For an NFL team that has been and still is a Super Bowl contender, the Green Bay Packers have an inordinate number of questions to answer between the start of training camp on Friday and the start of the regular season in September.
Here are 10 of the most pressing:
1 Can the Packers find a consistent pass rusher to play opposite outside linebacker Clay Matthews?
Green Bay has been looking, without success, for a complementary pass rusher since it drafted Matthews in 2009. The best hope is Nick Perry, last year’s first-round draft pick who was transitioning to the position after playing end in college, then appeared in only six games before needing wrist surgery. If Perry comes on strong, the Packers’ problems are over. If not, Dezman Moses showed he could make an occasional play as an undrafted rookie last year. Otherwise, the Packers will have to get creative, perhaps using end Mike Neal as an outside pass rusher.
2 Will first-round draft pick Datone Jones be an immediate contributor at defensive end?
The Packers have been seeking a successor for versatile Cullen Jenkins since they let him walk after the Super Bowl. Neal and Jerel Worthy have been injury-plagued flops to date, and Worthy isn’t likely to be ready after undergoing knee surgery late last season. Jones is built like long-ago No. 1 draft pick Vonnie Holliday, which is good because the Packers are counting heavily on him to use his size to set the edge against the run and his speed to give B.J. Raji help with the inside pass rush.
3 Can A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones make enough big plays to make people forget about departed inside linebacker Desmond Bishop?
Outwardly, it didn’t make sense for the Packers to jettison their most physical defender at a time when they’re trying to force more fumbles. However, Bishop was coming off a serious injury, had a hefty contract and wasn’t the most assignment-sure player on defense. Now, the pressure is on Hawk, Jones and promising second-year man Terrell Manning to start using their speed to make big plays. Meanwhile, fans will keep a close eye on how Bishop performs with Minnesota.
4 Who will start next to Morgan Burnett at safety?
Moving Charles Woodson inside didn’t work last year as he made few, if any, impact plays at safety. M.D. Jennings and Jerron McMillian split time at the position when Woodson was hurt and neither stood out. Now Woodson is gone and the Packers, by declining to draft or sign a safety, indicated they think McMillian will take a step up in his second season. In fact, they desperately need that to happen.
5 Will the two touted rookie running backs ignite the dormant ground game?
The Packers have tried to get by with modestly talented backs since Ahman Green ran out of gas. Last year, it finally came back to bite them when the lack of a running game began to affect the passing game. By drafting two well-credentialed college backs — Eddie Lacy in the second round, Johnathan Franklin in the fourth — the Packers finally dedicated some resources to the position. Since running back is the easiest position for rookies to make the transition from college to pro football, Lacy and Franklin should make an immediate impact.
6 Will the left hand know what the right hand is doing on the offensive line?
The Packers flip-flopped their guards and tackles in an effort to give quarterback Aaron Rodgers better pass protection. It remains to be seen how long it will take the players to learn their new roles and gain the cohesiveness a line needs. It helps that all of the players who moved are seasoned veterans. The only starter in danger of losing his job is Marshall Newhouse, the former left tackle who will have to fend off Don Barclay and possibly Derek Sherrod at right tackle.
7 Can the tight ends regain their status in the offense?
Jermichael Finley caught a team-record 61 passes for the position last year, but the other tight ends totaled only 16. With the wide receiver ranks thinned, tight end will need to become more of a factor. That will largely depend on Andrew Quarless, the only real two-way tight end on the roster. If Quarless can return to form after missing last season due to knee surgery, he and Finley could make the offense more versatile and explosive. Also, it’s about time speedy D.J. Williams lived up to his billing.
8 Who will be Rodgers’ backup at quarterback?
Graham Harrell eased some fears with his performance last August, but limitations in arm strength will always keep him on the should-be-replaced list. This is the year for 2012 draftee B.J. Coleman to make a move, but he’ll have to show a mastery of the offense before the coaches feel comfortable enough to move him ahead of the reliable Harrell.
9 Can the Packers find someone to replace Randall Cobb on kick returns?
With Greg Jennings’ defection to Minnesota and Donald Driver’s retirement, the wide receiving corps is down to the big three of Jordy Nelson, James Jones and Cobb. Cobb is a dynamic return man, but given the importance of the passing game to the team’s success, it makes no sense to expose him to injury on special teams. Wide receiver Jeremy Ross showed some explosiveness and feel on returns late last season, but major blunders against Chicago and San Francisco make him suspect. Still, he might be the team’s best bet.
10 How will kicker Mason Crosby react to competition for his job?
Crosby had an off season, making a career-worst 63.6 percent of his field goals. It’s worth noting seven of his 12 misses were from more than 50 yards, but the Packers were clearly sending a message when they signed Giorgio Tavecchio to compete with Crosby, the first time in years Crosby has had to win the job in camp. Fans are eagerly awaiting his response.