2016: 10-6, 1st in NFC North. Lost in NFC Championship Game.
Significant Additions: TE Martellus Bennett (FA), CB Kevin King (R2), DL Ricky Jean-Francois (FA), G Jahri Evans (FA).
Significant Losses: TE Jared Cook, G T.J. Lang, OL JC Tretter, LB Julius Peppers, RB James Starks, RB Eddie Lacy, CB Sam Shields.
The last time we saw Aaron Rodgers on the field he was trying, and failing, to will his Green Bay Packers to victory against a young and fast Atlanta defense.
The Falcons extinguished Green Bay’s running game and plowed through the Packers’ injured offensive line to pressure Rodgers on nearly half of his dropbacks in the 44–21 NFC championship win against Green Bay.
The Packers have gone to the playoffs in each season since 2009, Rodgers’s second as a starter, and that likely will continue in 2017. They have the best thrower of the football in the game today—and possibly in NFL history—and paired with one of the best football minds in Mike McCarthy, it‘s implausible to think Green Bay won’t be playing in January.
But the two areas that plagued the Packers in the Georgia Dome and kept them from their second Super Bowl appearance with Rodgers and McCarthy were addressed in less-than-satisfactory ways this off-season.
Eddie Lacy opted for Seattle over Green Bay, and the Packers released James Starks and then re-signed, then cut, Christine Michael. That left in the backfield only Ty Montgomery, who was a fun story in 2016 as the No. 88 wideout filling in as the starting running back.
McCarthy affirmed Montgomery will be the starter heading into training camp, but the third-year player will have to produce more if Rodgers is to get a reliable running game. Montgomery topped 50 rushing yards in just three games last season and had 100 total yards in the same amount of games. (Montgomery was the leading Packers rusher in the NFC title game not named Rodgers with three carries for 17 yards.) Surely an off-season focused on the position will help Montgomery, but will it be enough?
Green Bay spent the final day of the draft taking every running back in sight. The Packers used a fourth-rounder on BYU’s Jamaal Williams, a compensatory pick on UTEP’s Aaron Jones and their last pick on Utah State’s Devante Mays. Those additions add good numbers on a depth chart, but the reality remains the NFC North kings have a converted wide receiver and slew of third-day rookies toting the rock to open up Rodgers’ passing game.
But more important than who is running for Rodgers is who is blocking for him. In consecutive seasons the Packers have done away with one of Rodgers’ offensive linemen, and there’s dubious depth at a position group so vital to what the two-time MVP does.
First came the Packers releasing guard Josh Sitton at the start of the 2016 season just to see him end up on rival Chicago’s roster. Then Green Bay didn’t bring back guard T.J. Lang this off-season, instead seeing him sign with another divisional rival—Detroit. Green Bay also didn’t re-sign (the sometimes-injured) center JC Tretter, and he went to Cleveland for big money. This comes months after Green Bay’s offensive line was in such dire straits against Atlanta that defensive tackle Letroy Guion had to play five snaps along the line in the fourth quarter.
A quality offensive line for the Packers is important for two reasons: Rodgers holds the ball longer than almost every quarterback in the league, and replacing him with backup Brett Hundley (in the event Rodgers takes a hit due to poor blocking) will no doubt keep Green Bay out of the playoffs.
“It took a while,” Lang told SI.com in January about learning to block for Rodgers on long-developing plays. “We understand there’s times we need to extend the play. Our guys aren’t open and Aaron needs us. We’re used to it, we will block however long it takes, you just need to stay in front of your guy.”
David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga make up one of the best tackle duos in the league, and Lane Taylor played decently in place of Sitton at left guard last year. Don Barclay, who struggled, and Jahri Evans, who will be 34, should compete for the other guard spot, and the Packers used just one draft pick on an offensive lineman when they took guard Kofi Amichia in the sixth round.
Rodgers will still be great with Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb to throw to, and getting Martellus Bennett will make it even tougher to outscore the Pack in 2017. But the cohesiveness of the line and competence of the backfield will determine whether Green Bay can once again, finally, get back to the Super Bowl.