By Michael Terrill @MichaelTerrill on August 8, 2014
The Green Bay Packers are in full swing in training camp, with their first preseason game to occur on Saturday. With nearly 100 players in camp, Green Bay must find a way to whittle the roster down to the 53 best players over the next few weeks. Even though the team will need all 53 to play a role, here’s a ranking of the 25 most important Packers players in 2014.
Even though rookie center Corey Linsley is putting on quite the show in training camp, JC Tretter will continue to be the expected starter. The fourth-round draft pick in 2013 will have an incredibly important job calling out readings to the rest of the offensive line. It’s imperative that he builds chemistry with quarterback Aaron Rodgers so that the two remain on the same page throughout the season.
Cornerback Casey Hayward missed a majority of last season due to a hamstring tear. It was a huge loss for the Packers because he was such a force in the secondary in 2012. In fact, opposing quarterbacks had a 31.1 passer rating against him that season, which was the lowest against any corner in the NFL. Hayward is expected to be the nickel cornerback in 2014.
DuJuan Harris will be the third running back on the depth chart once the regular season kicks off. For that reason, it might be surprising to see him on this list. Even though Harris will have an opportunity to be productive out of the backfield on game day, it will be as a kick returner where he will need to provide a stellar performance. As of right now, he’s the favorite to start in the return game.
Backup running back James Starks will provide a huge role for the team. He will be the change-of-pace back the Packers need in order to have success on the field when Eddie Lacy is taking a breather. Starks averaged 5.5 yards per carry last season, which is exactly what Green Bay wants to see from him in 2014.
Wide receiver Jarrett Boykin has struggled early in camp as dropped passes have become far too consistent. In fact, one could make the case that if his play continues to falter it will be rookie Davante Adam’s name here at No. 21. Regardless, the Packers need a big season out of Boykin at the No. 3 wide receiver spot. With defenses expected to cover Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb tightly, it will be Boykin who must step up.
Mike Neal will play a critical role in Green Bay’s defense, as he will be used as an outside linebacker and defensive lineman. Despite being in a backup role in 2014, Neal’s goal to get after the quarterback every time he steps on the field will not change. His versatility should allow him to build off of his career-high five sacks last season.
A.J. Hawk continues to be one of the team’s top tacklers season after season, with last year being no different as evidence of his 118 total tackles. Hawk also recorded five sacks and defended five passes, which means he has been involved in the production of the defense frequently. With that said, he still needs to up his game this season and be a beast in run defense. The Packers are counting on him in that area.
As much as fans would like to see Ha Ha Clinton-Dix start at safety this season, it appears that Micah Hyde has the upper hand. In fact, it wouldn’t be that much of a surprise if he didn’t line up next to Morgan Burnett as the last line of defense. The reality is Clinton-Dix still has a good chance to start, but there’s no denying the Packers are huge fans of Hyde. That means he will get plenty of playing time one way or another.
Andrew Quarless is the No. 1 tight end on the depth chart for the first time in his career. He came up big down the stretch last season with some very clutch catches. However, Green Bay needs him to do that for an entire season. Quarless has a chance to be Rodgers’ security blanket, someone who will have the opportunity to have a big season, especially with big names like Nelson, Cobb and Lacy on the field.
If you’re surprised to see Mason Crosby on this list, you shouldn’t be. Every game will be a dogfight as teams are well aware the Packers are one of the contenders in 2014. That means games will come down to the wire, which is where Crosby must come through in the clutch. The 29-year-old made a career-high 89.2 percent of his field goal attempts in 2013. Even more impressive is it was the second most field goal attempts (37) on his career.
Second-year player Datone Jones is expected to start at left defensive end in base 3-4 defense and defensive tackle in the nickel defense this season. It’s imperative that he put his disappointing rookie season behind him and focus on becoming a legitimate game changer in 2014. There’s no question Jones has the ability to get after the quarterback, and the potential to be a factor in run defense.
After a decent rookie season in which he stepped into in a critical during Green Bay’s Super Bowl run, he has struggled to remain on the field. Right tackle Bryan Bulaga’s focus must be on staying healthy in 2014. Along with that, his focus must be on protecting Rodgers. The only way the Packers reach the promise land is if Rodgers stays upright, which only happens if the offensive line can do their job.
