Breaking Down Green Bay Packers' Likely Opening-Game Starting Lineup
After two weeks of preseason action, the Green Bay Packers' opening-day roster is coming into clearer focus, with incumbent starters set at some positions, while rookies and veterans alike compete for the No. 1 job at others.
The following breakdown of Green Bay's Week 1 defensive and offensive starters is based on 11 personnel on offense (three receivers, one running back and one tight end) and the base 3-4 defense (three defensive linemen, four linebackers, two cornerbacks and two safeties).
Of course, Green Bay often does not use either of those groupings, using four-receiver sets on offense and running nickel or dime sub-packages. And competition at the non-starting positions, such as the fourth receiver or the slot corner, is proving to be more interesting than many of the starters. So wherever possible we've also noted projected starters at those spots.
Week 1 Starter: Aaron Rodgers
After sitting out the Week 1 preseason action against the Tennessee Titans, Aaron Rodgers was in midseason form Saturday against St. Louis. Rodgers went 11-of-13 for 128 yards and a touchdown, using his legs to extend plays and connect with Randall Cobb in the back of the end zone.
Playing eight complete games in 2013, Rodgers had 2,536 yards and 17 touchdowns. Using those averages to extrapolate an entire healthy season, he was on track for 5,018 yards, which would be a new career high, and 34 touchdowns.
With his health holding up and a young, deep group of weapons as he enters his prime, Rodgers could be headed for a career season in 2014.
WR 1: Jordy Nelson
WR 2: Randall Cobb
WR 3: Jarrett Boykin
Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb haven't missed a beat this preseason. Rodgers found them both in the end zone for touchdowns against St. Louis Saturday, but Nelson's score was nullified by a penalty on left tackle David Bakhtiari. No matter, the offense appears to be completely in sync heading into the regular season, one in which Cobb could very well reach his first 1,000-yard year.
The real intrigue at the position is the question of which player will step into the No. 3 role vacated by James Jones in free agency and, for that matter, the often-used No. 4 receiver. 2013 breakout Jarrett Boykin and rookie Davante Adams appear to be locks for both those positions, with the question being which gets the nod for the third starting spot.
Boykin was the No. 3 to open Saturday's game against St. Louis, starting on the outside. He was targeted four times and brought in three receptions for 21 yards, including on two consecutive plays out of the no-huddle in which the receiver proved he can run with the tempo of this offense.
After a shaky start against the Baltimore Ravens in 2013, Boykin's development entered the fast track through the rest of the season, ending the year with 681 yards in 11 games and three touchdowns.
Adams has flashed in camp and should be worked into the passing game often in 2014, but when the Packers use their 11 personnel, expect Boykin's experience and surprise 2013 emergence to be rewarded with the No. 3 job.
Starter: Eddie Lacy
2014 will be the first season really since Rodgers became Green Bay's starting quarterback in 2008 that the team has had a a balanced offensive attack of this caliber in both the pass and run game. Ryan Grant rushed for more than 1,000 yards in 2009, but Rodgers was still ascending to his current level. Eddie Lacy emerged in 2013, but Rodgers missed eight games.
Finally, in 2014, so long as Lacy and Rodgers play 16 games, opponents will have to give equal respect to the running and passing games as they game-plan for the Packers. Underestimate either and you'll get burned.
Coming off his Rookie-of-the-Year 2013 season in which he rushed for 1,178 yards and 11 touchdowns despite facing stacked boxes through the half-season Rodgers sat on the bench nursing a broken collarbone, Lacy is the obvious starter heading into Week 1.
But the bruising back's 284 attempts constituted a heavy workload last season, and he'll need some help this season. Enter second-stringer James Starks and the one-two punch.
Rodgers told Wes Hodkiewicz of the Green Bay Press-Gazette Saturday:
You need at least two backs and we think we have more than that. Having Eddie and James in there with the way they're running is really going to help us out. It's going to take some pressure off the passing game and give us some one-on-ones outside for Jordy (Nelson) and Jarrett (Boykin). We have to keep those guys healthy and running well.
