Green Bay Packers: Jordy Nelson and 5 Players Ready to Breakout
Last year could not have been much better for Packer fans, but what's scary is that whenever football starts back up, they could be an even scarier team next season.
Most people forget that Green Bay lost its leading rusher (Ryan Grant), top tight end (Jermichael Finley), starting linebacker (Nick Barnett) to season-ending injuries during the regular season.
When a team loses three of its better players the way Green Bay did, chances are they get worse. Thankfully, that notion was proved wrong.
Thanks to guys like James Starks and Desmond Bishop having breakout seasons (Starks in the playoffs), the Packers simply reloaded.
With everybody expected back from their injuries for next season, the Packers should be one of the most talented, and certainly deepest, squads in the NFL.
Still, every year certain guys turn from decent NFL player to NFL star (just ask Tramon Williams a couple years ago). Here are five guys to keep an eye on to do just that in 2011.
1. Sam Shields
Be honest, when Charles Woodson went down in the Super Bowl, we all thought it was over despite the lead. Big Ben was going to take advantage of anyone not named Tramon Williams.
Enter Sam Shields, a rookie out of Miami (Florida) who had a total of 29 tackles in the regular season. Not exactly someone I'd be comfortable with trotting out on the biggest game of the year.
If he had rookie jitters, it certainly didn't look like it.
Shields had as many interceptions in the NFC Championship game as he did all regular season (two), including the game-clinching one in the final seconds to preserve Green Bay's fifth Super Bowl appearance.
This season, Shields will be firmly entrenched as the nickel cornerback, something the Pack run frequently. He's also become the heir apparent to replace C-Dub once he decides to hang 'em up (which hopefully is never).
While I doubt he gets the opportunity to showcase his skills as a starter unless there's an injury, teams will certainly be aware of No. 37 and where he is on the field.
2. Charlie Peprah
Probably the least known player on the list to the common NFL fan, Peprah became the starter at safety along with Nick Collins in the middle of the regular season when rookie Morgan Burnett went down with a season-ending injury.
After being a special teams player most of his career, Peprah took full advantage of his new role finishing the regular season with 63 tackles and two interceptions, including one in the finale against Chicago that helped send the Packers back to the playoffs.
In the Super Bowl, Peprah led the team in tackles.
While it's no guarantee Peprah will reprise his starting spot with Burnett now healthy, he'll certainly have the advantage with his solid play last season. He could become the big hitter in the secondary many teams covet.
At worst, he'll be a solid backup and will probably see time when the Packers go to six defensive back formations.
3. Brad Jones
Before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury in Week 7, Jones was the starting outside linebacker not named Clay Mathews.
In 2009, Jones, as a rookie, burst onto the scene for the Packers, recording four sacks and starting in seven games.
It's clear that Jones has the talent to be an impact player on the Packers defense, especially with the offense so focused on the opposite side of the field, and rightfully so.
Because of Green Bay's frequent substitutions in the linebacking unit, Jones will see time whether he starts or is behind a guy like Eric Walden on the depth chart.
If Jones is able to stay healthy for a full year, he'll have plenty of opportunities to get some shots in on the quarterback.
4. Bryan Bulaga
2009's first round pick certainly lived up to expectations, as offensive lineman Bryan Bulaga helped mend a banged up offensive line during the season. Initially he replaced Chad Clifton at left tackle, then when Mark Tauscher got hurt, Bulaga moved over to right tackle for the remainder of the season.
His transition from bench, to left tackle, to right tackle was so fluid that it helped keep Aaron Rodgers upright as he was throwing touchdown passes and making opposing defenses look stupid. I think it's safe to say that without Bulaga's versatility, Green Bay would not have won the Super Bowl.
This year, it's unclear whether he'll have the opportunity to start, but I hope he does. Both Clifton and Tauscher are up there in age, and Bulaga proved he could hold his own as a rookie.
If he's given the opportunity, don't be surprised to see him become one of the top offensive tackles in the league, and a Pro Bowl selection would definitely be possible.
5. Jordy Nelson
I'll admit that I was skeptical when Nelson was drafted back in 2008 because of the depth they already had at wide receiver.
Fast forward to 2011, and I'm glad Ted Thompson didn't listen to me. Nelson has gradually become a more important player in the passing game, finishing with career highs in starts (four), receptions (45), and yards (582) last season.
I expect his role to increase even more next season primarily because, while I hate to say it because I love the guy, Donald Driver is getting up there in age. At 36, he doesn't have many years left, and Nelson is the prime candidate to replace Driver opposite Greg Jennings in the starting lineup.
I think this is the year that Nelson becomes the second option at wide-out. He's shown his ability to make difficult catches in big games and Rodgers has plenty of confidence in him. I expect around 800 yards and eight TD's for Jordy, especially with James Jones not expected back.
Not huge numbers because Rodgers spreads the ball around so much, but Nelson will be a key cog in the wheel if the Packers are able to defend their championship in 2011, or whenever football resumes.