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Aaron Rodgers apparently knew Green Bay Packers' changes were coming

By The Sports Xchange   |   Jan. 21, 2016 at 12:58 AM
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GREEN BAY -- If even the most casual observers of the Green Bay Packers haven't learned by now, the face of the franchise needs to be taken at his word.

Quarterback Aaron Rodgers mentioned the possibility of coaching changes when he addressed the media for the final time in the 2015 season.

Sure enough, Rodgers' words in his news conference after the 26-20 overtime loss at the Arizona Cardinals in the divisional round of the playoffs Saturday night proved prophetic.

In the wake of a disappointing season for Green Bay's previously prolific offense, head coach Mike McCarthy shook up his staff on that side of the football.

The team announced Tuesday that running backs coach Sam Gash and tight ends coach Jerry Fontenot were let go. Unclear is whether both assistants were fired or simply didn't have their contracts with the team renewed.

"I think you have to look at everything," McCarthy said a day earlier, when the players reported to Lambeau Field to clean out their lockers and have exit interviews before McCarthy met with his coaches.

"That's why I believe in the filter of change, adjust and emphasize," McCarthy continued. "And, we will change. There will be changes. ... There definitely will be a lot of adjustments -- you do that every year."

The departures of Fontenot and Gash after 10 and two years, respectively, on McCarthy's staff might be just the beginning of a sweep of changes with team personnel this offseason.

The Packers' second-half flop after their 6-0 start to the season, a second-place finish in the NFC North after four straight division titles and stinging second-round exit from the postseason sets the team up for some big decisions to be made the next few months.

"It kind of feels weird, you never know what can happen," said running back James Starks, who completed his sixth season with the team.

Starks is among 14 unrestricted free agents for the Packers. All of them have started at least one game or been a front-line player in their time with Green Bay.

Notables include Starks, receiver James Jones, Pro Bowl fullback John Kuhn, kicker Mason Crosby, nose tackle B.J. Raji, nickel back Casey Hayward and outside linebackers Mike Neal and Nick Perry. Raji and Perry are former first-round draft picks.

"There's emotion attached to the team, to the organization, all those things," said Crosby, who finished his ninth pro season as Green Bay's all-time leading scorer. "But, I've seen weird things happen in this business and have to be prepared for that.

"I'm hopeful that everything's going to work out the way it should, and I'm hopeful, I have faith that we'll get something done, and hopefully, it will happen here before everything gets too crazy. I don't love the (free-agent) process."

For the players under contract, McCarthy made some profound statements Monday about other changes in the offing as the Packers start to put their letdown of a 10-6 season behind them.

McCarthy was critical of featured running back Eddie Lacy, whose visibly heavier appearance throughout a season that also was marred by ankle and groin injuries presumably curtailed his production.

Lacy rushed for only 758 yards and three touchdowns in the regular season after topping the 1,100-yard mark each of his first two pro seasons.

"Eddie Lacy, he's got a lot of work to do," McCarthy asserted. "I think I'm stating the obvious. His offseason last year was not good enough, and he never recovered from it.

"I had a chance to talk to Eddie (on Monday), and that was pretty much the majority of our whole conversation. So, he has to get it done because he cannot play at the weight that he played at this year."

On the bright side for an offense that struggled to run the football consistently, get receivers open and put up points, No. 1 wideout Jordy Nelson said Tuesday he expects to be ready for the start of training camp in July.

Nelson missed the season because of a torn ACL sustained in the preseason.

"We started 6-0, we didn't need Jordy," said Jones, who isn't sure if he'll get his wish of playing out his career with the Packers after he returned to the team before last season. "We started losing games, we couldn't get open without Jordy."

Meanwhile, McCarthy indicated the team's season-long experiment of lining up Pro Bowl pass rusher Clay Matthews at middle linebacker on early downs probably is over.

"We're obviously a lot better with him playing the outside position," McCarthy said. "He's an outside linebacker, and we need to get back to him playing there and just going inside when needed or just to change the targeting challenge for the (opposing) offense and things like that."

UNIT-BY-UNIT ANALYSIS

QUARTERBACK: Starter -- Aaron Rodgers. Backups -- Scott Tolzien (UFA), Brett Hundley.

--No one will be as happy to have wide receiver Jordy Nelson ready for the start of next season as Rodgers will be. The loss of his top receiver for the entire 2015 season factored greatly in Rodgers' having, statistically, his worst season as a starter in eight years as he completed only 60.7 percent of his passes and had a passer rating of only 92.7. Tolzien's three-year run with the team could be up, especially if the year of development for 2015 fifth-round draft pick Hundley went well enough to warrant the status of top understudy to Rodgers.

RUNNING BACKS: Starters -- HB Eddie Lacy, FB John Kuhn (UFA). Backups -- HB James Starks (UFA), HB John Crockett, FB Aaron Ripkowski.

--Head coach Mike McCarthy finally expressed his unhappiness with what was obvious for most of the season -- Lacy played overweight. The physical impediments, which included a few lingering injuries, turned Lacy into a shell of his 1,100-yard workhorse from his first two pro seasons, as he barely eclipsed 750 rushing yards. Starks' desire to get more playing time after being relegated to a platoon with Lacy for most of the season could mean the end of his six-year stay in Green Bay, leaving undrafted Crockett as Lacy's backup. The fullback torch seemingly has been passed from the 33-year-old Kuhn to the young Ripkowski.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter -- Richard Rodgers. Backups -- *Andrew Quarless (UFA), Justin Perillo, Kennard Backman.

