NFC North: Green Bay Packers

Packers' biggest key to success

July, 10, 2014
Jul 10
12:00
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GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The Green Bay Packers are well positioned to contend in the NFC over the next several years because they have perhaps the NFL’s three most important components in place: Their quarterback, coach and general manager.

Rodgers
Rodgers
Their quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, is 30 years old and should be in the prime of his career. He is barely more than a year into a five-year, $110 million contract extension that should keep him in Green Bay through the 2019 season. Among quarterbacks who have started in the Super Bowl in the last five years, only three are younger than Rodgers.

Their coach, Mike McCarthy, is entering his ninth season. Only three NFL coaches have been with their current teams longer, giving the Packers stability and continuity in their game plans and schemes. McCarthy has two years left on a five-year deal he signed after the Packers won Super Bowl XLV and is still relatively young in coaching circles at age 50.

Their general manager, Ted Thompson, is entering his 10th season. Like McCarthy, he signed a five-year contract extension following the Super Bowl victory. Although Thompson is 11 years older than McCarthy, he said after this year’s draft that he has no intention of retiring any time soon.

Myriad other things make up a championship team, but none is more important than the quarterback-coach-GM trio. An elite quarterback automatically gives a team a chance. Combine that with an experienced, successful coach who has the trust of his players and a proven system, plus a general manager with a solid track record in the draft and free agency, and the Packers are a team that should be an annual contender.

The Packers had the same type of combination in the 1990s with Brett Favre, Mike Holmgren and Ron Wolf. They combined for two Super Bowl appearances. The Rodgers-McCarthy-Thompson trio has one so far, but should be a contender for another.
Greg Jennings, Aaron RodgersJason O. Watson/USA TODAY Sports
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This is one of three nominations for the most memorable play in Green Bay Packers history. The others are: Bart Starr's quarterback sneak for a touchdown to win the Ice Bowl and Brett Favre's 54-yard touchdown pass to Andre Rison on their second offensive play of Super Bowl XXXI. Please vote for your choice as the Packers' most memorable play.

Score: Packers 31, Steelers 25
Date: Feb. 6, 2011 Site: Cowboys Stadium

Just like in Super Bowl XXXI, there were several defining plays the Packers' Super Bowl XLV victory. There was Nick Collins' 37-yard interception return for a touchdown in the first quarter, and Clay Matthews' forced fumble of running back Rashard Mendenhall in the fourth quarter.

But Super Bowls often are about quarterbacks, and there's a reason Aaron Rodgers was the MVP of this game.

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One of those reasons was his throw to receiver Greg Jennings on a third-and-10 play in the fourth quarter. Leading 28-25 with 7:29 left, the Packers took over and needed to bleed the clock and keep the ball out of the Steelers' hands. They faced a third-and-10 play on their own 25-yard line.

"I remember that as I was lined up in the shotgun, I knew how important this play was," Rodgers said in a recent interview. "And I also knew that if I kept the play on, I had really only one place to go with the football that would get us the first down."

And that was to Jennings.

With the Steelers rushing only three and dropping eight into coverage, Rodgers knew he had to be precise with his throw.

"They were playing two-man with inside leverage and we had in-breaking routes, so I really knew Greg had to win against Ike Taylor and I'd have to make a really good throw," Rodgers said. "But I've made that throw a number of times and felt good about it. I was able to take a nice healthy hitch into it and put the ball where I wanted to."

Taylor appeared to get a fingertip on the ball, but Jennings caught it and went 31 yards to help set up a field goal that would force the Steelers to have to score a touchdown on their final possession.

"I didn't know until after the game that the ball had been slightly tipped," Rodgers said. "But that was one of the better throws of my career."

Andre RisonMatthew Emmons/USA TODAY Sports 
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This is one of three nominations for the most memorable play in Green Bay Packers history. The others are: Bart Starr's quarterback sneak for a touchdown to win the Ice Bowl and Aaron Rodgers' third-and-10 completion to Greg Jennings in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLV that helped clinch the game. Please vote for your choice as the Packers' most memorable play.

Score: Packers 35, Patriots 21
Date: Jan. 26, 1997 Site: Louisiana Superdome

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You can argue that the most memorable play from Super Bowl XXXI was Desmond Howard's 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the third quarter -- and many of you on Twitter did. After all, Howard was the game's MVP.

Or you can make a case for Antonio Freeman's 81-yard touchdown -- which at the time was the longest touchdown catch in Super Bowl history -- although none of you did.

But the ever-lasting memory from the Packers' third Super Bowl title was quarterback Brett Favre running like a wild-man, sans helmet, after his 54-yard touchdown pass to Andre Rison on the Packers’ second play from scrimmage.

Favre, sensing a blitz from the Patriots, changed the play at the line of scrimmage. Rison, who joined the Packers midseason, ran a post route and found himself wide open down the seam.

Favre later revealed the play was rooted in something he had seen from the San Francisco 49ers when he was watching Super Bowl highlights during the week leading up to the game. He saw Joe Montana hit Jerry Rice in Super Bowl XXIV on a play the 49ers called "59 Razor." The Packers adopted it and called it "29 Razor." It was an audible to be used against a blitz that called for maximum blocking protection and only two receivers out in patters.

