2018 NFL Preview: Yet again, the Packers will go as far as Aaron Rodgers can carry them

Yahoo Sports

Yahoo Sports is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2018 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 1, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)

Aaron Rodgers has won two NFL MVP awards. But last season truly proved his value to the Green Bay Packers.

The Packers were horrible without Rodgers. Their only wins came against the Chicago Bears and then back-to-back overtime victories at home against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and against the Cleveland Browns. The Packers trailed the Browns by 14 points in the fourth quarter and needed a touchdown with 17 seconds left in regulation to force overtime.

Yet the Packers, who should have lost to the 0-16 Browns with Brett Hundley at quarterback, are Super Bowl contenders with Rodgers. Other than LeBron James, no athlete in sports matters more to his team’s chances of winning a championship.

Two seasons ago, the title of the Packers’ preview was “Are the Packers wasting Aaron Rodgers’ prime?” It was a bit of a tongue-in-cheek joke over one of the NFL’s well-worn themes. But it’s starting to become a more legitimate question as each year passes.

[Yahoo Fantasy Football leagues are open: Sign up now for free]

Rodgers turns 35 this December. There’s no reason to believe he’s slowing down, but he’s not going to own his world-class athleticism and cannon arm forever. Rodgers has appeared in one Super Bowl. Even one Super Bowl ring is a great accomplishment, but if Rodgers never makes it back, the Packers will regret not doing more with him. It’s not his fault. Last season, when Hundley had to play, we saw how flawed the infrastructure around Rodgers is. Green Bay was one of the worst teams in football for most of last season. Rodgers alone makes the Packers one of the best.

There were some major changes this offseason. Not at head coach, where the Packers apparently believe Mike McCarthy is helping Rodgers and not being carried by the all-time great quarterback. Joe Philbin, who left the Packers to become Miami’s head coach, is back as Green Bay’s offensive coordinator. Mike Pettine replaces Dom Capers, who was a constant target of fans’ scorn, as defensive coordinator. A major change happened in the front office when the Packers announced Ted Thompson wouldn’t be the team’s general manager anymore. Brian Gutekunst was promoted to the spot.

Gutekunst was far more aggressive in free agency than his predecessor. He cut Jordy Nelson, a move that didn’t seem too popular with Rodgers. The Packers signed tight end Jimmy Graham, the first time they’ve had a dangerous tight end in years. Defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson, whose effort went in the tank after the Jets gave him a huge contract, was brought in on a no-risk, one-year deal. Those are the types of moves Thompson almost never made.

Yet, the story for this season’s Packers is familiar. From No. 2 to 53 on the roster, they’re not as good as the Falcons or Chargers, the two teams behind them on this countdown. They’re probably not as good as a few other teams further down the list. We saw that last season. But Green Bay has Rodgers, perhaps the most talented quarterback to ever play the game.

We can talk about what the Packers have at running back, Davante Adams‘ emergence as a true No. 1 receiver, what Graham brings to the offense or how a defense with some intriguing talent will react to a new play-caller. But it all comes back to the same truth: The Packers will go as far as Rodgers can carry them. And he has carried them all the way to a Super Bowl title in the past.

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers played in only seven games last season due to a broken collarbone. (AP)
Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers played in only seven games last season due to a broken collarbone. (AP)

While Jimmy Graham was a big-name addition, and certainly an upgrade at tight end, I’m not sure if he’ll pay off big (I discuss it at length later in the preview). Still, I like that the Packers were aggressive. Signing defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson seems very smart. Either he is finally hungry and looks like his old self, or the Packers move on without much lost. The Packers were thin at cornerback before the draft, when they landed Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson. I liked both of those picks. They also threw numbers at receiver, drafting three of them in the later rounds. The Packers lost Jordy Nelson and Morgan Burnett, but they seem replaceable. It was a good first offseason for new GM Brian Gutekunst.

GRADE: A-

He wears No. 12. Next.

The Packers had some needs this offseason, and couldn’t get to a major one: edge pass rusher. Clay Matthews and Nick Perry combined for 14.5 sacks last season, but Matthews is 32 years old and there aren’t a lot of up-and-coming pass rushers behind him. The Packers’ last chance to fix their cornerback situation was in the draft, and it’s hard to fault them for investing multiple draft picks in that position. But it left the edge rusher spots a little thin.

At some point, maybe it’s best if we don’t believe GM Brian Gutekunst when he tells everyone the Packers will sign Aaron Rodgers to an extension soon. He’s been saying that all offseason and it hasn’t happened yet. Rodgers has a lot of leverage after last season’s Brett Hundley-led debacle. DeShone Kizer, acquired in the offseason, isn’t too exciting after a bad rookie season with the Browns. The Packers are going to have to pay Rodgers whatever he wants, and it didn’t get easier this offseason as Rodgers bristled when the Packers made major moves like letting go Jordy Nelson and quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt without his input. The longer we go without Rodgers signing an extension, the more alarming the situation will become.

I’m torn by the Jimmy Graham addition. He had just 520 yards and averaged a career-low 9.1 yards per catch last season, and that came at age 31. Graham suffered a torn patellar tendon injury in 2015, and that injury typically cuts time off the end of a player’s career. Graham made a Pro Bowl last season, but mostly because he had 10 touchdowns and touchdowns can be unpredictable. However, it didn’t seem like the Seahawks really knew how to use him. If the Packers are more creative with Graham and he has something left, Aaron Rodgers will get the most out of him. With Jordy Nelson gone and Randall Cobb probably never recapturing his 2014 form, Graham might be the key to the offense going from good to great.

