NFL Nation: Dimitri Nance

Super XLV: Where are they now?

February, 6, 2014
Feb 6
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Exactly three years ago -- on Feb. 6, 2011 -- the Green Bay Packers won Super Bowl XLV.

Since then, much has happened to the 53 players who were on the roster for that 31-25 victory against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Arlington, Texas.

Free agency, injuries, retirement and declining performance cause roster turnover.

Still, it’s eye-opening that from the group that suited up for the Packers’ last championship, only 12 players (just 22.6 percent) remain under contract with the team for 2014. Another 11 are still officially members of the Packers, but have contracts that expire next month. There are 13 players with other NFL teams, and 17 are out of football -- perhaps for good.

Here’s a look at the status of every player who was on the active roster three years ago today at Super Bowl XLV:

Under contract for 2014

  • [+] EnlargeAaron Rodgers
    Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesThree years after being named MVP of Super Bowl XLV, Aaron Rodgers is still leading the Packers.
    QB Aaron Rodgers: Threw for 304 yards and three touchdowns on the way to winning the Super Bowl XLV MVP, then won the NFL MVP award the next season. Signed a five-year, $110 million contract extension last April.
  • G Josh Sitton: Started Super Bowl XLV at right guard, but moved to left guard in 2013 and was a second-team, All-Pro selection. Signed a five-year contract extension on Sept. 2, 2011 that averages $6.75 million per season.
  • T Bryan Bulaga: Started at right tackle, but moved to left tackle last offseason. A training camp knee injury ended his 2013 season, and he now enters the final year of his rookie contract.
  • G: T.J. Lang: Served as a backup, but became the starting left guard the next season. Signed a four-year contract extension on Aug. 14, 2012 that averages $5.2 million per season. Moved to right guard last season.
  • WR Jordy Nelson: Caught nine passes for 140 yards and a touchdown in the Super Bowl, and went on to post 1,000-yard receiving seasons in two of the next three years. Entering the final year of his contract in 2014.
  • OLB Clay Matthews: Forced a fumble in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl that the Packers recovered and turned into a touchdown to pad the lead. Four-time Pro Bowler signed a five-year, $66 million contract extension last April.
  • LB A.J. Hawk: Started and made seven tackles in the Super Bowl. Was released two months later, only to re-sign a more salary-cap friendly deal. Is under contract through 2015.
  • CB Tramon Williams: Broke up three passes in the Super Bowl, including the one that sealed the game on fourth-and-5 from the Steelers’ 33-yard line in the final minute. Entering the final year of his contract. Scheduled to make $7.5 million in 2014, and could be a candidate to be released or restructured despite a strong finish to last season.
  • K Mason Crosby: Made a 23-yard field goal in the game and signed a five-year, $14.75 million contract on July 29, 2011. Struggled in 2012, but bounced back last year to post his best season.
  • P Tim Masthay: Capped his first season with the Packers by averaging 40.5 yards and allowing the Steelers just 5 yards on punt returns in the game. Signed a four-year, $5.465 million contract extension on July 26, 2012.
  • LS Brett Goode: Has been the long snapper since 2008 and signed a three-year, $2.715 million contract extension on Oct. 13, 2012.
  • CB Jarrett Bush: Special teams player who was pressed into defensive duty in the game after injuries to Sam Shields and Charles Woodson, and intercepted a Ben Roethlisberger pass in the second quarter. Signed a three-year, $5.25 million contract on March 26, 2012.
Headed for free agency next month

  • RB James Starks: Started the Super Bowl and rushed for 52 yards on 11 carries. Battled injuries most of his career, and might not be re-signed.
  • WR James Jones: Caught five passes for 50 yards in the game, and signed a three-year, $9.6 million contract on Aug. 2, 2011. Caught 59 passes for a career-high 817 yards in 2013, and could be a re-signed despite his age (will turn 30 next month).
  • DT Ryan Pickett: Started the game, made two tackles and was in on the play in which Matthews forced Rashard Mendehall's fourth-quarter fumble. Played in all 16 games last season with a base salary of $5.4 million, but might be at the age (34) where the Packers let him walk.
  • DT B.J. Raji: Capped a strong 2010 postseason with a pair of tackles in the game. Finished his rookie contract in 2013, and reportedly turned down an $8 million-per-year offer last season.
  • DE C.J. Wilson: Started the game, but played only 14 snaps. Biggest impact came the night before the game, when he kept things loose in the team hotel by playing piano and leading a team sign-along. Finished his rookie contract in 2013.
  • FB John Kuhn: Played on both offense and special teams in the game. Signed a three-year, $7.5 million contract on Aug. 1, 2011.
  • CB Sam Shields: Suffered a shoulder injury in the second quarter of the game. Had his best season in 2013 while playing under the restricted free agent tender of $2.023 million. Will command a big contract either from the Packers or another team in free agency.
  • LB Robert Francois: Went back and forth from the practice squad to the active roster throughout the 2010 season, and played on special teams in the game. Played last season under a one-year, $725,000 deal, but tore his Achilles tendon on Oct. 6.
  • TE Andrew Quarless: Caught one pass for 5 yards in the game. Suffered a major knee injury the next season and missed all of 2012. Returned last season to catch 32 passes for 312 yards (both career highs) in the final year of his rookie deal.
  • QB Matt Flynn: Served as Rodgers’ backup but did not play in the Super Bowl. Left after the 2011 season as a free agent, and after stints with Seattle, Oakland and Buffalo, he returned to the Packers last season for a one-year minimum deal and played in five games after Rodgers broke his collarbone.
  • C Evan Dietrich-Smith: Was inactive for the Super Bowl. Became a starter late in 2012 and for all of 2013, when he played under the restricted free agent tender of $1.323 million deal.
With other teams