"Lo and behold, second play of the game, I checked to 29 Razor and hit Andre Rison for a touchdown," Favre said years after the game. "So when you see me running with my helmet off, I'm thinking, 'Can you believe I checked to this play?' It was amazing. And it worked, which was even more amazing."
 
Bart StarrJohn Biever/Icon SMI
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This is one of three nominations for the most memorable play in the Green Bay Packers' history. In the next two days we'll feature: Brett Favre's 54-yard touchdown pass to Andre Rison on their second offensive play of Super Bowl XXXI and Aaron Rodgers' third-and-10 completion to Greg Jennings in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLV that helped clinch the game. Please vote for your choice as the Packers' most memorable play.

Score: Packers 21, Cowboys 17
Date: Dec. 31, 1967 Site: Lambeau Field

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In what is called "The Ice Bowl" because the temperature at kickoff was 13 degrees below zero (with a wind chill of minus-46), Packers quarterback Bart Starr executed a quarterback sneak behind offensive linemen Ken Bowman and Jerry Kramer with 13 seconds remaining for the game-winning score in the NFL Championship game against the Dallas Cowboys.

The play, called "31 Wedge," actually was supposed to be a handoff to fullback Chuck Mercein, who played a major role in the 12-play, 68-yard game-winning drive that began with 4:50 left in the game. Not even Mercein knew Starr would keep the ball at the 1-yard line and follow his offensive line in to the end zone. But when Starr went to the sideline to talk about the play with coach Vince Lombardi, he told his coach that he feared the frozen field would make it nearly impossible for Mercein to get any traction.

So Lombardi told Starr, "Then run it and let's get the hell out of here," Starr has recalled time and again.

Starr stepped to the line of scrimmage on third-and-inches with 16 seconds left and no timeouts remaining. Three seconds later, he was in the end zone.

Interestingly, a case could be made that the play should not have been necessary because on the previous play, Donny Anderson appeared to break the plane of the goal line, but Lee Roy Jordan knocked the ball out of his hands, and Anderson recovered it short of the end zone.  
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Who do you trust to evaluate NFL players -- those paid to do so for a living or those who are paid to play the game?

ESPN NFL Insider Mike Sando polled 26 front-office executives and coaches Insider and found that Aaron Rodgers -- along with Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Peyton Manning -- belonged in the top-tier of quarterbacks. Even more telling was that the four tied for the top spot in the voting.

Rodgers
Rodgers
Yet when the NFL Network solicited the advice of current NFL players for its latest top 100 list, the Green Bay Packers quarterback came in as merely the 11th-best player in the league regardless of position.

How can that be?

The answer is simple. Like in many things NFL-related, players don't know what they're talking about. Every one of them is in the NFL for a reason -- whether it's blocking, tackling, catching the ball, running with it, throwing it or kicking it.

But that does not mean they are qualified to judge others who do so.

Maybe the players polled looked at last season, when Rodgers missed seven-plus games because of a broken collarbone, and forgot how good he is. But they should have been reminded of that when he returned for the regular-season finale and led the Packers to a Week 17 win against the Bears that gave the Packers their third straight NFC North title and their fifth straight playoff appearance -- all under Rodgers.

Listen to the players if you want, but Sando's 26 league insiders -- eight general managers, two former GMs, four pro personnel evaluators, seven coordinators, two head coaches, two position coaches and a top-level executive -- are far more qualified to judge talent.

In Sando's project, designed to rank all 32 starting quarterbacks and determine who among them are elite, here is what he wrote about Rodgers:
If Rodgers gives up anything to Brady and Manning before the snap -- which is debatable -- his athletic ability seems to make up for it.

"You can't fool him," a defensive coordinator said. "We watched some cutups on him and he was ridiculous. He sees everything. They'd have a blitz on and he'd throw it and he knows what the blitz is. I don't know how he knows it. He throws into this tight window that nobody would throw into. Brees is the same way."

A veteran cornerback I talked to this offseason put it this way: "He is very cerebral. I don't think he is quite like a Peyton Manning, but he can read defenses and all that stuff, and when stuff breaks down, he is mobile enough to get out of the pocket and run. That is what made him so good, especially a couple years ago. He is still playing well. He just got hurt last year."
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Between now and when the Green Bay Packers report to training camp on July 25, we will spend considerable time looking at the roster from a variety of angles.

In the days leading up to camp, we will break things down by position group. And before that, we will look at several players who need to give the Packers more than they did last year.

But before we do any of that, let's reset the depth chart as it likely stands heading into training camp. This is an unofficial assessment, but it is based on observations during organized team activities and minicamp practices combined with interviews with assistant coaches and scouts.

First up is the offense:

Quarterbacks: Aaron Rodgers, Matt Flynn, Scott Tolzien, Chase Rettig.

Notes: Expect a legitimate battle for the No. 2 job between Flynn and Tolzien in the preseason. Coach Mike McCarthy noted several times how much Tolzien improved thanks to a full offseason with the Packers. The biggest question here is whether the Packers will keep three quarterbacks rather than only two. Rettig looks like a camp arm, at best.

