Starting LDE: Aaron Kampman. Kamp had a very solid season for both the Packers and his IDP owners in 2004, finishing with four sacks and one of the highest solo-tackle totals among NFL DEs. He’s not a special player by any means, but he’s pretty much what you look for in a strongside DE starter. He consistently finds the ball-carrier near the line of scrimmage and will add the occasional sack and batted pass. Last season, he had very little help along the D-line and still produced top-20 fantasy DL numbers. There’s no reason to believe he won’t at least duplicate, if not exceed, the same production especially if the rest of the line improves. Offseason grade: B. By all accounts, Kampman has been his usual steady, if unspectacular, self. Given all the question marks on the defense, he’s one player the coaching staff shouldn’t have to worry about. However, there’s been some speculation (not from coaches) that Coach Bates will eventually look for more formidable pass-rusher to replace Kampman, since Bates doesn’t like to blitz. Either way, it’s not happening this season.
Primary Backup LDE: Kenny Peterson A former DT standout at Ohio State, Peterson is somewhat undersized, so he’s been learning the DE position since being a 3rd-round pick in 2003. He's still the favorite for backup strong-side DE, but he hasn't been very impressive in camp this year. I'm beginning to think they need to get him to gain weight and move back to DT. He just doesn't seem like a natural at DE. Meanwhile, Cullen Jenkins continues to impress and will see plenty of playing time in the D-line rotation.
Starting NT: Grady Jackson. Packers fans have grown to love the big man in the middle, mainly because he’s the only real run-stuffing presence we’ve had since Gilbert Brown in his prime. His forte is eating up blockers, not necessarily making plays. Jackson’s probably not worth a roster spot in most IDP leagues, especially dynasty, since he’s a couple years from retiring. Offseason grade: D. Surprising no one, Grady has missed a lot of practices and preseason action due to nagging injuries. He’s slated to start the opener in Detroit and the Packers will desperately need him to stay healthy if they’re going to have any success on defense.
Primary Backup NT: Colin Cole. James Lee didn’t excite anyone this offseason, so he was released. 3rd-year DT Cole (6-2, 320) won the backup job by default. He’s 25 years old and has 6 solo tackles in very limited 2003 and 2004 action.
Starting RDT: Corey Williams. As I mentioned in the first IDP report, Williams has had a strong camp – arguably the strongest of any D-lineman. His development was one reason the Packers released Cletidus Hunt. Another reason was that Hunt sucked. Make no mistake – Williams is far from a great player. The staff is just hoping he can be an adequate starter. If he can muster any kind of consistent pocket penetration, the coaches would be ecstatic. Offseason grade: B+. Not much was expected of him and he outplayed the rest of the DTs on the roster, including talented-yet-unmotivated-and-overpaid Hunt.
Primary Backup RDT: Committee of Cullen Jenkins & Donnell Washington. Okay, so there's one thing worse for fantasy owners than RBBC. It's BUDTBC (backup defensive tackle by committee). Feel free to stay away from these guys.
Starting RDE: Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila. What you see is what you get. KGB is one of Green Bay’s more consistent defenders, but he really only does one thing well – rush the passer. His improvement as a run defender has been slow, but he is getting better. He has the potential for 40-50 solo tackles and as many as 17 sacks, but he’s much more likely to remain at the 30-tackle, 11-14-sack plateau. KGB will remain a top-25 D-lineman in most IDP leagues. Offseason grade: B. Not great, not bad, KGB is expected to remain at his previous level of performance in the regular season.
Primary Backup RDE: Mike Montgomery. The rookie taken in the 6th round has had a pretty good camp. They figured he was just as good as R-Kal Truluck, who the team had re-signed immediately after the 2004 season. Consequently, Truluck was sent packing. If KGB went down, the D-line would be completely ineffective in Bates’s scheme, but Montgomery would play in his absence.
DL Conclusion: Don’t expect much from any of the DTs. Kampman will keep his job on the strong side and should continue to score well. If KGB improves the rest of his game, he could be a top-15 fantasy player. If he continues to simply attack the QB, his tackle totals won’t be high enough to make him more than a decent starter. Out of training camp, Williams, Montgomery, and Jenkins have earned the most praise.
Starting SLB (projected): Na’il Diggs. Hannibal Navies wasn’t seen as a good fit for the scheme, so he was released. Diggs can play the weak side (and probably would prefer to), but the coaches don’t trust any of the other LBs to cover TEs, so Diggs will stay at SLB. Diggs is a solid defender, but nothing about his game is especially noteworthy. He has decent blitz ability and will make the occasional big play in coverage, but he doesn’t have the nose for the football that the game’s great tacklers possess. Among NFL SLBs, he’ll finish with mediocre fantasy numbers. Offseason grade: C. He hasn’t really done much to distinguish himself to Jim Bates, mainly because he’s STILL recovering from a torn MCL. As of now, he’s not a lock to start Week 1. He’s said that he won’t play unless he’s 100%, because he doesn’t want to be battling the injury all year.
Backup SLB (projected): Paris Lenon. After having a strong offseason under the new defensive regime, the coaches have spent some time trying to find a home for Lenon. They decided he fits best on the strong side. He’s probably not quite a starting-caliber player, but there’s a good chance he’ll be starting this weekend, thanks to the ailing knee of Diggs.
Starting MLB: Nick Barnett. Remember the name, people. When guys like Ray Lewis and Donnie Edwards retire, Barnett will be the class of the MLB position. In 2004, he improved on his impressive rookie numbers and he figures to continue to get better for the foreseeable future. He could stand to add a little more bulk, but he still finds his way around blockers, easily becoming the only consistent tackling presence on the team. He’s not just a tackle machine, though; he can blitz well and he’s already one of the best coverage linebackers in the league. Offseason grade: A-. Barnett has remained healthy through the offseason and seems to have earned the trust of Bates. Rumblings from local camp observers/reporters have indicated that Barnett is primed to have a huge tackling year in the new scheme.
