The Packers' 2009 season ended about as strangely as you could imagine -- a ball coming out of the hands of Aaron Rodgers bouncing off his foot and into the arms of a Cardinals defender for a game-winning touchdown in the postseason.
But considering the way the team was looking before the start of the season, it's a finish Packers fans should be happy with.
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And now expectations are sky-high. Aaron Rodgers progressed to an elite level last year thanks to an incredible offense with quality receivers, tight ends and running backs (not to mention an underrated offensive line). Ryan Grant is healthy entering the 2010 season, and the defense is back after going from a transitioning 3-4 scheme defense to a dominating one.
Really, the best news of all is that there was very little personnel turnover for the Packers this offseason. Pass rusher Aaron Kampman is gone, but he wasn't much of a contributor last season anyway. With the team coming back as it was last season and with a year of experience (and success) under their belts, the Packers should contend for the NFC North -- and possibly the trophy named after their legendary former head coach.
Late-round flier ... James Jones, WR
Jones rebounded a little bit in 2009 with 440 yards on 32 catches -- improvements from 2008 -- but with an impressive five touchdowns. Let's face it, no one else on the Packers is exactly going to come out of nowhere and surprise you. But last season we saw Greg Jennings fight some injuries and Donald Driver is coming off of a knee procedure this offseason. The Packers are set to be a passing juggernaut in 2010, and if either of those guys slows down, Jones will have a chance to put up some good totals again. He's an excellent choice to consider late in deeper drafts.
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Bounce-back candidate ... Greg Jennings, WR
Typically no one blinks when a receiver tops 1,100 yards. But when a player drafted to be a No. 1 option doesn't get many more than that and adds just four touchdowns to boot, Fantasy owners gather doubt. That's what happened to Jennings, who a year ago was considered an elite option. He had an eight-game spell last season where he scored one touchdown and recorded one 100-yard game. But he finished '09 on a positive note, notching three 100-yard performances in his last four games, including a 130-yard, one-score performance at Arizona in the playoffs. All signs point to Jennings being healthy and ready to roll this season, so landing him with a fourth- or even a fifth-round pick is a good move.
Breakout ... Jermichael Finley, TE
Expect someone in your draft to have his or her eye set on Finley. The third-year tight end introduced himself to Fantasy owners last year with incredible efforts at the Vikings, vs. the Ravens, at the Steelers and at the Cardinals in the playoffs. Playing strong in the second half of the year, Finley established himself as a favorite of Aaron Rodgers in the pass attack and finished with 676 yards and five touchdowns despite missing three games with a knee injury. Finley has had some minor tendinitis this spring, but the club should be on top of that and keep him fresh. You can count on him to be popular in drafts because of the upside he offers. There is 800-yard, seven-touchdown potential here.
If the Packers make it to the playoffs, they'll earn it. They have a tough schedule starting at the middle of the season, so anything they can do to get on a big winning streak before their first date with Brett Favre at home will go a long way. Another issue in front of them is the improved defenses in Chicago and Detroit -- division-rival patsies last year that have gotten better defensively. Fantasy owners might have to make a choice at midseason: Stick with your Packers or trade them for players with an easier schedule in the second half of the year.
Training camp topics
Progression, nuances and chemistry are really the three things the Packers will focus on in camp. Aside from rookie left guard Brian Bulaga getting familiar with the speed of the NFL game, nothing much will change on this offense. There might be a competition between Brandon Jackson and rookie James Starks for the few reps starter Ryan Grant will leave behind, but otherwise there's not much to keep our eyes on -- other than practice reports.
Defensively, the Packers are seemingly set as well. Brad Jones is a candidate to start at outside linebacker (and is a deep Fantasy sleeper) and there is some concern that cornerback Al Harris won't be ready for the start of the season. But both guys are backed up properly and even if they don't play, the Packers defense shouldn't miss a beat. And like Bulaga on offense, there's a chance a rookie -- Morgan Burnett -- starts at strong safety for the Packers over a hobbled Atari Bigby. That could be a potential Achilles' heel for Green Bay when opponents use three- and four-receiver sets, but Burnett was fairly battle-tested in college and is expected to transition to safety seamlessly.
The Packers will have to battle with the Vikings and pesky Bears for NFC North superiority this year, but with so many players returning, along with the coaches, they should be primed to make a deep run.
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