In 2015, like most recent years, the road to the playoffs in the NFC North is through the Green Bay Packers. This is a difficult task. As long as the Packers have the duo of Mike McCarthy at Head Coach and Aaron Rodgers at quarterback, the Packers will always be at or near the top of the NFC North. While the club may have some weaknesses, they are strong where they need to be strong.
At this stage of his career, Aaron Rodgers is one of the top quarterbacks in the NFL. Other than durability, there isn’t a weakness to his game. He is athletic with excellent arm strength, and his ability to read defenses is second to none. Add that to uncanny accuracy, and it would be hard to find someone better.
The problem Green Bay has at the quarterback position is that they don’t have much behind Rodgers. This has been proven several times in the past when Rodgers has gone down. Scott Tolzien can’t be expected to win games. Rookie Brett Hundley from UCLA is an athlete with an excellent arm. It ends there. His game actually regressed from 2013 to 2014. While he has some excellent physical traits, he is not a good decision maker and lacks good instincts.
The duo of James Starks and Eddie Lacy has been very productive for the Pack. Lacy is an excellent between-the-tackles power runner, while Starks provides some big play ability. Both are very good receivers out of the backfield.
The Packers are one of the few teams that utilize a fullback and John Kuhn is one of the best. As good as Kuhn is, rookie Aaron Ripkowski will challenge Kuhn for a roster spot. Ripkowski was one of the better run blockers in college football a year ago.
The two starting receivers are excellent and know and understand the Green Bay system. Jordy Nelson is a big, physical guy with excellent hands and run-after-catch skills. Randall Cobb has the speed to get deep and, like Nelson, is excellent after the catch. Last year’s second round pick Davante Adams played well and had 38 receptions. He should take a jump in 2015 after being in the system a year.
The tight end position has always been strong in Green Bay. Right now, I don’t feel it is. Second-year man Richard Rodgers came on in the latter part of 2014, but I don’t see him as having anything special in his game. Andrew Quarless and Justin Perillo are just journeyman.
The Packers have their entire starting five back from a year ago. The tackles are Bryan Bulaga and Davis Bakhtiari. The guards are T.J. Lang and Josh Sitton, and the center is Corey Lindsey. While the group isn’t physically imposing, and there isn’t a real dominating player among them, they play very well together, and all can pass block. Sitton is the most consistent and productive member of the O-Line.
Third year man J.C Tretter from Cornell was supposed to start last year at center but a preseason injury allowed Lindsey to play, and he isn’t about to give up his starting position. Tretter has position versatility and will be the first man in if any of the interior guys get injured. Don Barclay is the main tackle reserve.
The Packers were in danger of losing some key defensive lineman to free agency, but they were able to re-sign the key players.
Nose tackle B.J. Raji is excellent versus the run but doesn’t give much as a pass rusher. Letroy Guion is very consistent as an end and is equally good versus both run and pass. The best player on the defensive line is undersized Mike Daniels. Though he is only six feet tall, he plays hard and is very productive. He has 12 sacks over the last two seasons.
Datone Jones plays mostly in pass situations and has been effective as a pass rusher both inside and out. Mike Pennel and Josh Boyd will battle it out for the backup nose tackle position.
Defensive Coordinator Dom Capers uses his linebackers in a variety of ways, and he is capable of lining them up anywhere.
The lead player of the group is of course Clay Matthews. Matthews has spent most of his career outside but was moved inside midway through the season and played exceptionally. He brought more speed and athleticism to the position. Even when inside, he was still used as a pass rusher on passing downs.
No one quite knew how Julius Peppers would adjust to playing linebacker. While it took him a few games to adjust, he was his usual self the second half of the season. While he may be in his feet for base downs, he is still playing down in pass rush situations.
The starter opposite Matthews inside will be either Sam Barrington or Carl Bradford. Barrington started and played well at the end of last year. Rookie Jake Ryan from Michigan also has to play into the equation as he is very instinctive and productive. He could move ahead of Barrington or Bradford.
The other outside linebacker looks to be Nick Perry. The Packers did not pick up the fifth year option on his rookie contract so this is a make or break year for him. The key reserves who will get playtime are Mike Neal, who is very versatile, and Andy Mulumba.