Running backs: Eddie Lacy, James Starks, DuJuan Harris, Michael Hill, Rajion Neal, LaDarius Perkins.

Notes: The loss of Johnathan Franklin to a career-ending neck injury struck a blow to what appeared to be a deep position. But it also sorted out things somewhat, although Harris still needs to show that he can be productive like he was late in the 2012 season. The knee injury that cost him all of last season does not appear to be an issue. Neal and Perkins, a pair of undrafted rookies, both are slashing backs similar to Harris with Perkins (5-foot-7, 195 pounds) also being similar in stature.

Fullbacks: John Kuhn, Ina Liaina.

Notes: There's no reason to think the veteran Kuhn won't be around for another season.

Receivers: Outside -- Jordy Nelson, Jarrett Boykin, Davante Adams, Jeff Janis, Kevin Dorsey, Chris Harper. Slot -- Randall Cobb, Jared Abbrederis, Myles White, Alex Gillett.

Notes: Adams, the rookie from Fresno State, may eventually supplant Boykin, but he will have to catch the ball more cleanly than he did in the offseason. He battled drop issues at times during the OTAs and minicamp. Fellow rookie Janis showed up regularly during team periods. Harper was off to a strong start until a hamstring injury knocked him out. In the slot, Abbrederis looks like a natural fit. White bulked up after contributing some as a rookie last season and should not be ignored.

Tight ends: Richard Rodgers, Andrew Quarless, Brandon Bostick, Ryan Taylor, Jake Stoneburner, Colt Lyerla, Justin Perillo.

Notes: Even if Quarless is healthy for the start of camp, Rodgers might still have the edge for the starting job after a strong offseason. He's more dynamic as a receiver than Quarless, who missed the entire offseason because of an undisclosed injury. Bostick came back late in the offseason from foot surgery. While there are high expectations for Lyerla, the undrafted rookie did not flash often enough during offseason practices.

Tackles: Right side -- Bryan Bulaga, Don Barclay, Aaron Adams, John Fullington. Left side -- David Bakhtiari, Derek Sherrod, Jeremy Vujnovich.

Notes: Bulaga practiced with a large brace on his surgically repaired left knee and has something to prove after missing all of last season, but the fact that he's back at right tackle shows how much the Packers believe in Bakhtiari on the left side. Sherrod made it through the full offseason program for the first time, which is something of an accomplishment considering his injury history. But he's running out of time to show he can play like the first-round pick that he was in 2011. Barclay, who started 18 regular-season games the last two seasons, has split his time between right tackle and guard and looks like the No. 6 offensive lineman.

Guard: Right side -- T.J. Lang, Barclay, Lane Taylor. Left side -- Josh Sitton, Barclay, Andrew Tiller, Jordan McCray.

Notes: Barclay likely would be the top back up at both guard spots, although Taylor worked at right guard with the No. 2 offensive line while Barclay played right tackle or left guard.

Center: JC Tretter, Garth Gerhart, Corey Linsley.

Notes: Tretter took all the snaps with the number one offensive line this offseason. It is his job to lose, but his lack of experience makes him something short of a sure thing. Gerhart worked ahead of Linsley, a fifth-round pick, but if anyone is going to challenge Tretter it might be Linsley.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Over the last two weeks, you've heard quite a bit from Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who sat down recently with ESPN.com for a wide-ranging interview.

It's a good time to compile the best of Rodgers' comments in one place.

So here's the 30-year-old quarterback as he approaches his 10th NFL season:

Rodgers
Rodgers
On becoming more comfortable in the spotlight, such as when he was photographed recently with new girlfriend Olivia Munn: "I'm just going to live my life and enjoy my relationship and realize that comes with it. I still enjoy what little privacy I have left, and I'm going to hold on to that. But I'm not going to let that stuff bother me in ways that it used to."

On what he would do if he were in tight end Jermichael Finley's situation: "I would want to play until they told me I couldn't play anymore. He's younger than I am, and we're competitors. We have to be in our arena doing what we love to do, so it would be near impossible to keep me off the field. I'm sure he feels the same."

On his perfect attendance record in the offseason program: "This is such an important time, I think. This is when you can really get to know your teammates because it's a more relaxed atmosphere. There's no pressure on what we're doing. You have a lot more time and a lot more energy so that when you're done here today, you can go spend time with your teammates, you can go hang out. So this time of the year can start to build that chemistry with your teammates, and I've always found that's really important to success for a team."

On fellow Packers' legendary quarterbacks Bart Starr and Brett Favre: "I've always thought it would be fun to do something, the three of us, some sort of sit down where we could all talk about our experiences. I'm sure that's three interesting perspectives on this place and the appreciation for it. But Bart's been a great mentor and a great guy. It was a blast to win his award, and I think Brett's ready to be welcomed back the way he deserves to be welcomed back, and that will be exciting."

On what he likes about this year's team: "I think we’re a bigger, more physically intimidating team. We haven’t had the kind of physical talent as far as size here in a while. I think there's been times – I think back to playing Jacksonville in '08 in Jacksonville [a 20-16 Packers' loss], some of the battles we've had with our division teams at times – where you walk on the field and feel like you're kind of a JV team. We've still won a lot of games looking like that, but it's fun when you walk around the locker room and you've got guys like [Julius] Peppers, [Adrian] Hubbard, Datone Jones and then with Derek [Sherrod] back with his size, adding size at receiver, tight end with Richard Rodgers. We just haven't had guys in some of these positions with those body types, and that's exciting."

