Tue, 09 Mar 2021

Big holes, not easily or quickly replaced Cliff Christl

The Green Bay Packers have been to the playoffs seven times since they last won a Super Bowl and just about everyone seems to have their opinion as to why they haven't added another Vince Lombardi Trophy to their collection.

Among the reasons and one that should be near the top of the list is the number of supremely talented players on the 2010 Packers who had their careers prematurely ended by injuries or their stays in Green Bay cut short for other reasons.

When the Packers won Super Bowl XLV, Aaron Rodgers was a rapidly ascending player, but it was only his third year as a starter. Accordingly, in a Pro Football Weekly survey of coaches and scouts released prior to the Super Bowl, he was ranked the second-best player in the league for 2010 behind Tom Brady. Yet, at the same time, Rodgers wasn't even voted into the Pro Bowl that year. The NFC quarterback selections were Philadelphia's Michael Vick, New Orleans' Drew Brees and Atlanta's Matt Ryan.

Former Packers general manager Ron Wolf, with nearly 40 years of experience in NFL personnel, understood the incongruity.

"(Rodgers) is as good as there is right now," Wolf told Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel at the time. "He's a cinch red moving toward blue. But longevity is a factor. He's kind of like (Clay) Matthews. He's a solid red, a cinch Pro Bowl player. They're both reds ascending to the next level."

Actually, Matthews was the only Packer to make the Associated Press All-Pro team, and one of only three selected as a Pro Bowl starter.

A year earlier, Charles Woodson was named the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year by The Associated Press, but he drew criticism throughout the 2010 season for his diminishing skills in one-on-one coverage. Granted, he might not have been a shutdown corner at age 34, but he was still an impact player as a nickel corner who could blitz, cover, spy and blow up a running play. Left tackle Chad Clifton, one of only two offensive players to make the Pro Bowl that year, also was 34 and even closer to the end of the line.

In essence, the Packers' best players, Rodgers and Matthews, were considered to be on the cusp of elite status, but not quite there yet.

In the color schemes on the boards of NFL personnel departments, the Packers' 13th NFL champions were short on so-called "Blue" players, or the best of the best. What they had much more of were "Red" players, perennial Pro Bowl picks or rapidly rising stars, and players grouped in the next level down, solid starters with perhaps Pro Bowl potential, depending on each team's criteria and colors for each category.

Fourth-year cornerback and alternate Pro Bowl pick Tramon Williams and third-year guard Josh Sitton were among them. So were the following five players, who subsequently played no more than a combined 12 close-to-complete seasons, and had the talent to have made a difference down the road perhaps between a playoff loss and maybe another Super Bowl.

What's also interesting is that most of them are just recently being replaced by comparable or better players, which partly explains the Packers' success over the past two seasons. And it's due mostly to Ted Thompson's and Brian Gutekunst's draft picks. Teams don't replace players like those listed here in one draft or even several.

1. Nick Collins, S - In only his sixth season, Collins was voted to his third straight Pro Bowl in 2010 and his second as a starter. At age 27, he had accomplished something only Bobby Dillon among the Packers' all-time great safeties had done. Both Willie Wood and LeRoy Butler were 29 when they played in their third Pro Bowl and neither had played in three straight at that point. Former Packers personnel executive Alonzo Highsmith once said that he thought Collins was on a path to be a Pro Football Hall of Famer. Collins' strengths were his range and nose for the ball, but he also was a sure and willing tackler. "He's a swing-for-the-fences center fielder capable of making game-changing interceptions, but also prone to giving up a big play here and there, too," Pro Football Weekly wrote in its 2011 position-by-position player ratings based on interviews with league personnel people. Collins was rated fourth at safety behind future Hall of Famers Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu, and Arizona's Adrian Wilson. Certainly, Collins' 37-yard interception return for a touchdown against Pittsburgh was one of the biggest plays in the Packers' Super Bowl history. But he played in only two more games after that before suffering a neck injury that required a cervical fusion and ended his career. Among the Packers' starters since have been Charlie Peprah, M.D. Jennings and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix next to Morgan Burnett; and then Kentrell Brice next to Williams in 2018. So here it is, 10 years later and the Packers still haven't uncovered a safety as good as Collins. That said, the play of Darnell Savage, the 21st overall pick in 2019, followed an upward curve this past season, and he might have flashed the best ball skills of any Packers' young safety since Collins. Plus, the tandem of Adrian Amos and Darnell Savage might have performed at a higher level than any other two safeties in a decade or more, although Clinton-Dix had a Pro Bowl year in 2016 while Burnett had another solid season.

2. Greg Jennings, WR - Since the Packers' resurrection in 1992, they have had a run of productive No. 1 receivers from Sterling Sharpe to Robert Brooks to Antonio Freeman to Donald Driver to Javon Walker to Jennings to Jordy Nelson. All were good players, but behind the closed doors of the Packers' personnel department over those years, two were viewed as more special than the others: Sharpe and Jennings. Talent-wise, Walker was in that class, too, but he derailed his own career after one outstanding season. Next to Rodgers and Matthews, Jennings was rated highest among the other Packers and the 35th best player in the league on Pro Football Weekly's Super 50 after the 2010 season. "I think he's an exceptional talent," Wolf told Silverstein. "If he takes advantage of his ability, he has a chance to be better than them all. He just looks like he's gliding. He gets on top of those (defenders) right away and they don't know what to do with him." Jennings illustrated that ability on his 31-yard, down-the-middle, fourth quarter reception in the Super Bowl that might not have been the biggest play of the game, but was probably the most impressive because of a combination of Rodgers' throw and Jennings' burst and catch. Jennings caught 425 passes with the Packers and 53 resulted in touchdowns. Driver, the Packers' all-time leading receiver, caught 743 passes, 318 more than Jennings, and scored 61 TDs. Jennings averaged 15.3 yards per catch, a notch below Freeman's 15.4, but better than Nelson's 14.3, Sharpe's 13.7 and Driver's 13.6. Jennings had another good year in 2011, injured his groin and missed half of the next season and then signed with Minnesota as a free agent. While Nelson had more statistically productive seasons and a special symmetry with Rodgers, Jennings made more Pro Bowls in fewer seasons and 2010 might have been the best by a Packers receiver until Davante Adams exploded onto the scene three years ago. In the years since, Adams has raised the bar, maybe even higher than Sharpe ever did.

