Bulaga isn’t the only offensive lineman who is being counted on heavily
By CHRIS HAVEL
Rookies and first-year free agents receive the majority of scrutiny in the off-season, and understandably so, but it is the returning core players who largely decide an NFL team’s fate.
In the offseason, the possibilities seem endless for newcomers such as Datone Jones, Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin. The reality is this: For the Packers to advance deep into the 2013 playoffs, they will need more than a boost from the new players. They will need at least a handful of veterans to post strong bounce-back seasons.
Here are the five most-important “comeback” Packers:
1. – Bryan Bulaga, left tackle.
Packers head coach Mike McCarthy has placed as much responsibility on Bulaga’s shoulders as he has any player who isn’t Aaron Rodgers.
The success of the team’s offensive line shuffle this offseason hinges on Bulaga. If he succeeds at left tackle, coming off a hip injury no less, it paves the way for the rest of the line to stay intact and find a rhythm. Josh Sitton gets to hunker down next to him at left guard, T.J. Lang stays at right guard and Derek Sherrod gets to work at right tackle.
If Bulaga fails, the dominos begin to fall.
Does McCarthy go with one of the fourth-round draft picks at left tackle? Does he move Marshal Newhouse back from the right side? Can Don Barclay handle right tackle if Newhouse has to switch back?
Bulaga renders that moot with a strong season. One of McCarthy’s trademarks has been the ability to put players in position to succeed. This coaching attribute will be put to the test.
2. Jordy Nelson, wide receiver.
Nelson is looking to recapture the magic that enabled him and Greg Jennings to put up monster numbers in 2011. Nelson caught 68 passes for 1,253 yards and 15 touchdowns. His numbers dropped due to injury and inconsistency in 2012, when he caught 49 passes for 745 yards and seven touchdowns.
Nelson looks to be healthy and eager coming into 2013.
He should benefit from Randall Cobb’s presence more than he will be impaired by Greg Jennings’ absence for two reasons: First, Cobb has been healthier than Jennings the past two seasons; Second, Nelson and Cobb both have James Jones to ramp up the pressure on defenses.
3. Mason Crosby, kicker.
This is almost too obvious to mention. Crosby connected on 68 of 69 PATs and 24 of 28 field goals in 2011. Last season, it was a nightmare.
Crosby will have competition in training camp. It comes in the form of Giorgio Tavecchio, who hails from Cal, which happens to be ex-Packers’ kicker Ryan Longwell’s alma mater. Longwell, you may recall, beat out Brett Conway, a 1997 third-round pick from Penn State, before becoming Green Bay’s all-time leading scorer.
4. – Tramon Williams, cornerback.
Williams was outstanding in 2011. Last year, he was merely OK. The Packers’ defense needs more from its shutdown cornerback than it got a year ago.
Williams, who is entering his seventh season, has become the elder statesman of the secondary with Charles Woodson’s departure. That means he needs to be a leader in terms of communicating coverage, being a willing and effective tackler, and being available each week.
If Williams falters, young players such as Davon House, Sam Shields and others are waiting to step up. For the Packers, it’s best if Williams recaptures his 2011 form and smothers opposing receivers.
In the NFC North, a defense can’t have too many good defensive backs. Williams’ return to form is critical.
5. – Josh Sitton, left guard.
It goes full circle, first Bulaga and now Sitton. While Sitton has been a very good offensive lineman for the Packers, he also has room to improve. To whom much is given, much is expected and the Packers expect Sitton to team with Bulaga and form a kick-butt left side of the offensive line.
Sitton, while receiving Pro Bowl acclaim, is a key cog in everything the Packers’ offense is trying to do. That includes building a potent running game with the newcomers.
Chris Havel is a national best-selling author and his latest book is Lombardi: An Illustrated Life. Havel can be heard Monday through Friday from 4-6 p.m. CDT on WDUZ FM 107.5 The Fan, or on AM-1400, as well as Fan Internet Radio (www.thefan1075.com). Havel also hosts Event USA’ MVP Parties the evening before home games.