On whether the Packers' offense can be as explosive as it was in the record-setting 2011 season: "I think there's a chance."

On new quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt: "Alex and I are real good buddies, and it's been fun working with him. He sees the game through the eyes of somebody who played the position, so it's a different perspective. But I think he's been harping on a lot of things and wants to hold me accountable like Ben [McAdoo] and Tom [Clements] did, but he's attacking it a different way and I've been responding really well."
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Aaron Rodgers has played for one head coach, Mike McCarthy, for all but his first NFL season.

The way things are going for the Green Bay Packers, there's a good chance this quarterback-coach combination will remain intact for years to come.

Rodgers
Rodgers
And that's something Rodgers says he's comfortable with.

Although the two have butted heads at times -- both chalking it up to their competitive natures -- Rodgers had nothing but good things to say about McCarthy and his coaching staff during last week's lengthy interview.

One thing that keeps things fresh for Rodgers is that he's on his third different quarterbacks coach in four seasons. His newest position coach, Alex Van Pelt, was promoted from running backs coach and follows Ben McAdoo (who left after two seasons to become the New York Giants offensive coordinator) and current Packers offensive coordinator Tom Clements.

When asked whether having the same head coach for almost his entire career makes it more important to work with different positions coaches, Rodgers said: "I think it's important to mix it up a little bit. Change is tough, but it can really be good for things that are getting stagnant."

Van Pelt is the only one of Rodgers' three quarterbacks coaches who has played the position in the NFL. Van Pelt spent his entire nine-year career with the Buffalo Bills, where was primarily Jim Kelly's backup and appeared in 31 career games.

Van Pelt has said one of his tasks has been to come up with new ways to challenge Rodgers in order to keep him fresh.

"I think time will tell as far as what's going to be different with my playing style on the field," Rodgers said. "But he's got his own way of doing things, just like Ben did and just like Tom did. I think you can really gain something from every perspective and learn. Alex and I are real good buddies, and it's been fun working with him. He sees the game through the eyes of somebody who played the position, so it's a different perspective. But I think he's been harping on a lot of things and wants to hold me accountable like Ben and Tom did, but he’s attacking it a different way and I've been responding really well."

Coming tomorrow: The best of Aaron Rodgers' comments.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Just about every time Aaron Rodgers stepped on the field in 2011, the Green Bay Packers were a threat to score.

On the way to winning his first -- and to date only -- MVP award, Rodgers set the NFL record for passer rating (122.5) and set franchise records for touchdown passes (45), passing yards (4,643), completion percentage (68.3) and yards per attempt (9.25), among others.

Rodgers
Rodgers
And he did it in 15 games, resting in the season finale against the Detroit Lions to prepare for the playoffs.

As a team, the Packers set club records for points in a season (560), yards (6,482) and passing yards (5,161 gross and 4,924 net).

But you knew all that already.

What you want to know is whether Rodgers and the Packers' offense can ever be that explosive again?

To answer that question, first it is necessary to understand why the 2011 offense was so unstoppable.

"I think our personnel was so good and our confidence was so high, and teams hadn't quite adjusted to what we were doing," Rodgers said in an interview last week. "They were still giving us a lot of one-high [safety] rotation defense because they were worried about [running back] Ryan Grant, and they were worried about us controlling the football the way we liked to.

"And because of that, we had so many one-on-one matchups for [receivers] Jordy [Nelson] and for Greg [Jennings] and for James Jones and [tight end] Jermichael [Finley], and that just allowed us to really be dynamic on defense. At the same time, our defense was giving up some points as well, so we had a lot of opportunities so we put up a lot of yards and a lot of points."

Another productive running back, reigning offensive rookie of the year Eddie Lacy, could force defenses to play the Packers like they did in 2011, when they had to respect both the run and the pass.

"I think there's a chance, but I think that you're still going to see, other than the first game because Seattle is going to play a lot of one-high like they always do, Eddie is going to get a lot of respect this year," Rodgers said. "But I think he's still going to get an opportunity to prove that he can do it again."

Coming tomorrow: Rodgers on relationships with his coaches.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Remember last week when Green Bay Packers defensive tackle Mike Daniels said it was time for the defense to get mean?

Count quarterback Aaron Rodgers among those who think they have the personnel to do so.

Rodgers
Rodgers
In our continuing series based on Rodgers' lengthy interview with ESPN.com last week, I asked what he liked about this year's team that perhaps he has not seen from other recent Packers' squads.

His answer seemed to fit perfectly with what Daniels was talking about.

"I think we're a bigger, more physically intimidating team," Rodgers said. "We haven't had the kind of physical talent as far as size here in a while. I think there's been times -- I think back to playing Jacksonville in '08 in Jacksonville [a 20-16 Packers' loss], some of the battles we've had with our division teams at times -- where you walk on the field and feel like you're kind of a JV team."