3. Sam Shields, CB - Shields was one of the best scouting coups of all time when the Packers signed him before the 2010 season as an undrafted free agent out of the University of Miami. Blessed with long arms and exceptional speed - he had run a 4.26 40-yard dash at his pro day - he was a big part of why the Packers finished fifth in total defense and fifth in passing defense that season. Shields' man-to-man cover skills allowed defensive coordinator Dom Capers to play nickel as his base defense and give Woodson the freedom to raise havoc. "He carried a chip on his shoulder that he wasn't drafted," fellow rookie C.J. Wilson said of Shields in an interview this past weekend. Even when he'd get beat, Shields' catch-up speed was eye-catching because it was something that you rarely even see in the NFL. "I think it's amazing to think that guy was not drafted," Wolf told Silverstein. "He's solid gold (Wolf's third color after blue and red.) He's so natural in everything he does. He has rare ability at that position." Williams and Shields played together through 2014, when Shields made the Pro Bowl for the first time as a replacement. In 2015, he started opposite Casey Hayward. Then, in the 2016 opener, Shields suffered the fifth concussion of his career and played his last game for the Packers at age 28. The strength of the defense at the start of the decade, cornerback, became a glaring weakness as Damarious Randall, LaDarius Gunter and Davon House tried, among others, to fill the gap. However, with the emergence last season of the Packers' top draft picks from 2017 and 2018, Jaire Alexander, already one of the best in the game, and Kevin King, it became a position of strength again. What's more, the two played even better this season and 2019 free agent Chandon Sullivan has upgraded the depth at the position.

4. Jermichael Finley, TE - Finley was a wide receiver in a tight end's body. In fact, he was interchangeable in Mike McCarthy's offense. "He's a tight end, but he also plays the (No.) 1 receiver (position) and the No. 2 slot sometimes," McCarthy once explained. While Finley played in only five games in 2010 before injuring his knee, he was by far the biggest loss among the 15 players who finished that season on injured reserve and arguably the only one the Packers didn't adequately replace. A year earlier, in his first as a starter, Finley caught 55 passes and averaged 12.3 yards per catch. "What a loss that was," Wolf told Silverstein in reference to Finley's 2010 injury. "That guy is capable of doing things at that position that very few people have done. He's easily a red. No question." When the Packers lost Keith Jackson after Super Bowl XXXI, they didn't have a tight end who was a deep threat down the middle until Finley broke into the lineup 13 years later. Not surprisingly, when the Packers lost Finley with a career-ending neck injury in 2013, they suffered again. Five different tight ends led the position in receptions over the next six years: Andrew Quarless, Richard Rodgers, Jared Cook, Martellus Bennett and Jimmy Graham. Rodgers caught the most passes in a season - 58 in 2015 - but averaged 8.8 yards per catch. Cook was the most explosive, but he caught just 30 passes in 2016, his only season with the team. The game had changed and the Packers paid the price. "That's why these offenses are more explosive now, because they are making you now account for the tight end," Perry Fewell, defensive coordinator of the 2011 Super Bowl champion New York Giants, said back then. Third-year and former undrafted free agent Robert Tonyan isn't the physical specimen that Finley was, but he can stretch defenses, maybe horizontally as much as vertically, and excels at finding holes in a secondary and gauging where to sit down so Aaron Rodgers can find him. Not only did Tonyan catch 52 passes this year and average 11.3 yards per catch, he scored 11 TDs, tying the club record and the most by a Packers tight end since Jackson had 10 in 1996.

5. B.J. Raji, NT - When he was drafted with the ninth overall pick in 2009, there were scouts who compared him to Warren Sapp. Raji never reached Sapp's Hall of Fame level of play in his six seasons, but he was a rare athlete at his position until he decided to walk away from the game at age 29 after the 2015 season. In 2010, there were times Raji was so quick off the ball - in fact, it was even noticeable on television where he'd be on the move while other defensive linemen were still coming out of their stance - it allowed him to be a disruptive force both against the run and as an inside pass rusher. "B.J. Raji had the wiggle most noses don't have," said C.J. Wilson, a sometimes starter who played next to him for four years. "He could step left while his guy was still stepping to the right and just get around him. He had the feet that most big men don't have." The Packers had played a 3-4 defense from 1980-2004 with a string of mostly nondescript nose tackles except for short stretches in the early 1980s with an undersized Terry Jones and in the mid-1990s with an oversized Gilbert Brown. Brown was a big man who could move and when he was in shape in 1996, he was dominant. But, arguably, Raji played at a higher level in 2010 than Brown ever did after Super Bowl XXXI. In 2013, Ryan Pickett's last with the Packers, he and Raji switched positions. No question, Pickett was a solid, underappreciated player, wherever he lined up, for eight years in Green Bay. Then when Letroy Guion took over the position in 2014, it was like back to the post-Jones years of the 1980s when the likes of Charles Martin and Donnie Humphrey were manning the position. But everything changed when the Packers selected Kenny Clark with the 27th pick in 2016. Five years into his career, Clark is already, without question, the best nose tackle in Packers history.

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