12.15.2009

Future of the Pack

Earlier in the season, we at the Tap discussed the leaders of the Pack, offense and defense. However, with Driver and Woodson both in their thirties, it won't be long before someone else will have to step up and take their places. Who will they be?

It's not hard to pick Driver's successor. The quarterback is the one calling the plays and relaying information to everyone. It's always ideal to have him as the one everyone in the offense looks to for leadership. Unfortunately, no matter how talented a player is, it takes time for him to establish himself as the anchor to which everyone tethers themselves. So when you have a starting QB lacking game experience, he needs to find his identity before he can truly move into that leading role.
It's been a privelege thus far watching Aaron Rodgers develop into The Man. He hit a pot-hole in Tampa Bay, but since then he seems to have picked himself back up and injected icewater into his veins. I look at his eyes as he scrambles out of the pocket and I see Paul Molitor at the plate, Trevor Hoffman on the mound--calm, confident and unshakable.

Over the years we've grown accustomed to an emotional leader behind center, so watching the rather subdued Rodgers work has been strange for many of us. However, nine wins, 3,500 yards and 25 TDs into his second season, its hard to argue with the results: he's taking the reins.

Now defense is a different story.

Where on offense they're going from an emotional leader to a rock, the defense seems headed in the opposite direction. Woodson is the consumate professional, taking a businesslike approach to his game, but sitting behind him is a handful of players who explode with every big play they make. And this is fitting, because much as the calm Rodgers is preparing to shape the offense in his mold, Dom Capers' defense is built for intense individuals to disrupt the opposition. Let's consider a few possibilities:

Nick Barnett: The safest choice, really. A lifelong Packer with the speed to close the gap and strength to lay a solid hit, he really is a complete package, and the guy never quits. He's a great model-vet for the younger players to look up to. Barnett was arguably the leader before Woodson arrived almost by default. As much as his celebrations make Packer Nation do a collective facepalm, he always gets the job done.

However, this isn't ideal to me. Barnett is 28 years old, and while that isn't old by any stretch, I'd rather have one of the younger guys step into the leadership role. By the time Woodson is out, Barnett could be on his way out--without his speed he's merely pedestrian. Barnett is a nice fall-back plan to have, but the following two would be my picks, perhaps as co-leaders.

Clay Matthews III: CM3 has to be the biggest surprise of the season for Green Bay, and is probably the most fun player to watch on Capers' high-octane 3-4. It was easy to miss him the first few weeks as Woodson hogged the spotlight, but when Matthews literally took the ball away from Adrian Peterson and ran in for a touchdown on ESPN, the nation saw a star in the making.

Where Barnett is intense, Matthews is hell-bent. He's always moving towards the ball, always around the tackle. You knock him down on his back and he's crabwalking toward the QB. He's Jared Allen without the insanity. Obviously its premature to dub a rookie the future of the defense, but if the early returns are any indication, they could be in much worse hands. This man is a budding emotional leader.

Nick Collins: On defense, one of two positions tends to be the 'quarterback': middle linebacker (see Barnett, Nick) or free safety. Here's the latter.

After looking lost at times early in his career, everything seemed to slow down last season, and he enjoyed his first pro bowl season. This year he appears on track for another berth as he chases Woodson for the team lead in interceptions.

Collins to me is an upgraded Darren Sharper. He isn't afraid to lay the hit but still gets the picks, and when he gets the ball, his eyes are always on the endzone. Even though he's a physical player, he doesn't play with the recklessness that plagues Atari Bigby, and he combines great speed with great field vision. He's developed into a complete player, and he is my counterbalance to CM3--two playmakers, one in front and one in back, making everyone around them better.

And should they falter, Barnett will be there to pick up the slack.

PS - If you're upset that Collins hasn't been locked up yet, don't be. Because of the uncertainty of the collective bargaining agreement in 2010, there's no reason to rush anything. He's set to be a restricted free agent, so the Packers have rights to him next year if there's no new CBA, and if there is they'll franchise tag him and probably save money on the deal (yes, he's that valuable). So don't think for a second that the Brandon Chillar deal somehow means they're ignoring Collins. Thompson, as always, is just playing it smart.

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