“I just play man. I get the ball and I run,” Lacy said late in the season. “Whatever the stats are at the end of the year, that’s what they are.”

And the last two years, those stats have been impressive – increasingly so.

Why he’s important:  In 2013, when he was a rookie and quarterback Aaron Rodgers missed almost half the season with a fractured collarbone, Lacy essentially carried the Packers offense. Last year, with Rodgers back, Lacy said he felt less beaten up because he wasn’t facing stacked boxes all the time.

For the Packers’ offense to operate at peak efficiency, they want both the NFL’s two-time MVP and one of its most powerful backs on the field at the same time. As Rodgers pointed out during the offseason, the “preservation of [Eddie’s] health is very important” to the Packers’ success.

And if both of them are healthy, opposing defenses face an impossible either-or – as evidenced by Lacy’s greater production last season despite touching the ball less than he did in 2013.

Last season, Lacy carried the ball 246 times for 1,139 yards and nine touchdowns in the regular season while also catching 42 passes for 427 yards and four TDs. In two postseason games, Lacy ran the ball 40 times for 174 yards and caught one pass for 10 yards.

All told, he touched the ball 329 times, gained 1,750 yards and scored 13 touchdowns. As a rookie, he had 342 touches for 1,523 yards and 11 touchdowns.

If he delivers:  If Lacy does stay healthy and productive, he would become just the fourth back in Packers history to string together back-to-back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, joining franchise rushing leader Ahman Green (2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004), John Brockington (1971, 1972, 1973) and Jim Taylor (1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964). He’d also set himself up for a hefty raise, as he is entering the third year of his four-year, $3.392 million rookie deal.

If he disappoints:  Although the Packers do like James Starks, and haven’t forgotten how he resuscitated the dead-in-the-water running game in 2010 en route to the Super Bowl XLV title, there’s no question that Lacy is the engine behind the running game. His bruising style sets a tone, and while Starks’ change-of-pace, accelerate-into-the-hole style is effective – more so in 2013 than last year – the Packers need Lacy toting the mail if they’re going to be the juggernaut offense many expect. Since the 2011 offense, which was the highest scoring in team history, didn’t have a boffo running game, Lacy’s presence gives the 2015 version a chance at being even better.

Quote, unquote:  “There’s not too many guys who can come in and play that well in their first two years. Some guys their first year might not be that good, and their second year is a lot better and the third year is when they get comfortable in the system. Around here, the guys do a great job of keeping me level headed and keeping me aware of what’s going on and comfortable. And for me being comfortable is key. As long as I’m comfortable and I can play the way I need to play, then I’ll do as good as I can.” – Lacy, on his success.

The Most Important Packers of 2015 series presented by Orthopaedic Associates of Wisconsin
     The Most Important Packers of 2015 list is not a list of the best players on the team’s roster. Rather, the primary factors are the individual player’s talent, the inherent importance of the position he plays and the team’s depth at the position. Think of it as a list of the players the team can least afford to lose if it wants to return to the Super Bowl. The list was formulated through offseason conversations with players and coaches, as well as statistical reviews and player evaluations by ProFootballFocus.com and others.
     Agree? Disagree? Chime in via social media at the ESPNMilwaukee Facebook page  or on Twitter to @jasonjwilde@ESPNMilwaukee  or @ESPNMadison.

2015 Most Important Packers No. 4: Jordy Nelson, WR

Jul 26, 2015 -- 11:59pm
 
 
Photo/Getty Images 
Jordy Nelson set a career high in receiving yards for the second straight year, and his 1,519 yards were a franchise record.
 

GREEN BAY – Jordy Nelson wouldn’t say much about his offseason hip surgery – in fact, he might not have ever actually said the surgery was on his hip.

But the Green Bay Packers Pro Bowl wide receiver did say this much:

“We’ll be ready to go by training camp,” Nelson said during the team’s June minicamp.

That’s exactly what the Packers want and need, since the only time in the past four years he hasn’t been ultra-productive was when he was injured.

That was in 2012, when a hamstring injury cost him four games and parts of two others. He ended up catching 49 passes for 745 yards and seven touchdowns that season.

In his other three years, he eclipsed the 1,000-yard barrier, each season better than the previous one: 68 receptions for 1,263 yards and 15 TDs in 2011; 85 receptions for 1,314 yards and eight TDs in 2013; and 98 receptions for 1,519 yards and 13 TDs last year. Last year’s receptions and yardage were not only career-highs, but Nelson set the franchise record for receiving yards in a season.