  • [+] EnlargeMcCarthy
    Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsCoach Mike McCarthy and the Packers have seen a lot of roster turnover since winning Super Bowl XLV.
    WR Greg Jennings: Started and became just the third player in team history to catch multiple touchdowns in a Super Bowl by recording touchdowns of 21 and 8 yards. Signed a five-year, $45 million contract with the Vikings last March.
  • G Daryn Colledge: Started at left guard, but left in free agency a few months later to sign a five-year, $27.5 million contract with the Cardinals. Has started every game for the Cardinals since.
  • C Scott Wells: Started at center and remained with the Packers through the 2011 season before signing a four-year, $24 million contract with the Rams. Has missed 13 games over the past two seasons because of injuries.
  • LB Desmond Bishop: Became a starter earlier in 2010 after Nick Barnett's wrist injury and made nine tackles in the Super Bowl. Also recovered the fumble that Matthews forced. Signed a four-year, $19 million contract in 2011, but was released after missing the entire 2012 season because of a hamstring injury. Signed with the Vikings last offseason, but appeared in only four games.
  • OLB Frank Zombo: Started the game and had the Packers’ only sack of Roethlisberger but battled injuries the next two years and was released. Signed with the Chiefs last year and appeared in all 16 games.
  • CB Charles Woodson: Started at cornerback, but broke his collarbone late in the second quarter and missed the remainder of the game. Played two more seasons with the Packers, who released him last year. Returned to his old team, the Raiders, and played in all 16 games last season.
  • DE Cullen Jenkins: Played 36 snaps and had a pair of quarterback pressures. Left in free agency the following year and signed a five-year, $25 million contract with the Eagles, who released him after two years. Signed a three-year, $8 million contract with the Giants last season.
  • TE Tom Crabtree: Played on both offense and special teams in the Super Bowl, catching one pass. Left last year to sign with the Buccaneers as an unrestricted free agent, but was limited to seven games because of injuries.
  • CB Josh Gordy: Was inactive for the game, and the next season was signed off the practice squad the by the Rams. Spent the past two seasons with the Colts.
  • G Nick McDonald: Was inactive for the game, like he was for every game that season. Was released in training camp the next year, and spent parts of the next two seasons with the Patriots. Did not play in 2013, but was recently signed by the Chargers.
  • OLB Erik Walden: Was inactive after suffering an ankle injury in the NFC Championship Game. Played the next two seasons before signing a four-year, $16 million contract with the Colts last year.
  • DE: Jarius Wynn: Was active but did not play. Played in Green Bay through 2011, and with the Titans and Chargers before landing with the Cowboys last season.
  • FB Quinn Johnson: Inactive for the game. Was traded to the Titans in 2011. Has played in 24 games for the Titans over the past three years.
Out of football

  • T Chad Clifton: Started at left tackle, but his long career with the Packers ended when they released him after he played in only six games in 2011. Was never signed by another team.
  • WR Donald Driver: Started the game and caught two passes for 28 yards before leaving with an ankle injury in the second quarter. Retired after the 2012 season as the team’s all-time leading receiver.
  • S Nick Collins: Started and made a key early play when he returned an interception 37 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter. Suffered a neck injury in Week 2 of 2011 and hasn’t played since.
  • DT Howard Green: Claimed off waivers earlier that season and started the game. His hit on Roethlisberger led to Collins’ interception return for a touchdown. Returned in 2011 and played in all 16 games, but has not played since.
  • WR Brett Swain: Posted a team-high four special teams tackles. Was released the following season and played briefly with the 49ers. Was cut in training camp last season by the Seahawks.
  • S Atari Bigby: Played on special teams. Signed with the Seahawks the following season and played in 15 games. Played in eight games with the Chargers in 2012, but did not play in 2013.
  • CB Pat Lee: Special teams player who saw action on defense after injuries to Woodson and Shields. Played one more season in Green Bay before splitting time in 2012 between the Lions and Raiders. Did not play in 2013.
  • RB Brandon Jackson: Played as the third-down back, but did not have any carries in the game. Caught one pass for 14 yards. Signed a two-year, $4.5 million contract with the Browns in 2011, but missed all of that season and played in only two games in 2012.
  • FB Korey Hall: Caught one pass for 2 yards and made one special teams tackle in the game. He played in 13 games with the Saints in 2011, and retired after going to camp with the Cardinals in 2012.
  • S Charlie Peprah: Led the Packers with 10 tackles (including nine solo stops). Returned as a starter in 2011, when he had five interceptions, but was released shortly before training camp in 2012. Played in five games for the Cowboys in 2012.
  • LB Diyral Briggs: Made one special teams tackle in the game, but never played in another NFL game.
  • LB Matt Wilhelm: Made two special teams tackles, but seven-year career ended after that game.
  • G Jason Spitz: Played on special teams. Left in free agency the next year and signed a three-year, $4.05 million contract with the Jaguars, who released him in training camp last summer. He signed with the Seahawks, but was released on Oct. 12.
  • TE Donald Lee: Played in the game, but did not have a catch and was released two months later. Played in nine games for the Bengals in 2001.
  • QB Graham Harrell: Inactive for the game. Remained with the Packers until he was released in training camp last summer. Also spent time briefly with the Jets before being released.
  • RB Dimitri Nance: Inactive for the game. Was released by the Packers the following summer and never played in another NFL game.
  • CB Brandon Underwood: Inactive for the game. Was released in 2011. Went to camp with the Raiders in 2012 and Cowboys in 2013, but did not make either team.