If Ryan plays up to his potential, it may allow Capers to move Matthews back outside opposite Peppers, and that will really help the Green Bay pass rush. If that is the case, Ryan would start with either Barrington or Bradford inside.
The secondary lost some key people during the off season, and it remains to be seen how much of an effect it will have. Gone are former corner starter Tramon Williams and backup Davon House.
The replacement for Williams will most likely be Casey Hayward. Opposite Heyward may be one of two rookies. Top pick Damarious Randall played safety at Arizona State but has corner traits and played a lot of corner during OTAs. Second round pick Quinton Rollins from Miami (Ohio) also got some reps with the ones. Rollins, though inexperienced as a player, has great ball skills. Veteran Sam Shields also has to be in the equation.
At safety, the Packers have last year’s top rookie Ha Ha Clinton-Dix at strong safety and Morgan Burnett at free. Green Bay would like more production from Burnett and one of the rookies (Rollins, Randall) could challenge him as they can also play safety.
The Packers may have lost some key players, but they still have a strong roster. Still, the key to their success will be the health of Rodgers. As long as he is the quarterback, the Packers will rule the division.
Follow Greg on Twitter @greggabe
Coming out of the Big Ten conference is a team that is trying to return back to their former glory, the Penn State Nittany Lions. Last season was an excellent year for the Lions as they went to their first bowl game since the end of their post-season ban. They also had a respectable 7-6 season but a disappointing 2-6 conference record. Let’s take a look at the outlook for their 2015 season:
The offense for the Nittany Lions last season was hard to watch to say the least. First, let’s look at their rushing game. Last season, only one running back was able to rush for over 100 yards in a game, and that was junior back, Akeel Lynch. The number one spot is unquestionably his, but the number two spot is still up for grabs between sophomores Mark Allen, Nick Scott, and Jonathan Thomas. The passing game has a rising star in its midst, a junior QB named Christian Hackenburg. Hackenburg is NFL material. He just has to be more of a consistent passer and make better decisions. Last season was rough for him as he threw for just under 3,000 yards, 12 touchdowns, and 15 interceptions. The main target for Hackenburg will be DaeSean Hamilton. Thankfully, they have a deep WR staff this year to take the pressure off of Hamilton and reduce heavy coverage. The offensive line will also look to improve from an underwhelming season seeing as they gave up, on average, three sacks per game. The O-line does have a lot more experience and should be much better than last season.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Lions did an excellent job. Their run defense was one of the best at slowing down the rushing attack by allowing on average only 100.5 rushing yards per game (3rd in the nation) and 2.95 yards per carry (2nd in the nation). Senior Defensive Tackle and top draft prospect Anthony Zettel hopes to remain the anchor for this defense and keep those low run totals down. He will have some help on the interior from junior lineman Austin Johnson. Both of these guys are great inside and will be important to the pass rush and run defense for the Lions. The hardest part of heading into this new season will be replacing LB Mike Hull and his 140 tackles from last season. When you have a player that productive, he is hard to replace. The pass defense for Penn State was, likewise, great last season. They allowed on average only 178.2 passing yards per game. Their secondary is stacked, led by senior safety Jordan Lucas. Also, their corners have great depth and are tough for receivers to deal with. Expect the defense for the Lions to be suffocating once again this year.
Strength of Schedule: 5 out of 10
Penn State has a fairly soft schedule this season. They play a lot of low par teams this season at home (Buffalo, Rutgers, San Diego State, Army, and Indiana). Also, they avoid top conference foes such as Wisconsin, Nebraska, and Iowa. The only reason I don’t give them a 4 out of 10 is because they do face Ohio State and Michigan State, both on the road. While both should be great games, the odds are not in their favor, and the Lions will likely lose those two matchups. On the defensive side of the ball, the Lions are set to have a suffocating defense, but with not knowing what to expect from the offense, this season is up in the air. I do expect Penn State to best last year’s 7 wins and go to a decent bowl game this year, but there is no chance of them winning the Big 10.