From Yahoo’s Andy Behrens: “Fantasy players have hyperventilated over the Green Bay backfield situation in pretty much every season of the Aaron Rodgers era, but this team has only given us two RB1s over the past decade (Ryan Grant in ’09, Eddie Lacy in ’14). No back on the team’s current roster figures to dominate touches. Aaron Jones was the Packers’ most impressive runner last year, but he’s facing a two-game suspension. Jamaal Williams and Ty Montgomery are going to open the season in a two-man committee that will expand to three when Jones returns. The most likely scenario is for the RBBC arrangement to endure all year. Please limit yourself to only one share of this backfield. (I’d prefer Jones, but there’s obviously a cost to holding a suspended player on your bench.) You are under no obligation to draft any of these backs.

“The fun new addition in Green Bay is tight end Jimmy Graham, who remains an exceptional red-zone weapon. Graham led all players at his position last season in targets inside the 10-yard line (16), by a mile. Injuries have diminished his explosiveness, but he’s still a gifted 6-foot-7 receiver with terrific box-out ability. If Graham and Aaron Rodgers each remain healthy, the pair has the potential to connect on 8-12 scores.”

[Booms/Busts: Fantasy outlook on the Packers.]

[Yahoo Fantasy Football leagues are open: Sign up now for free]

Somehow, Davante Adams still doesn’t have a 1,000-yard season. That’s cheating a bit; he had 997 in 2016 and 885 in just 14 games last season. He’ll get 1,000 this year. Adams struggled mightily in 2015, but whatever was going on that season is clearly in his past. He had 10 touchdowns in 2017 with Rodgers out most of the season. As the clear No. 1 target in the Packers’ offense, he’ll take his spot as one of the NFL’s best receivers this year.

CAN THE PACKERS’ COACHING CHANGES HAVE A BIG IMPACT?

While Mike McCarthy remains, he brought in two new coordinators and seemed willing to reinvent everything the Packers do. The offense had become stale and McCarthy said they looked at all aspects of it.

“Everything was open for discussion: every definition, every formation,” McCarthy said, according to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. “So we’ve taken a scrub-brush approach to the whole system, whether we’re talking about formation, defensive identification, at the line putting the ball in play, all those different areas that you tend to gloss over year to year, particularly when you’re in the same offense for so long.”

The constant criticism of defensive coordinator Dom Capers had to affect the players’ confidence in him. The Packers finished higher than 15th in yards allowed only once since 2010 under Capers, an 11th place finish in 2012. Former Browns head coach Mike Pettine comes in with an aggressive style that comes from his time alongside Rex Ryan.

“Mike [Pettine] is a really big addition,” cornerback Tramon Williams told ESPN Radio Milwaukee, via the Journal-Sentinel. “Obviously, I think a new scheme and look to this defense is what we really needed. To bring him in, a guy whose defense has performed at a high level pretty much everywhere he has went … From the Jets to Baltimore, even in Cleveland we had a really great defense.

“To bring him in here … I think his defense is modern day. I was here in the era when Dom first came in. When he first came in, the defense was modern era and obviously, the league caught up to it. … You have to make certain adjustments and over the years those adjustments weren’t made.”

With Pettine and new offensive coordinator Joe Philbin, there will be some new voices on both sides of the ball. That can’t hurt after many years of the same old thing.

If Aaron Rodgers plays every game, the Packers can win a Super Bowl. He covers up so many flaws, and we’ve seen him put the team on his back for some deep playoff runs. In a one-game playoff scenario, any team in the NFL would be scared to death to face Rodgers. And if the Packers are capable of putting together three or four wins in a row if Rodgers is in a groove. Everyone knows that’s the ceiling.

Aaron Rodgers has suffered a broken collarbone twice, so there has to be worry about it happening a third time. The Packers wouldn’t be competitive without him. It’s not like there aren’t other flaws. A three-headed backfield of Jamaal Williams, Aaron Jones and Ty Montgomery might not find a rhythm, and Jones has been suspended the first two games for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy. There’s no proven second outside receiver to go with Davante Adams. The defense is fine, led by underrated end Mike Daniels, but it’s still depending on young cornerbacks and doesn’t have the depth at pass rusher to take on any injuries there. Also, the Packers aren’t the best team in the division anymore. If Green Bay can’t pass Minnesota in the NFC North, the Packers will have to battle with some great squads for two wild-card spots in a deep NFC. There’s no guarantee Green Bay makes the playoffs.

While the Packers are obviously much better with Aaron Rodgers back, the Vikings passed them in the NFC North, Rodgers or not. Minnesota is a more complete, deeper team. Of course, Rodgers could nullify every advantage the Vikings have and steal the division title for the Packers. I’m not expecting that to happen, but how can you count it out? My guess is the Packers make the playoffs as a wild card, then maybe pull off an upset or two before Rodgers can’t carry them any further.

32. Cleveland Browns
31. Indianapolis Colts
30. New York Jets
29. Arizona Cardinals
28. Buffalo Bills
27. Cincinnati Bengals
26. Chicago Bears
25. New York Giants
24. Miami Dolphins
23. Washington Redskins
22. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
21. Houston Texans
20. Seattle Seahawks
19. Oakland Raiders
18. Denver Broncos
17. San Francisco 49ers
16. Detroit Lions
15. Tennessee Titans
14. Baltimore Ravens
13. Carolina Panthers
12. Dallas Cowboys
11. Kansas City Chiefs
10. Atlanta Falcons
9. Los Angeles Chargers

– – – – – – –

Frank Schwab is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

What to Read Next