Backup MLB: Roy Manning. Another surprising camp performer, Manning came to the team as an undrafted free agent out of Michigan. He’s got ideal size (6-2, 252) and his speed and instincts are better than expected. If you’re a Barnett owner and your league has a “taxi squad” of some sort, you’d be wise to store Manning on it.
Starting WLB (projected): This is the hottest competition in practice right now. For Week 1, both Roy Manning and Robert Thomas will play. Manning will probably start and figures to get the most playing time. However, Thomas is a player who Sherman has coveted since he came out of UCLA. In fact, his availability from the Rams was a major factor in the recent (surprising) release of former projected WLB starter Ray Thompson. The understanding is that Sherman would have targeted Thomas with Green Bay’s 2002 first round pick, but he opted to trade up for Javon Walker instead. As it happened, Thomas was drafted by the Rams 31st overall. Reports from practice indicate that Thomas has picked up the system well enough to challenge for the starting job within a few weeks. The coaches are going to give Manning the chance to shine in a real NFL game, but it’s difficult to imagine the rookie free-agent holding off a veteran, former-1st-round pick for very long.
Backup WLB (projected): As you might imagine, the backup WLB will be either Manning or Thomas, depending on who distinguishes himself as the starter.
LB Conclusion: So far, Barnett is the only LB worth starting for your fantasy team. The SLB is injured and won’t score much anyway and the WLB isn’t actually determined yet. The only other guidance I can provide is to pay attention to what Bates and Sherman say about the WLB position. Stay away from Manning and Thomas UNTIL one or both coaches say that they’re going to stick with one guy to play full time. When that happens, the WLB should score reasonably well.
Starting CBs: Al Harris & Ahmad Carroll. Harris proved last year that he was a legitimate #1 NFL cornerback. With the other CB spot in constant flux, Harris consistently played well against opposing teams’ best wideouts, leading the league in passes defensed through the middle part of the season. Down the stretch, Carroll (last year's 1st-rounder) started to show flashes of competency, all but assuring himself the starting spot opposite Harris. Under the new defensive coaching staff, however, Carroll fell out of favor quickly, opening the door for last year's 3rd-round pick, Joey Thomas. Then, after earning a starting job, Thomas promptly got injured and allowed Carroll to take his job back. Their play in the regular season will determine who ends up being the long-term starter. Harris offseason grade: B+. Thomas/Carroll offseason grade: C-. Both 2nd-year players have shown flashes of great play along with mental & technique mistakes. We can only hope that the competition brings out the best in both of them.
Backup CBs: Don’t bother. Behind Harris, Thomas, and Carroll, Mike Hawkins and Jason Horton are both dime corners with upside, but none of them have any real fantasy value.
Starting FS: Mark Roman. The thought of this guy covering the deep third of the secondary for my beloved Packers makes me want to vomit. He played so poorly last year that it’s remarkable he’s still collecting a paycheck. Even if he’s a better fit for Bates’s scheme than the previous one, he simply doesn’t have the speed or ball skills to play FS, in my opinion. Luckily, the two safety positions in this type of defense aren’t much different in terms of responsibilities. Offseason grade: B. It’s probably clear that I’m not a big fan of Roman, but I have to respect the effort he’s given throughout the offseason. The previous defensive coaching staff didn’t like him much either and he was a big target for criticism from the local media. Still, he worked hard to convince to Bates and Co. that last year was not an indication of his true ability. So far, he’s succeeded. I, however, will have to see it to believe it.
Backup FS (projected): Marviel Underwood/Earl Little. One of Green Bay’s two 2005 4th-round picks, Underwood looks like he’ll be groomed to be the free safety of the future. Little has been decent in training camp, so, in the event of a Roman injury, I would imagine that he’d get just as much PT as Underwood at the FS position.
Starting SS (projected): Nick Collins. As expected, rookie 2nd-rounder Collins has proved to be the best option at SS. His height (5-10) apparently isn’t a problem, thanks to his physical style of play. He’s lightning fast and can lay the lumber when he needs to. He’ll make his share of rookie mistakes, but he’s the best fantasy play among all the Packers’ DBs. Offseason grade: A. Although he was a 2nd-round pick, he was projected by most scouts as a 5th-round talent. Thus far, he’s proved Green Bay’s scouts right. Most everyone has been impressed with how Collins has turned his small-school pedigree (Bethune-Cookman) into a starting NFL gig.
Backup SS (projected): Mark Roman/Earl Little. Like I said before, FS and SS aren’t much different in the defense taught by Bates, so it’s difficult to project which players fit which position the best. If I had to guess what would happen in the event that Collins gets injured (or benched), I’d say that Roman would move to SS and Earl Little would get the majority of time at FS. (Is anyone sensing a theme here? Numerous position battles in the regular season…isn’t that what training camp/preseason is for??)
DB Conclusion: What a mess. Collins is the only player worth considering from a fantasy perspective and he might be the 2nd-highest scorer on the team (behind Barnett). Harris won’t get enough attention merit a roster spot and the other CB and S positions are huge question marks. Good luck to you – and good luck to the Packers.
Offseason/Training Camp/Preseason Packers IDP Conclusion: So…we’ve got exactly FOUR relevant fantasy players – Kampman, KGB, Barnett, and Collins. Hopefully, that’s not an indication of the general talent level of the defense. Unfortunately, it probably is.