Three 2016 NFL Draft Prospects to Watch:
#14 QB, Christian Hackenberg, Junior—6’4”, 234 lbs
#98 DL, Anthony Zettel, Senior—6’4”, 274 lbs
#9 SS, Jordan Lucas, Senior—6’0”, 198 lbs
I realize that this topic can be the subject of debate and conversation. In saying that, when I made my list of the top running backs currently in the NFL, career production and the ability to sustain that top production were part of the criteria.
Durability and longevity are two criteria that go into making a back great. Having been part of 30 NFL drafts, I know that when a club drafts a running back, they are hoping that they can get four of five good years out of that player. The player getting to a second contract is almost an afterthought. The great ones have a way of staying healthy and being productive for a long period of time.
Adrian Peterson – Minnesota
In all my years of scouting, I don’t think I have ever seen a running back quite like Peterson. Most backs with his physical style don’t last long as the wear and tear on their bodies breaks them down long before they would want. That hasn’t been the case with Peterson. He has had his fair share of injuries, yet still comes back strong, and his play has not dropped off. He still has the speed and burst he had as a young back and still runs with a very violent style. He is one of the most punishing running backs in football.
Having missed most of the 2014 season because of off field issues, Peterson may just be better than ever. The year off has only given him a chance to rest his legs, and he should be in top form right from the get go. It would not surprise me to see him run for over 1500 yards in 2015.
Marshawn Lynch – Seattle
Like Peterson, Lynch is an extremely violent runner. He may even be more explosive on contact than A.P. It is my feeling that if it weren’t for Lynch, Russell Wilson would not be nearly as productive as he is. Having Lynch in the backfield keeps defenses honest and allows Wilson to do more.
This is Marshawn’s ninth year, yet the last four years have been his most productive. Over that time span, Lynch has run for 5357 yards for a 4.53 yards per carry average and 48 touchdowns. Like Peterson, he shows no signs of slowing down. Lynch has also been a very good receiver over that span with 124 receptions and nine touchdowns.
What I find amazing about Lynch is that he is not that big. He is listed as being 215, but he looks and plays much bigger. His durability over the last five seasons has been amazing, and he has not missed a game over the last three seasons.
LeSean McCoy – Buffalo
When McCoy came out of Pittsburgh for the 2009 draft, I had no idea he would be as productive for such a long period of time because of his build. He just isn’t a very big guy. He plays between 204-208 but looks like a 190 pound guy.
As small as he is, his durability has been excellent. He has missed only six games in six seasons and has never had a major injury. The worst injury he has had to deal with is a severe ankle sprain. That said, he should be able to play productively for at least another three years.
While Peterson and Lynch are power backs, McCoy is an elusive “scatback”. He can move laterally almost as quickly as he moves straight ahead. He has a rare burst, and his instincts are second to none.
As far as production, it’s top notch. In six years, he has run for 6792 yards and 44 touchdowns. He has also had 300 receptions for another 2282 yards and another 10 touchdowns.
I felt McCoy was a perfect fit for Chip Kelly’s offense, but obviously, Kelly didn’t feel the same way. It will be interesting to see how McCoy fares in Buffalo in a new scheme. Buffalo always seems to get production out of their backs.
Matt Forte – Chicago
This pick may surprise some, but in my opinion, there may not be a better all-around back in the league. Forte is a very good runner and an excellent receiver. He just may be the best receiver out of the backfield in the NFL. There is no back, other than McCoy, who compares with Forte as far as being able to both run and catch.
Forte has had a few injury issues, but he has always bounced back and been productive after. This will be Forte’s eighth season, and the former second round draft pick has run for 7,704 yards and 41 touchdowns. In that time, he has also caught 443 passes for another 3727 yards and 16 touchdowns. The 443 receptions is at the top as far as running backs go.
Forte has good size at about 6’2 – 218, but he isn’t a power back. He is more of a glider who has very good instincts, and he doesn’t take many big hits. While Lynch and Peterson are collision runners, Forte is the opposite.
At 29 years of age, Forte does not have many years left, but being on a John Fox coached team, you know he is going to have a very strong year. Fox has always had a way of making the running back a key part of the offense. Forte’s best year as a rusher was 1349 yards in 2013. He could top that this year.
DeMarco Murray – Philadelphia
I was a little hesitant at putting Murray in this slot, but after watching tape from last year, I feel that DeMarco is just beginning to come into his own. The beneficiary of that will be the Philadelphia Eagles as Murray should be able to put up some huge numbers in that offense. Granted, he won’t be playing behind the line he had in Dallas, but the Philly line is plenty good.