Why he’s important:  The Packers may not need him to carry that great of a load in the passing game this season, but given the relationship he has with quarterback Aaron Rodgers – the two car-pool to Austin Straubel International Airport for each charter flight to road games – and the faith Rodgers has in him, Nelson is not only one of the top receivers in the NFL, he’s also the security blanket for the NFL MVP. Even though Randall Cobb has shown an aptitude for making what Rodgers calls “second-reaction” plays, Nelson and Rodgers seemingly are on an entirely different wavelength.

While the expected emergence of second-year receiver Davante Adams may cut into Nelson’s targets – Nelson was targeted 151 times last season and 127 times in 2013 – it may also free Nelson of some of the constant attention he has received from opposing defenses. A few years ago, Nelson was that player for Greg Jennings. Now, it’s Nelson who’d welcome the assistance.

If he delivers:  The Packers’ receiving corps may be the deepest in the league if two other second-year pass catchers (Jeff Janis, Jared Abbrederis) contribute and rookie third-round pick Ty Montgomery can impress the coaches on the field as much as he impressed them with how he picked up the playbook. Nonetheless, if Nelson has another big year, it will mean that Rodgers and the offense have been as productive as expected. It also means Nelson will have stayed healthy, which seemingly is the only way he won’t put up 1,000 yards.

If he disappoints:  Whether it was Nelson’s hip this offseason or his knee that required cleanup two summers ago, most of Nelson’s injury issues have been minor and have yet to cost him anything more than practice time. And having just turned 30 in May, he’s in the heart of his prime. That 2012 season was frustrating for Nelson, though, as every time he thought he was past the hamstring being an issue, it cropped up again. His explanation for the after-the-season surgery on his hip was that it was a simple procedure. Given his value, the Packers had better hope so.

“If it didn’t bother me, I probably wouldn’t have had the surgery, but nothing major,” Nelson said. “I had an opportunity to get some things cleaned up. We did it. I think it was a good move and feel good about where we’re at and going forward.”

Quote, unquote:  “I like the responsibility. I think it’s something [that happened] a couple years ago when we had a big changeover with everyone leaving and everything, and kind of being thrown into the forefront of being a leader in our room. I take a lot of pride in that. We’ve all been taught by older guys that it’s our responsibility to teach younger guys. I said it last year with Davante that we have to teach him because eventually he’s going to play a big role for us. Everybody saw it down the end of the season, down the stretch run what he meant. We have to get these guys caught up to speed and give them an opportunity to earn a spot on this team come August. That’s our responsibility.” – Nelson, on his leadership role.

The Most Important Packers of 2015 series presented by Orthopaedic Associates of Wisconsin
     The Most Important Packers of 2015 list is not a list of the best players on the team’s roster. Rather, the primary factors are the individual player’s talent, the inherent importance of the position he plays and the team’s depth at the position. Think of it as a list of the players the team can least afford to lose if it wants to return to the Super Bowl. The list was formulated through offseason conversations with players and coaches, as well as statistical reviews and player evaluations by ProFootballFocus.com and others.
     Agree? Disagree? Chime in via social media at the ESPNMilwaukee Facebook page  or on Twitter to @jasonjwilde@ESPNMilwaukee  or @ESPNMadison.

2015 Most Important Packers No. 5: David Bakhtiari, LT

Jul 25, 2015 -- 11:59pm
 
 
Photo/Getty Images  
David Bakhtiari’s next goal is to be considered an elite left tackle.
 

GREEN BAY – David Bakhtiari got used to losing at the University of Colorado. Now, the third-year left tackle has gotten used to winning with the Green Bay Packers.

Including his redshirt year in 2009, Bakhtiari endured a 12-37 overall record during his four years in Boulder, including a 1-11 finish during his junior season in 2012, before he declared for the NFL Draft. He hopes he never has to feel that way again.

“I love my university. They’re amazing. I had a great experience. I wouldn’t where I am today if it wasn’t for the University of Colorado,” Bakhtiari said. “But the winning is definitely something that’s different, and I love it. As a competitor, you love winning. You hate losing so much, it drives you that much more to win. To be in a winning environment, a winning program, it’s a lot of fun. I’ve gotten used to enough losing that I hope it’s just winning from here on out, no matter how long I play.”

How long Bakhtiari, 23, plays – and plays in Green Bay – will be interesting to watch as he develops into what he hopes is one of the NFL’s elite left tackles. Forced into the job as a rookie fourth-round pick in 2013, he helped save the Packers’ season that year, and he was appreciably better last season. Now, the expectation is for him to take an even bigger step up.

