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Tuesday, August 26
Updated: August 28, 9:16 AM ET
Packers should be tops in NFC North

By PFW staff
Pro Football Weekly

Brett Favre passed for 27 TDs last season.
  Head coach: Mike Sherman (4th year).
2002 record: 12-4
NFC East finish: 1st
Season opener:
Sept. 7 vs. Vikings
Schedule | Depth chart
The window for the Packers keeps getting smaller and smaller. Brett Favre will be 34 in October and has talked about retirement so often that this might be his final season.

With Favre, the Packers are a threat to win it all. Without Favre, they are yesterday's news.

The Packers rushed the ball better last season (120.8 yards per game) than they have since 1985 but ranked just 10th in passing (226.7), their worst finish since 1993. Offensive coordinator Tom Rossley has stressed the long ball, which was all but absent from the Packers' arsenal a year ago.

On offense, 10 of 11 starters return. Only wide receiver Terry Glenn is missing. The additions of tight end Wesley Walls and fullback-running back Nick Luchey give Favre a plethora of options. "We're going to be explosive on offense," vice president of football operations Mark Hatley said. "There's no question Wesley is a big addition for us. You've got to take care of him, and you can't take care of everybody."

The kicking game is very good with kicker Ryan Longwell and punter Josh Bidwell. The moribund return game also looks improved with Antonio Chatman, an Arena Football League refugee, who brings quickness and reliability.

If the Packers had a better defense, they would be mentioned even more prominently in Super Bowl forecasts. But unless defensive coordinator Ed Donatell can come up with even more creative game plans the Packers figure to struggle stopping the better teams.

The run defense, which was horrible in every way a year ago, lost free agent defensive end Vonnie Holliday to Kansas City. Nose tackle Gilbert Brown suffered a torn biceps in the second exhibition game, and his status for the season remains up in the air. Those were big blows to a unit that allowed 4.8 yards per carry, 31st in the NFL and the second-worst mark in team history. But Donatell's unit helped the Packers tie for the NFL lead in turnover-differential at plus-17 and was exceptional vs. the pass.

"We're not the most talented team," Sherman said. "But we have talent at critical positions. Believe it or not, I think we're a team on the rise."

Quarterbacks: Favre had a passer rating of 101.7 in the first nine games last year and a 64.9 rating in the last eight. New quarterback coach Darrell Bevell tries to keep Favre motivated in hopes his play will return to the level it was first two months of 2002, when he was never better. Favre still can make all the throws, remains the consummate leader and had an injury-free training camp. Doug Pederson, 35, is No. 2 again because of his great command of the West Coast offense and surprisingly good athletic ability. Craig Nall, a star in NFL Europe, was ordinary in camp but beat out former Bengal Akili Smith. Grade: A-minus.

Running backs: Ahman Green, 26, has had 1,104 touches in three seasons, counting playoffs. That's a lot of punishment, which showed late last year when an assortment of injuries reduced his speed dramatically. Green has been his old self this summer. Fiercely competitive, he backs down from no defender. However, he's also less elusive than most franchise backs, which is why the Packers intend to use Najeh Davenport on a regular basis in relief. Davenport is an impressive physical specimen at 6-0, 250 and has better speed than some other jumbo backs. "I want him to make people afraid," RB coach Sylvester Croom said. The downside is that Davenport dropped way too many passes in camp. Veteran William Henderson withstood a spirited challenge from Luchey to reclaim the fullback job that has been his since 1996. Luchey also doubles as a running back, and on some days looked better than Davenport. Grade: A-minus.

Receivers: Ferguson, more mature now in his third season, was supposed to battle Javon Walker for the berth opposite Driver, but it was no contest. Despite missing 12 days of camp with a tailbone injury, Ferguson clearly outperformed Walker, a first-round pick in '02. "He's had a great camp," wide receivers coach Ray Sherman said. "No doubt in my mind he will be an excellent player. I know Brett's happy with him." Ferguson is more physical, has better hands and runs better after the catch than Walker, who remains No. 3 after a pedestrian camp. The main threat is Driver, a courageous wisp of a man who continued to impress in camp. Rookie surprise Carl Ford, a lithe seventh-round selection from Toledo, and holdover Karsten Bailey were competing for the No. 4 slot late in camp. Signing Walls Aug. 5 to team with Bubba Franks immediately harkened memories of '96, when the tandem of Mark Chmura and Keith Jackson helped lead Green Bay to a Super Bowl championship. Walls, 37, quickly gained Favre's confidence as both a safety-valve and downfield receiver. Franks is a two-time Pro Bowl starter and a much better blocker than Walls. Grade: B.