This will be Murray’s fifth year in the NFL. His first two years were average to say the least with him running for a total of 1560 yards in those two seasons. The last two years have been outstanding. In 2013, he ran for 1121 yards and nine touchdowns, while last year, he had 1845 yards and 13 touchdowns. He has also shown that he is a very good receiver out of the backfield with a career total of 171 receptions in four years. 110 of those catches have come in the last two seasons.
What I like about Murray is that he is a physical runner similar to both Lynch and Peterson, and he still should be able to improve his game. If he has a weakness, it’s that he fumbles a bit more than most would like.
Others that I thought about for this list were Frank Gore and Jamaal Charles. As good as Le’Veon Bell was in 2014, he still hasn’t done it over a period of time. He could be on this list in another year or two.
Follow Greg on Twitter @greggabe
Coming into the NFL as a rookie, much is expected of these young men: to come in and help make a positive impact and a contribution to the team, to learn, in most cases, a new offense or defense, and to familiarize yourself with new coaches and teammates. Not to mention, many are now living on their own for the first time, playing in a city they might have never visited before. So, it’s no surprise that in the second season of a player’s career is where the biggest improvement can be seen. I’ve identified six players, entering their second season, that will be expected to make bigger impacts on their respective teams in 2015. Some were held back due to injuries, while others needed some time to adjust to the speed and physicality of the NFL. These players not only have the talent to succeed, but are in the right situations with the proper supporting cast to help them. Most, if not all, I feel will one day be playing in the Pro Bowl.
Telvin Smith – Jacksonville Jaguars
6’ 3” 218 lbs. Linebacker
2014 Stats: 104 Combined Tackles, 2 Sacks, 1 Forced Fumble, 1 Interception
What I like: A fifth round pick out of Florida State in last year’s draft, Smith came on strong in the second half last season. Smith racked up 64 tackles (six for loss) in the final six games, with 31 tackles coming in the final two, which led the NFL. Smith’s breakthrough game came in Week 7 versus the Browns, where he intercepted a pass, which led to a touchdown, and also had a key sack strip late in that game earning AFC Defensive Player of the Week. Smith enters this up-coming season as the starting weak side linebacker for Gus Bradley’s Jaguars defense. With his athleticism and speed, Smith has shown the ability to cover down field, while at the same time being aggressive versus the run. The knock on Smith coming into the draft was his size. He started last season weighing 218 pounds but admitted that he played below that number during the season. The key will be adding good weight to Smith’s frame with hopes that he will be able to survive an entire NFL season. The Jacksonville coaches have been raving about the work Smith has put in this offseason. The expectation entering his second season in this defense, predicated on his speed and aggressiveness, is that Smith will blossom into one of the best linebackers in the league.
Davante Adams – Green Bay Packers
6’ 1” 215 lbs. Wide Receiver
2014 Stats: 38 receptions 446 yards 3 touchdowns
What I like: Typically, the wide receiver position sees the biggest jump in production from a player’s rookie season to their second. With more sophisticated NFL offenses and increased game speed, it takes a full season to adjust. Packers’ receiver Davante Adams is no exception. As he enters his second season, Adams looks to give quarterback Aaron Rodgers another weapon to go along with Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb. The thought of another toy for Rodgers sends chills down the opposing defensive players’ spines. Adams had an inconsistent rookie campaign with his best game coming against the Patriots in week 13 where he had six catches for 121 yards. Adams gave everyone a glimpse of what he can do in the Packers’ playoff win versus the Cowboys. In that game, Adams had seven receptions for 117 yards and a touchdown. Through the offseason, Adams has been taking snaps with the first team offense due to Jordy Nelson being sidelined with an injury, and he has stood out. Adams has improved his strength and conditioning along with his route running, earning high praise from both Head Coach Mike McCarthy and Aaron Rodgers. McCarthy proclaimed Adams the MVP of their offseason. With improved route running, coupled with Adams ability to go up and make contested catches, topping the 1000 yards and double digit touchdowns are well within his reach.
