Do Packers still rank among NFC’s elite?

Strong offseason—with draft still ahead—bodes well for Green Bay, GM Thompson
It cannot be said the Green Bay Packers stood pat.
While the rest of the NFC’s finest were busy signing free agents at the outset, the Packers laid low for a week. Then, just when it seemed Green Bay wasn’t going to spend in free agency, they got after it.
General manager Ted Thompson re-signed cornerback Sam Shields at the going rate, and he also retained linebacker/defensive end Mike Neal, tight end Andrew Quarless, running back James Starks and nose tackle B.J. Raji in Green Bay-friendly deals.
The icing was signing free agent defensive end Julius Peppers. The eight-time Pro Bowler can still rise to the occasion, at least on occasion, and he leaves a void in the Chicago Bears’ Swiss cheese defense. Peppers’ three-year deal counts just $3.5 million against this year’s cap, with only $7.5 million guaranteed. Again, excellent work by Thompson, whose vision with head coach Mike McCarthy is to reload the offense, retool the defense and go out and win a championship.
The Packers still have needs, and a couple of holes – if not question marks – but they also still have the draft. Typically, the NFL draft is when Thompson makes his splash. He uses an entire department’s worth of information gathering and deciphering and squeezes it into a three-day quest for the best available talent. By covering himself at backup running back, tight end, defensive end, nose tackle and cornerback, Thompson can focus on safety, inside linebacker and backup quarterback in the draft.
It seems likely the Packers will draft a safety to either eventually unseat Morgan Burnett, or be paired with him until Micah Hyde is up to speed. Either way, the Packers have to be better than they were last year with Jerron McMillion, M.D. Jennings and Burnett. What’s even more likely is that the Packers will reassert their position among the NFC’s elite teams.
Who are the NFC’s elite? There is Seattle at the top, followed by San Francisco, Carolina, New Orleans and Philadelphia with potentially elite teams in Arizona, Atlanta, Detroit, Chicago and Tampa Bay. Where do the Packers fit in that group?
Clearly, Green Bay (8-7-1) needs to make significant upgrades on defense to contend for an NFC Championship. The aforementioned signings are a step in the right direction. The Packers’ greatest challenge is transforming potential into production, especially on defense.
The offense is going to strong with a solid offensive line, Quarless and Co. at tight end, a receiving corps that features Jordy Nelson, Randal Cobb and Jarrett Boykin, plus running back Eddie Lacy and the trigger man, quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Quality depth is available in the offensive line and running back. I suspect Thompson will make sure that he has a competent backup quarterback behind Rodgers.
The defense should be better with Peppers, a healthy Jerel Worthy and a more experienced DaTone Jones. It should also be better because Clay Matthews enters the season with rested hamstrings and a completely healed thumb. Raji has great incentive to play hard, Neal has a lot to prove and Mike Daniels merely needs to keep doing what he is doing. The greatest defensive liabilities appear at inside linebacker and safety. Both are tremendous needs that must be addressed in the draft.
If the Packers’ defense improves enough to occasionally carry the team, or at least capitalize and force turnovers when Rodgers hands it a lead, Green Bay will be a force.
Seattle returns most of its big guns, including the offensive line, Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch. Receiver depth is weak, however, and the Seahawks need Percy Harvin to play more than 30-something snaps this season. The Seahawks’ vaunted defense lost Red Bryant, the big defensive lineman, but Seattle likely won’t concede much  this season.
San Francisco still has Frank Gore, Colin Kaepernick and a brutish offensive line. It also has the Smiths – Justin and Aldon – and a very strong linebacker corps even with Navarro Bowman on the mend, plus newly added safety Antoine Bethea. Carolina has question marks, especially with quarterback Cam Newton undergoing ankle surgery. Furthermore, Newton has precious few receivers to throw to when he does return. The Panthers might be ready to be leapfrogged by Green Bay. In fact, the Packers might be better than San Francisco, too. The 49ers beat the Packers by three points in the postseason, and that was with Green Bay still trying to find itself after missing Rodgers for so long.
New Orleans, Arizona and Atlanta fall a notch below the Packers. The Bears and Lions are capable of unseating Green Bay for the NFC North crown, but until it happens the Packers are the defending champs. By the time the NFL draft wraps up in May, Green Bay will have upgraded its roster and covered itself at several thin positions.
Other NFC teams are going to have a difficult time matching the Packers’ offseason, especially when we see the draft unfold.

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 ( Havel also hosts Event USA’ MVP Parties the evening before home games.