"We've still won a lot of games looking like that, but it's fun when you walk around the locker room and you've got guys like [Julius] Peppers, [Adrian] Hubbard, Datone Jones and then with Derek [Sherrod] back with his size, adding size at receiver, tight end with Richard Rodgers. We just haven't had guys in some of these positions with those body types, and that's exciting."

Rodgers said he believes building a team with bigger players was by design.

"It's natural when teams win the Super Bowl, everybody takes a hard look at what makes their team a championship-caliber team," Rodgers said. "With Seattle, you've got large players in positions you haven't quite seen that size player in a while.

"Both of their corners, [Brandon] Browner and [Richard] Sherman -- I know Browner didn't play a whole lot because of his suspension and injury -- are bigger corners. You're seeing bigger wide receivers. You're seeing larger guys up front in size and length. That's kind of the trend to combat some of the athleticism on the defensive size. On the flip side, it's to have big tight ends and big wide receivers and big offensive linemen to combat them, whereas a few years ago you saw kind of a mix of the zone blocking scheme, smaller quicker offensive linemen. Now you're going back to bigger guys on the offensive line."

Coming tomorrow: Rodgers on the Packers' offense circa 2011.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Consider this Aaron Rodgers week on the Green Bay Packers' page here at ESPN.com.

Rodgers
Rodgers
The 30-year-old, Super Bowl-winning, MVP-winning quarterback spent a half hour last week talking to us about a wide variety of topics.

Each day this week, we will examine a different one.

One of Rodgers' most interesting answers was to a question about his relationship with legendary Packers quarterback Bart Starr. Rodgers recently was given the Bart Starr Award, which was presented at the Super Bowl to an NFL player who displays outstanding character in leadership.

Rodgers' predecessor, Brett Favre, also had a close relationship with Starr.

So the question was this: Given that Rodgers and Starr are close, and Favre and Starr were close, is it important that Rodgers and Favre have the same kind of relationship?

"I think so," Rodgers said. "I think that'd be important."

Rodgers took that a step further.

"I've always thought it would be fun to do something, the three of us, some sort of sit down where we could all talk about our experiences," Rodgers said. "I'm sure that's three interesting perspectives on this place and the appreciation for it. But Bart's been a great mentor and a great guy. It was a blast to win his award, and I think Brett's ready to be welcomed back the way he deserves to be welcomed back, and that will be exciting."

The idea might not be so far-fetched. In fact, it has been discussed internally at Lambeau Field, but so far scheduling issues have prevented it from taking place.

Coming tomorrow: Rodgers on the Packers getting bigger, more intimidating.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- How much the Green Bay Packers value receivers Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson won't be known until -- or if -- the team signs them to long-term contracts before they hit free agency next March.

But thanks to ESPN.com's Mike Sando, we have a better idea of how others in the NFL view the Packers' top-two receivers.

In an ESPN Insider piece, Insider Sando looked at what he called a loaded 2015 free-agent receiver class and, with the help of two NFL general managers plus an offensive and defensive coach, ranked the class in order of the likelihood of cashing in on big contracts whether with their current teams or on the free-agent market.

Both Cobb and Nelson ranked high on the list.

The 29-year-old Nelson came in at No. 4 behind Dez Bryant of the Cowboys, Demaryius Thomas of the Broncos and Michael Crabtree of the 49ers. Cobb, 23, was fifth.

The rest of the list was Torrey Smith of the Ravens, Wes Welker of the Broncos, Cecil Shorts of the Jaguars, Roddy White of the Falcons and Hakeem Nicks of the Colts.

The Packers and Broncos were the only teams with two free-agent-to-be receivers on the list.

Nelson is in the final year of a three-year, $12.6 million extension that turned out to be a bargain for the Packers, while Cobb is in the final year of the rookie contract he signed as a second-round pick in 2011.

Here's what Sando wrote based on evaluations by those he consulted:

On Nelson: Nelson and Crabtree virtually tied for the third spot. Nelson has benefited from consistently outstanding quarterback play. Over the past three years, Nelson trails only Welker and Thomas among players on this list in yards receiving per game. He is second to Smith in yards per reception and second to Bryant in touchdowns.

Nelson has competition from his teammate, Cobb, on this list. Nelson is primarily an outside receiver, while Cobb plays from the slot. Nelson polled higher than Cobb on three of four ballots. The defensive coordinator had Nelson sixth, one spot below Cobb. "I would put Jordy after Crabtree, but before Cobb," one of the GMs said.

The other GM joined the offensive assistant in placing Nelson among his top three. "You have to value that outside guy," the second GM said. "But that inside slot receiver can do a lot of damage."

A third GM I spoke with put it this way: "Nelson fits a big role for them. I would have a hard time saying he would be a hugely paid guy, though. He'll generate interest, but not at the $10-$11 million level. I do think he will come in over Eric Decker, though."

On Cobb: At 23, Cobb is easily the youngest player on this list. He missed 10 games last season and one in each of his previous two. That leaves him tied with Crabtree for the most games missed over the past three seasons when isolating the 10 players on this list. Cobb caught four passes for 106 yards and two touchdowns after returning for the Packers' final two games, counting a wild-card playoff defeat to the 49ers.