Offensive linemen: All five starters return from what has been a strong unit: Left tackle Chad Clifton, left guard Mike Wahle, center Mike Flanagan, right guard Marco Rivera and right tackle Mark Tauscher. "I think I've got the best group of anybody in the National Football League," offensive line coach Larry Beightol said. "When they are healthy, they are hell." The question entering camp was the health of Clifton (separated pelvis in November) and Tauscher (torn knee ligaments in September), but they've both made strong rehabs and should be fine come Sept. 7. Clifton is rated by Beightol as the team's best pass blocker. Tauscher was regarded as the team's best overall lineman before the injury. Rivera, a starter since '98, comes off a season in which he became the Packers' first Pro Bowl offensive lineman since center Larry McCarren in 1983. Rivera, 31, has a history of knee trouble and suffered a torn MCL vs. Carolina, which could keep him sidelined the first few games. Wahle is a better athlete than Rivera, but Rivera is more consistent, especially as a pass blocker. Wahle also is among the best guards in the NFC. Flanagan played the equivalent of 9½ games at left tackle last season for the injured Clifton and showed his athletic gifts by giving up just 2½2 sacks. Kevin Barry had an up-and-down camp but held the No. 3 offensive tackle job over rookie Brennan Curtin, a good sixth-round pick. The top inside backup is guard-center Bill Ferrario. Grade: B-plus.

Defensive linemen: The Packers are set at right defense end, where they paid a $11 million signing bonus in April to re-sign Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila. They regard him as a premier pass rusher but some scouts question his lack of run-stopping bulk. At the other end, Joe Johnson will try to bounce back from a poor season that ended with a torn triceps in Week Five. Johnson might be over the hill. Is there any burst, quickness or passion left in this once-exceptional player? If Johnson folds, Aaron Kampman and Chukie Nwokorie are capable backups. Kampman makes more plays than his talent should allow, and Nwokorie is a tough guy with adequate pass rush. Jamal Reynolds, the 10th pick in the '01 draft, has been a little bit better this summer and is a fixture opposite "KGB" on passing downs. The three-technique tackle is Cletidus Hunt, who basically was re-signed over Holliday in February. Hunt is a 300-pounder with very good quickness and speed. Impossible to block at times, Hunt also is subject to periods of mediocrity. Though Brown is attempting to play through his injury, they will try to get by with Rod Walker, Steve Martin, Larry Smith and possibly Steve Warren. In any event, they're in trouble against the interior run. Grade: D.

Linebackers: This group definitely can run. Strong-side linebacker Hannibal Navies, middle linebacker Nick Barnett and weak-side linebacker Na'il Diggs all have above-average speed for their positions. It remains to be seen, however, if they can plug the run. Navies, a former Panther, is a good athlete but has never been able to stay healthy and has been so-so wrestling with tight ends. Barnett, the first linebacker taken in the draft, has impressed the coaches with how hard he works, his grasp of the system, his ability to run sideline-to-sideline against the run and his range and feel in coverage. On the other hand, he has been splattered by some blocks and slow to shed some others. Diggs, the strong-side starter the last three seasons, is a more dynamic player than Wayne but isn't polished on his reads yet. Torrance Marshall is out four games serving a league-mandated suspension, but could back up in the middle. Grade: C-minus.

Defensive backs: Al Harris is more of a gambler with big-play ability than departed cornerback Tyrone Williams but doesn't run as well and appears to be more vulnerable deep. Cornerback Mike McKenzie is the best in the NFC North, a four-year starter who has been the epitome of consistency. Free safety Darren Sharper also is among the best in the business. Sharper will have to spend more time than he would like in center field because SS Antuan Edwards is a below-average starter. Edwards beat out Marques Anderson on the basis of greater dependability and a little more physical play. Edwards isn't a tough guy and has a long history of injury. Replacing Tod McBride as the nickel back will be cornerback Bhawoh Jue, who has good size and respectable cover ability. Rookie cornerback Chris Johnson, a seventh-round pick from Louisville, has performed like a third-round selection and could figure in the dime. Grade: B.

Special teams
The key is Chatman. Only Buffalo returned kicks worse than the Packers last year. It boiled down to not having a competent return specialist, which new special-teams coach John Bonamego hopes Chatman will become. He tore up the Arena League for two seasons and has been solid all summer. Longwell made 82.4 percent of his field goals in 2002 after a bad season in '01 and has been good on kickoffs this summer. Bidwell has had two fine seasons and now needs another to warrant a lucrative new contract from the Packers or another team. Grade: B-minus.

Pro Football Weekly Material from Pro Football Weekly.
Visit PFW's web site at http://www.profootballweekly.com

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