Observation deck: Falcons-Jaguars

August, 30, 2012

Some quick observations on the Falcons' 24-14 preseason loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars on Thursday night.
  • Coach Mike Smith opened the game with most of his starting defense on the field. He told the defense it would play one series. Well, that series ended up being exactly one play. Defensive tackle Vance Walker scooped up a Blaine Gabbert fumble that set up an Atlanta touchdown on its first offensive play. Smith stayed true to his word. The starting defense, for the most part, was done after that one play. Middle linebacker Akeem Dent and defensive tackle Peria Jerry were the notable exceptions. They got some extended playing time because Dent missed some time earlier in the preseason and needs the experience. Jerry, who appears to be destined to start with Corey Peters injured, continues to show signs he could get back to where he was before he suffered a major knee injury in his rookie season.
  • Undrafted rookie quarterback Dominique Davis got the start and played the entire way. Davis did some good things, particularly making a few wise choices to dump off to secondary receivers (and sometimes just throwing the ball away) when primary targets weren’t able to get open downfield. But Davis did throw an interception as the Falcons were running the two-minute offense late in the game. I think Davis has shown enough to earn a roster spot, but I think he will open the season as the third quarterback behind starter Matt Ryan and Luke McCown. I think the Falcons will be thrilled if Davis can develop into the backup relatively quickly. But I think the smart move is to at least open the season with the veteran McCown as the backup. He has experience in offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter’s offense from their days together with the Jaguars. But I’m impressed by just about everything about Davis. In particular his pocket presence and awareness is a whole lot better than you would expect from an undrafted rookie.
  • Dominique Franks did some good things at cornerback. That along with the fact that he’s wrapped up the punt-returner job, probably means Franks has locked up the fourth cornerback spot. Franks intercepted a Chad Henne pass near the end of the first half.
  • Speaking of guys on the roster bubble, I think Kevin Cone might have helped his case for the final receiver spot. Cone had a nice touchdown reception, where he swatted away several potential tacklers, in the third quarter.

Green Bay Packers cutdown analysis

September, 3, 2011
Check here for a complete list of the Green Bay Packers' roster moves.

Surprise move: Packers coach Mike McCarthy made clear early in camp that he hoped to find a way to keep Graham Harrell on the final roster. It's no secret that No. 2 quarterback Matt Flynn is a pending free agent, and McCarthy thought now wouldn't be a good time to part ways with another quarterback who has spent time developing in the Packers' system. Harrell rebounded from a shaky start to camp, but I guess the Packers couldn’t find a place for him on a roster that includes five tight ends and a whopping 10 linebackers. I would expect him to return on the practice squad, assuming he clears waivers.

No-brainers: It's hard not to connect Jermichael Finley's pending free agency with the high number of tight ends the Packers kept. The list included two rookies, D.J. Williams and Ryan Taylor, along with veterans Andrew Quarless and Tom Crabtree. When you have a big-time starter entering a contract year, it makes sense to ensure your future bases are covered. Meanwhile, I don't fault the Packers for limiting themselves to five receivers, and in the process cutting loose Chastin West and Tori Gurley, among others. Both could return via the practice squad, and the veteran depth they have at the position would have made it difficult for a No. 6 receiver to be active on game day. Finally, the Packers chose to keep veteran tailback Ryan Grant and release the younger Dimitri Nance. Smart move.

What's next: The Packers have already found two trade partners for their players, sending fullback Quinn Johnson to the Tennessee Titans for an undisclosed draft pick and guard Caleb Schlauderaff to the New York Jets for an undisclosed draft pick. There aren't any obvious holes on their current 53-man grouping, so the Packers' primary goal Sunday will be to get as many of their just-released players through waivers and onto the practice squad as possible.
Did the Green Bay Packers' 2011 season prove, once and for all, the value of an established 1-2 punch in the offensive backfield?

Or did it demonstrate how overblown that theory is?

[+] EnlargeRyan Grant
Howard Smith/US PresswirePackers running back Ryan Grant has 36 yards on eight carries this preseason.
That's the question I found myself asking while reading Tom Silverstein's analysis of the Packers' current backfield roster dilemma. In short, Silverstein sees three running backs with assured roster spots. Veteran Ryan Grant isn't one of them.

It's hard to imagine James Starks, John Kuhn or rookie Alex Green not making the final roster. It's been assumed that Grant would be part of that group as well, provided he returned healthy from an ankle injury that cost him most of last season. But the preseason performance of second-year player Dimitri Nance has at least given the Packers a more difficult decision than anticipated.

Nance is young and fresh-legged and, just as important, almost $4 million cheaper than Grant. Rare is the team that keeps four tailbacks unless one is a full-time returner or depth issues at other positions provide that flexibility. The Packers, however, could make reasonable arguments for keeping as many as seven receivers and maybe five tight ends. Something has to give at one of their offensive skill positions.

Normally, I would echo what coach Mike McCarthy said this spring: "If you look at history, you look at our history, running back is a position that you really don't have enough of. We play in the elements. Winning games in December and January outdoors, it's a big factor. We'll definitely make a conscious effort to always improve our running game."

Based on that theory, the Packers have already paid Grant a $1.75 million roster bonus this summer. But Silverstein's story hints at another element: Whether Grant has re-established himself as the same back he was before the injury. Here's how Silverstein put it: "Grant has missed some running opportunities this summer, including a poor decision on a draw play against the [Arizona] Cardinals, but he's also the kind of player who gets better with carries. The coaches might be seeing things others don't in the way Grant has run."

