Rodgers has questions
Aaron Rodgers will be depending on a questionable offensive line
The Packers missed the playoffs at 6-10 last season, but considering seven of their losses were by four points or fewer, they probably weren't as bad as their record indicates. Still, entering their second season A.F. (anno Favre), the Green Bay brass evidently saw enough signs they didn't like that they decided to really shake things up. That decision will make the Pack's one of the league's most interesting training camps.
Not that the starting lineup will change a ton, especially among the skill players. But Green Bay has big-time questions on the offensive line, where left tackle Chad Clifton is coming off knee surgery and right tackle Mark Tauscher wasn't re-signed. Whoever will be playing right tackle in '09 will probably never have made an NFL start. Meanwhile, the defense is changing from its long-standing 4-3 scheme to new defensive coordinator Dom Capers' preferred 3-4. This means a ton of moving parts, including integrating the Packers' top draft pick, DL B.J. Raji. While it was initially assumed Raji would be exactly the two-gap player Capers would need to anchor the middle of his defense, that's no longer certain. And a guy like Aaron Kampman, who might be the team's best defensive player, will have to play outside linebacker, probably on the strong side, which could put a serious crimp in his sack-related plans.
When a club has this many moving parts on its offensive and defensive lines heading into training camp, it takes a perfect camp to make it all come out right. In fact, it may be more likely that the Pack take a step back in '09.
What to look for in camp
Key position battles: The most interesting skill-position battle in Packers camp may come at tight end. Donald Lee is the incumbent everyone knows, and he's a good blocker and a decent red zone threat. But Green Bay's staff loves Jermichael Finley, a second-year man out of the University of Texas. The kid is 6-foot-5, 247 pounds, but he runs a 4.82 40, making him a legitimate downfield threat. He's probably not going to be a draftable fantasy player this season, because even if he winds up playing better than Lee in training camp, the best he could expect would be some kind of split duties. But with a good camp, Finley could wind up being a significant drain on Lee's fantasy value.
Offensive line questions and a defensive system change mean class will be in session for this camp.
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Otherwise, other than on the offensive line, which I'll cover below, there aren't a ton of questions about who'll be starting for Green Bay. Whether or not they can handle their new roles (especially on defense) is another question entirely. Rookie Clay Matthews was basically a one-year wonder at USC but went 26th overall in April's draft, yet he's pretty much already been penciled in as the team's weakside outside linebacker, typically a tasty place from which sacks might come. Brady Poppinga would have to do a whole lot in camp to supplant the rookie. Newly acquired free safety Anthony Smith, late of the Super Bowl champ Steelers, started in minicamp during Nick Collins' holdout, but now that Collins appears likely to play under the last season of his rookie contract, that probably isn't much of a battle. Aaron Rouse has covered for injured Atari Bigby at strong safety, but again, if Bigby's healthy, this isn't a real competition. And while I'm of a mind that Tramon Williams should be starting at corner over Al Harris to start the year, that doesn't seem likely, given Harris' status in the league.
Fitting in: The most important player on Green Bay's roster this season is Aaron Kampman. He was a terrific pass-rush threat as a 4-3 defensive end, but now it seems he'll be asked to play the strong side as a 3-4 linebacker. He reportedly wasn't happy about the change, but if he can make it work, this move does cover up for weaknesses in A.J. Hawk's game (he's not good in coverage) and Nick Collins' surgically repaired knee (he won't have to cover as much ground inside).
The other real question comes on the defensive line. All draft experts had Raji inked into the middle of this new 3-4 scheme for the next 10 years, but word out of Packers minicamp was that Capers wants to use Raji as a mammoth run-stopping end, opposite Cullen Jenkins. That actually sounds pretty interesting, assuming Raji can withstand a more mobile position conditioning-wise. But it leaves the same huge void in the middle that skeptics worried about when the Pack decided to make this scheme change. Ryan Pickett just doesn't seem like a two-gap, 3-4 nose tackle to me. And Justin Harrell can't stay healthy. I have a sense that Raji is going to have to spend some time inside, but we'll know more during camp.
On the line: Here's the reason Aaron Rodgers might take a fantasy step back this year. His blind side is being manned by the venerable Chad Clifton, who's coming off another knee injury and who allowed 7.5 sacks in 2008. And the right tackle spot will go to one of these inexperienced guys: Allen Barbre, Breno Giacomini or rookie T.J. Lang. Lang was reportedly a star in minicamp, but Rodgers has told reporters that right now, he thinks Barbre deserves the job. It's not inconceivable that someone takes this gig and runs with it, but it's definitely a question entering camp. On the offensive line's interior, Jason Spitz is an above-average guard, but center Scott Wells wasn't good last year. Wells could cede his starting position to free-agent signee Duke Preston, a bigger and more athletic player, or Spitz could move inside, making room for Josh Sitton at guard. The other guard is probably Daryn Colledge, who gave up six sacks himself last season. Suffice it to say that the members of this O-line have a ton to prove at training camp.
The bottom line
The Packers allowed 34 sacks last year, 14th most in the league, and there's little brewing at this training camp to indicate Rodgers will be under less pressure from opposing pass rushes. That could create a worrisome situation for what was one of the league's most explosive passing games last year. On the positive side, it'll be interesting to note whether Ryan Grant looks more consistent his second season in a zone-blocking system. He did seem to get more comfortable toward the tail end of '08. Still, with so many changes -- in system if not always in personnel -- you'll probably have to factor in a bit more risk drafting any of these guys.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner. You can e-mail him here.
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