Lacy agreed. "It's not about one player," Lacy told Hodkiewicz. "We all in the backfield; we all bring something different to the table."
With Lacy and Starks both having proven themselves capable of being three-down backs, the Packers can alternate them on drives rather than on plays, maximizing the run game and the offense overall.
Starter: Andrew Quarless
Rookie tight end Richard Rodgers got the start against the Tennessee Titans and again versus the St. Louis Rams Saturday. He's had a strong training camp, demonstrating his physicality and quieting concerns about his 4.87 40-yard dash time, as Tyler Dunne of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel observed.
But on the unofficial depth chart, the veteran Quarless is still listed as No. 1. And though Rodgers got the start Saturday, it was Quarless who ended the game with four receptions for 58 yards, including a 35-yard bomb from Aaron Rodgers.
The Packers are likely starting Rodgers because they want to give him a legitimate chance to earn the starting job, but it still appears to be Quarless' to lose. None of the tight ends on Green Bay's roster are the complete package, so to speak, but Quarless has a history of producing in the system.
Rodgers has enormous upside, and Bostick was also making a push for the starting job before he got injured Saturday. But per ESPN.com's Rob Demovsky, the "initial diagnosis is a bruise," so he could still factor into the discussion.
Projecting the Week 1 roster midway through the preseason, neither Rodgers nor Bostick has demonstrated definitively that they deserve to start over the incumbent Quarless, so he gets the nod now.
LT: David Bakhtiari
LG: Josh Sitton
C: J.C. Tretter
RG: T.J. Lang
RT: Bryan Bulaga
The only competition underway on the offensive line is the one at center, where JC Tretter and rookie Corey Linsley are engaged in a battle for the starting job.
But it may be a competition in name only, even if Mike McCarthy hasn't yet named a starter, as Tretter has run with the ones in both preseason contests and performed well each time. Linsley, on the other hand, had two penalties against St. Louis, one that negated a touchdown.
"I think JC's off to a great start," McCarthy said after the matchup against the Titans, per ESPN.com's Rob Demovsky. "I think the Tennessee game was definitely impressive. I want to see him stack success anytime you play well."
He did it again against the Rams, running the no-huddle offense with Aaron Rodgers and the ones without a hitch. His experience in the system and chemistry with Rodgers should give him the final push to lock up the starting spot against Seattle in Week 1.
Elsewhere along the line, after struggling to find the right personnel groupings in recent seasons, McCarthy and offensive line coach James Campen appear to have nailed it with Bakhtiari, Sitton, Lang and Bulaga.
The Packers have likely the NFL's best guard pairing in Sitton and Lang. Both finished in the top 15 among all NFL guards in 2013 in Pro Football Focus rankings (subscription required), with Sitton grading out as the No. 2 guard overall. Sitton allowed only one quarterback sack in 2013.
More so than most other units aside from quarterback, the offensive line will need each of its starters to remain healthy in 2014. The loss of Don Barclay for the season brings the depth of this group into serious question as the second-stringers, including Derek Sherrod, struggled against St. Louis.
LDE: Datone Jones
NT: B.J. Raji
RDE: Mike Daniels
The Packers don't run their base 3-4 personnel a majority of the time, but on running downs, expect to see Raji at nose with Daniels and Jones at either end position. On passing downs, Green Bay may elect to rush Daniels from the interior and add in an extra defensive back in place of Jones.
How Julius Peppers and Mike Neal and the "Elephant" position factor into Dom Capers' scheme will also affect how many snaps Jones and Daniels get in the traditional end roles. As Peppers and Neal shift between a three-point stance and a two-point stance, Jones could find his snaps reduced, but he's still going to receive more than last season with Ryan Pickett and Johnny Jolly's departure.