Crockett Gilmore – Baltimore Ravens
6’6” 251 lbs. Tight End
2014 Stats: 10 receptions 121 yards 1 touchdown
What I like: Gilmore is a big tight end with soft hands and, in limited snaps last season, showed the ability to make tough catches. Predominately used as a blocker by former offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, Gilmore has made it a point of emphasis to work on his route running and his quickness in and out of breaks this offseason. With the need at the position, caused by the departure of Owen Daniels and injury to Dennis Pitta, Gilmore has a great opportunity to open the season as the starter. The Ravens did draft two tight ends in Maxx Williams and Nick Boyle who will compete with Gilmore. The Ravens replaced Kubiak with former Bears Coach Marc Trestman who runs the west coast offense and loves to utilize the tight end. Looking back to last season, the Bears’ Martellus Bennett had 90 receptions on 129 targets. Just like Bennett, Gilmore is tall at 6’ 6” and gives the quarterback a big target. Although not blessed with blazing speed, Gilmore did, at times, show the ability to break open down the seam. The tight end will have a big role in the Ravens’ offense this season. With Gilmore’s size and ability to catch, he could become one of Joe Flacco’s favorite targets, especially in the red zone.
Bene Benwikere – Carolina Panthers
6’0” 195 lbs. Cornerback
2014 Stats: 33 Tackles 1 Forced Fumble 1 Interception
What I like: Benwikere, a 5th round pick out of San Jose State, made an impact on the Panthers defense last season. He won the nickel back position coming out of training camp, where he earned the nickname “Big Play Bene”. Benwikere got injured in week 5, and would miss six games because of the ankle injury. When he returned, Benwikere was inserted as the starter at corner, starting six games and helping Carolina make a successful playoff push. What Bene has is great vision and the keen ability to read the offense, which gives him the confidence to jump receiver routes or to stray off his assignment and make a play on the intended target. Panthers’ coaches have noticed the improvement in Benwikere this offseason, with a better grasp of the defense now. Instead of thinking out there, he is reacting. Carolina brought in veteran corner Charles Tillman to compete with Benwikere for the starting position. Coach Rivera and Tillman are familiar with each other dating back to when both were with the Bears. Tillman has missed a big chunk of the past two seasons with triceps injuries. So Tillman will not only need to beat out Bene in training camp but also prove he can stay healthy an entire season. Whether starting outside at corner or inside as the nickel back, expectations are that “Big Play Bene” will be out on the field for the Panthers, making plays and solidifying the back half of the defense.
Jason Verrett – San Diego Chargers
5’9” 178 lbs. Cornerback
2014 Stats: 19 Tackles 1 Interception
What I like: What Jason Verrett lacks in height and size, he more than makes up for in speed and quickness, not to mention the heart and determination he shows out on the field. Coming into the 2014 draft, many had second to third round grades on Verrett, mostly due to his lack of size. Scouting Verrett last season, he was one of my favorite players to watch on tape. The aforementioned speed and quickness were evident as was the aggression he attacked opposing receivers with and the way he came up to play the run. The San Diego Chargers made him their first round pick and, during training camp, veterans, like safety Eric Weddle, had nothing but praise for the football character and professionalism Verrett displayed. Unfortunately, Verrett’s season was limited to just five games as he tore the labrum in his left shoulder making a sensational interception that helped seal the victory versus the Raiders. During his final season at TCU, he had torn the labrum in his right shoulder. Staying healthy is a key factor for Verrett, who currently is listed as the starter opposite Brandon Flowers. Verrett, having rehabbed both shoulder injuries, has spent part of the offseason training with the Saints Brandin Cooks, working on his speed, agility, and quickness. Verrett will always be at a disadvantage when going up against the big tall receivers, but with his 4.38 speed and 39 inch vertical and tenacity, he will make things difficult for receivers. Jason also is explosive out of his back pedal, can open his hips, turn and run with the receiver downfield, and has strong hands allowing him to get physical while also going to make a play on the ball. Verrett also has the ability to move inside and cover the quicker slot receivers when the Chargers go to their nickel defense. If Verrett can avoid major injuries and stay on the field, he has the ability to be a difference maker for the Chargers’ defense.