Even more important than the right tackle will be Rodgers’ blindside. Even though left tackle David Bakhtiari did a great job last season, there’s still plenty of room for improvement. Green Bay needs the second-year player to step up this year and be a factor on the offensive line, as he will be going up against some of the best pass rushers in the league.
Defensive end Mike Daniels is definitely someone fans will want to keep an eye on this season. In only his second season last year, he ranked second on the team in sacks (6.5) behind Clay Matthews. Daniels is a legitimate force on the defensive line. He’s someone who will be very important to the success of the Packers this year as it will be his job to supply interior pressure on the quarterback.
Inside linebacker Brad Jones will be one of the main assets when it comes to stopping the run, which was one of Green Bay’s weaknesses in recent years. Jones has been practicing as the lone inside linebacker in dime packages, which means the Packers are confident he can be the every-down linebacker. Despite Jones putting up decent numbers last season, he will need to take a huge step forward this year.
Injuries have plagued Morgan Burnett in training camp, which is certainly something the Packers didn’t want to see after he had his worst season as a pro in 2013. Burnett is an important piece to the success of the secondary. When he doesn’t deliver in coverage or takeaways, the entire defense suffers. If Burnett can’t get it together in camp, look for Sean Richardson to fill in. Hopefully, he will find his way back to his stellar self.
B.J. Raji has been incredibly determined in training camp so far as he’s out to prove he’s worth more than a one-year deal. After back-to-back disappointing seasons, the nose tackle is ready to increase his tackle and sack numbers. Being the anchor of the defense, it’s imperative that Raji step up big in run defense in order to allow the linebackers to get in position to make a play.
If the Packers want to improve their secondary this season, they will need cornerback Tramon Williams to lead by example. Even though his interceptions (3) were down, Williams still managed to set career highs in tackles (83) and sacks (2.5). Overall, Green Bay needs to see his passes defended and interception statistics get better in order to ensure wide receivers won’t run rampant.
Cornerback Sam Shields has emerged as Green Bay’s best defensive back after his stellar performance in 2013. Shields led the team in passes defended (16), while he also set career highs in tackles (51) and interceptions (4). The Packers are counting on Shields to raise his level of play and continue to provide outstanding production.
Cobb has proven time and again he has what it takes to be a game changer. As long as he stays healthy, there’s every reason to believe he will tally over 1,000 receiving yards this season. Even though he hasn’t looked extraordinary in training camp, there’s no reason to doubt that he will bring his ‘A’ game this year. As Rodgers’ second most important weapon on the team, his success directly affects the success of the Packers.
The excitement surrounding Julius Peppers continues to build as nothing but positives have come out of Packers training camp. The outside linebacker will actually line up in several different spots, similar to what Matthews is capable of doing. This will allow Dom Capers to utilize Peppers’ talent and athleticism to the fullest. If Peppers and Matthews can’t rack up the sacks together, the defense could struggle tremendously in 2014.
Nelson is one of the most talented, underrated wide receivers in the NFL. He proved that in 2013 when he set career highs in receptions (85) and yards (1,314) in a season that saw the Packers line up four different quarterbacks under center. Rodgers’ favorite offensive weapon will be busy this season as he’s expected to have another career year.
There’s no one more important on defense than Matthews is. His presence alone has the ability to confuse and make offensive blockers nervous. With so many weapons around him, Matthews is expected to set a career high in sacks. Of course, that’s assuming he can stay healthy, which is always a major concern. Only way Green Bay reaches the Super Bowl is if becomes the ‘Claymaker’ every time he stops onto the field.
Lacy, who was the 2013 Offensive Rookie of the Year, must build off of his success and have a year to remember in 2014. The Packers are counting on him to establish a devastating ground attack that will allow Rodgers to strike with force from the air. If he can somehow top what he accomplished last season, Green Bay will be one of the most feared teams in the league.
There’s no question Rodgers is the most important player for the Packers in 2014. He has the ability to make Green Bay instant winners every time he steps on the field, which not many players can do. He’s one of the best quarterbacks in the game. More importantly, he has all the necessary tools to become NFL MVP and lead the Packers to the Super Bowl.
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