“I’ve taken huge steps,” Bakhtiari said. “Now it’s on to the little, fine-tunings I need to work out myself.”

Why he’s important:  While the Packers return their entire starting offensive line, one thing they don’t have is a clear-cut No. 2 left tackle. Should Bakhtiari, who has been fantastically durable his first two seasons, suffer an injury, the Packers would have to either send JC Tretter in, and he semsed to struggle with the garbage-time left-tackle reps he got last season, or shift right tackle Bryan Bulaga to the left side and play Tretter or Don Barclay at right tackle.

“Being available, staying in games, not coming out – that’s huge,” Bakhtiari said. “You see a lot of guys, they can’t make it. That’s a huge part of the game that’s brushed underneath the rug and people don’t pay that much attention to it. In order to have a hell of a career, you have to be on the football field. No one knows how good you are unless you play.”

And that’s the thing with Bakhtiari – he hasn’t just been available, he’s played well in his first two seasons. His availability when Bulaga was lost for the season in training camp in 2013 was huge, but now he’s focused on not only being on the field but dominating on it – the mark of a true elite left tackle.

If he delivers:  As a fourth-round pick, Bakhtiari received a four-year, $2.6 million contract ($433,312 signing bonus), although he’ll be in line for a hefty raise from his scheduled $675,000 base salary for 2016 because of the rookie wage scale. (Defensive end Mike Daniels is benefitting from that this year.) Bottom line, Bakhtiari can earn himself a large payday that’ll more than make up for his relatively low-cost rookie deal if he continues to elevate his game. In 1,171 snaps last season (including playoffs), Pro Football Focus charged him with seven sacks, six QB hits and 20 QB hurries allowed. As much of a life-saver as he’s been the past two years, those numbers do leave room for improvement.

If he disappoints:  It’s hard to picture Bakhtiari backsliding after the progress he’s made, but if he doesn’t make the improvements the Packers expect him to, then they’ll have a good-but-not-great guy protecting Aaron Rodgers’ blind side. Some teams would be lucky to have that instead of the stiff they’re currently playing at the position, but both Bakhtiari and the Packers expect more.

“I think each and every year, you need to progress. That’s so important,” Bakhtiari said. “I came into this league and I had goals set in my mind of who I wanted to become. And I sound like a broken record, but I despise complacency. I hate it – not only in football, but all facets of life. I’ll never be satisfied.”

Quote, unquote:  “He’s a guy that just continues to keep developing. And last year he had just a great year for us. His name wasn’t mentioned a whole lot, which is a good thing when you're playing offensive line. He’s a guy that we can count on. He’s going to come in every day and work and you know he’s going to get out there and get the job done.” – Veteran right guard T.J. Lang, on Bakhtiari’s development.

The Most Important Packers of 2015 series presented by Orthopaedic Associates of Wisconsin
     The Most Important Packers of 2015 list is not a list of the best players on the team’s roster. Rather, the primary factors are the individual player’s talent, the inherent importance of the position he plays and the team’s depth at the position. Think of it as a list of the players the team can least afford to lose if it wants to return to the Super Bowl. The list was formulated through offseason conversations with players and coaches, as well as statistical reviews and player evaluations by ProFootballFocus.com and others.
     Agree? Disagree? Chime in via social media at the ESPNMilwaukee Facebook page  or on Twitter to @jasonjwilde@ESPNMilwaukee  or @ESPNMadison.

2015 Most Important Packers No. 6: Randall Cobb, WR

Jul 24, 2015 -- 11:59pm
 
 
Photo/Getty Images 
Randall Cobb passed on some more lucrative contract offers to re-sign with the Packers in free agency.
 

GREEN BAY – One of the innate problems with Ted Thompson’s draft-and-develop approach – at least in terms of public perception, since in terms of football talent acquisition it seems to be going swimmingly – is that the Green Bay Packers’ re-signings of vital players feel slightly discounted in terms of the acclaim they receive outside of Wisconsin.

Just think what a big deal it would have been had the Packers veteran general manager gone out onto the open market and snagged a 24-year-old, yet-to-reach-his-prime wide receiver who in 2014 caught 91 passes for 1,287 yards and 12 touchdowns.

And while the expected emergence of third receiver Davante Adams may mean that Cobb’s and fellow Pro Bowl wide receiver Jordy Nelson’s numbers dip slightly, if Cobb stays healthy and remains one of quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ most trusted pass-catchers, his four-year, $40 million deal could turn out to be a bargain.