Grant has 36 yards on eight carries this preseason and figures to get extended playing time in Friday's preseason game at Indianapolis. If he hasn't fully recovered, it's not by much and probably perceptible only to a football professional.

Would something less than the pre-injury Grant be worth jettisoning in favor of, say, Nance? The bigger question is whether you trust the oft-injured Starks to be a reliable and weekly competitor. Starks had only 29 carries in the 2010 regular season and missed last week's preseason game because of an ankle injury.

Grant's injury left the Packers' running game undermanned for the final 15 games of the 2010 regular season. That they still qualified for the playoffs was either the result of the extraordinary compensatory efforts from other players or a comment on how unnecessary a deep backfield is in today's pass-happy NFL. That's a chicken-and-egg dilemma the Packers will have to solve for themselves.

Another question for the Packers to consider: Was their postseason offensive improvement the result of Starks' presence or simply the faith McCarthy displayed in him?

In the end, I think it should require a perfect storm of circumstances for the Packers to feel comfortable jettisoning Grant. They'll need to be convinced of Starks' durability and confident that Kuhn, Green and Nance could provide credible performances during any short-term absence. They'll need to have a better way of using the roster spot, like keeping a promising young tight end or receiver they would otherwise lose through waivers. And, frankly, they'll have to agree internally that Grant is no longer a 20-carry back.

Without that combination, releasing or trading a proven running back like Grant seems like an awfully risky proposition to me. You?
Webb/SmithGetty ImagesChicago's J'Marcus Webb, left, and Detroit's Alphonso Smith were pleasant surprises in 2010.
About this time last year, we compiled a list of four NFC North players who had the opportunity to alleviate some pressure to acquire upgrades at their positions -- provided they demonstrated notable offseason development. In reviewing that post, I feel better about the positions we identified than the specific players we picked out. But such is life.

This year's pending lockout presents a curveball for offseason development. If a lockout begins in early March and continues through the summer, coaches and front office executives won't have their typical opportunity to improve and observe younger players. Free agency could also be truncated and risky. Ultimately, teams might be left to rely on observations and projections based on last season's performance.

In that vein, let's pick one player per team whose 2010 emergence seemingly eliminated a 2011 offseason need.

Chicago Bears

Player: Offensive lineman J'Marcus Webb

2010 notables: The Bears made Webb a seventh-round pick last spring and, desperate for alternatives after a rough start, elevated him to the starting lineup in Week 5. Webb's ascendance coincided with the stabilization of the Bears' line, and he remained the starter for the rest of the season. How well he played as an individual is up for debate. According to ESPN's penalty database, Webb was called for 11 penalties in his 12 starts, including seven for holding.
Position status: If nothing else, Webb enters the offseason as one of the Bears' top two tackles along with Frank Omiyale. Offensive line might be the single-most needy position group on the Bears' roster, and the team could legitimately address any of its five positions in the first round of the 2011 draft. Based on how the draft plays out, the Bears could keep Webb at right tackle. Or, given his 6-foot-8 frame, they could consider moving him to left tackle and returning Omiyale to the right side. The future of 2008 first-round pick Chris Williams, who was moved from left tackle to left guard midway through last season, could also affect where Webb plays.
2011 projection: Yes, there are many moving parts here. But Webb has a couple of things going for him. One, he is a 22-year-old player who has navigated his way through 12 NFL starts and still has plenty of room to improve. Long-range planners are always infatuated by a young player with experience. Second, Webb is a favorite of Bears offensive line coach Mike Tice, who personally scouted him before the draft -- and came away from Webb's workout with a chipped tooth. There is a long way to go here, and it would be wrong to assume Webb is a lock to start in 2011. But the Bears can't address all five positions in one offseason, and Webb's presence might help make their decisions easier this spring.

Detroit Lions

Player: Cornerback Alphonso Smith
2010 notables: Acquired in a preseason trade with the Denver Broncos, Smith made a productive if uneven debut by intercepting five passes in 12 games. A shoulder injury ended his season in December, and many fans' lasting impression might have been his embarrassing Thanksgiving Day performance against the New England Patriots. But playmaking cornerbacks are difficult to find, and Smith gives the Lions a viable option at a position of significant need.
Position status: Veterans Chris Houston and Nate Vasher are pending free agents, but the Lions have said they want Houston to return. Veteran Eric King has been informed of his release, according to Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press. Tye Hill, Prince Miller and Paul Pratt are all pending free agents, although the Lions have exclusive rights on Miller and Pratt. Last season's Week 1 nickelback, Aaron Berry, spent most of the season on injured reserve.
2011 projection:
In 2010, the Lions brought back only one member of their 2009 secondary: Safety Louis Delmas. Smith's performance in 2009 should at least lessen the overhaul necessary this offseason. Like Webb, he shouldn't be a lock to start in 2011. But the Lions also shouldn't be starting from scratch, either. Smith gives the Lions a legitimate option in the event they focus their resources elsewhere.