Brandin Cooks – New Orleans Saints
5’10” 189 lbs. Wide Receiver
2014 Stats: 53 Receptions 550 Yards 3 Touchdowns
What I like: Brandin Cooks was well on his way to a terrific rookie season last year before breaking his thumb and missing the final six games. The four games prior to the injury, Cooks was finding his groove within the offense, as he had 18 receptions for 272 yards and two touchdowns. Cooks enters this season feeling healthy and confident. With his thumb healed, Cooks is now playing faster than last season. As with most second year players, he is doing less thinking and just playing football. Cooks says he now has a full grasp on the offense, and others agree. After the recently completed minicamp, reports surfaced that Cooks was the best player on offense not named Brees. Besides knowing the offense, what also is setting up Cooks to have a big year are the trades of tight end Jimmy Graham and wide receiver Kenny Stills. Gone with those two players are 148 receptions and 209 targets combined. Cooks is destined to be a prime beneficiary of some of those receptions and targets left behind. Plus, head coach Sean Payton has always found a way to get the ball into the hands of fast, quick receivers and backs. Case in point how he utilized both Reggie Bush and Darren Sproles when both players were Saints. Payton will have the option of utilizing Cooks, not only split wide outside the numbers, but also inside at the slot receiver position and lined up in the backfield. It would not surprise me if Cooks ends up with over 100 receptions and ten or more touchdowns. With Cooks’s speed and quickness, coupled with Payton calling the plays and Drew Brees at quarterback, the Saints have another playmaker who, when he has the ball in his hands, is a threat to score from anywhere on the field.
The biggest “football” headline this week involved the altercation between rap mogul Sean “Diddy” Combs and current UCLA and former New York Jets strength and conditioning coach Sal Alosi (of the infamous sideline tripping incident). Subsequently, a former Jets team chiropractor leaked a letter to Diddy’s camp regarding a previous “fistfight” Alosi had with Darrelle Revis.
I don’t know if Diddy is a “helicopter dad” or if he assaulted UCLA coaches. I don’t know if Alosi is abusive to players or prone to confrontation. I do know if you are part of the team, what happens within the team should stay within team walls and leaking information to outside parties is just not right.
The chiropractor who reportedly revealed information about Alosi is no longer associated with the Jets and will likely never be associated with another NFL team. Last year, Bears offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer admitted to being a reporter’s source for negative information related to his quarterback and was fired at the end of the season. I was critical of Jameis Winston’s attorney saying his client was “not ready to be an NFL player off the field”.
This chiropractor apparently wrote a 2010 letter to the Jets complaining about Alosi’s abusive behavior, the Revis “fistfight” and issues involving her towel and water use. I am not saying this letter to Jets brass was improper. People should speak up when something is not right and especially if it is illegal. What shouldn’t happen is leaking information in apparent retribution because you don’t like someone.
What happens inside team walls is sacred. There are strict laws related to what medical personnel may reveal about a patient. However, I am talking about rules of decorum for a locker room here. What happens there should stay behind closed doors. Giants punter Steve Weatherford apologized for violating that rule by posting a video of Prince Amukamara being dumped into a cold tub by Jason Pierre-Paul.
After a team gives up 35 points, no offensive player can say “we lost because the defense couldn’t stop anyone”. I would never say publicly a player was soft or didn’t want to play though injury.
In my two decades in the NFL, I know my fellow medical colleagues wanted to be considered part of the team. To be part of the team, one needs to act like you are on the team and adhere to rules and decorum. I once witnessed a team physician bringing golf clubs while traveling on the team plane to a road game and that did not go over so well.
Even when you are done with a team, what happened in your time there should remain confidential. I certainly relate my experiences in this column but usually without names attached. If I relate a specific story, I have obtained permission from those involved. Some people have suggested I should write a tell-all book and my answer is always no.
It is not right that the chiropractor leaked information to Diddy’s camp regarding Alosi. What happens in the locker room should stay in the locker room, especially for medical personnel.
(In this slowest news month of the NFL season, I will only be writing abbreviated columns. Enjoy the down time before the season starts.)
Follow David on Twitter: @profootballdoc
Dr. David Chao is a former NFL head team physician with 17 years of sideline, locker and training room experience. He currently has a successful orthopedic/sports medicine practice in San Diego.