--The dismissal of longtime Mike McCarthy assistant Jerry Fontenot as tight ends coach underscores a position that has been in upheaval without resolution since standout Jermichael Finley's career-ending neck injury in October 2013. The other Rodgers on offense made significant strides in his second pro season, ranking second on the team with 58 receptions and making a team-high-tying eight touchdown catches. However, a passing attack that has long been predicated on yards after the catch suffered with Rodgers' averaging only 8.8 yards. Quarless, who missed most of the season with a knee injury, isn't a priority to re-sign. More needs to be seen out of the young duo of Perillo and Backman, the latter of whom played only 11 snaps.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- *Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb. Backups -- James Jones (UFA), Davante Adams, *Ty Montgomery, Jared Abbrederis, Jeff Janis.

--The season-ending loss of Nelson to a torn ACL in preseason action last August created a domino effect of injuries that coursed throughout a deep receiver group and set the Packers up for a relatively early exit from the postseason. Cobb, who became the top wideout, left the divisional playoff loss at Arizona because of a bruised lung. High expectations for Adams in his second pro season fizzled because of an early-season ankle injury and then a knee injury that kept him out of the last game. A bum ankle ended Montgomery's promising rookie season after six games. Jones was a godsend in his return to the team, but may be left to walk away again. Abbrederis and Janis stood out in a pinch in the final game after being afterthoughts.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LT David Bakhtiari, LG Josh Sitton, C Corey Linsley, RG T.J. Lang, RT Bryan Bulaga. Backups - C/G JC Tretter, G Lane Taylor, T Don Barclay (UFA), G Josh Walker.

--The injury bug also bit the guys up front in a big way. The Packers had their preferred starting five for only eight of the 18 games. Sitton, who was selected to the Pro Bowl for the third time, played with a sore back down the stretch to have the distinction as the only lineman to start every game this season. Bakhtiari hopes to avoiding offseason surgery after playing despite ligament damage in his left ankle in the final game. Saying goodbye to Barclay, who was ineffective in his spot starts at both tackle spots, seems likely.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- DLE Mike Pennel, NT B.J. Raji (UFA), DRE Mike Daniels. Backups -- DE Datone Jones, DT Letroy Guion (UFA), *DT Josh Boyd.

--General manager Ted Thompson might be forced to address a gaping hole in the middle of the defensive line in the draft or free agency. His top two inside players are set to hit the open market. Raji, who turns 30 in July, would be a free agent for the third straight year after a so-so season following a year of no football. Guion also has a lot of tread on his tires after eight pro seasons. The outlook is better for the Packers on the outside with the dynamic Daniels, the versatile Pennel and complementary Jones.

LINEBACKERS: Starters -- LOLB Mike Neal (UFA), BLB Jake Ryan, MLB Clay Matthews, ROLB Julius Peppers. Backups -- OLB Nick Perry (UFA), *ILB Sam Barrington, OLB Jayrone Elliott, OLB Andy Mulumba, ILB Joe Thomas, ILB Nate Palmer.

--Coach Mike McCarthy wants Matthews to get back to his natural spot of outside linebacker, where he continued to wreak havoc in the defensive subpackages after being featured inside in the base scheme all season. No doubt the uncertain futures of Neal and Perry in Green Bay puts a premium on pairing Matthews with the ageless Peppers as the bookend pass rushers. That still leaves the Packers with more questions to be answered at their inside spots for the second straight offseason. Ryan stepped in as a starter the latter part of his rookie season. Barrington will try to regain the starting job he lost because of a season-ending foot injury in Week 1.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB Damarious Randall, RCB Sam Shields, SS Morgan Burnett, FS Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. Backups -- CB Casey Hayward (UFA), CB Quinten Rollins, S Micah Hyde, S Chris Banjo, CB Demetri Goodson, CB LaDarius Gunter, CB Robertson Daniel, *S Sean Richardson (UFA).

--The youth movement for the secondary ushered in by Thompson last spring came to fruition when defensive coordinator Dom Capers plugged in 2015 first-round draft pick Randall as a starter at midseason and also leaned on second-rounder Rollins. Both players were productive, though with some flaws, and figure to have prominent roles going forward. Their emergence, along with the return of veteran standout Shields and the potential of a few other young players, casts doubt on the return of nickel back Hayward. Burnett and the playmaking Clinton-Dix are entrenched at safety, while Hyde has been a dependable rover on the back end.

SPECIAL TEAMS: K Mason Crosby (UFA), P Tim Masthay, KR Jeff Janis, PR Micah Hyde, *LS Brett Goode (UFA), LS Rick Lovato.

--Crosby is the Packers' all-time scoring leader after nine seasons. That's the same length of tenure previous scoring leader Ryan Longwell had with Green Bay before the Packers chose to not re-sign the kicker after the 2005 season. Setting Crosby free this offseason would be a big surprise, considering how automatic he was this season by going 28-for-32 on field goals and not missing an extra point. Masthay had a solid season until the playoffs. Lovato was plucked out of his family's sub shop in late December after Goode's eighth season with the club ended because of a torn ACL.

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