[+] EnlargeJames Starks
Nick Laham/Getty ImagesLate-season starter James Starks gives the Packers options at running back next season.
Green Bay Packers

Player: Running back James Starks
2010 notables:
Starks' story has been well-told. After spending the first half of the season on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list, he rushed for 73 yards in his NFL debut and amassed 315 yards in four playoff games. In part because he never fumbled, Starks earned the trust of coach Mike McCarthy, and proved to be a reliable and instinctive runner.
Position status:
The Packers are expected to get former starter Ryan Grant back from an ankle injury. Grant is scheduled to earn about $5.25 million in 2011, the final year of his most recent contract extension. Backups Brandon Jackson and John Kuhn are pending free agents. Starks leapfrogged fellow rookie Dimitri Nance, who is signed through 2013.
2011 projection:
In an era where many teams split carries among their tailbacks, Grant was the Packers' primary runner from 2007 to 2009. That was the plan for 2010 as well, before his injury. But if nothing else, Starks gives the Packers a second option and important insurance should Grant be felled by another injury. Does Starks deserve to compete with Grant for a starting job next season? That's a question the Packers' coaching staff will have to answer whenever training camp convenes. But the Packers learned the hard way last season that a two-man backfield is a requirement, not a luxury.

[+] EnlargeHusain Abdullah
Rob Grabowski/US PresswireVikings safety Husain Abdullah might have played himself into a starting role next season.
Minnesota Vikings

Player: Safety Husain Abdullah
2010 notables:
Known mostly for special teams play and fasting during training camp, Abdullah unseated Tyrell Johnson and was a surprise starter at strong safety. He missed one game because of a concussion and tied for the team lead with three interceptions. You never know how players will be viewed by a new coaching staff, but Abdullah seemed to show enough promise to merit another chance to start in 2011.
Position status:
The Vikings have long been due for changes at safety, where Johnson and Madieu Williams have performed poorly over the past three seasons. Williams could be released this offseason, opening at least one starting spot. Jamarca Sanford struggled to stay healthy last season but might be best suited as a special teams player.
2011 projection:
Would the Vikings replace both starting safeties this offseason? Or would they give Abdullah another chance while focusing on Williams' free safety spot? The latter scenario seems more likely. At this time last season, few would have expected Abdullah to be in this spot. But if last season were any indication, he had leapfrogged every other safety on the Vikings' roster. Read into that ranking what you will.
ARLINGTON, Texas -- The Green Bay Packers won't have linebacker Erik Walden for Super Bowl XLV.

Walden (ankle) was among eight game-day deactivations the Packers just announced. Rookie Frank Zombo, who has missed most of the past two months because of a knee injury, will reclaim his starting job.

There was one mild surprise on the Packers' inactive list: Fullback Quinn Johnson, who has been part of the Packers' jumbo wishbone formation on the goal line, won't play. Johnson has been the Packers' primary fullback for a while, but I imagine fullback Korey Hall would take his place if necessary. Here is the rest of the list:
James StarksTom Hauck/Getty ImagesJames Starks has carried the ball at least 22 times in each of Green Bay's postseason victories.
From the start, I've been two steps behind the James Starks Express.

This fall, I never understood the rampant optimism that he could emerge from two years of inactivity to contribute to the Green Bay Packers' playoff run. Starks was a rookie running back whose last football game had been the January 2009 International Bowl, after all. And he's suddenly going to jump into the NFL arena without any preseason contact or even full-pads training camp drills?

When the Packers added him to their active roster in Week 11, it seemed part of a plan to give him practice repetitions that he wouldn't get on injured reserve.

And now that Starks has rushed for more yards (263) than any other running back this postseason, I'm still trying to understand what we're seeing. Have we witnessed the sudden and near-miraculous emergence of the Packers' next 1,000-yard rusher? Is his production simply a function of opportunity? Is Starks a big-time runner or just someone with a big body and fresh legs?

As we discussed earlier this month, football people have been enamored with Starks' skills for some time. Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. said: "There is no doubt that he is the most-talented runner on that team and has fresh legs. He shows vision, power and explosion." Meanwhile, the Chicago Bears' former director of college scouting has admitted he wanted to draft Starks before the Packers got to him.

The reality, of course, is that Starks has averaged 2.98 yards per carry in the two games after he exploded for 123 yards in the Packers' Jan. 9 wild-card playoff victory over the Philadelphia Eagles. He scored a key second-quarter touchdown in this past Sunday's NFC Championship Game, but in total he has 140 yards on 47 carries since Philadelphia.

Those figures drove Bill Barnwell of Football Outsiders to note that Starks has not improved the statistical efficiency of the Packers' running game. In fact, according to ESPN Stats & Information, most of Starks' best runs have come out of the Packers' three-back "wishbone" set that gives him an extra backfield blocker and seems to catch defenses in poor personnel matchups.

I don't disagree with anything that Barnwell wrote (you need an Insider subscription to read all of it), but I do think we can count at least three ways that the James Starks Express has at least indirectly enhanced the Packers' offense during the postseason.

First, he has earned a level of trust from coach and playcaller Mike McCarthy that the Packers' other runners -- Brandon Jackson, John Kuhn and Dimitri Nance -- did not during the regular season.

McCarthy refused to name a No. 1 back following Ryan Grant's season-ending foot injury, in part because he wanted to use Jackson on third downs and other passing situations. But as a result, the Packers had only one game all season in which a single running back got 20 carries. That came in Week 15 against the New England Patriots, when Jackson carried 22 times while quarterback Aaron Rodgers was sidelined by a concussion.

But McCarthy has given Starks at least 22 carries in all three playoff games, leading to an uptick to overall running plays. In the playoffs, the Packers are averaging 27.67 carries per game by running backs. In the regular season, that figure was 22.3. You might not consider five extra carries a big difference, but it amounts to a substantial 20 percent hike.

[+] EnlargeJames Starks
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesJames Starks has helped provide the Packers with the threat of a running game.
Moreover, McCarthy's trust in Starks has significantly balanced his play-calling, which longtime observers know has occasionally been an issue for this offense. In the regular season, the Packers threw 541 passes and ran 421 times. (ESPN Stats & Information estimates that, based on what appeared to be scrambles by Rodgers, McCarthy called for a pass play 63.5 percent of the time.)

