In OTAs (Offseason Talk & Analysis) all through June and July, the Sports on Earth NFL team will break down each team's offseason transactions, boldest moves and burning questions as they prepare for training camp. Click here for links to every entry in the series.
Aaron Rodgers, probably football's most excellent player, was on the sidelines for seven games last year due to a broken collarbone. The Packers lost four of the seven behind backups Matt Flynn, Scott Tolzien and Seneca Wallace. And still, they went 8-7-1 and took home the NFC North title for the third straight year. Ultimately, though, they were not good enough, losing to the 49ers in the divisional round of the playoffs.
For the most part in the offseason the Packers stayed the course the way the Packers do, reinforcing their commitment to the draft and development program. A healthy Rodgers and some roster tinkering might just be enough for the Packers to close the gap between them and the elite in the NFC.
Biggest Offseason Move: Signing Julius Peppers
The Packers don't often have much use for free agents. In fact, prior to this year, their last significant free-agent acquisitions were Charles Woodson and Ryan Pickett eight years ago. But Peppers was an exception. They were very familiar with him from their battles with the Bears over the years, and Peppers seemed to often save his best for Green Bay.
Getting the best out of the 34-year-old Peppers will be the challenge, as his week-to-week performances for Chicago were spotty in 2013. That's why the Bears chose to cut him rather than pay him $14 million and take a cap hit of more than $18 million this year. Four days after the Bears let Peppers go, he was putting pen to paper three hours north of Chicago on a deal that will pay him $8.5 million this season.
The move caught virtually everyone off guard, in part because the Packers play a 3-4 defense and Peppers never has been anything except a 4-3 defensive end. Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers sees Peppers as a 3-4 outside linebacker, even though Peppers, at 6-foot-7, 287 pounds, is almost big enough to be two outside linebackers. When he's standing with the other linebackers at Packers offseason practices, Peppers looks like a 12th-grader in a group of eighth-graders.
The acquisition of Peppers is part of a larger effort to get more from the defense, which last season finished 24th in passing yards allowed and 25th in rushing yards allowed. Capers wants his players to be capable of moving to different positions in various defensive looks. So Peppers is not just going to play outside linebacker. He's going to be on the move, which could benefit him, fellow outside linebacker Clay Matthews and every other defensive player on the field.
Biggest Offseason Gamble: Going young at center
The Packers allowed starting center Evan Dietrich-Smith to sign with the Bucs, which means they will have their fourth starting center in four years and their seventh new offensive line in the seven years Rodgers has been starting. Going from Scott Wells to Jeff Saturday to Dietrich-Smith worked out OK. They might be pushing their luck going to J.C. Tretter.
The 2013 fourth-round pick played tight end and offensive tackle at Cornell, which competes in the Ivy League, not the SEC. Tretter injured his ankle last offseason and never has taken an NFL snap. The reviews from coaches and teammates about Tretter have been positive, but he is very much an unknown. Even if he can handle the position from a physical standpoint, he also will be challenged from a mental standpoint, as the center and quarterback have to be on the same page about protection calls in the Packers' scheme. If Tretter is not what the Packers hope he can be, it will be Rodgers who pays the price.
Biggest 2014 Question: Who will line up at tight end?
Neither free agent Jermichael Finley nor the Packers have not ruled out a reunion, but it remains to be seen if he is healthy enough to play after missing the final 10 games of the 2013 season with a bruised spinal cord. The Packers offense clearly missed his ability to make plays, create matchup problems and force defensive adjustments. If Finley is not the answer, the competition will be wide open.
The most reliable option probably would be Andrew Quarless, who filled in for Finley last season but is a pedestrian talent by comparison. More dynamic but less experienced options include third-round pick Richard Rodgers, who has been an OTA star; Brandon Bostick, who has stuck around for two years on the fringes of the team for a reason; and undrafted free agent Colt Lyeria. The most gifted of them all is Lyeria, but his off-the-field issues at Oregon make him no sure thing.
Another possibility would be using a tight end with less frequency, but that seems unlikely given that head coach Mike McCarthy always has had an affinity for involving tight ends.
Bold Prediction: Eddie Lacy will lead the league in rushing
The 2013 offensive rookie of the year was counted on a lot last season in part because Rodgers was missing. But he could be more effective this season if Rodgers is healthy for 16 games, as Rodgers' presence opens holes for Lacy. Lacy could even provide some of the yards that went to tight ends in the past.
Lacy missed one game last season and had only one carry in another. He had the fifth-most carries in the league as a rookie, but it is not unreasonable to think that if he stays healthy he can get another 50 carries, even on the pass-first Packers. If that happens, Lacy is certain to be one of the most productive runners in the NFL. With his physical, explosive running style, Lacy gives the Packers an unusual dimension. They would be wise to ride that horse.