Capers also plans to use Daniels and Jones extensively as his inside rushers in the nickel, which is Capers most often-used personnel group, per Pete Dougherty of the Green Bay Press-Gazette.
Rookie Khyri Thornton has also looked good this preseason, and Josh Boyd, who saw his snaps increase at the end of 2013, could see his role increased in 2014. Green Bay also added Minnesota's Letroy Guion in free agency, who currently sits behind Raji on the depth chart.
LOLB: Julius Peppers
LILB: A.J. Hawk
MLB: Brad Jones
ROLB: Clay Matthews
Returning starters A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones' jobs seem secure heading into the regular season. Some thought the Packers might sign or draft competition for the middle linebacker spot behind Jones, but backup inside 'backers Sam Barrington and Jamari Lattimore have proven they're worth keeping as the No. 2s.
Per Green Bay's most recent depth chart, in base personnel at outside linebacker, Julius Peppers will start opposite Clay Matthews on the left side. But Capers has a lot of options within that group, which is incredibly deep right now with Mike Neal, Nick Perry, Andy Mulumba, Nate Palmer, Adrian Hubbard, Carl Bradford and Jayrone Elliott all on the current depth chart.
As ESPN.com's Rob Demovsky has noted, Capers may decide to rotate Peppers, Neal and Perry opposite Matthews to keep them, especially Peppers, fresh. As the Packers increase their use of the Elephant position, the door will open for Perry and Neal to get their snaps at outside linebacker behind Peppers.
LCB: Tramon Williams
RCB: Sam Shields
SS: Morgan Burnett
FS: Micah Hyde
Veteran starters Sam Shields and Tramon Williams carried the secondary in 2014, posting seven interceptions between the two of them, while the safety group as a whole didn't record a single pick. Shields has emerged as Green Bay's top cover corner and looks to shadow top receivers this season.
Williams is entering a contract year and will count $7.5 million against the cap, per OvertheCap.com, so the pressure is on for him to produce and prove he's worth a future investment.
The big question for the secondary and the defense overall is whether converted cornerback Micah Hyde or first-round rookie Ha Ha Clinton-Dix will start opposite Morgan Burnett Week 1 against the Seattle Seahawks. When Burnett was out against the Tennessee Titans with an oblique strain, Clinton-Dix got the chance to start alongside Hyde.
But against St. Louis, a healthy Burnett joined Hyde to start the opening series.
Because of the frequency with which the Packers run defensive sub-packages, whichever safety does not start will still see meaningful playing time. Green Bay could play Burnett and Clinton-Dix at safety and Hyde in the slot. Sean Richardson looked great to end the 2013 season, playing down near the line of scrimmage against the run. Casey Hayward should also get playing time at nickel cornerback.
K: Mason Crosby
P: Tim Masthay
LS: Brett Goode
PR: Micah Hyde
KR: DuJuan Harris
Mason Crosby has just about gained Green Bay's trust back after making a career-low 63.6 percent of his field goals in 2012. In 2013, Crosby was better than ever with a career-high 89.2 percent, including seven at 50-plus yards. So far this preaseason, he's been sharp.
The returners will likely be among the last positions to be ironed out prior to the regular season. Mike McCarthy has generally tried to keep his starting players away from punt- and kick-return duties, but he's changed his mind about that as Green Bay has continued to struggle to find production there.
"I think it's dangerous to get into limitations and trying to be too cautious," McCarthy told ESPN.com's Rob Demovsky. "When you get cautious and worry negative things happen. So we're going to put our best players out there. We need to be better on special teams and a good returner makes any return unit better."
Currently, the leaders at each position appear to be Randall Cobb and Micah Hyde on punt returns and DuJuan Harris on kick returns, per Demovsky. Between Cobb or Hyde, the Packers would seem less likely to subject their No. 2 receiver coming off 10 missed games in 2013 to the additional injury risk.
Davante Adams has also been fielding punts so far this preseason but with ugly results.