In the playoffs, the Packers have run 95 times and thrown 93 passes. The value of balance is self-explanatory.

"[Starks] has been a big part of our success," Rodgers said. "I think he's ran the ball well. Maybe the biggest thing is that Mike trusts him with 20-plus carries. And we haven't always got the great production. The Philly game, he had over 100 yards. The last couple of games his average has been, I think below 4.0. But the fact that we're trying to run the ball has set up the play-action game, which has been effective the last couple of weeks."

Which brings us to our second point. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Rodgers has completed 19 of 28 play-action passes in the playoffs for 236 yards and two touchdowns. His passer rating on those throws is 117.6.

I was amazed at how good the Packers' play-action game was during the regular season, given the state of their running game. But a defense as disciplined as the Pittsburgh Steelers' is going to need more than an idle threat of the run in order to respect those fakes. Starks has given the Packers at least that much.

Finally, moving Starks to the top of the depth chart has allowed the Packers to use their other two runners in the roles they are probably best suited for. Kuhn can be their short-yardage back, while Jackson can focus on third downs and a package of running plays that he is particularly good at. Jackson, you might not realize, ran more draw plays (40) than any other NFL running back during the regular season and has run four more in the playoffs. On those 44 runs, according to ESPN Stats & Information, Jackson picked up 10 first downs and averaged 6.6 yards per attempt.

It's too late to stop momentum on the James Starks Express. For whatever flaws there are in the excitement surrounding his emergence, I think we can agree it has nevertheless been a net positive for the Packers.

James Starks won't play for Packers

December, 26, 2010
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- We hate to bring the James Starks cult this bit of bad news: Starks is inactive for the Green Bay Packers' game against the New York Giants, the second consecutive game the rookie running back will miss.

As with last Sunday’s game against the New England Patriots, the Packers will use Brandon Jackson, John Kuhn and Dimitri Nance as their primary runners.

One other bit of pregame news for the Packers: Robert Francois will start at outside linebacker for the injured Frank Zombo. Erik Walden started at that spot against the Patriots.

Some big names on the inactive list

December, 5, 2010
DETROIT -- Wow. We've had an interesting morning of roster machinations here in the NFC North. Let's get right to them, starting with three big losses for the Minnesota Vikings.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- My cousin Jason Wilde just produced this note: Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers just threw the first red-zone interception of his career.

That's right. Rodgers entered Sunday night's game against the Minnesota Vikings having thrown 28 interceptions, but none of them had occurred when the Packers' line of scrimmage was inside the 20-yard line. Rodgers had thrown 173 consecutive passes inside the red zone without one, but he couldn't have made it easier for Vikings defensive end Jared Allen here in the first quarter.

Trying to set up a screen pass to Dimitri Nance on first down from the Vikings' 12-yard line, Rodgers double-clutched. Allen timed his jump perfectly with Rodgers' eventual release, intercepted it at the 18-yard line and returned it four yards to the 22-yard line.

It was Allen's third career interception, but overall, the scene was something you don't see every day.

How I See It: NFC North Stock Watch

October, 6, 2010
NFC Stock Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South


[+] EnlargeJay Cutler
Jim O'Connor/US PresswireJay Cutler had just 42 yards passing against the Giants.
1. Jay Cutler, Chicago Bears quarterback: Cutler lands quite literally in the "falling" category after taking nine sacks in the first half of last Sunday night's 17-3 loss to the New York Giants. But as we discussed Tuesday , the sack total is more the result of a perfect storm of factors than purely based on Cutler's performance. There is a sense that he could release the ball more quickly in some instances, but this is a systemic issue that requires multiple solutions.

2. Confidence in the Detroit Lions' defense: I wouldn't say this group has been overly hyped this year, but Lions coach Jim Schwartz certainly trusted it with 6 minutes, 23 seconds remaining Sunday at Lambeau Field. Instead of attempting a long field goal or playing for a first down from the Packers' 37-yard line, the Lions punted. The idea was to pin the Packers deep, get a stop and get the ball back in good field position to launch a game-winning drive. But the Lions never got the ball back because they couldn't stop one of the NFL's least-proficient running teams from milking the entire clock. At this point, the Lions' defense very much remains a work in progress.

3. Between-play creativity: The NFL has informed Minnesota Vikings defensive end Jared Allen that he can no longer go to the ground as part of his sack dance because it violates NFL rules. Allen reacted with appropriate humor, joking he would use a piece of cardboard to prevent contact with the ground. Allen has been using the same dance for a while, so it's clear that someone recently complained that the league wasn't enforcing its rules fairly. That someone has too much time on his/her hands. Let's find something important to legislate.


1. Brett Favre's heart rate: The Vikings quarterback has dreamed of playing with receiver Randy Moss for years and was deeply disappointed the Green Bay Packers didn't acquire him from the Oakland Raiders in 2007. He'll finally get his chance. The short-term possibilities are endless for this duo, both of whom will be highly motivated to make history. Ask yourself this question: When Moss burst onto the scene with a five-catch, 190-yard performance at Lambeau Field in October 1998, did you ever think he would one day team up with the opposing quarterback that night?