“It’s the basis of our free agent philosophy, signing your own players,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “Randall and [right tackle] Bryan [Bulaga, whom the Packers also re-signed] are both excellent players, but also Green Bay Packers, just the way they go about it every day. I was very relieved after both those guys’ business situations were completed.”

Why he’s important:  There’s an argument to be made – and while it won’t be made here, it very well could be during the 2016 Most Important Packers series – that Cobb is actually more vital to the Packers’ offense because of his versatility and because the Packers don’t have another receiver who can do the damage he does from the slot. Although Nelson lined up there during the 2013 season when Cobb was out with a lower leg fracture, and ex-University of Wisconsin receiver Jared Abbrederis could be an intriguing slot receiver, as of now, Cobb is as good as it gets inside. And don’t forget, he can line up in the backfield or outside, too.

“He’s a very flexible, durable, intelligent, instinctive football player, so he gives us a lot of flexibility,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “You take it further, the punt returns is also something he’s still very good at. And I think when you look at Randall, you look at Jordy Nelson in being on the same page with Aaron, just the interaction between the quarterbacks and receiver group, it’s definitely the teaching environment, the practice environment and obviously the results and I feel it looks the way it’s supposed to look.

If he delivers:  While Cobb has high expectations for himself and is one of the more intrinsically motivated players on the roster, he’s also one of the smarter ones, and he’s able to read the depth chart. While he and Nelson are at the top, Adams is coming on – McCarthy termed Adams the offseason “MVP” – and there are other young receivers who could merit playing time as well. That doesn’t mean Cobb needs to worry about being replaced, but it does mean that the passing game might not have to be so Cobb/Nelson-centric this season.

“It’s going to be hard [to top last season statistically],” Cobb said. “With Davante coming along, that adds a target, and he’s going to get more targets. He’s going to get more opportunities. Like I’ve always said, you have to make the most of the opportunities you do get. I look forward to this receiving corps. We have a great offense. We have a lot of weapons. Us spreading the ball out, it’s going to be hard to top what I did last year, but my mindset is always to score every time I touch the ball. I’m going to do the best I can every time I touch it.”

If he disappoints:  The Packers’ offense wasn’t the same in 2013 when Cobb missed 10 games, and while it’s easy to say that it was more because of the 7 1/2 games Rodgers missed with a broken collarbone, the QBs who filled in certainly could’ve used Cobb on their side. While there is depth overall at receiver, there’s nobody on the roster with Cobb’s unique skill set. He was durable and productive last season when his financial future was on the line, and if the Packers are going to have one of their best offenses ever in 2015, they’ll need a healthy Cobb all year long again.

Quote, unquote:  “He needs to see the ball. I mean you get into games, particularly the key games and as you build toward the season, you’ve got to make sure Randall touches the ball. And it’s a credit to him and he gives you a number of different ways to get him the football.” – McCarthy, on how vital it is to get Cobb involved.

The Most Important Packers of 2015 series presented by Orthopaedic Associates of Wisconsin
     The Most Important Packers of 2015 list is not a list of the best players on the team’s roster. Rather, the primary factors are the individual player’s talent, the inherent importance of the position he plays and the team’s depth at the position. Think of it as a list of the players the team can least afford to lose if it wants to return to the Super Bowl. The list was formulated through offseason conversations with players and coaches, as well as statistical reviews and player evaluations by ProFootballFocus.com and others.
     Agree? Disagree? Chime in via social media at the ESPNMilwaukee Facebook page  or on Twitter to @jasonjwilde@ESPNMilwaukee  or @ESPNMadison.

2015 Most Important Packers No. 7: Sam Shields, CB

Jul 23, 2015 -- 11:59pm
 
 
Photo/Getty Images 
Sam Shields is now one of the elder statesmen in the Packers’ secondary.
 

GREEN BAY – Even after earning himself a four-year, $39 million extension, even becoming one of the Green Bay Packers’ rags-to-riches success stories as he went from undrafted free agent to top-level cornerback, Sam Shields has never been the kind of cornerback that everyone talks about.

Perhaps it’s his quiet demeanor, his relative disinterest in media interviews, or the fact that one of the team’s more popular and high-profile players, Tramon Williams, was always in the Packers’ secondary with him. But now, with Williams having departed as a free agent this spring, Shields’ time has come: It’s up to him to play like a No. 1 corner.

“I expect a lot from him,” cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt said this offseason. “Last year, I thought the top four corners in the league were, not in any order, [Richard] Sherman, [Darrelle] Revis, Brent Grimes and Vontae [Davis]. I think, if he does the things that we were working on, he can be in that conversation.