"Cobb and Crabtree are interchangeable on my list," the offensive assistant said. "Cobb is the model person and will always show up on time. Crabtree comes off whinier, and the guy from Seattle (Richard Sherman) got in his head. Cobb is coming from the right program with Mike McCarthy, one with structure and discipline and doing the right things. Crabtree does play outside more, but I'd rather coach Cobb."
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Here's a look at what stood out from the Green Bay Packers' minicamp practice on Thursday:

1. Veterans gone: For the final practice of the team's mandatory minicamp, coach Mike McCarthy excused all veterans with five or more years of experience. Without the 16 players that fit into that category, it gave the rookies and younger players more reps than they had received at any point previously in the offseason. But it meant this week's mandatory minicamp was essentially one day of football for the full squad because the Packers spent Wednesday at their annual team-building event, which this year was bowling.

"A lot of younger players got a lot of reps today that did not have the opportunity in the other practices," McCarthy said Thursday.

2. Tolzien shines: With Aaron Rodgers and Matt Flynn among those excused from practice, it gave young quarterbacks Scott Tolzien and Chase Rettig the chance to run the offense. For Tolzien, it was his first time getting starter reps since the weeks leading up to his two starts last season against the Giants and Vikings. Tolzien looked especially sharp in the red zone. On consecutive plays, he threw short touchdowns to his former University Wisconsin teammate Jared Abbrederis and tight end Brandon Bostick. The throw to Bostick was a perfectly thrown fade in the left corner of the end zone.

"I think any time that guys are relying on you and you're the first guy in the huddle, that's a big chance for you," Tolzien said. "But at the same time it shouldn't really change how you are. You should prepare like a starter every day."

3. Rettig's reps: Any reps for Rettig would have been more than normal given that the fourth quarterback on the depth chart rarely gets any work during team periods, so Thursday was big for the undrafted rookie from Boston College. There's no guarantee the Packers will take four quarterbacks to camp, but Rettig helped his cause with a few nice throws. He hit tight end Ryan Taylor in stride on a seam route and also connected with receiver Kevin Dorsey and tight end Richard Rodgers.

4. Changing duties: At one point during position drills, defensive line coach Mike Trgovac worked with the offensive linemen. A few yards away, offensive line coach James Campen ran the defensive line drill. That was something new this offseason, but it makes senses that a defensive line coach could give pointers to offensive linemen and vice versa.

5. Bradford's bat down: Rookie outside linebacker Carl Bradford made perhaps the most impressive defensive play of the practice when he batted down a pass attempt by Rettig on a two-point conversion try. The fourth-round pick from Arizona State showed his athletic ability by leaping and swatting the ball away with two hands.

6. Changing of the guard: With starting guards T.J. Lang and Josh Sitton among the veterans excused from practice, Don Barclay and Lane Taylor worked with the No. 1 offensive line. Barclay played left guard, while Taylor lined up on the right side. It showed how committed the Packers are to leaving Derek Sherrod at left tackle. As a rookie in 2011, Sherrod battled Lang for a starting job at guard. Instead, he remained as the backup left tackle.

7. Roll call, part 1: The 16 veterans excused on Thursday were: kicker Mason Crosby, cornerback Jarrett Bush, fullback John Kuhn, cornerback Tramon Williams, linebacker A.J. Hawk, linebacker Clay Matthews, linebacker/defensive end Julius Peppers, linebacker Brad Jones, long snapper Brett Goode, receiver Jordy Nelson, defensive tackle B.J. Raji, defensive tackle Letroy Guion, Flynn, Rodgers, Lang and Sitton.

8. Roll call, part 2: The following players attended practice but did not participate: receiver Chris Harper, cornerback Jumal Rolle, linebacker Nick Perry, tight end Andrew Quarless and defensive end Jerel Worthy. Running back Johnathan Franklin, who will be waived/injured on Friday because of a career-ending neck injury, was not present.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The last day of minicamp typically has a last-day-of-school feeling, with players eager to begin their summer break, but spirits were dampened in the Green Bay Packers' locker room on Thursday after receiving word that running back Johnathan Franklin's neck injury will end his career with the team and most likely in the NFL.

At one end of the locker room was fellow running back DuJuan Harris, whose only concern for Franklin was his future health.

"It's not about football; it's way beyond football," Harris said. "Damn football. This is his life. I'm not thinking about football."

[+] EnlargeJohnathan Franklin
AP Photo/Morry GashRunning back Johnathan Franklin had 19 carries for 107 yards and one touchdown last season.
At the other end of the locker room was defensive end Datone Jones. No one with the Packers goes back further with Franklin than Jones. They grew up near each other in Los Angeles and committed to UCLA on the same day.

"To see him work so hard to actually make his dream come true and make it to the NFL, man, it's tough to see it end this way, because I knew how hard he worked," Jones said. "He's a special guy. He was a special guy at UCLA, and not only on the field but off the field. He was very involved off the field. One thing I do know: he has a calling outside of football to lift people and bring people's spirits up. Hopefully he can pursue his dream to become the mayor of L.A."

In the middle of the room was running back Eddie Lacy, Franklin's roommate in training camp last season. The Packers picked Lacy and Franklin in the same draft last year, two rounds apart. The two expected to be tied together for years to come.