2. Ted Thompson's confidence: Hours after passing on the opportunity to trade for a legitimate starting tailback, the Green Bay Packers general manager had to endure the news that Moss was likely on the way to providing a jolt for a divisional rival. But as the Vikings were agreeing to give up a third-round draft pick for Moss, Thompson was refusing to do the same to acquire Buffalo Bills tailback Marshawn Lynch. I realize Thompson probably didn't know about the Moss discussions before making a decision on Lynch, but I also doubt it would have changed his mind. Ultimately, the Seattle Seahawks sent a fourth-rounder in 2011 and a conditional 2012 pick for Lynch. Independent of the Moss trade, Thompson must be awfully confident in his current backfield of Brandon Jackson, John Kuhn and Dimitri Nance to have passed up what would have been a quite reasonable deal for a 24-year-old starting-caliber runner.

3. Accountability in Chicago: It's impossible to ignore the facts. In four weeks, the Bears have benched their No. 1 cornerback (Zack Bowman), their leading Week 1 receiver (Devin Aromashodu) and one of their long-time mainstays along the defensive line (Tommie Harris). They released defensive end Mark Anderson, have instituted rotations at two offensive line positions and have made clear that, as the kids say these days, they ain't playin'. All 53 Bears players should be on notice. It will be interesting to see if this approach fuels motivated play or spirit-killing uncertainty.

Have at It: Staying the course in GB

October, 1, 2010
Some of you questioned whether there was a true debate within this week's "Have at It." Even in a passing league, can a team with one of the NFL's least explosive rushing games be a legitimate contender to win the Super Bowl?

[+] EnlargeBrandon Jackson
Mike DiNovo/US PresswireBrandon Jackson has been bottled up by opposing defenses, averaging just 2.9 yards per carry.
Brandon Jackson and John Kuhn have handled the load since Ryan Grant's season-ending injury. After watching that for 2 1/2 games, the asterisk writes: "I sort of like what Kuhn has been doing, but he's a short-yardage back! They should go after any proven runner that's available.... [Marshawn] Lynch would be fine. He's not a superstar, but he's a 1,000-yard rusher with a proven skill set, which is more than we have now. Jackson's not getting it done, he's a decent 3rd-down back, that's all. We need that all-around running back to balance the offense."

If anything, wrote mgregorycortina, Packers fans should have a new appreciation for Grant: "This is great for Ryan Grant's career, by the way. I think Packer fans can recognize that when Jackson or Kuhn don't make a play, Grant could have. Grant is unbelievably subtle. He hits the hole and runs hard. He's the perfect complement to the passing game."

But I was surprised how many of you aren't convinced the Packers need to trade for Lynch or somehow acquire a "name" back. Many of you understand general manager Ted Thompson's usual approach and are hoping he can pull off a repeat performance of 2007, when the Packers first tried Jackson, then DeShawn Wynn and finally turned to Grant around midseason. You're intrigued by rookie Dimitri Nance, signed off the Atlanta Falcons' practice squad two weeks ago, and haven't given up on rookie James Starks, who is on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list.

"This reminds me of early 2007," wrote sgunderson17. "Packers relied on short passes until they found the every down runner. We have yet to see what Dimitri Nance is capable of. And we need to see if Starks can play this year if/when he gets off the PUP list. Early part of the season is fine to not have a running game. But once the snow starts flying, we better get something established."

RLR_41 was among those who were encouraged to see quarterback Aaron Rodgers complete 23 passes of eight or less yards Monday night at Soldier Field in what seemed a proxy for the running game. RLR_41: "I think you also need to take into consideration that some of the throws Rodgers made were in essence running plays. ... These were not check downs, but designed short passes that gained significant yardage. They are not traditional running plays, but serve the same function."

[+] EnlargeJohn Kuhn
AP Photo/Morry GashFullback John Kuhn is often viewed more as a short-yardage back than someone who can carry the load.
Rhino3662 also identified that possibility but issued a fair warning: "I think [coach Mike McCarthy] truly believes the Packers can make up for the loss of Grant with Kuhn and Jackson and the short passing game. And he may be correct from a production standpoint. However it can still leave the Packers weak in the 4th quarter when it's time to kill the clock. ... But what happens when they just need to run out time? All it takes is a couple incompletions or a sack and suddenly your drive is over and the opposing offense has the ball again."

But no matter what the level of need is, wrote jasfish, why would the Packers leave themselves needing to compensate so significantly in one area when they otherwise appear to have an excellent path laid for a Super Bowl run?

Jasfish: "When the window of opportunity can be so small for a Super Bowl run, it makes no sense not to go for it. ... If Marshawn Lynch can be had for a 2nd round pick, which is high, I think this is one of those years to go for it."

My take? First off, thanks to those of you who pointed out the transposed numbers in the original incarnation of the second chart. Kuhn has rushed for four first downs and one touchdown this season, not the other way around.

Now then. I think if there was ever a time in NFL history to make a deep playoff run without a starting-caliber running back, this is it. Rarely has this league been skewed more toward the passing game, and the Packers have the personnel to pull it off.

But in the long term, you would think they will need more of a backfield threat than they had Monday night. If not, they'll have trouble getting defenses to respect their play-action passes, their options will be limited near the goal line and their offensive line will face a tougher task against opponents who are in a pass-rush mentality all game.

I'm intrigued by Kuhn as a bruiser who could run out the clock in the fourth quarter, especially against a worn-down defense. But it's probably wishful thinking to expect Nance or Starks to emerge as a Grant-like option later in the season. So here's where I land: The NFL trading deadline isn't until Oct. 19. Let's give Jackson and Kuhn another week or two to settle into their new roles before hitting the panic button. The Packers will need more production than they got Monday night, but I don't think that's why they lost to the Chicago Bears. I think 18 penalties had a lot more to do with it.

