Packer preseason predictions and awards: From 6-10 to 11-5

Browns Packers Football

By Jake McCormick

I was originally going to devote a full article to the Packers’ special teams units, but I think I can sum them in one sentence. Kicker Mason Crosby is one of the best in the league, Will Blackmon is a great return man, and the punter battle between Jason Kapinos and Durant Brooks needs to be solved soon because I feel like I could try out for the position. Now with that condensed to simple explanations, here’s my list of preseason award prediction for the 2009 Green Bay Packers.

2009 record – 11-5 (4-2 in the North)

Getting the Cowboys at home helps, and they will split the series with the Vikings and Bears, with the home team winning each battle. I don’t trust Favre in cold weather, and the Bears won’t win at Lambeau in Week 1 on national television. The team’s toughest games come at Minnesota, at Pittsburgh, Baltimore at home, and at Arizona the last week of the season. Otherwise, the Packers have a very winnable schedule until the last five weeks of the season, and there’s no game that is considered a guaranteed loss.

Offensive MVP – QB Aaron Rodgers

Aaron RodgersThis is a big duh. Rodgers won’t have to put up the numbers he did last year that basically carried my fantasy football season (I drafted him again this year as a thank you to my autodraft a year ago). Given the overwhelming pressure on Rodgers last year for the obvious reasons, it’s safe to say he exceeded all expectations mentally and statistically. Now without the ESPN interrogation light shining directly in his eyes, Rodgers can improve his clutch decision making and leadership abilities during pressure situations. Both of those were really his only flaws, and I’ll trade fantasy points for more heroics any day.

Defensive MVP – MLB Nick Barnett

Nick BarnettI could easily pick a defensive back here, but I have a feeling Barnett will be the glue in the 3-4 defense similar to James Harrison’s role with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He’s obviously not the same player, nor is he as dumb (not visiting the White House because he didn’t like the fact that the Cardinals would’ve been invited if they had won? C’mon…). But Barnett will provide a spark in emotional leadership that was all too sparse in 2008.

Most Improved Defensive Player – Justin Harrell…just kidding! It’ll be the Jeremy Thompson/Clay Matthews LB platoon

Jeremy ThompsonI’d love to think that Harrell’s back, which has roughly the toughness of a 79-year-old man, would be healthy enough for him to contribute the way a semi-bust first round pick should. The Packers need all the help they can get from the defensive line, but the player that will get everybody turning their heads in a “who the hell is this guy?” fashion will be converted linebacker Jeremy Thompson. He is the overlooked 3-4 DE-to-LB conversion project, as Aaron Kampman grabs most of the questions and spotlight, but Thompson has played well enough to pass rookie Clay Matthews on the depth chart.

I think they’ll eventually be splitting time, but for now Thompson looks like he’s on his way to a successful 2009 after being drafted in the fourth round last year. Of course, this is all contingent on both players staying healthy, as neither will play in Saturday’s game against Buffalo. Another successful late round selection acts as a good tranquilizer when I start thinking about the bust that is Justin Harrell.

Most Improved Offensive Player – RB Ryan Grant

Ryan GrantGrant’s career high 1,200 rushing yards in 2008 shouldn’t fool anyone into thinking he had a good season. He averaged 3.9 ypc, only scored four touchdowns, and elicited an always-hilarious sarcastic remark from my roommate because of his lack of fantasy value. But now that Grant has his precious contract and has been through his first full training camp as a Packer, he will return to his 2007 form and take a lot of pressure off of Aaron Rodgers and the passing game.

Brandon Jackson outplayed Grant towards the end of the year and DeShawn Wynn is reportedly becoming a confident runner. They won’t take too many carries away from Grant, but it allows the Packers to be flexible and will wear defenses down so Grant can execute the Shake N Bake to finish them off. This is the year that Grant will become a consistent runner, which means I might not get so pissed at Mike McCarthy for his run-run-pass play-calling.

Defensive Comeback Player – DE Cullen Jenkins

Cullen JenkinsBefore he was injured in Week 4, Jenkins was looking like a great compliment to Aaron Kampman. The Packer pass rush noticeably suffered without him, and Jenkins’ health is crucial if this defense is going to fulfill its potential. Although the 3-4 system will ask him to do more hole-plugging than pass rushing, Jenkins can be an absolute beast and has experience playing as a DT/DE hybrid. Jenkins had 2.5 sacks before going down for the season last year, and with the other starting defensive end position still unknown, he will be counted on as a consistent and experienced player. You may not hear his name called every play, but Jenkins’ versatility will elevate the play of everyone around him.

Rookie of the Year – DE/DT B.J. Raji

BJ RajiRaji will see playing time at both the nose tackle and defensive end positions, and he has the body and power to do it. The Packers went almost purely defensive in the 2009 draft, and with Clay Matthews’ development slowed by a hamstring injury, Raji wins this award almost by default. He will contribute right away and I can guarantee he won’t be another Justin Harrell. Raji, Jenkins, and nose tackle Ryan Pickett have the talent to make volleyball-like rotations around the entire line. As long as he stays healthy, the Ewok-looking Raji will fulfill every expectation the organization and fan base has for him. I’m definitely looking forward to his debut against the Bills on Saturday.

Biggest Improvement Needed – Finish the game!!!

If we look at the Packers’ 2008 season by quarter, you’d swear Mike Packers loseMcCarthy prefers to let his car warm up a bit before putting it into drive, as they were shut out in the first quarter in six games. Green Bay was only shut out seven times combined in the second and third quarters. When it came to closing the game out Trevor Hoffman-style, the Packers opted for a much more acceptable Derrick Turnbow/Eric Gagne impersonation. In the two overtime games against the Tennessee Titans and Chicago Bears, the Packer offense didn’t even sniff the ball. Likewise, Green Bay threw up a big o-fer in games decided by four points or less in 2008, going 0-7. A Bleacher Report article does a good job of breaking down their late game deficiencies.

The bottom line here is that the offense, defense, and special teams need to pull their weight in crunch time. If the Packers prove they can play football after the 6:00 mark in the fourth quarter, there’s no doubt in my mind that they’ll finish at the top of the division, or at least take a wild card spot.