"He shot everybody in the running back group a text, and it just makes you cherish the moments that you get to play," Lacy said. "We came in together. We got to know each other real good and we spent a lot of time together. He was just starting [his career], and just like that, as fast as you get it, it can be taken away. But from talking to him and still being around him, he has a great personality. He's going to be down a little bit, but that's just any player. He's definitely going to remain positive and keep his faith, so I know no matter what he does after this, he's going to give his all and his personality is great."

Franklin was one of three Packers' players to suffer a serious neck injury last season. The other two players -- tight end Jermichael Finley and defensive tackle Johnny Jolly -- are currently out of football.

Since 2000, the Packers have had at least nine players suffer significant neck injuries. Of that group -- safety Gary Berry, receiver Terrence Murphy, offensive lineman Tony Palmer, defensive end/outside linebacker Jeremy Thompson, safety Nick Collins, safety Sean Richardson, Finley, Jolly and Franklin -- only Richardson has returned to play.

Like Franklin, Murphy, a second-round pick in 2005, suffered a neck injury as a rookie.

Franklin missed the entire offseason program and did not attend the final minicamp practice.

Word that the Packers were concerned that Franklin would not be able to return first came on Wednesday, when two sources told ESPN.com that Franklin's football future was in jeopardy.

NFL Nation: 4 Downs -- NFC North

June, 19, 2014
Jun 19
10:00
AM ET
video
The NFC North features a mix of veteran quarterbacks and a rookie in Minnesota who might be in line for significant playing time this season.

Will Teddy Bridgewater put up the most impressive numbers among rookie quarterbacks?

Will Matthew Stafford be directing the most explosive offense in the division now that the Detroit Lions have added weapons?

Will rising star Alshon Jeffery emerge as the Bears' No. 1 target, supplanting Brandon Marshall?

And could the Packers withstand another injury to Aaron Rodgers, as they did last season while winning the division?

These are the questions our NFC North reporters tackle in the latest version of 4 Downs.

First Down

Of the three QBs taken in the first round of this year's draft, Teddy Bridgewater will put up the most impressive numbers.



Michael Rothstein: Fact, although not because Bridgewater will be the best quarterback of the first-rounders. Simply, he is going to end up playing more than either Johnny Manziel or Blake Bortles this season, so he will have more opportunity. Plus, Minnesota is going to be down in a lot of games this season, so the Vikings are going to have to throw more in the second halves of games. He'll end up having nice numbers, but the number that matters -- the record -- will be ugly.

Michael C. Wright: Fiction. That is only happening if the other two quarterbacks end up as backups. First off, Bridgewater doesn't have to put up big numbers because he has a beast in the backfield in Adrian Peterson. So all he needs to do is hand off to Peterson and make sure not to turn it over on passing downs; be a game-manager. Perhaps Bridgewater is more of a gamer than workout performer, which is what all the scouts I have talked to would say. But I'm just not sold on Bridgewater based on what I saw from his pro day workout. That means he will probably wind up being Rookie of the Year.

Rob Demovsky: Fiction, unless Matt Cassel goes down with an injury. There is more pressure on the Browns to play Johnny Manziel right away than there is on the Vikings to play Bridgewater. The same could be said of the Jaguars and Blake Bortles. All three of the first-round quarterbacks have journeyman veterans starting in front of them, so it all depends on which one flames out or gets hurt first. Cassel seems the least likely to do either.

Ben Goessling: I'm going to say fiction, simply because I think he'll have more work to do to get on the field than Johnny Manziel. The Vikings have Matt Cassel and have been giving him many of the first-team snaps during organized team activities and minicamp. So unless Bridgewater is so good that he takes the job away from Cassel in training camp, I think it will be a while before he is on the field in regular-season games. Now, he might be more efficient once he gets in there -- he has certainly looked sharp during the Vikings' offseason program -- but he might not put up many numbers until late in the season, if at all.


Second Down

The Lions will have the most explosive offense in the NFC North this season.



Michael Rothstein: Fact. There are a bunch of good offenses in the NFC North this season, although none improved on paper as much as the Lions. Detroit still has Calvin Johnson, Reggie Bush and Joique Bell as targets for Matthew Stafford. The Lions added Golden Tate, which is an upgrade from Nate Burleson. They also held on to Joseph Fauria and re-signed Brandon Pettigrew, along with drafting Eric Ebron in the first round. While Ebron's hands are in question, his athleticism and ability to get open down the field are not. As long as Stafford and Johnson stay healthy, there is no reason Detroit should not be a top-10 offense again. They should inch ahead of Green Bay and Chicago, both of which had top-10 offenses as well in 2013.

Michael C. Wright: Fiction. It's fact if "implosive" is the word used. Just kidding. But the Lions in the past relied too much on Matthew Stafford forcing the ball to Calvin Johnson, which often led to turnovers and quick three-and-outs. And although the offense features multiple weapons, it's easy to see why the club has operated this way. Megatron is the best in the game. He is going to make plays other receivers can't make. But, to me, it's expected that a team operating a new scheme will experience its fair share of growing pains. I see that happening with the Lions in 2014. I know Stafford has put up big numbers in the past, but I see his inconsistency holding this offense back this season if he doesn't take a big step in his development.