Final Word: NFC North

September, 24, 2010
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 3:

Monday night's game between the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears has been billed as a battle of coaching gurus, and for good reason. Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers is spinning a scheme that hardly resembles its 3-4 title, while Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz has already displayed a willingness to move away from his traditional seven-step drop passes to help quarterback Jay Cutler. According to ESPN's Stats & Information, the Packers have used their base 3-4 set on 15 of their 114 defensive snaps this season. Most of the others have featured a form of the nickel or dime package with extra defensive backs. That trend poses an interesting decision for Monday night. Cutler has a 105.5 passer rating this season against nickel defenses, but he threw five interceptions in two games against the Packers' nickel last season.

[+] EnlargeCharles Woodson
AP Photo/David StlukaCharles Woodson and the Packers' defense have played in their base 3-4 set only 13 percent of the time.
The numbers suggest the Packers should be judicious with their running game Monday night. With tailback Ryan Grant (ankle) out for the season, the Packers don't have a runner who can stretch the field. Brandon Jackson, John Kuhn and Dimitri Nance have combined for a 2.7-yard per carry average outside of the tackles since the start of 2009, according to ESPN's Stats & Information. And the Bears' defense has been especially stingy on outside runs this season, holding opponents to 2.2 yards per carry in those instances. Realistically, the Packers should focus on grinding some hard inside yards and then working their play-action game with quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

Whom do you trust more? A rookie first-round draft choice making his first NFL start? Or a middling veteran who has never started at the position? That's one of the key issues in Packers-Bears I, especially if the Packers start rookie Bryan Bulaga at left tackle (in place of the ailing Chad Clifton) and the Bears slide over right tackle Frank Omiyale to replace Chris Williams (hamstring). The significance of those possibilities can't be understated with two of the NFL's top pass-rushers on the field in Chicago's Julius Peppers and Green Bay's Clay Matthews. Even if Clifton and/or Williams manage to start, you're talking about two players who are injured enough to have missed significant portions of practice this week.

Minnesota Vikings quarterback Brett Favre said he didn't want to "raise red flags" this week in discussing the state of confusion within the team's offense. But if the Vikings lose Sunday to the Detroit Lions, he won't have to. They'll go up on their own. Only three 0-3 teams have made the playoffs since 1990. In truth, Favre will pose an interesting test for a Lions defense built on the belief that a fierce front four can compensate for deficiencies in the back end. If defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh can disrupt the Vikings' passing offense, they'll have a good chance for an upset. But even with a deficient group of receivers, Favre should be able to pick apart the Lions' secondary if he has time.

We have no choice but to update our annual "the last time the Lions won in X situation" statistic. As they prepare for Sunday's game at the Metrodome, the Lions have lost 21 consecutive road games. They have lost 16 consecutive road games within the division, one shy of tying the post-merger NFL record set by the Oakland Raiders from 2004-07. Finally, the Lions haven't won in Minnesota since 1997. That 12-game stretch is the second-longest active road losing streak in the NFL, behind only the Lions' 18-game losing streak in Wisconsin.
If you made a list of five players the Green Bay Packers could least afford to lose, would tailback Ryan Grant be on it? That's the question you should ask yourself Tuesday afternoon after the news that a torn ankle ligament will end his season.

[+] EnlargeRyan Grant
Howard Smith/US PresswireRyan Grant will miss the rest of the season after tearing an ankle ligament against the Eagles.
The Packers officially placed Grant on injured reserve and signed rookie Dimitri Nance from the Atlanta Falcons' practice squad, a move that indicates they will push forward with Brandon Jackson as their indefinite starter. Grant is a proven producer who has rushed for 3,457 yards since midway through the 2007 season, but I'm not ready to declare his loss a catastrophe just yet.

Before you hit me with the inevitable "this-is-just-your-Packers-bias" notes to the mailbag, let me explain. I do think there is a significant drop-off from Grant to Jackson, but it's mostly in the sense of going from the known to the unknown. Jackson, as we'll discuss in a bit, has only minimal experience as a feature back dating back to his time at Nebraska. But I put in a call to Matt Williamson, one of our Scouts Inc. personnel evaluators, and what he said made a lot of sense.

"It's definitely a big drop-off," Williamson said, "but I also think this is such a running-back friendly offense because of the passing game they have. You don't need a great player there, and I don't even think Grant was a great player. He's a good runner who is quick to get downhill and very reliable, and those things are more than enough to be excellent in their offense."

Remember, the Packers went through two other feature backs -- Jackson and DeShawn Wynn -- before settling on Grant as their primary runner in 2007. Jackson will get the first shot at this job, but it doesn't mean he is the only option the Packers will have all season.

The biggest question is whether Jackson can, as Williamson said, "handle the punishment of being a feature back." He spent only nine games of his college career as Nebraska's primary ball carrier and has been an oft-injured reserve for three seasons in Green Bay.

"I would worry about him over the long term because we haven't seen him do it," Williamson said. "Over time, he's really been productive at no level. But for the short term, I think they can be nearly as potent as an offense. I would worry about short-yardage situations where everyone knows the run is coming, but this is still a really good offense without Ryan Grant."

Perhaps the biggest issue here is the thin depth the Packers entered the season with. With only two tailbacks on the active roster, they might have to use fullback John Kuhn in that role. Nance, meanwhile, is a 219-pound, between-the-tackles bruiser who I presume will fill the No. 3 role that would have gone to Kregg Lumpkin had the Packers not tried to slip him through waivers earlier this month.

Jackson's lack of history in this role, as well as the Packers' depth situation, could make for a musical chairs approach to filling Grant's job. But if you listen to Williamson, the standards don't need to be high for doing so.