“Those four were clearly better and then there was a group of around 12 — [Shields] is in that group of 12 to 14, in my opinion. How do you get in that top four with Brent Grimes, Revis and Sherman and Vontae Davis? How do you do that? That’s the question.”

Why he’s important:  The cornerback room is vastly different these days, as not only did Williams depart in free agency but Davon House also left (signing with Jacksonville) and longtime veteran voice and special teamer Jarrett Bush was not re-signed. The Packers did draft a pair of cornerbacks with their first two picks this spring – Damarious Randall and Quentin Rollins – but how quickly they will come along remains to be seen. On top of that, would-be starter Casey Hayward hasn’t played a ton outside and hasn’t played a whole lot over the past two years – due to a hamstring injury in 2013 and a limited role last year – and has to earn the job opposite Shields. Given the situation, the Packers need Shields to be the shutdown corner the coaches believe he’s capable of becoming.

If he delivers:  If Shields has a breakthrough season like Williams did in 2010 – unlike Whitt’s assessment of Shields being in the 12-14 range last year, Williams became a top-5 cornerback during the Packers’ Super Bowl XLV run – then the Packers will have a player who can more or less take away half the field from their opponents. The Packers offense has seen firsthand the impact that can have on an offense when facing Seattle’s Sherman, and Shields playing at that level would also allow defensive coordinator Dom Capers to scheme in a way that he could give help to whoever lines up on the other side, whether that’s Hayward or one of the rookies.

If he disappoints:  The Packers are hoping they can move Shields around and match up him up on the opposing team’s top target, and as Williams can attest, such an assignment means you will get beat on occasion – after all, you’re covering a top-level wideout, and that guy gets paid, too. That said, if Shields isn’t up to the task, then the Packers secondary could have problems given the unproven nature of their other cover men. Hayward, for example, could stay healthy and recapture the ball-magnet form he showed as a rookie in 2012. But if he doesn’t, and Shields backslides, the Packers’ pass defense could become a major liability.

Quote, unquote:  “[Some] corners throughout their career – Al [Harris] was predominantly on the right, Nnamdi [Asomugha] played on the right – some guys feel more comfortable one way or the other. Sam says he feels comfortable on both sides. I just know he’s made most of his impact from the right [until now]. He’s going to have to match so he’s going to have to play left and right this year, anyway. We’re going to put him where we need him and where I feel he’s going to be most productive.” – Whitt, on how he plans to use Shields this season.

The Most Important Packers of 2015 series presented by Orthopaedic Associates of Wisconsin
     The Most Important Packers of 2015 list is not a list of the best players on the team’s roster. Rather, the primary factors are the individual player’s talent, the inherent importance of the position he plays and the team’s depth at the position. Think of it as a list of the players the team can least afford to lose if it wants to return to the Super Bowl. The list was formulated through offseason conversations with players and coaches, as well as statistical reviews and player evaluations by ProFootballFocus.com and others.
     Agree? Disagree? Chime in via social media at the ESPNMilwaukee Facebook page  or on Twitter to @jasonjwilde@ESPNMilwaukee  or @ESPNMadison.

Thin at tight end, Packers reportedly visit with Gresham

Jul 23, 2015 -- 10:41pm
 
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Thin at tight end, the Packers reportedly brought free-agent tight end Jermaine Gresham in for a visit on Thursday.
 

GREEN BAY – The Green Bay Packers’ thinnest position on offense – tight end – just might get a veteran boost. At the very least, general manager Ted Thompson is looking around for ways to improve the position.

NFL Network’s Rand Getlin reported Thursday evening that free-agent tight end Jermaine Gresham visited the Packers Thursday, the ex-Cincinnati Bengals tight end’s third recent visit to a team. He visited the Arizona Cardinals on Tuesday and the New Orleans Saints last month.

Gresham, 27, was the 21st overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft and caught 52 passes for 471 yards and four touchdowns last season, his fifth in Cincinnati. The Bengals reportedly have moved on and don’t want to bring him back, and the Oakland Raiders had him in for a visit in March, then stopped courting him when a physical revealed a herniated disc that required surgery.

Gresham has never had fewer than 46 receptions in a season. His best year came in 2012, when he caught 64 passes for 737 yards and five touchdowns in 16 games.

The Packers’ tight end depth chart currently consists of veteran Andrew Quarless, who was arrested in Miami Beach, Fla., earlier this month in a handgun incident; second-year man Richard Rodgers; rookie sixth-round pick Kennard Backman; Justin Perillo, who spent time on the practice squad and the 53-man roster last year; and undrafted rookies Mitchell Henry and Harold Spears.

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