After a (hopefully) easy jaunt to Chicago to open up the 2017 season, the Falcons will get to come home to Atlanta and play their first game in the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Week 2. The difficulty level is going to go up considerably between those two games.
Being at home will help, but the question is whether this Aaron Rodgers-led team is any better than the version the Falcons squeaked by in the regular season and annihilated in the NFC Conference Championship Game. To learn what has changed, we turned to our friends at Acme Packing Company. Enjoy their preview, and let us know what you think of the Falcons’ chances in this one.
Green Bay Packers
Notable free agent additions: TE Martellus Bennett, TE Lance Kendricks, CB Davon House, DT Ricky Jean Francois, G Jahri Evans, OLB Nick Perry (re-signed)
Notable free agent departures: G T.J. Lang, RB Eddie Lacy, TE Jared Cook, C JC Tretter, DE Julius Peppers, DE Datone Jones, DB Micah Hyde
Draft picks expected to contribute as rookies:
CB Kevin King (round 2, pick 33): King missed OTAs due to the NFL’s dumb rule about school being in session, but he should see time as a rotational player at a minimum. A good training camp would put him in the discussion to start on the boundary.
S/LB Josh Jones (round 2, pick 61): Jones has taken snaps at safety, in the slot, and notably as a nickel/dime linebacker. The big, powerful safety will almost certainly play a part-time role in the box when the Packers line up in sub packages.
OLB Vince Biegel (round 4, pick 108): The lower-drafted of the two Wisconsin pass-rushers (behind T.J. Watt), Biegel comes in a more polished player with a higher floor (but a lower ceiling). He should have opportunities to compete for a significant backup role and for snaps on special teams if he is fully healthy.
RBs Jamaal Williams (round 4, pick 134) and Aaron Jones (round 5, pick 182): Behind Ty Montgomery, the backup jobs are wide open for a large group of rookie tailbacks. As the first two drafted, Williams (BYU) and Jones (UTEP) will get the first and most opportunities. Williams is a physical slasher who has an angry, punishing running style, while Jones is a traditional third-down back with good blocking and better receiving skills.
Biggest offseason addition: Martellus Bennett. Although the Packers lost a good receiving tight end in Cook, Bennett is a bigger, more physical player who is a drastically better blocker. He is the big-bodied, complete tight end that the Packers have lacked for the better part of two decades, and his arrival should allow Mike McCarthy to get more creative with his formations and play-action passing.
Biggest storyline heading into training camp: Ty Montgomery still wearing #88 after his switch to running back. (Not really.)
Realistically, the top story is in the secondary, where the Packers need to determine the answers for the issues that plagued the cornerbacks group in 2016. Injuries claimed Sam Shields for the whole season and second-year corners Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins for portions of the year, leaving undrafted second-year LaDarius Gunter as the de facto #1. In 2017, the Packers brought back Davon House after a down year in Jacksonville and drafted Kevin King, while shifting Randall into the slot. Dom Capers and company must hope that this facelift gives the unit a major boost from last season, when the defense finished with the the sixth-highest passer rating allowed to opponents in the NFL.
Under-the-radar storyline heading into training camp: Pass-rush depth
While the corners struggled mightily last season, they weren’t so bad when the front seven got to the quarterback. In fact, no team had a bigger split between their performance with and without pressure in 2016 than the Packers, and a Capers defense will always be reliant on getting to the QB.
This year, the starting outside linebackers are Nick Perry and Clay Matthews, both of whom have battled injuries in recent years. Behind them is fourth-year player Jayrone Elliott, who has a couple of highlight-reel plays but who has not yet found consistent playing time, second-year pro Kyler Fackrell, who wore out in the second half of last season, fourth-round rookie Vince Biegel, who is dealing with foot surgery, and a couple of undrafted players. The Packers will need a couple of the young players to step up and help out the veterans, especially since Capers likes to keep his linebackers in a rotation to avoid wearing them down.
Notable injuries heading into training camp:
OLB Vince Biegel (foot): Biegel had foot surgery after rookie minicamp to finish repairing an injury he suffered as a senior for the Wisconsin Badgers. He is expected to return around the start of training camp.
C Corey Linsley (ankle): Linsley had surgery in February to fix an issue that affected him all the way back in 2015. He is also expected to return for camp.
CB Demetri Goodson (knee): Goodson tore multiple knee ligaments in week 8 of last season. He is expected to start the year on the PUP list.