Rob Demovsky: Fiction, unless Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler get hurt again. Do you trust Matthew Stafford more than Rodgers or Cutler for a full 16-game season? At this point, the Bears might have the most explosive offense. They have the best 1-2 receiver punch with Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, and the Packers have the best quarterback. Not only do the Lions not have the most explosive offense in the division, they might not even be No. 2.

Ben Goessling: Fiction. They have the talent to have it, but how often do the Lions turn talent and potential into actual results? Give me the Bears, with Alshon Jeffery, Brandon Marshall and Matt Forte, or the Packers, now that Aaron Rodgers will be healthy and have a full season with running back Eddie Lacy. I like what Golden Tate gives the Lions opposite Calvin Johnson, and Eric Ebron fits nicely into their scheme, but I think they have the third-best quarterback in the division.


Third Down

Alshon Jeffery, not Brandon Marshall, will be Chicago's go-to receiver in 2014.



Michael Rothstein: Fiction. Jeffery might have had more yards last season, but opponents also are going to be more aware of the former South Carolina receiver this season from the get-go. While his numbers were gaudy a season ago, 467 of his 1,421 yards came in two games. Marshall had a little more consistency last season than Jeffery and was a more consistent target. The real reason Jeffery won't be considered Chicago's go-to receiver next season is that the Bears won't have one on a consistent basis. It will likely change based on matchups, because they are the best receiver duo in the division.

Michael C. Wright: Fiction. As long as Jay Cutler is quarterbacking the Chicago Bears, Marshall always will be the go-to receiver. And why not? Marshall is one of the league's best, even when teams focus on stopping him with double teams. Besides that, Marshall, in my opinion, is poised for a big season because he has spent this entire offseason actually training instead of rehabbing an injury. In 2013, it took Marshall, who was coming off hip surgery, about half the season to finally find his groove; yet he still finished with a team-high 100 grabs for 1,295 yards. Last season, Jeffery was probably the beneficiary of extra coverage devoted to a hobbled Marshall. Because of the damage Jeffery did last season, he will start to see more coverage, which should free up Marshall to continue to do his thing. Besides, Marshall was the fifth-most targeted receiver in the NFL last season. Marshall's 163 targets ranked even more than Calvin Johnson, who had 156 passes thrown his way.

Rob Demovsky: Fact, if we're talking about making big plays. Marshall still might end up having more receptions like he did last season; he's Cutler's security blanket. But even last season, Jeffery began to emerge as the bigger playmaker of the two. His 16.0-yard average per catch was 11th best in the league among all receivers last season. He is a freak athlete with great size, making him a matchup nightmare.

Ben Goessling: Fact. Jeffery is six years younger than Marshall and probably is a better deep threat at this point in his career. I thought he was phenomenal last season, and, to me, he might be the second-best receiver in the division right now behind Calvin Johnson. If he is not there yet, he can ascend to that spot by the end of the season. Marshall is still a great receiver, but Jeffery seems ready to become the main man in Chicago's offense.


Fourth Down

The Packers can win the division again even if Aaron Rodgers misses nearly half the season, like he did last season.



Michael Rothstein: Fiction. Not a chance. Chicago has improved defensively and should have a more potent offense in 2014, as well as a healthy Jay Cutler for the entire season. Detroit should have a more dynamic offense than in 2013, and the leadership within the Lions should keep the team from collapsing like they did in 2013. Minnesota is likely not a factor this season, but either Chicago or Detroit would take advantage of a Rodgers-less Green Bay team better than they did a year ago.

Michael C. Wright: Fiction. In the past, this would definitely be "fact" and it might still be now that the Packers have put together a nice ground game to complement their passing attack. But I just think the rest of the division is starting to catch up to the Packers in terms of overall talent. Every team in the division improved its talent. Detroit's offense should be above average at the very least, and its defense definitely will be better. The Bears will be potent on offense in Year 2 of Marc Trestman's system, and their defense should be improved, especially up front with that revamped line. Let's not forget that Rodgers' return (combined with a mental bust by Bears safety Chris Conte on the quarterback's game-winning bomb) is what won Green Bay the division title. The Packers appear to have put together a better backup plan than they had last season, but we all know how important Rodgers is to his team's success.

Rob Demovsky: Fiction. The Bears and Lions folded last season, which allowed the Packers to stay afloat until Rodgers returned for the regular-season finale in Chicago. Both teams have taken measures to ensure that won't happen again. The Bears beefed up their defense, and the Lions made a coaching change. That said, the Packers might be in better position to handle a Rodgers absence because they should have Matt Flynn as the backup from the get-go.

Ben Goessling: Fiction. The only reason the Packers won the division last season was because the other three teams were flawed enough not to take it from them. The Lions collapsed late in the season, the Bears lost four of their last six (including the season finale against Green Bay) and the Vikings blew five last-minute leads (including one against the Packers) to take themselves out of the race. Green Bay might be better prepared for a Rodgers injury now that they have gone through it with Matt Flynn and Scott Tolzien, but the Packers' offense is predicated on Rodgers making throws few others can make. You can't expect a team to survive the loss of an elite player like that again.

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